Haunted

Shari Nichols

 

Chapter 1

A cool breeze fluttered the hairs on the back of Karly’s neck and made her shiver. “There’s a storm coming. I can feel it in my bones.”

Karly tipped her head up to the sky and gazed at the eerie cluster of gray clouds that suddenly appeared on the horizon before turning toward her sister. Sophie was standing in the buffet line, bent over an artful crudité. “I just hope it’s not a sign.”

“It’s not supposed to rain,” Sophie insisted, glancing at Karly over her shoulder. She picked up a set of tongs and added veggies to her plate. “Try and relax. I say we go get a cocktail. God knows we could both use one.” Her sister had a point. Besides, this was a happy hour after all.

“Fine by me. At least we agree on something for a change.” They maneuvered their way through the throng of New Hope’s well-heeled professionals and cut across the patio to the terrace bar.

The air was redolent with the scents of dry leaves and some kind of sizzling bar food. Adele’s sultry voice drifted out from speakers overhead while diners lounged at long wooden tables set with burlap runners and small vases full of greenery. Strings of twinkle lights hung from dark rafters, adding to the Logan Inn’s rustic ambiance.

Across the bar, Karly spotted three women about their age laughing and joking around. The most stunning of the group, a tall brunette, turned and stared back at Karly, then quickly turned away. “I’m not sure, but I think someone recognized me. Coming here tonight was a bad idea. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I feel like there’s a scarlet letter on my jacket,” she whispered.

“Hmm, somehow I think that would be a big fashion no-no.” Sophie set her plate on the bar, then signaled the bartender before casually glancing at the sticker attached to Karly’s lapel. “I believe they call it a name tag. Stop overthinking this. We’re here to shake some hands, exchange a few business cards, and, who knows, maybe have some fun for a change.” Her sister handed her a glass of white and reached for a goblet of red for herself.

“I guess we should probably split up and go mingle. But I don’t want to hang out too late. I’ve got an early day tomorrow.” Karly still wasn’t sure how she’d agreed to let her sister drag her to this thing in the first place. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. They were there to meet new people, create a buzz, and maybe get some bodies into their store, which would be a huge coup for the twenty-five-dollar entrance fee. And if by some miracle she managed to charm a few potential clients, then maybe she could repair the damage that had been done to her reputation. But that was a big if. Karly took a long gulp of her wine, hoping for some liquid courage.

“Deal, unless the night gets really interesting.” Sophie’s gaze lingered on a group of men in suits.

“If anyone could pull off such a feat, it would be you, my dear.” The sad truth was most of the men in this town were either gay or married. “Besides, I’m still on my dating fast.”

“Yeah, let’s see how long it lasts. I’ll check in with you in a few.” Sophie took her wine and slowly disappeared into the crowd, forcing Karly to do what she’d been the one to suggest: mingle.

The wind kicked up, so Karly moved to the center of the patio and warmed up under one of the heat lamps. Her short leather jacket and thin lace tank top offered zero protection against the bite of the damp night air. It was unseasonably chilly for October.

She turned to find the tall brunette from the bar standing behind her, rubbing her hands together under the lamp. “That’s much better. It’s freezing out tonight. Hey, I thought I recognized you. You’re that medium, right?”

Her gut instantly tightened. Karly braced herself, waiting for the questions and accusations that were sure to follow. What has she read about me? Please don’t say scandal. She repeated the phrase over and over in her head like a mantra, then plastered a fake smile on her face. “I’m Karly Matthews. Sorry, have we met?”

“No, not in person anyway. I’m Nancy Lawrence. It’s nice to finally meet you. I saw an ad for your store in the paper a few months back. I pass it on my way to Starbucks every morning. I’ve been meaning to contact you for a reading. I’ve heard you book months in advance.”

“I’m sure I can find an opening.” Ever since her last reading had turned into a major shit-show, her career and the future of her shop were now hanging in the balance. Karly reached into her purse and handed Nancy a few cards. Score. “And be sure to tell all your friends. I do group readings as well.”

“I’m actually here with a few. I’d love to introduce you. Did you come here alone?”

“No, my sister is around here somewhere.” As Karly scanned the crowd for the second time tonight, her gaze collided with a set of whiskey-colored eyes. It wasn’t until she took in the raw beauty of the man’s face that she found herself staring—stunned, unable to breathe.

Between his thick head of golden-brown hair, chiseled jaw, high cheekbones, and full lips, he looked as if he’d been expertly carved from stone. It was as though the breath and the blood of the gods had been poured into him. Images of Zeus and Poseidon came to mind, figures so strong and masculine that they couldn’t possibly be real.

The man towered above everyone else and managed to look impossibly sexy in a gray suit jacket layered over a black V-neck. She figured he must be an athlete with his broad shoulders and powerful build. A primal sexuality emanated off him even from across the room. As he stared back at her, she couldn’t mistake the boldness in his expression, along with the dark promise of sin in his eyes.

“I saw him when we first walked in, and I’m pretty sure my brain cells short-circuited for a minute,” Nancy said with a chuckle, her voice pulling Karly from a host of fantasies with him as the star.

“I think that’s the general effect he has on probably any woman with at least one working ovary,” Karly muttered, suddenly feeling flushed and restless. For some reason Karly felt drawn to him, as if an invisible force were pulling her closer. She fought the urge to walk across the room and explore whatever chemistry pulsed between them. But she was there to meet and greet, not flirt with a stranger, no matter how sexy.

“I like you.” Nancy linked her arm with Karly’s, forcing her out of her sexual haze. “C’mon, you’re going to fit right in with my crew.” Nancy led her to a table occupied by one of the women she’d seen her with at the bar, a petite redhead about her age rocking a black wool trench coat.

“Hey, Sara, I want to introduce you to someone. This is Karly.” After she set her stuff on the table, Nancy pulled out a chair and took a seat. Karly did the same, setting her wineglass down and hanging her small black bag on a hook.

“As in Karly Matthews?” Sara glanced across the table, and her lips tightened into a thin line. At that moment an overwhelming feeling of nausea swept over Karly. She stole a glance at Sara’s name tag, and the nausea intensified, along with a tight ball of dread in the pit of her stomach. Reiss Development Corp.

“You work for Johnathan Reiss?” The real-estate mogul was out for Karly’s blood.

“I’m his daughter. Our company leases space to the majority of people standing in this room. But what I can’t figure out is what the hell you’re doing here. You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face.”

“I paid at the door just like everybody else,” Karly shot back, trying to keep her voice steady.

“You tried to ruin my father’s life.” Sara sat up straighter in her chair, pointing an accusing finger in Karly’s face. “How do you sleep at night when all you do is tell lies? You don’t care who you hurt as long as you can charge a fee.”

“Sara? What gives? My God, lower your voice,” Nancy pleaded, glancing around as heads began to turn in their direction.

“I had no idea who your father was the day your mother came into my shop. I only knew her as Monica. I told her the truth. It’s what I saw when I read her cards. I’m not the one you should be angry at right now.”

“My father never cheated…He wouldn’t. You broke up a marriage, a family. I hope you’re happy.”

“Look, I didn’t tell your mother to leave him.” Karly made it a general rule to refrain from giving advice to her clients, despite what she saw in the cards. What they did with the information she gave to them was their choice.

“I sensed that she suspected something was going on all along.” Karly had only confirmed her suspicions. “You can’t blame me for her decision.” Her spirit guides had helped her deliver the message. So why shoot the messenger?

“It’s obvious you concocted the whole story. I mean, it’s not even original. ‘Real-estate developer caught cheating with his much younger assistant,’” Sara said, quoting the headline that had been splashed across all the local papers. “I’m sure it wasn’t difficult to do some research on my family. This isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with people like you.”

“People like me?” What the hell was that supposed to mean? “I’ve told you already I knew nothing about your family until the day your mother came into my shop.” And Karly’s life hadn’t been the same since.

A barrage of negative reviews had suddenly appeared on her website, not to mention the smear campaign that was currently trending on social media. “But you can believe whatever you want, your choice,” Karly said, rushing to her feet. This conversation was over.

“Karly, don’t go,” Nancy insisted, looking uncomfortable as she glanced from Karly to Sara and back again.

“No, it’s okay. I’m sorry you had to hear this. It was nice meeting you,” she muttered and snagged her purse off the hook. Her gaze nervously darted around for the nearest exit. She was too angry and embarrassed to look around for Sophie. All she wanted to do was get out of there. Luckily, their shop was just a few blocks away. She’d text Sophie on the way.

Tears burned the backs of her eyes, but she refused to cry. She ripped the name tag off her jacket, crumpled it up, and chucked it into a trash can. She fumbled around in her purse, trying to find her keys as she crossed the patio. When her fingers curled around them, she hitched her bag high on her shoulder and hurried her pace.

She walked up a set of stairs and entered a narrow alcove. Black-and-white photos lined the walls, along with framed newspaper clippings and large gilded mirrors. People laughing and having a good time gathered near the entrance to the bar. Her stomach lurched at the sight, and she couldn’t help feeling as though the night had been a total loss. She pulled out her cell and sent a quick text to Sophie.

Karly: I’m outta here. I’ll walk. Meet u @ home. Sorry.

Up ahead, she spotted an exit sign. She wanted to bypass the crowd that was now spilling over toward the main entrance. Even though her legs wobbled beneath her, she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, which was no easy task in her four-inch slingbacks. After she pushed through a set of heavy doors, she found herself on a smaller, more private patio. The sky was now dark, and the air crackled with energy. Flames blazed from a fire pit, the scent of smoke filling the air.

A few hanging lanterns lit her path. She stole a glance at a few couples canoodling on cushioned sofas and benches. She made sure to keep her head down, wanting to avoid another run-in. Her gaze skittered over fallen leaves and flagstone tiles. Through the corner of her eye, she spotted a man in a suit and a few servers. Her fingers tightened around her key chain with every step. All she wanted was to be far from the chaos of the evening.

She was almost to the main street when she bumped into a solid wall of muscle that threatened to knock her on her ass. Her keys flew from her hands as she began to fall backward. Before she hit the ground, two strong hands reached out and caught her around the waist. She glanced up and into the gorgeous face of the god she’d seen earlier.

Up close, he was even more beautiful and taller than she’d calculated. He exuded strength and masculinity, and when he focused that intense magnetism on her, all the air left her lungs, along with her ability to speak.

Genuine concern flashed in those whiskey eyes. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?” His voice was like warm chocolate, melting her insides. When he dropped his hands, Karly could still feel the imprints on her skin.

“Y-yes, I’m fine. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.” Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. The man smelled incredible, like sandalwood and clean laundry.

“No need for apologies. It happens to the best of us. Maybe you should sit down for a minute and have a drink with me.” There was elegance in the way he spoke that made her think of old money and private school.

For a split second she thought about taking him up on his offer, but she wasn’t in the frame of mind to pull off light conversation or flirty banter at this point. “Thanks, but I have to pass. This night, well, it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, so I think it’s my cue to go.” She did her best to school her features, but inside, she was feeling raw and vulnerable. The only thing she wanted to do was go home, soak in a hot bath, and lick her wounds.

His searing gaze swept over her and made butterflies flutter in her stomach. “Perhaps I can make it better. Stay and have a drink with me.”

She glanced at his jacket for his name tag, but like her, he wasn’t wearing one. “I’m guessing you’re in either sales or politics, and if this is all for a campaign donation, I’m sorry, I already gave at the office.” Immediately she got a vibe telling her he was his own boss, which wasn’t hard to figure out. The man exuded confidence and power.

The throaty sound of his laughter raised goose bumps on her flesh. “So you’re funny and beautiful. That’s quite a rare combo, Miss…?”

His words slid over her like a warm caress. A flush instantly spread across her cheeks. She shook her head, a little dazed by the compliment. It would be hard not to succumb to his charms. If she was honest, his scent alone was driving her crazy. No, the man spelled danger.

“I’m sorry. I really should go. Good night and, uh, nice running into you.” She sucked in a breath, turned, and took a step toward the street.

“I don’t think you’ll get very far without these,” he said in a bone-melting voice that forced her to turn around. He held up her keys in his hand.

She’d become so dazzled by his looks she’d completely forgotten about them flying out of her hands. “Uh, good point. Thanks.”

“My pleasure.” The way he said the word pleasure conjured images of their bodies tangled together, rolling around in satin sheets. The air sizzled with sexual tension. Slowly, he closed the distance between them and placed the keys in her hands. She purposely avoided touching him, but his fingers grazed hers, sending a spark of awareness up and down her arm.

“Don’t go,” he whispered.

“Why?” She was curious to hear what he’d say next.

“I can’t let you disappear into the night without you at least telling me your name.” The words were spoken in a commanding tone that normally would’ve irritated the hell out of her, but for some reason, when he said them, they hit every one of her buttons. “You can give me that much, can’t you? It’s not every day I meet someone who captivates me, and you have, quite thoroughly I might add.”

The scorching heat burning in his eyes made her shiver. She swallowed hard and tried to regain her equilibrium. It’d been a long time since a man had looked at her with such blatant desire. “I’m impressed—that’s quite a pickup line. I’m curious, does it usually work?”

His smile was pure sin. “I’m not using a line on you. I just want the chance to talk to you. Give me five minutes. That’s all I ask.”

“What happens after that?” His charisma began to melt her resolve. Karly stole a glance at his clothing. His sweater looked like cashmere, and his suit jacket was perfectly tailored and cut to fit his body, only adding to his commanding presence.

“You decide. If you want to continue the conversation, I get your number. If not, then we part ways. No harm done.”

How could she say no when his approach was so refreshing? “Nothing like cutting to the chase.” A guy who looked like him probably had women falling all over themselves to get his attention. It didn’t take a psychic to glean the man was a player. He was too smooth and too self-assured to be anything else. “Five minutes is all you get.”

“Five minutes is all I need.” He was persuasive, not to mention cocky as hell, and yet for some reason, she couldn’t seem to say no where he was concerned. Besides, his vibe was positive and cool with no warning signs.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself. Do you always get what you want?”

He motioned her over to one of the sofas next to the fire pit, and she followed, not sure what she was getting herself into. Spending time with this gorgeous, sexy man reminded her of eating double-chocolate-fudge ice cream out of the carton. It was decadent as hell but something you regretted in the morning.

“Yes, especially when I see something I like,” he whispered and glanced at her lips. Those few simple words made Karly twist up in knots, but the problem was she liked the feeling. She ignored her body’s reaction to him and took a seat on one of the plush cushions. “You still haven’t told me your name.” He sat down next to her and stretched his long legs so that their thighs touched, making her whole body tingle.

“How about I institute a rule—no talk of names or occupations tonight?” There was a certain freedom in being anonymous. Besides, even if she did give him her name and number, she’d probably never hear from him once he found out who she was. This was all a game to him, and for now, she was enjoying playing along. “We’re two people sharing a moment. Agreed?”

A smile tugged at his lips, making him even more breathtaking. “Ah, so you have terms. Okay, agreed, but I’m curious. Are you someone famous? Or maybe you’re running from the law?”

“Neither, I can assure you,” Karly said with a chuckle. “Why waste time talking about such trivial details when we only have like four minutes and counting?” Flirting with him was harmless, a welcome reprieve from her troubles; that’s what she was telling herself, anyway.

“I’m sure we can use the time on more interesting topics, but just so I’m clear, names and occupations are off-limits. How about spouses and significant others? Is that fair game?”

“If you’re asking if I have a boyfriend or a husband, the answer is no. How about you?” she asked, glancing at his bare ring finger.

“I’m currently unattached.” His gaze burned into hers at the same time his aura turned from clear to red, signaling passion. The heat from his body became palpable. It was sensory overload and almost too much for her to take in all at once. All she could do was glance down at the seat cushion and tug at a loose thread.

“Look at me.” Her stranger put a finger under her chin, forcing her look up. The flames silhouetted the ridges and hard planes of his face. His lashes were long, and his pupils were rimmed with gold. The man was too beautiful to bear.

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” His thumb lightly caressed her jaw. The moment was so intimate, his touch so whisper-soft, it made her breath hitch.

“Maybe a little.” She’d never experienced this kind of potent attraction to a man before. It was both unnerving and exhilarating at the same time, like walking on a tightrope without a net.

“How about that drink?” He flagged over a waitress carrying a tray of wine goblets, and she offered each of them a glass. He took a pull of his wine and glanced at Karly over the rim. “How are we doing on time?”

“Mmm, you’ve got like three and a half minutes left,” Karly said, glancing at her watch. “I hope you use them wisely.” A flash of lightning lit up the sky, creating a stunning backdrop. Somehow this night had turned from a nightmare into a dream in the blink of an eye. She wanted to pinch herself to make sure it was real.

“Oh, I intend to.” There was an undeniable intensity in his voice and his manner that had her squirming in her seat. “I find you can learn a lot about a person by asking a few simple questions.”

“What kind of questions?” Her defenses immediately kicked into gear, forcing her to take a long sip of her wine. He admitted to being a man who got what he wanted. Karly was already too susceptible to his charms. What if he tried to peel back her layers and find out her secrets?

“Like what’s your favorite book?”

Okay, this she could handle. “Pride and Prejudice.”

He nodded his approval and moved closer, positioning his body next to hers. “A lady who favors romantic classics.”

“Your turn.”

The Art of War.”

“And apparently you’re a man who favors strategy and planning for battle.” She’d skimmed the first few chapters of the treatise on a whim right before opening the shop, but the philosophy had never quite resonated with her. “I’m not sure, but judging by our choices in literature, I think this makes us polar opposites.”

Amusement flashed in his eyes. “Haven’t you heard? Opposites attract. What’s your favorite thing to do on a rainy Sunday morning?”

“Stay in bed and read the New York Times until my fingers turn black.”

“That’s my second all-time favorite thing to do in bed.” His voice turned husky on the last part, and this time she backed away until the storm calmed between them. She wanted to know more about him. So many questions sprang to mind. But how could she ask them with what, only a minute left? “Last one. What’s your biggest regret?”

“That’s kind of personal, don’t you think?” He could’ve asked her any number of things ranging from what she considered the perfect date to be to her favorite sexual position.

His features softened in the firelight. “We all have regrets.”

She took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts. “The truth? I’ve always wanted to travel and see the world. I’ve never been to Europe, but I’m hoping to get there someday.” Putting her ex through law school right out of college had left scarcely any time and zero money for such extravagances.

“Someday? Traveling is one of my passions. Why put it off?”

Once again that niggling voice in her head told her he came from a world of money. Karly bit her lip, feeling out of her league. “Sorry, but we’re out of time.”

A loud crack of thunder rumbled through the air, making her jump. The next moment the sky opened up and covered them in big, fat raindrops. He leapt off the sofa while Karly unstrapped her heels and slipped them off her bare feet. “What are you doing?” he shouted over the storm.

“I paid a lot of money for these shoes. I’m not about to ruin them.” She gripped her heels, slung them over her shoulder, and pushed to her feet. Together, they ran for cover as gusts of wind whipped through the trees and rattled the benches. When they reached the door to the restaurant, he pushed the handle, and it slammed shut behind them with a loud thud.

“Follow me,” he whispered and grabbed her hand. He made a sharp right down a deserted hallway and pulled her into a passageway that was being used as a mini storage closet. Shelves were lined with glasses, silverware, and tablecloths.

“Oh my God. We’re totally soaked.” Her stranger brushed up against her as he reached above her head for a tablecloth, sending her whole body into overdrive. This close, she could make out the sexy five-o’clock shadow darkening his jaw and the pulse throbbing at his throat. He was a good foot taller, and without her heels, she felt very small.

Shivering, Karly wrapped her arms around her body. She was grateful when he covered her shoulders with a tablecloth. “Let’s get you dry. Better?” The way he looked at her with such gentleness in his eyes made her feel stripped, as if she were standing there naked.

“Much,” she managed when her teeth stopped chattering. He rubbed her arms to get the blood flowing, and once again, that same intense spark of electricity jolted her like a live current. “How did you know this was here?” she asked, hoping to diffuse the sparks pulsing between them. She shoved her shoes and purse on top of an empty shelf, then leaned against the wall.

“Maybe I planned the whole thing to get you alone.” The heat from his voice surrounded her and made her body tingle.

Karly was no longer cold, but hot and needy. “I guess you must be pretty tight with Mother Nature to go to such measures.” Heavy rain pounded against the roof, and thunder banged against the windows. “This is quite the storm.”

“I can make things happen, but even I can’t take credit for such a feat. It sounds like Armageddon out there. As for this little hideaway, I found it by chance when the manager gave me a tour earlier tonight.” When she glanced up, their gazes locked and she could sense the roaring in his blood.

“Lucky for me you were paying attention.” She wanted to take a step back, to ease the tension. Instead she kept rooted to the spot, enjoying every minute of his attentiveness.

“We’d just finished up when I bumped into you.” He pushed his wet hair off his face and wrung out his sweater, leaving rivulets of water all over the wood floor. She couldn’t help herself and busted out laughing. “Apparently you’re finding this situation amusing?” He arched his brows, but his voice was teasing.

“I wish I could be there to witness how small your sweater’s going to be tomorrow.” The idea of seeing him again made her heart pound with excitement, but the fantasy disappeared all too quickly as reality set in. Hearts and flowers simply weren’t in her future. As much as she wanted to hope, it was fruitless. The cards never lied.

Passion lit his eyes. “That can easily be arranged. I have a room here for the night.” She swallowed, imagining his lips brushing hers, his hands roaming her body and easing her thighs apart, giving her mind-blowing pleasure. Her head began to spin with the possibilities.

“I can’t,” she responded against the surge of arousal. She was annoyed that he’d think she’d jump into bed with him, a perfect stranger, even if he was the hottest man on the planet.

“Hey, that’s not what I meant,” he whispered close to her ear. His lips grazed lightly against her skin, sending a delicious ache between her thighs. “I thought we could change into robes until your clothes dry. Maybe order some champagne from room service and watch the storm.” His thumb traced over her bottom lip, spurring her desire.

“Oh.” The offer was spontaneous, not to mention romantic. She couldn’t think of anything she wanted to do more. But she needed to stop getting caught up in how giddy he made her feel and plant her feet firmly on the ground because, at any moment, this little bubble was about to burst.

“Will you join me?” His question lingered in the air, and she avoided it, reaching for a dinner napkin instead.

After she wiped her face, she winced at the black makeup stains left behind. “I can only imagine what I must look like right now.”

“I’ll tell you how you look—incredibly sexy. In fact, I can barely think about anything but kissing you.” Before she could respond, he tilted his head and his mouth covered hers in a searing kiss. His lips were warm and soft, exerting the perfect amount of pressure. The tablecloth slipped from her shoulders.

When she moaned, he deepened the kiss, tangling his tongue with hers in long, leisurely licks. His taste was like a drug, one she could easily become addicted to. She reached up, and her hands got lost in the thick, wet strands of his hair as she tipped his head for better access.

She met him stroke for stroke, loving the unique, seductive flavor of his mouth. A feral sound bubbled up from his throat, fueling her desire. He pressed his body into hers, and the man was hard everywhere.

His erection throbbed against her stomach as the kiss raged on like an untamed storm, mirroring the one outside. He cupped her ass and squeezed, pressing her body against his, intensifying her need.

“Ghost Town” by Adam Lambert blasted from somewhere, and even in her lust-fueled brain, Karly immediately recognized Sophie’s ringtone. The incessant ringing stopped and then started again, which made her press her hands to his hard chest and pull away. Gasping, she ran a hand through her tangled hair. “I’m sorry. I need to take this call.”

“Now?” When their eyes met, his were stormy and darkened by arousal. If Sophie’s call hadn’t interrupted them, how far would she have let things go? The thought unnerved her, and she bristled, feeling foolish for getting so swept up in the moment, with a complete stranger no less.

“It’s my sister. We came together, and she doesn’t know that I, uh, got waylaid,” she said, pointing between them. Sophie was probably already home and wondering where the hell she was.

“Waylaid? I think that’s a bit tame for what’s going on here, don’t you?” He lifted his hand and trailed his thumb over the throbbing pulse point at her neck as if to prove his point.

“She’ll be worried sick,” she murmured, purposely changing the subject. She turned away from him and reached for her purse, then pulled out her iPhone, and glanced at the screen. Damn, three texts and two missed calls from Sophie.

“I’ll give you your privacy. But you have to promise to meet me in room six.” She turned back to face him, and before she could protest, he reached into his pocket and placed a small key in her hand. “Don’t knock, just come right in. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Somewhere along the way she’d let her guard down and never intended to. But then again, what did it matter anyway? She’d probably never lay eyes on this man again. “See you soon.” She had no intention of going to his room. This was all a beautiful fantasy, and now it was time for it to end.

“I’m holding you to it.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek. An overwhelming emptiness took hold inside her chest as her gaze followed him down the hall until he disappeared from view.

Karly let out a long, deep breath and pressed a button on her phone. Sophie answered on the first ring. “Are you okay? Where the hell have you been?”

For a moment, Karly wondered if the whole thing had been a dream conjured by her overactive imagination. But then she pressed a finger to her lips where they were still swollen from her stranger’s kisses. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

* * * *

Karly tiptoed up the stairs that led to her apartment, pushed her key into the lock, and turned the knob. After she secured the dead bolt, she slid the chain into place. The apartment was quiet and dark. Sophie was probably fast asleep at this point. Once she slipped off her shoes and deposited both her keys and her bag on the table by the door, she glanced at the hall clock. It was after midnight. So much for her plan to make it home early.

But tonight was worth every minute of lost sleep when she thought of her gorgeous stranger. Her nipples were tight, and her clit throbbed to the point of pain. If she stroked herself right now, she’d probably come in an instant. Even if she spent some quality time with her vibrator, how would she ever sleep when her body was strung so tight?

She pulled her cell out of her back pocket. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard as she contemplated dialing his room to hear his voice again. No, she was being ridiculous. He was obviously looking for a fling, and that was the last thing she needed right now. She shoved her phone back into her pocket, slipped off her jacket, and hung it on the coatrack.

Maybe a shot of something strong would take the edge off and knock her out into a blissful sleep. She was headed to their makeshift bar, which consisted of a bottle of Cuervo above the fridge, when a light turned on. Karly squinted against the brightness. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

Sophie lifted her head off their worn leather couch, the only piece of furniture that had actually been worth lugging from their Chestnut Hill apartment, and rubbed a hand over her face. “I must’ve drifted off. I was waiting up for you.”

Guilt slid into her belly. “Now there’s a first.” Karly had always been the caretaker to her baby sister. It felt weird to have their roles reversed. “I feel bad about tonight. How about I make it up to you by cooking dinner tomorrow?” Neither of them were exactly aces in the kitchen, preferring to order in or grab a bite out after work. But there was something about whipping up a home-cooked meal that appealed to her.

“You, cook?” Sophie kicked off the throw and smirked. She was clad in a worn Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt and her favorite fuzzy PJ bottoms. “Thanks, but I’d rather take my chances on Powerball. How about you take out the trash and pick up Chinese instead? Then we’ll call it even.”

“Deal. I guess takeout is probably safer.”

“Hey, what happened to you before?” Sophie got to her feet, her gaze narrowing as she took in Karly’s wet hair and clothing. “Looks like you got caught in the storm.”

Oh, you have no idea. “You might say that.”

“I was worried about you after you sent me such a cryptic text, and then you weren’t answering your phone.”

This conversation vaguely reminded Karly of the days when she’d lived at home and her dad used to catch her sneaking in past curfew, but back then, Sophie was usually hiding behind her. “I didn’t mean to worry you. It’s a long story. Let’s talk in the morning. I’m pretty beat.”

Karly turned and headed into the kitchen. She stood on her tiptoes to snag the bottle off the fridge. She pulled a shot glass out of a cabinet and poured herself a healthy shot. She downed it in one gulp, minus the salt and lemon. The tequila burned her throat and made her eyes water, warming her from the inside. “Ah, much better.”

“Oh, you don’t get off that easily. Now spill, and don’t you dare leave out any details,” Sophie demanded, appearing in the doorway.

All Karly wanted to do was get out of her wet clothes and take a hot shower; at least the rain had subsided on her walk home. “Fine,” she muttered, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She never could keep a secret from her sister.

“I met a guy, an insanely hot one, and we hit it off. Things got pretty intense, and he asked me back to his room. I made him think I’d go, but I ended up ditching him instead. I’m sure I’ll never see him again, and that’s it…End of story.” Karly let out a long, deep breath and slid the bottle over to Sophie in offering.

“Hmm, someone had quite the night. So what’s he like?” Sophie picked up the bottle, took a swig, and made a face.

Her body ached as she remembered the chemistry pulsing between them. “He was gorgeous, tall, and totally built, but it wasn’t just his looks. He was charming and sexy. Mysterious. You know, the kind of guy who commands a room the minute he walks into it?”

“So far I’m not seeing the problem. It sounds like you hooked up with The Bachelor. Why would you blow him off?”

“I’m taking a break, remember?”

“Three months is more than a break. Be honest—when was the last time you had sex with someone other than yourself?”

“Very funny. Okay, so I’ve been having a dry spell lately, but that’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“I sensed he was a big deal. Trust me, it was for the best.”

“Do you have any idea how to contact this guy? Tell me you at least gave him your number.”

“No. I purposely asked that we don’t use our names or give out any information about ourselves.” Karly held up her hand. “You have to trust me. I had my reasons.”

“Such as?” Sophie put her elbows on the counter and leaned closer.

“My life, what we do, not everyone can handle it. I’m trying to focus on other things right now besides my dating life, like putting our store on the map.” Karly turned, set the bottle back on the fridge, and set her glass in the sink, hoping to end the conversation.

“I see what’s going on. You’re afraid. In other words, he wouldn’t want to get involved with someone who hears voices inside her head and spends her time chatting with dead people? Hey, not every guy is an asshat like Chad.”

“True, but there’s more to the story.” She’d been broken up with Chad for more than a year now, but somehow the wound was still fresh. She didn’t plan on trusting someone anytime soon, if ever, and what was the point anyway? Her track record with men was disastrous. She was forever picking the wrong ones.

“What are you saying?”

“I ran into Sara Reiss, and she wasn’t too happy to see me.” After Karly filled Sophie in on their tense encounter, she headed toward her room. “I need to stay focused. I sense we haven’t heard the last from her or her father,” she said over her shoulder.

“I wish I’d been there. I’m sorry you had to deal with that witch alone. She was probably blowing smoke. Things will look better in the morning. You’ll see.”

What else could Sara Reiss do to them at this point? “I hope you’re right.”

* * * *

“Time for you to get up, girl. You’ve got big trouble ahead.”

Karly groaned and rolled over, hoping to silence the voice in her head. One of her spirit guides, Erika, a feisty, colorful soul, alerted her when something was up. “Can’t it wait at least until my alarm goes off?”

Silence.

“Erika, are you there?” Karly whispered. Maybe it was a dream.

“Oh good, you’re awake.” Karly cracked an eye open and caught a glimpse of Sophie’s willowy shadow as she strolled into the room. She was dressed in a pair of dark skinny jeans and a white tank top. Sophie placed a mug of coffee on her nightstand, then turned to face her. “You need to get up.”

“So I’ve heard.” Sunlight peeked in through the window in a rainbow of color. Karly sat up in bed and stretched. She reached for the mug and blew on the top. “What’s up? You sound way too ominous for this hour of the morning.”

“Meet me downstairs. There’s something you need to see.”

Karly changed into a pair of high-waisted jeans, a black tee, and a pair of high-heeled boots. At barely five-feet-two, she’d always been self-conscious of her height and rarely wore flats. She added her favorite motorcycle jacket, put her hair in a ponytail, and kept her makeup simple.

By the time she made it downstairs, all the lights in the shop were on. The scents of candles and incense drifted through the air, along with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Turning her head, Karly found Sophie cleaning one of the crystal cases. “Can this be quick? I have a client coming in for a reading, and I want to prep.”

Sophie looked up; worry lines bracketed her mouth. “I’m afraid she cancelled, left a message on the machine a couple of minutes ago.” She shoved the rag and the bottle of cleaner under the counter.

“Great, another cancellation.” That was the third one this week alone. The store was currently operating in the red, and to make matters worse, they were up to their eyeballs in debt to pay for inventory. “Did she say why?”

“No, but we have bigger problems to deal with at the moment. A process server banged on the door a little while ago with a summons from Johnathan Reiss’ lawyer.” Sophie picked up a folded piece of paper out of a file bin and handed it to her. “The smug son of a bitch is suing us for consumer fraud.”

“What?” Karly scanned the contents, and the words began to blur. A wave of nerves tightened her gut. “It says that we have to appear in court. How are we supposed to come up with the money for a lawyer?” And what would this mean if their clients got wind of the situation?

“It gets worse. He reported us to the Better Business Bureau, and now the attorney general’s going to investigate. They could shut us down, Karly.”

“Oh God.” Erika’s words reverberated in her head. You’ve got trouble ahead. “It’s all adding up—the confrontation with Sara Reiss, last night’s storm.” All the signs were there. She stuck the letter on the counter, then rubbed her temples as she tried to figure a way out of this mess. Her cell vibrated in her pocket. She picked up on the first ring and put the call on speaker. “This is Karly.”

“I’m glad I caught you. How are you? I trust you’re well.”

“Tom? It’s great to hear from you.” Karly let out the breath she’d been holding, grateful for a friendly voice. “You know, same old thing,” she lied. “How about you?”

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. Things have been stressful lately, but I’m hoping you can help. I have a job for you, if you’re free. I’m managing a brand-new inn here in New Hope, and I believe the place is haunted.”

“Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that. I’d love to help you out, but I’m actually in a crisis at the moment.”

Karly stole a glance at Sophie, who mouthed, “Do it. We need the cash.”

“We’re getting ready for our grand opening, and our unwanted visitor won’t go away. Half of our staff has quit out of fear, and we’re afraid that word’s going to get around. We’re really in a bind. Is there any chance you can come out and take a look? I don’t trust anyone else with such a delicate situation.”

She’d purposely stayed away from hauntings since opening the store, focusing her time and energy on building her clientele exclusively for readings. But Tom was too good a client to turn down. He’d been with her from the beginning. Besides, she didn’t want to leave him hanging. “For you, I’ll make an exception. When do you need me?”

“How about last week?” Tom said with a nervous laugh.

“That bad, huh? Why didn’t you call sooner?”

“To be frank, this has been going on for a while now, but the owner doesn’t want to believe a ghost’s roaming around his property. Let’s just say he’s not thrilled with the idea of bringing in a medium. He’s a skeptic, I’m afraid, and very private.”

“Believe me, I know the type.” As open-minded as most people were these days to the paranormal, there were still those who were nonbelievers, no matter what was right in front of them. “He should know what he’s getting himself into. I’m afraid there’s someone trying to discredit me. If he’s a skeptic to begin with, he might want to find another medium. I can recommend someone to you.”

“There’s no need. You brought Karen to me when I didn’t think it was possible. I’d lost all hope of connecting with her, and you let me say goodbye. That’s something I’ll never forget. I don’t care what you’re involved in. It’s irrelevant. We need you, Karly.”

“Well, when you put it like that, how can I refuse? Text me the address. I have a few loose ends to tie up, and then I’ll head over.” Karly smiled, relieved to have someone believe in her again.

Walking into a haunted house and trying to banish an angry spirit always posed a certain amount of danger. Her gut tightened with nerves at the thought, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the real trouble Erika was trying to warn her about. She bit down on the inside of her lip.

Holy crap, what was she getting herself into this time?