Authors: Patti Berg
Jon grinned. “Oh, I don’t know.” He left his place in the doorway and crossed the room. He stood on the other side of the statue, studying it, studying Elizabeth. “It’s got a certain charm, don’t you think?”
“Obviously you don’t know the first thing about sculpture.”
He laughed. “Obviously.”
“Well,” she added, “I don’t know much about it, either, but this piece seems a little crude. The marble’s rough, and the sculptor must have had a very warped sense of lovemaking, the way he entwined their arms and legs.”
Actually, Jon rather liked the way their arms and
legs were tangled together. He looked at Elizabeth’s long, long legs encased in red knit pants that hugged every curve. God, she had great legs. And he thought about them wrapped around his.
It was a hell of a thought!
He touched the marble, slowly running his fingers over the woman’s shoulder, the length of her arm. Elizabeth was right. The piece was rough, inexpensive. It was plaster, not marble. Poured, not sculpted.
“I could take it to the dump,” Jon said, “or haul it up to the attic.”
The voice startled him. It came with a gust of air. Close to his ear, so close he knew Elizabeth hadn’t heard.
“I’m not sure what I want done with it yet,” she said, and he knew she hadn’t heard the voice. “It’s really funny, you know. I can’t believe any good Victorian woman would have kept something like that in her bedroom.”
He looked around the room. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but he’d seen nothing all those years ago, either. It was only a voice he’d heard back then. It was only a voice he heard now.
And it was all in his imagination.
“Jon?” Elizabeth’s hand was on his arm, a look o
f concern on her face. “Are you all right?”
He laughed. “I’m fine. I was just thinking about good Victorian women. They weren’t all that way, you know.”
“No?” She looked up at him through the longest, thickest black lashes he’d ever seen.
“No. In fact,
one of the women who owned this place
had a reputation that, well, didn’t exactly fit the standard of an uptight Victorian lady.”
‘Tell me about her,” she said, as she moved away from the statue.
“Would you like to know the history of the hotel, too?”
“Only if it has a less than pristine reputation. A good story or two might help attract visitors,” she said, keeping her eyes turned from him as she walked about the room, inspecting the insides of drawers, the tops of tables, and the condition of a ceramic pitcher and basin set before a mirror on a more than dusty chest.
He leaned against the fireplace, thinking for a moment about some of the stories his grandfather had told, then forgetting them completely as he watched her move about the room. He studied her form, her voluptuous curves hugged tight by the red shirt and pants she wore. Botticelli had long ago painted curves like hers, but Jon wanted to sculpt them, and for a moment he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do them in clay, then bronze, or sculpt the woman herself, molding her flesh in the depths of his palms.
He picked up a dusty glass vase that looked as though it had perched on the mantel forever and turned it around and around in his fingers, trying not to think about her body, trying to think of the stories. “It wasn’t always a hotel,” he said. “Actually, the first banker in town, Horace Carruthers, built it for his wife, Phoebe. I’ve seen a picture or two. She was a little too prim and proper to suit my tastes, but Horace must have loved her.”
A trace of air blew against his cheek, the distinct
yet faint sound of a man’s voice whispering a disdainful
into his ear. Jon’s senses went on alert. Had he really heard something? Or had he imagined the retort and the sound of someone speaking? He rolled his eyes slightly, tilting his head just a bit, but all he saw were the tattered drapes, hanging limp and lifeless, and a pretty woman across the room staring at him, waiting for him to go on.
“So, she was prim and proper. What else?”
Elizabeth hadn’t heard or felt a thing, he realized. It was just like all those years ago. Maybe he was a bit crazy.
He ran his fingers through his hair and continued the story. “Phoebe was the epitome of high society, or so she thought. Back then, being part of the right circle was important in Sapphire. She liked the status of being the bank owner’s wife, but when her husband passed away and the citizens learned he’d fooled around a time or two, squandered a lot of the bank’s assets, and left Phoebe in debt up to her ears, she was scorned by most of the ladies in town.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“Fair or not, it didn’t put a damper on Phoebe. What the ladies thought didn’t seem to matter nearly so much as enjoying the finer things in life, and left on her own, Phoebe became a fairly enterprising woman. She turned her home into the Sapphire Hotel, and the more affluent men of the region stayed here when they came to town on business. She provided the finest food and drink, and she probably provided a few other services as well.”
Jon stopped twisting and turning the vase and
set it back on the mantel. Crossing the room, he gripped one of the bedposts. “Do you think that’s sinister enough to tell your guests?”
“It’s a start.” Elizabeth laughed. “Do you think that statue might have belonged to Phoebe? Maybe this room I’ve picked for myself was the place where she held midnight trysts?”
This is the place, all right!
The voice whispered in his ear again. Pretend it didn’t happen, he told himself. Pretend you didn’t hear a thing.
“It all happened a hundred years ago,” he said, trying to ignore his fear that they weren’t alone in the room. “I imagine you could make up any stories you wanted. No one would know unless they’d done some research.”
“I have the strangest feeling the truth would be so much better than any stories I could dream up. Of course, I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth behind that statue or why it’s in this room. I doubt any research I could do would tell what actually happened in the Sapphire Hotel.”
“Are you really that curious?”
“I’ve fallen in love with this place, with the atmosphere and everything about it. I want to know all there is to know.”
“Me, too,” he said slowly, walking across the room toward Elizabeth. He wanted to know all about her lips, about the way they’d taste if he kissed her. He wanted to know about the feel of her body, and if her breasts were as soft as they looked.
God, she was breathtaking.
She must have sensed what was going on in his
mind. She backed away, right into a wall.
He stopped in front of her, nearly an arm’s length away. “I’ve agreed to work for you,” he said, “but we haven’t discussed my price.”
“No, we haven’t,” she said, turning her head away rather than looking into his eyes. “I’m not rich, but maybe you could give me an estimate—materials, labor. I always pay on time.”
He watched the way her breasts rose and fell. He could hear the deepness of her breathing.
He wanted to kiss her.
Moving a hand close to her face, he wrapped his finger around a tendril of ebony hair. “I don’t need your money, Elizabeth. Just consider it the mayor’s job to help you out.” He touched her cheek with his thumb, caressing the softness. “Maybe you’d consider thinking of me as something other than an employee, though.”
“I think I could do that.”
“And you’ll forget what happened a week ago
... you’ll forget all about me being an arrogant, insufferable male.”
He moved a little closer.
“I don’t t
hink I can forget, and I don’t think you can easily change what you are. But I might be able to forgive.”
Jon slid his fingers under her chin and tilted her face. God, she had beautiful lips!
He lowered his head.
He felt her rise up on tiptoe.
Hell and tarnation!
Jon’s head jolted up when the voice thundered through the room, when the picture frame slid from the wall and crashed, spraying shattered glass across the floor.
Dust and dirt swirled like a tornado over the floorboards, and the tattered drapes flew out at the windows.
Elizabeth ducked under Jon’s arm—the one he’d
almost wrapped around her to pull her into a tight embrace—and went to the window. It was opened just a crack, and she pushed hard to seal it shut.
She leaned against the wall and laughed. “It gets a little drafty in here at times. I thought I had all the windows closed, but I must have missed that one.”
“You didn’t hear anything?” he asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
Well, he’d heard it, very distinctly. That voice had interrupted everything; it had spoiled the moment, and no way in hell was a ghost or some crazy voice in his head going to get in the way the next time he came close to trying out those perfect lips that belonged to Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
Alex sat on the mantel, his elbows shoved into his knees, his chin into his fists, and stewed. How dare she bring a man upstairs, and to this room, of all places? A den of iniquity, that’s what it was... a place for midnight trysts and secret, scandalous alliances. He’d watched it all when Phoebe had lived, watched it from this very same spot on top of the mantel.
Sweet, innocent Widow Carruthers, she’d been called. Hah! If the townspeople—no, if the town’s
—had known what went on in the wee hours of night in this room in the Widow Carruthers’ boardinghouse, they would have tarred and feathered the old biddy and strung their husbands up by their unmentionables. But tarnation, the goings-on had sure been a sight to watch. ‘Tweren’t much else to do on lonely nights, Alex thought, especially when one was dead.
He had no
intention of watching this new woman do the things Phoebe had done, especially with that big galoot who was making moony eyes at her. The man was a Winchester, and Winchesters were low down, good-for-nothing, flesh-eating buzzards... murdering cheats who’d more than likely rip the gold right out of their grandmothers’ teeth and spit on them as they lay in their coffins. It didn’t matter at all, Alex thought, that this man had been his friend, once upon a time. Maybe he’d been only a kid when he’d stomped on their friendship, but that was no excuse. Alex had tossed aside his vow of revenge to help the kid, and what had he gotten for his efforts? He’d been betrayed.
The boy, just like the man, was a Winchester—
Alex should have expected to be treated like dirt.
But Alex wasn’t about to let that Winchester fellow treat the new lady in his house that way. Alex had watched that dolt ogling her. He probably imagined the woman would give herself to him like a brazen hussy. The man was a Winchester, after all, and Winchesters were all alike.
Even this one.
Blast it all! He didn’t have time to get maudlin and think about the recent past, and how much he’d enjoyed this man when he was a kid. He needed to think about getting back to Amanda: He didn’t know how he was going to escape this mausoleum he’d been entombed in for a century, but he’d had a sixth sense for a very long time that someone good and kind and generous would come along and show him the way.
It had to be this new woman. And he wasn’t about to let anyone or anything get between them, especially that overgrown oaf she’d invited to this room.
With that thought in mind, he knocked another picture frame off a wall.
Jon single-handedly carried the box springs and mattress up the stairs and positioned them on the bed frame. Elizabeth had slept in a sleeping bag for too many nights, and he wasn’t going to let her do it again. He had a monstrous house filled with unoccupied rooms and unoccupied furniture; finding new bedding wasn’t a problem.
Elizabeth had protested, of course. She wanted the plumbing fixed; he said he’d take care of that all in good time. She’d gritted her teeth and finally
given in, and somehow they’d managed to laugh as they’d tugged and fitted sheets and blankets onto the bed.
Lord, how he loved her laugh!