Authors: Patti Berg
The only down side to the whole place was that she couldn’t get used to the cold.
She hadn’t ventured to the basement to check out the furnace. She had no wood to burn, and that pile of ragged drapes was looking like the perfect thing to toss on the hearth. She longed for a blazing fire, something to warm her insides. She hadn’t been this cold since... since she’d been trapped beneath the stucco and plaster and wooden beams of her former house in Los Angeles.
A lone tear puddled at the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. She refused to cry. She’d cried too many times for all the things she’d lost when the earthquake hit and her house had slid from its cliff side setting, slid away from its view of the city lights, from the gardens she’d lovingly planted and nurtured for years.
There was nothing in this room that brought back memories of the ten years she’d collected Tiffany lamps to brighten the rooms of her home, or the pieces of Wedgwood she’d found while haunting thrift stores and estate sales. Those things had been shoved into a pile by a bulldozer and hauled off to the dump, along with her china, her Waterford
crystal, her Lladro, and the one-of-a-kind pottery she’d purchased from starving artists.
Only her jewelry and some of her clothing had been salvaged, along with the cameras she kept in well-insulated and cushioned cases, and a few odds and ends that had survived the crush. The earthquake had been devastating enough. Why had the relentless rains hit, too, sending mud flowing down the hill right along with her house?
At least she hadn’t lost loved ones, like so many others. All she’d lost were three days of her life as she lay pinned between the center beam of her house and her mattress. That mattress. Her brother had laughed when she’d spent a fortune on bedding. But the feathers had been soft, comfortable, and it was the only thing that had kept her from being crushed when the roof had crashed down and shoved her deep into the cushion of goose-down. How often had she thought during those lonely, frightening seventy-two hours that at least she would die in a cradle of luxury, cuddled up snug and close with a pillow and blankets, even if they were permeated with dirt and mud and shards of glass?
She’d suffered a fractured arm, two broken ribs, a slight concussion, multiple cuts and abrasions, a case of dehydration, and the sorest throat she’d ever had. She’d screamed for twelve hours straight, hoping someone would find and rescue her. That strong, deep voice of hers had given up long before help had arrived. And while she’d screamed, she’d prayed, and that was when she’d begun making promises. She’d be a nice person. She’d make friends. She’d help others. She wouldn’t swear.
She’d even promised to keep her promises, no matter how difficult they might be.
He’d listened. He’d kept her company. And He’d sent that good-looking fireman, the poor, unfortunate soul who’d had the misfortune of locating her would-be grave. She’d wrapped her one good arm around his neck and kissed him like they were long-lost lovers, kissed him with bad breath, a blood-crusted face, and a runny nose. And some lousy photographer had chosen that pathetic moment to snap her rescue and been lucky enough to have it plastered across the front of the
and most of the newspapers in the country.
She’d always joked about winning a Pulitzer for her photography. She hadn’t wanted to be the pitiful object captured in someone else’s winning entry.
Finally she laughed, and the memory of that kiss made her smile. That miserable seventy-two hours of being buried alive had had at least one reward. Her rescuer might not have enjoyed the kiss, but it was the nicest one she could remember in thirty-one years of living.
Alexander rested his elbows on the back of the chesterfield and watched the lady laugh, and smile, and shed a tear. He wondered what strange thoughts were going through her head.
Why did women have to be so perplexing? Why did they laugh and cry at the same time? Amanda had done the same thing, especially during those days right before their wedding. He’d never been able to figure her out, either. But he’d loved her—the crazy emotions didn’t matter at all.
Tarnation! He didn’t want to get sentimental. He had a guest, and he wanted to have fun. He’d befriended an intruder in his house once upon a time, and what had it gotten him? Just another person to miss. He’d thought the little boy was his friend, but friends don’t tell secrets, and that one had. Alex had told the boy what might happen if he told people he’d been talking to a ghost, but the boy didn’t listen. He’d brought the men into Alexander’s home, and he’d begged Alex to talk, or to show himself, to prove to people in town that he wasn't crazy. But Alex hadn’t made a noise. In the end the men had laughed at the boy, and the kid had gotten mad.
The boy’d yelled at Alex when the others had gone. He’d said he didn’t believe in ghosts, that he didn’t want to be friends any longer, and he’d run out the door, crying. And he’d never come back again.
Hell! Alex refused to get sappy over something that had happened twenty-five years ago. Nosirree. Next time someone ran out of this house, it would be because
had scared the bejeebers out of them.
In fact, he just might scare the bejeebers out of the woman sitting on his couch.
He stalked around the sofa, checking out those big old puddles of water in the corners of her eyes. Perfect timing. The lady was ripe for scaring.
She laughed again in that strange, reflective way, and Alex wondered what she’d do if he laughed, too, and continued to laugh. He’d scared away a helluva lot of people in the last hundred years with his laugh. But did he really want to scare this woman away? He didn’t know for sure. She might be the one who could help him get out of this place. He thought his instincts were good, thought he
knew who could help him and who couldn’t. He’d thought the boy might have been the one, but the kid had been too young. He’d never even let the boy see him. All they’d done was talk about crazy, unimportant things. No, Alex figured the person who could help him had to be someone strong, someone brave, someone who wouldn’t frighten easily and could stand up to anything—even the odd, eerie laughter of a ghost.
Might as well put her to the test right now, he thought. If she wasn’t fearless, if she caved in to his antics, she wasn’t cunning enough to help him get out of his hell on earth.
A strange, unearthly laughter thundered through the room, and Elizabeth shivered. Wrapping her hands around her arms, she attempted to massage some warmth into her body while her eyes scanned the open spaces of the parlor a
nd the cobweb-strewn stairway. Could the plumbing be acting up? The house needed so much work, the noises she’d been hearing could easily be from rickety pipes, wind whipping through broken windows, or possibly bats or some other unwanted creatures stirring around in the attic.
That’s how Matt Winchester had explained the noises. Even Eric had told her that the funny sounds were nothing more than the old hotel stretching and groaning with age.
No, the noises she’d heard definitely hadn’t been laughter, but she could clearly understand why no one had wanted to stay in this place or buy it. It was probably the reason no one had run off with
the antiques... they’d been too afraid to set foot in the place.
Well, it would take a whole lot more than eerie noises to make her run away. Montana didn’t have earthquakes—at least, not the house-leveling kind they had in southern California. This place was standing on solid ground. Its walls were upright. Those were good enough reasons to keep her from going back to L.A. Sapphire, Montana, and this rickety old hotel were home—and she planned to make the best of both of them.
Right after she took a bath.
Right after she found the army she needed to help her turn the hotel into a showplace.
Bathing had proved rather difficult. Reddish-brown water that looked like strained minestrone didn’t appear too appealing to Elizabeth. She’d run out to her car, dragged in the ice chest, and taken a sponge bath with ice she’d melted on top of the stove. Her efforts took care of one layer of dust, enough to make her presentable. If she didn’t find a plumber soon, she’d have to melt snow in order to bathe.
She’d halfway tackled her first task of the evening. Now came the time to work on the second.
She’d called Matt Winchester to ask if he knew anyone looking for work. All he’d said was ask the mayor, that he himself didn’t have time to help her out now. “Maybe when I return from visiting my folks in Florida,” he’d said, and rushed her off the phone. His evasion speech was perfect. Just the right amount of laughter, the right amount of sincerity.
She’d done the same thing a time or two. Yet it didn’t feel so good being on the receiving end.
But that was in the past. The hotel needed refurbishing, she needed help and had to locate the mayor, and she was hungry—now.
She slipped into her coat and gloves and thought about how she would navigate the icy steps and road to get across the street to the Tin Cup Cafe. She’d already fallen three times since her arrival, and twice she’d been seen. Adding a fourth fall to an already eventful day didn’t sound promising.
She was just about to open the door when she heard heavy footfalls on the stairs and porch, and an even heavier knock against the door. The steps sounded familiar. She’d heard them stomping away earlier in the day, and the thought of facing Jon Winchester again didn’t sound any more promising than falling on her rump. What could she do, though? She had to open the door.
He stood on the porch with his arms laden with firewood—no smile; no lopsided grin. Snow dusted his Stetson and the shoulders of his coat that three normal-sized men could probably squeeze into.
She didn’t smile, either. Instead, she waited for an apology.
Which didn’t come.
“I didn’t see any smoke rising from the chimney and figured you might need some wood,” he said, brushing past her and walking straight to the parlor and the pink marble fireplace as if he knew his way around... as if he had every right to just walk into her home.
“I’d prefer heating the rooms with the furnace,” she said, ignoring her earlier thoughts about a cozy fire. If he couldn’t apologize for the fight he’d tried to start this morning, she didn’t have to thank him for the wood. “Wood fires aren’t nearly as efficient,” she said.
He ignored her comment, of course, and proceeded to dump the wood into the hearth and strategically place each piece. He stuffed kindling here and there, building the framework for a fire that would probably blaze and warm the room within seconds.
And probably be very efficient.
Slowly he rose from his crouched position and scanned the room for a moment, his gaze settling on the slight sway of the chandelier.
“It’s the drafts,” Elizabeth told him. “All the chandeliers swing just a bit when I enter the room.”
The lopsided grin touched his face. “I used to sneak into this place when I was a kid. The chandeliers shook back then, too.” He walked toward the center of the room and steadied the swaying fixture with the casual, easy reach of his arm. “I thought there was a ghost sitting up there, watching me.” His grin widened. “Did Matt tell you about the rumors?”
“Yes, I’ve heard the rumors. No, I don’t believe they’re true.” Ghosts! Personally, she thought it was a lot of nonsense.
He went back to the fireplace, leaned against the marble mantel, and folded his arms over his chest, a mannerism that was beginning to infuriate her. “Have you heard the laughter?” he asked.
“Creaking floorboards,” she threw back. “Look, Jonathan—” She waited for his eyes to narrow when she called him that instead of Jon. He’d said no one dared to call him Jonathan, but he didn’t flinch. Not one muscle. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she continued, “and if there was one living here I’d welcome the companionship. I’m sure it would be preferable to keeping company with some of the other residents of this town.”
He laughed, and a few glints of light bounced from his eyes. “I’m starved,” he said, ignoring her once more. “I’m meeting a few friends for dinner. They might not be the company you prefer, but I thought you might consider joining us anyway?”
I’d love to have you join
Would you care to go out with me?
The man was absolutely insufferable, but she could dish it out, too. “You thought wrong.”
” He tipped his hat and walked across the parlor, through the entry, and out the front door.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way,
Elizabeth thought. He was supposed to argue; he was supposed to convince her, ask her to change her mind. Heavens! She could have at least held his arm and let him help her across the road.
She rushed after him, threw open the door, and planned to holler at him before he went inside the cafe. But he had the nerve to be leaning against one of the pillars on her porch, arms folded, with that Stetson tilted low over his eyes. “Change your mind?” he asked.
“Not really. I was on my way to the cafe when you barged in. I do have to eat, you know.”
“Well, maybe you’ll at least let me help you get across the street. If you’d like, you can sit on the opposite side of the room from me once we get there.”