Authors: Patti Berg
“It didn’t work,” Jon said into the phone. “I badgered, I intimidated, I made a fool of myself in front of my friends. Hell, they must have thought I was on drugs, the way I launched into her.”
He listened to the voice on the other end.
“Look, I’m not a cop. I tried, but I don’t know how to question people to get them to tell their deepest secrets. That’s your job.”
He paced across the studio floor, the cordless phone stuck to his ear, and stared out the window at the hotel in the distance. “What do I think?” He laughed. “I think she doesn’t have a clue what Matt’s up to.”
Again he listened, the person at the other end of the phone attempting to convince him that this was their opportunity to catch Matt and others. But damn, he didn’t want to be involved. Not any longer.
“Look, she’s a nice lady. Maybe her brother’s involved. I don’t know.” He fingered the scar on his chin, remembering the curious way she studied his lips, his chin. He thought of the mixture of hurt and anger in her eyes when she told him, basically,
to get out of her life. “Even if I wanted to find out more, I blew it tonight,” he continued. “I was rude and arrogant. I made her cry. There’s no way in hell she’s going to let me get close to her again.”
The voice on the other end was calm—too, too cool.
“I know it was my idea, but I’m not going to get involved with her just so you can catch Matt.”
The voice was louder now.
“Yeah, I want him, too. But it’s not right. It’s not fair to her.” He took a deep breath. “It’s not fair to me, either.”
“I’ll think about it,” Jon said, hanging up before the conversation could continue, before he agreed to get further involved.
An entire week went by. Jon was out of town half the time on business, preparing for a show in Denver. People would come from all over the world to see his latest pieces of bronze. The wealthy would scribble out checks or plunk down credit cards to claim a sculpture. Half of them bought because they liked the work, half because of the intrigue. For seven years now, Jon had displayed his work, selling at exorbitant prices—and giving all proceeds to wildlife organizations. Of course, no one knew the artist’s identity. He’d insisted on remaining anonymous, and that added to the attraction of his work. Write-ups had been done in magazines, in newspapers. The more publicity, the higher the prices and the more that was donated.
Jon didn’t need the money; he didn’t want the
fame. He’d found his niche in life. He loved to sculpt but he also liked his privacy. The world might share his finished pieces, but his work and his art were something he shared with no one but his closest friends, and they’d long ago learned that his secret was just as valuable as the pieces he sold.
But in spite of his trip to Denver, the impending show wasn’t foremost on his mind. Elizabeth Fitzgerald was.
As he drove through town one day, he saw her hauling a five-gallon bottle of water out of the store and down the street toward the hotel. He’d thought about stopping to offer his help; instead, he tipped his hat and kept on driving. She wouldn’t have wanted his help anyway.
But the vision of what he saw remained in his mind as he drove into Helena for supplies. Elizabeth had on a furry parka and black knit pants that hugged her legs rather nicely. God, she had great legs! And she’d come up with some kind of black combat boots that laced all the way up to her calves and looked like they had two inches of tread on the soles.
He didn’t see her slip once, not when he drove toward her, not when he tipped his hat, not when he watched her through his rearview mirror. She was just as self-sufficient as she’d said.
And damn if he didn’t admire her.
Alex wrapped his legs around the brass arms of the crystal chandelier hanging in the middle of the parlor, leaned against the glass beads suspended at its center, and watched the lady work.
For seven days he’d spied on her. For seven days
he’d done a fairly good job buttoning his mouth. Somehow, he’d kept his hands to himself, too. Oh, he’d played a trick or two, but keeping an eye on her was much more fun than haunting had ever been.
She moved kind of nice and graceful around every room, polishing mirrors and wood, sweeping away dirt and cobwebs. She’d even cleaned his favorite chandelier. It sparkled like new, and he knew if he could smell, the scent would remind him of the lemon cleaner Amanda had often used, the sweet scent that had lingered long into the evenings and was often on her hand when he had kissed it goodnight.
Alex sighed deeply and remembered the way his pretty lady had floated from one room to another, polishing this, dusting that. She’d had servants, of course—a dozen or more. But Amanda was never one to sit back and let others do all the work.
She could cook, too. And bake. And he thought back to that church social when Mr. Dalton had auctioned off cakes and pastries the ladies had made. Amanda had tried out a new recipe for berry pie, crimped the edges to look like ruffled lace, and cut two entwined A’s—her first initial and his—into the flaky crust. Alex had doubled every bid, captured his prize, and enjoyed every morsel of pie while Amanda had talked of plans for their future.
They’d have had a great future, too.
If his life hadn’t come to such an abrupt end.
He felt tears forming in his eyes—tears he knew didn’t really exist. But the heartache was real.
The loneliness overwhelming.
He didn’t want to watch the lady in his house anymore. Not right now. He swooped out of the chandelier and up the stairs to the attic room, to the window where he liked to stand and look out at the
big stone house on the hill that should have been his.
The home he should have shared all his life—with Amanda.
Jon couldn’t remember a longer week. When he was gone, he thought about what he should or shouldn’t do as far as catching Matt was concerned. Thinking of that made him think of Elizabeth, and what he should or shouldn’t do about her, too. He’d damned himself again and again for his actions her first night in town.
He’d been hot about the poaching, and the thought of Sapphire growing and prospering hadn’t set well, either. But he didn’t have any proof she was involved with the first, and as to the second, if she was able to attract a few visitors to Sapphire, what did it matter? They wouldn’t stay long; there was nothing to do in town. On top of that, that old hotel would creak and moan, and if there was a ghost, it would send her guests packing—fast.
But Elizabeth had been there a week and nothing had made her leave. Not his arrogance; not a phantom.
Which proved she was strong enough to stand up to anything—which he liked—and that a ghost didn’t exist, just as the psychiatrist had told him all those years ago.
That meant there was nothing but the animosity he’d built up between himself and Elizabeth to
keep him from going back to the hotel and helping her out.
She’d asked for help. She’d need it, too. That place was too big, too old, too run-down for her to do everything on her own. And no one else was going to assist.
He should have told her the truth about why she couldn’t get help. He should have told her that the rumors about a ghost might be just crazy old stories, but they’d long kept the place uninhabited and long kept anyone from venturing into the hotel. He might be the only one with guts enough to go inside—since he’d been there so many times before. But she’d told him to stay away; she didn’t want his help.
That’s why he kept his distance, and when he wasn’t out of town, he sat in his studio and remembered the pretty lady he’d hurt so badly.
The Rubenesque beauty he longed to know.
It was three
Pressing his fingers into clay, he shaped, molded, and smoothed out the facial contours until they matched the vision he’d committed to memory. Her nose was sleek and straight and as regal as her high cheekbones. And her eyes ... he’d captured them just as they’d looked when she’d sat next to him in the cafe, before the arguments had begun. She’d listened to Harry and Andy, yet lowered her eyelids occasionally and given him a sideways glance, as if she didn’t want him to know she was looking. But he knew, and he’d caught her a time or two. That was when the gold flecks in her amber eyes sparkled. He couldn’t capture the brightness of her eyes in clay, but he could re-create that sidelong, secretive glance.
He’d molded her lips earlier, the slight, innocent smile embedded deeply in his mind. Now he traced his fingers over the full lower lip and wondered if the luscious red ones he remembered would be as soft and sweet as he’d imagined. Memories of her lips and her eyes had kept him awake long into the night. When fatigue made it difficult for him to keep his eyes open, he slept fitfully on the chaise in his studio, his legs and shoulders dangling over the edges. The antique satin lounge had been designed for a graceful beauty, not a giant of a man, and each time Jon tossed and turned, he nearly fell to the floor. When he did catch a few winks, Elizabeth Fitzgerald haunted his dreams.
Finally, he gave up his halfhearted attempt at slumber and paced his studio floor, back and forth, back and forth. He thought about her lips and those big amber eyes, envisioned her stretched out on his chaise in those red hooker boots and nothing else, and he watched the lights in the hotel windows, wondering if she was able to sleep peacefully in that empty hotel. And when pacing and thinking wore away at his nerves, he did the thing that had always given him peace—he turned a lifeless mound of clay into a thing of beauty.
Sitting down on a stool, he took a good look at the bust he’d spent the night creating. Wisps of hair softened the woman’s forehead, and he’d swirled her long, heavy braid over one shoulder, draping it across the slight hint of her breasts, the place where his sculpting had stopped. He hadn’t dared go any further. That he’d save for later, when he had a clearer image to commit to memory.
He drew up his shoulders, stretching out the kinks and tension from hours of painstaking work. Tomorrow he’d make the mold, and later he’d pour the bronze. And when the time was right, he’d break open the cast and polish the roughened figure until it glimmered, just the way he imagined Elizabeth’s skin would glow when caught in the firelight, or after a night of making love.
Damn! He was obsessing about a woman who might never again give him the time of day. Long hours awake, too many hours wrapped up in his work, and a strange, overpowering desire to be with Elizabeth Fitzgerald again were taking their toll on his mind.
Maybe he needed a kick in the head.
He opted for coffee instead.
Elizabeth opened the kitchen screen door, shivering at the annoying squeak of the hinges, and threw out a bucket of dirty water onto the once pristine snow. She’d already discovered she couldn’t dump anything down an inside drain. If she tried, the water wouldn’t disappear; instead, it bubbled and glugged.
She needed to crawl under the sink or get a plumber. The first she didn’t want to do because she hated tight, closed-in spots—a fear she hadn’t rid herself of after the quake. As for the plumber, she’d called everywhere, but no one wanted to drive all the way to Sapphire. That answer didn’t end with plumbers, either. Carpenters, handymen, housekeepers—no one wanted a job. Not with her. Not in her hotel. Not in the middle of nowhere.
Hauling water had become a necessity. Thank
God the stove and refrigerator worked, along with the toilet downstairs.
Closing the door, she latched it securely, wondering if it had been partly responsible for some of the thumps she’d heard during the night, thumps that had interrupted her slumber. Those disturbing thuds hadn’t been the only noises to keep her drifting in and out of sleep. The creaking floorboards and wind howling through the windows had pierced through her subconscious over and over, long before the chandelier lights began to flicker and that horribly sour note pinged again and again on the old upright piano in the parlor.
Thank goodness her brother had warned her about the sounds. If he hadn’t told her the truth about the old hotel, she just might have believed the place was haunted.
Which was impossible.
She set the bucket in the kitchen sink and dropped into a kitchen chair. Her body ached from a week of hard work. She’d mopped the floors downstairs, swept away all the cobwebs, dusted each piece of furniture, and moved every antique knickknack to the kitchen so they could be cleaned and polished.