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If she'd only had the right type of psychic abilities, Megan Barrows thought later that day, she would have sensed her doom when Case Lambert stepped through the doorway to Antique Fancies. Instead, when the bell over the door dinged and she looked up and saw him, her hands ceased work on the alabaster lamp she was rewiring, and her heart seized in her chest.
"Hello," she said, an uncertain smile on her lips, attraction turning her shy.
A tight smile briefly graced the man's face. "Hello." His gaze took a long trip over her tall body, and a frown formed between his brows as his gaze lingered on her chest. She moved sideways a few inches, hoping to hide her A-cups behind the inadequate lamp, her attraction to him fading as quickly as it had come. So he was one of those.
The man looked away, turning his attention to the late-Victorian tea table beside him, its top loaded with silver candlesticks. He picked one up and turned it over to examine the hallmarks on the bottom, then flipped it around, eyes narrowing as he scrutinized the plating where it had begun, ever so slightly, to wear off the copper core.
Megan pretended to turn her attention back to rewiring the lamp, just as the man pretended to examine candlesticks. He was a big guy: six-foot-three according to the height markings on the edge of her door, and with a solid broadness that hinted at years of laboring muscle; no youthful lankiness here. His squarely masculine face showed signs of weathering, and his short brown hair was mussed. She had a brief flash of him driving his pickup with the window down, elbow resting on the sill, wind in his hair, howling along to a country song about the cheatin' woman who done him wrong. His jeans and battered leather shoes, and the faded polo shirt with a breast pocket made lumpy by some object, all hinted at someone in one of the trades.
One thing for sure: he wasn't a cubicle monkey from Microsoft.
He set down the candlestick and wandered farther into the shop, pausing to stare into a lighted glass case full of small bits and pieces: thimbles, lorgnettes, spoons, figurines, vases. Perhaps he was looking for a gift for his wife.
She glanced at his left hand. No ring.
A gift for his girlfriend, then? Mother? Aunt Esmeralda?
He left the glass case and wandered closer to where she stood at her worktable/cashier's counter, his big frame feeling oversized in the crowded, feminine confines of her shop. The natural assurance of his stance, the silent assumption that he was master of his domain -- master of her domain -- grated on her, reminding her of the womanizing dolt she'd worked for while putting herself through college.
He made a show of casting his gaze over her shop. "You've got a nice place here -- nicer than I expected. Judging from the outside, I thought it would be full of the usual thrift-store crap that passes for antiques these days."
Megan narrowed her eyes.
"I must have driven by a hundred times but never stopped," he went on, and ran a fingertip over the gracefully carved line of a chair back near the counter. He met her gaze, his gray eyes direct. "I should have. There are beautiful things here."
Attraction shot through her again despite her every thought against it. She blushed and looked down at the lamp beneath her hands, then away, not sure where to set her gaze, afraid he might see that his words had affected her. "The shop belonged to my mother. She started it when I was a child."
"'Belonged.' Did she retire?"
She glanced up at him. "She died. Two years ago."
In his eyes, she saw empathy, the tightness around his mouth loosening. "I'm sorry. I lost my mother a few years ago, too."
She nodded, acknowledging the shared pain. "But I have the shop, so in some ways it feels like I see her every day."
He raised a brow and looked as if he were about to say something, then shook his head. A moment later, he asked, "So, can you make a living at this business? Doesn't sound like it pays too well, especially not in this economy. Haven't most of your colleagues gone out of business?"
She forced a smile. "I get by. Can I help you find something? Were you looking for something in particular?"
He ignored her question and made a show of again gazing around the shop. "You ever wonder what the long-dead owners of this stuff must be thinking, to see their things for sale?"
She rolled her eyes. The guy had one great question after another, didn't he? "I suspect the dead have better things to do than watch over their chipped teacups and sprung chairs."
His brows rose, and then he laughed, the loudness of it startling her, the whole room seeming to shake with the vibrations of his mirth. "What do you think the dead are doing with their time?" he asked when the storm had settled.
A wisp of suspicion floated into Megan's mind. A man like this, discussing the dead with her, of all people? "I'm sure they're fighting over the best dark hallways and attics to haunt, debating the merits of cemeteries on Halloween, et cetera, et cetera."
"You don't take it seriously?"
"Do you want me to?"
The small frown reappeared between his brows. "You must have been in a lot of old houses. You ever see a ghost?"
She tugged at the fresh wires coming out of the top of the lamp and began attaching them to a new socket. "In most cases, ghosts can be explained away rationally."
"So you've never seen one?"
She glanced at him. His expression was serious. "Have you?" she asked back.
He looked away from her, toward the front picture window and its display tableau of desk, chair, and leather library books, a bust of Dante on the floor. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. "Maybe I've experienced something. But nothing I'd swear to."
Megan felt the lure of the bait he'd just trailed before her, and with it, the small seed of suspicion that had been planted in her mind sprouted leaves. He'd heard something about her that made him come in and expect her to want to talk about ghosts.
His statement begged for follow-up questions, for her to lean forward and say, "Really? What happened?" But did she want to get involved in his problems? No, although he was shockingly good-looking for a dunderheaded brute. And there was always curiosity to satisfy.
She parted her lips to speak, and then caution laid hold of her tongue, forbidding her to take the tempting bait. "Was there something special you were looking for?" she asked, nodding toward the shop at large.
He stood straighter, her answer clearly not the one he was expecting. Then he shook his head and laughed again, the sound softer this time and strangely warming.
He dug into his breast pocket. "Would you be able to give me an appraisal on this, and maybe tell me something about it?" he asked, pulling a small gold pocket watch out of his shirt and handing it to her.
"I think so," she said, surprised he had a legitimate reason for visiting her shop. She'd convinced herself he wanted to pick her brain about ghosts. That's what she got for thinking too much of herself and her talents!
Megan took the watch and let it lie flat in her palm, feeling its heavy weight, the gold warm from his body. She ran her finger over the small dents along one edge and smiled.
"It's a lady's watch, meant to be pinned to her bodice. English -- 1910, 1915, I think." She wound it a few turns and heard the soft, regular ticking begin. "Still works. It's a lovely little thing." She started to hand it back to him.
"How much would you give me for it?"
She pushed her hand at him again, offering the watch. "You don't want to sell this."
"Sure I do."
She shook her head. "Someday you'll have a daughter who'd love to have a piece of family history like this."
"I assume it belonged to your grandmother. Or a great-aunt," she added, wanting to make the ownership sound more like a guess than it was.
He stared at her a long moment, then nodded. "It was my maternal grandmother's. But I have no use for it, and I'm not one for holding on to something just for the sake of it. It's just a watch. And it's dented."
"But you know what those dents are from, don't you?"
He shook his head.
"They're the marks of a teething baby. Your teeth, perhaps? While your grandmother held you? You -- or someone -- used her watch as a teething ring." She shrugged, knowing she had sounded too certain. And she wasn't that certain. Her imagination often led her down the wrong path. "It's an educated guess. She must have been a doting grandmother to allow it, if I'm right."
"Just a guess, huh? A pretty damn good guess!"
Megan crossed her arms over her chest. "You knew they were your teeth marks."
"You're the first antique 'expert' to know what those dents were from."
"You were testing me?"
"Just like to know who I'm dealing with," he said, grinning. "What else can you tell me about the watch?"
"What do you want to know?"
"I don't know. Surprise me. Do some Sherlock Holmes-like deducing."
"I'm not a detective."
"Come on. Try.
"He was fiction."
"You surprised me with the teeth marks. Do it again."
Was he serious?
Well, what the hell.
She enclosed the watch between her palms and closed her eyes. The trick was to let the images and snatches of sound come to her, not to force them. Not to think. She made her mind into a blank silver screen.
Bit by bit, a vague story began to emerge.
"I can tell you what anyone else might guess, given the probabilities," she said, opening her eyes. "Your grandmother's family emigrated to the U.S. She was moderately well-off, and she valued her family. She cared for people, both emotionally and physically."
That was what she said aloud, but in her mind a much fuller picture of a woman had emerged: a girl of thirteen coming across the ocean with her mother; the girl growing into a young woman who took up nursing and married a doctor; the young woman becoming a middle-aged widow who held her family together with every last ounce of her love.
"That's it?" he said. "'They were immigrants' and 'she valued family'? Anyone could have guessed that."
"Which is what I told you before I spoke, in case you've forgotten." She stared at him in silent challenge.
After a long moment, he reached out and took the watch back. "Sure you don't want to buy it?" he asked quietly. "A hundred bucks?"
"I wouldn't take it for five cents. Please keep it; I'm sure your grandmother would have wanted you to pass it down. Someday you'll be glad you still have it."
"Is that a prediction?"
"My grandmother didn't . . . say that to you?"
Suspicion grew a bud and bloomed. "How could she?"
"I was told that you might have access to . . . the Other Side," he said, hunching close to her, his eyes widening.
She stared at him.
He stared back. Then an easygoing smile cracked his composure, and he stood straight. "I call it that for lack of a better term. You probably call it the Sixth Plane of Ethereal Existence or something."
She set her jaw. "Just what is it that you want, Mr. -- ?"
"Lambert. Case Lambert," he said, sticking out his hand. "And you're Megan Barrows?"
She frowned at him.
"You aren't Megan Barrows?" His expression lightened, delight sparking the gray depths of his eyes.
"I'm afraid I am." She shook his hand, watching with her own delight as disappointment pulled at his features. Her amusement faded as she felt the warmth and strength of his hand surrounding her own, his calluses rough against her skin. A zing of a different delight shot straight down to her core. How long had it been since she'd been with a man, his body warming hers through the night? Too long.
His grip was firm but gentle, showing he knew it was a woman's hand he held, with finer bones than the meaty paws of men. No sixth-sense information came to her from his touch; it was not the way her gift worked. The living kept their secrets from her. However, if she could touch a frequently used personal object of his, she might get somewhere.
He released her hand. "What is it you're looking for, Mr. Lambert?" Megan asked, cradling her own hand against her stomach as if she could hold the warmth of his touch.
"I'm looking for you."
Her heart fluttered, and then reason reasserted itself. "Why were you looking for me?"
"I have a bit of a problem and was told you might be of help. I have to warn you, though, I'm a confirmed skeptic."
It was Megan's turn to laugh. "That's what everyone says."
He scowled. "I am not everyone."
"Of course not."
"I'm not. I really don't believe in ghosts."
"I never said you did."
"So, are you going to help me?"
"Given all you've said, I don't see how I can, unless it's an appraisal of antiques that you want. Is that what you want, Mr. Lambert?"
"You know it's not," he growled. "You're making this difficult."
"Eric said you were a piece of work, but -- "
"Who told you about me?" she interrupted, laughter gone.
"Let's discuss that afterward. First, I'll take you to the house and see what you can make of it, if anything."
"Did you say Eric?"
He sighed. "Eric Ramsey told me about you."
"Ramsey! I should have known!" Rage suffused her mind, blocking out all else. "Good day, Mr. Lambert!" she barked, and turned her back to him. She yanked a book off the shelf behind her worktable and opened it, pretending to look for some valuable piece of information. Her hands were shaking, and she could hear her heart pounding in her ears. Eric Ramsey. Anger shuddered through her.
"He warned me not to mention his name," Case said to her back, sounding annoyed. "I take it there's some bad history between you. He insists we need your help, though. He seems to think you're the only" -- he paused and seemed to gag on his words -- "real medium in the state."
With trembling fingers, she turned a page. "I said good day, Mr. Lambert!"
"Look, I'm willing to" -- again the begrudging tone, as if forcing the words out went against every fiber of his being -- "willing to pay you for your time. Not much, but enough to cover your lost hours here."
"Good day!" she screeched, and slammed the book shut. She jammed it back on the shelf and whirled around. "I don't want anything to do with Eric Ramsey or any of his crazy experiments!"
The bell over the door rang, and her friend Tracie, owner of the boutique next door, stuck her head in, face worried. "Megan, are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Megan flashed a strained smile to her friend.
Tracie stepped into the shop, her eyes running over Case's looming figure, his red face and tight jaw. "You sure? I heard raised voices."
"Case Lambert," Case said, turning to Tracie and holding out his hand.
Eyes still wary, Tracie shook it. "Tracie Thomas, Thomasina Designs."
"I was trying to hire your friend here, but she's having none of it."
"No? Why, did you ask her to do her famous go-go dance for you or something? She's trying to get out of that line of work, you know."
"Tracie!" Megan hissed.
An uncertain smile twitched at Case's mouth, as if he might believe she moonlighted as a dancer. "I want her to come look at a supposedly haunted house."
"Really? Cool! Can I come?"
"So, what's the problem?" Tracie asked them both.
"Eric Ramsey sent him," Megan said.
"Oh." Tracie made a duck bill of her lips and squinted her eyes at Case. "This is going to cost you."
"No, it won't," Megan said. "I won't do it."
"Sure she will," Tracie said to Case. "You've just got to pay her well enough to forget about Ramsey."
A cynical look settled over Case's features. "How much is well enough?"
Megan opened her mouth to answer, but Tracie's words were in the air first. "Three hundred an hour."
Case's breath burst from him. "That's criminal!"
Tracie shrugged. "You get what you pay for."
"He's not getting anything," Megan said. "Mr. Lambert, please be so kind as to leave. Now."
"Three hundred bucks, that's what you charge for an hour of your mumbo jumbo?"
"My mumbo jumbo? Why did you come in here if you're so convinced it's nonsense?"
"It wasn't my idea, believe me! It was Ramsey's. He insisted he needed you in order to do a thorough investigation, but he said you wouldn't come if you knew he was going to be there."
"Smart man! Although if you don't believe in my mumbo jumbo, why did you hire Eric?"
"I didn't. He's doing this for free."
"But why call a parapsychologist to look at a house if you don't believe in ghosts?"
"Because I don't think it's haunted. Something is going on there, but I'm sure there's a scientific explanation for it."
"And you think Ramsey will find that for you."
"With all that equipment he has? Yes."
Megan laughed. "A tool is only as good as the brain that uses it."
"His seems plenty sharp to me. He said he'd never once come across a supposed haunting that didn't turn out to be something completely rational."
"Did he, now."
"You saying he's lying?"
She arched a brow. "Yes."
"That's not kind repayment for his faith in you."
"I don't lie."
"Ah. So you're one of the ones who believe their own gibberish."
"Gibberish!" Tracie blurted. "Megan -- "
"Don't bother, Tracie," Megan said. "A ghost could climb into bed with him, and he still wouldn't take it as proof."
Case's face went pale. "I'd assume it was a dream."
Megan cocked her head. "Would you, now."
"Hypnagogic," Megan supplied. "The hypnagogic state right before sleep, when the brain plays naughty tricks on you -- a feeling of presence in the room, paralysis, inability to breathe. Eric's been explaining things, I see."
"You don't believe that theory?"
"I believe it. But it's not the explanation each and every time."
"How could you tell any difference?"
"I use my magic fairy dust."
His lips tightened.
"I assume Eric sent you here because I'm the only person he knows who can tell the difference. His sensors and infrared cameras can't detect everything."
"So how much are you going to pay her?" Tracie piped up. "Megan, you are going to do it, aren't you?"
Megan felt her determination slipping, pulled down by curiosity and a perverse attraction to the very things that scared her the most. How long had it been since she'd investigated a house? Two years? She'd sworn off doing it since that last disaster, but she wasn't immune to the lure. It was like an addiction, the promise of things that go bump in the night, pulling her toward an experience she knew to be dangerous. "I'll come look at the house if, and only if, Eric isn't there."
"How much?" he asked.
"Five hundred," Tracie said.
"Shush," Megan scolded her friend. "I'll do it for nothing."
Case looked suspicious. "And then you'll tell me that there are a dozen ghosts and I'll need to hire you for a six-month 'cleansing ritual'?"
"Fine. Never mind my offer. Good day, Mr. Lambert." She went back to work on the lamp.
Tracie scowled at Case and kicked his shoe. "What's the matter with you?"
Megan waited, watching from the corner of her eye as Case shifted his weight, distrust and indecision spelled out in every muscle of his body.
"You won't let me pay you?" he asked again. "Just for lost time at the shop?"
"No money. This will be a one-time thing, just to give you my impressions, and then that's it. No more. No 'cleansing rituals' or sèances or sitting up all night waiting for ghosts to molest you."
"I'd feel better about it if I paid you," Case said.
"So you don't have to stop thinking of me as a fraud who fleeces the innocent?"
He chuckled. "Yeah."
"Will you accept dinner, then?" he asked, his voice dropping to a seductive rumble. "I'd love to take you out." The look in his eye said that wasn't all he'd love to do.
Tracie's jaw dropped open.
"N-no, I-" Megan stammered.
Tracie punched her arm.
"Don't be an idiot," Tracie whispered. "Look at his ass!"
Case's mouth twitched.
Megan spoke through gritted teeth covered by a smile. "I can't see his ass from here."
"It's mighty damn fine!" Tracie punched her again. "For God's sake, say yes, you moron."
Megan's heart thumped. Dinner, with him? He might be a closed-minded jerk, but he wasn't like any of the other men -- no, boys -- she had gone out with in the past. Case Lambert was a man, full-grown and sure of himself, and that scared her. This was one man she would not be able to control.
But as with the dead, what scared her also lured her.
"Okay," she said finally.
"Okay?" Case repeated, surprised.
Tracie clapped her hands in delight and did a boxing dance, faux-punching Megan's arm.
"Stop it," Megan said.
"I've got an appointment now, but I can be back at four to pick you up. We'll go to the house first, then eat," Case said.
"Wait, you mean today?"
"Yeah, why not? You've got plans?"
"But . . ." Didn't he understand that a woman needed more warning for a dinner date?
But that was just it. This wasn't a dinner date. No need to shave her legs or fuss with her hair.
"Okay, fine, four o'clock," she grumbled.
"See you then." He held out his hand to her.
She slipped hers into his broad palm. As he released her hand, he let his fingertips graze against the inside of her wrist. Her eyes met his, and he smiled, his gray eyes intent.
"Ms. Thomas," he said, turning to Tracie and shaking her hand. And then he was gone, the ringing of the bell marking his passage.
Megan sank down onto a stool. Her thoughts were scattered, her emotions a jumpy blend of fear and anger and arousal, all of it tinged with surprise at the scene she'd created. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd had as angry an exchange as the one she'd just had with Case Lambert. She was usually calm and collected.
She touched her upper lip, feeling the dew of nervous sweat. How had Case Lambert managed to have that strong an effect on her?
"Whooeee!" Tracie said, plopping down onto a Victorian fainting couch and throwing her arm over her brow. "What a piece of man-beef! I wouldn't mind getting a slice of that."
"Be my guest."
Tracie shook her head, smiling. "No, he's got the hots for you."
"He does not. He can barely stand me. He thinks I'm a charlatan."
"Like a guy cares about that? He wants to jump your bones, I'm telling you."
"Delightful." Megan was silent a moment. "Do you really think so?"
"He wants you to take a ride on the ol' bucking bronco."
Megan rolled her eyes, a small traitorous part of her hoping it was true. "I don't care what he wants."
"Megan," Tracie said, her tone changing, "don't shut him down. Don't treat him like you treat all the other guys."
Tracie waggled her head. "You know."
"I don't know!"
"You make yourself so unapproachable. No guy thinks you'll give him the time of day."
"I've had boyfriends!"
"Wimpy little guys looking for a mother figure to be their backbone for them."
"They've been smart men! Intellectuals! Artists! Scientists! And they've been empathetic and sensitive. Philosophical. Spiritual. Unlike that Neanderthal."
"They've been low-testosterone flakes, and you know it. Stop being a ball breaker, and give this one a chance."
Megan set her jaw. "That's the impression I give? A ball breaker?"
"Well, never mind. It's not going to matter today."
"Heh. Right. You want to borrow a dress from the shop? I've got something that would look great on you."
Megan bit her upper lip. "I have no interest in Case Lambert."
"The dress looks innocent, but it's really very sexy. He'll have a hard-on the whole time he's with you."
"You're so crude."
Megan sighed. "Do you have it in my size?"
Case headed across the street to his car, confounded by Megan Barrows. She had seemed so rational at first; so wry and levelheaded, and so unexpectedly sexy in her plain white blouse that showed the bumps of her nipples. He'd caught himself staring at them -- a juvenile mistake he hadn't made in years.
But then he'd mentioned Eric Ramsey's name, and she'd turned into a hyperventilating banshee.
Which was what he'd initially expected of her: dramatics and hair tearing. From what he'd seen, "sensitives" came in limited varieties: you had your overly emotional hair tearers, you had your grandmotherly muumuu-wearing earth mothers, and then you had your foreign-accented black candle crowd. A pretty young woman like Megan was most likely going to be a hair tearer.
He'd seen plenty of frauds as his mother bankrupted herself by hiring them. It was beyond ironic that he'd now been put in a position where he had to hire one himself.
He opened the door to his old BMW and got in, welcomed by the familiar smell of spilled coffee. The leather on the driver's seat was splitting, and the car hadn't been detailed in at least two years, but Case never missed a tune-up. He sat behind the wheel now and stared at the glass windows fronting Antique Fancies.
Megan was either as loopy as the rest of her colleagues in the mediumship arts, or Eric Ramsey had done something to her that deserved her wrath. But what could Ramsey have done to so distress her?
It was hard to imagine. Megan was five-foot-ten if she was an inch, with a slim athletic build and a sharp attitude. It was difficult to imagine that Ramsey could, by force of either will or sluggish body, do anything to harm her.
Which left "flake and drama queen" as his explanation for her behavior. Not that that meant they couldn't enjoy a little time together, given the chance. Just the thought of those long legs wrapped around him . . .
He shifted in his seat and took a deep breath. His eyes roved over the facades of Megan's and Tracie's shops, then to the left of Antique Fancies to the hole-in-the-wall grocery. All three businesses were lodged in the same decrepit building, a single-story, flat-roofed, stuccoed rectangle entirely unsuited to the rainy climate or to the up-and-coming neighborhood. High up on the wall of the building was a For Sale sign.
Case turned in his seat and looked at the other shops nearby: an Irish pub, two popular restaurants, a quaint coffee shop, a pet grooming store, and an upscale hair salon. He looked back at the ugly stucco building and programmed the number of the real estate agent into his cell phone.
He glanced at the time. He was late for a meeting at one of his job sites. He started the car and pulled out into traffic, his mind ticking over the possibilities presented both by Megan Barrows and by the building that housed her shop.
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Cach