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By Heather Long, Rochelle French, Kate Fall
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Heather Long
All rights reserved.
Justin Kent's tombstone would read Dead from Terminal Boredom if the meeting of Penny Hollow's first families didn't wrap up soon. The Founder's Council meetings used to be once per quarter and involved a lot of gin — both the drink and the card game — but not anymore. For the last year, ever since the death of Justin's father had forced him back to town, the council had met over a dozen times, and always to cover the same ground.
How to save Penny Hollow.
No one wanted to just let the sleepy little Virginia town die. During the last year, the entire council had devised their cockamamie scheme to become known as the most haunted town in Virginia. And the council had determined that the Summerfield estate would be the capstone, which was the focus of their current discussion.
Old Katherine Summerfield's place harkened back to shadowy, dark era of Penny Hollow's past. It was perfect — from the facade to the columned porch to the elegance of the imposing wall and wrought iron gates. After Justin had moved in next door to Katherine a year ago, he'd cultivated a friendship with the elderly woman, the town fixture with a spine of steel. He'd check on her after every bad weather event, or if he hadn't spotted the local senior van picking her up for a doctor's appointment in a while. It was Katherine who'd promised to leave instructions for the deed to be sold to Justin upon her passing.
His request to buy the property had been due to his father's will, which stipulated the Kent children reinvigorate the dying town or forfeit their inheritance to the town entirely. Not only would Summerfield satisfy the need for a house with a spooky history to cap off Penny Hollow's "haunted" tour, it would also conclude the last of the requirements he needed in order to fulfill to honor his father's willed requests. He'd get to fix up Summerfield, the town would have their pet project on the fast track, his siblings would get their inheritance, and he'd be on his way back to a life outside his small hometown.
Win-win, all the way around.
Although truthfully, his interest in the historic place went a lot deeper. He'd liked the house — lusted for it, really — for most of his life. The shivery sensation he'd experienced the first time he passed through the gates couldn't be explained.
Next to him, his friend and lawyer — and member of the council — Clinton Pope held up his phone, interrupting the meeting. "Bad news, folks," he announced to the group. "I just got a text. Katherine Summerfield passed away a couple of hours ago."
Dammit. Justin swore internally and fought to keep his struggle off his face. He'd liked the grumpy old lady — her spunk, her fire, her odd sense of humor. And he'd liked what her property meant for his father's plan.
Gasps and murmurs of sorrow burst around the room, and the brief lull of shock quickly gave way to demands as the town families argued over what to do next. He overheard an argument breaking out in the corner between two of Penny Hollow's founding families descendants. The words "duke," "burial," and the "lost bride," were thrown out like exploding grenades. He hated that story — a bunch of pseudo-tragic romantic myths cobbled together about a stolen bride and her true love. True love didn't exist, and it certainly didn't in a story where the couple were torn apart.
Clint lightly punched his shoulder. "Look at it this way; if we get Summerfield and you rehab it, you're done and out of here, just the way you want."
"When," Justin said. "When we get Summerfield." He couldn't allow it to be an if. Guilt shafted through him. He shouldn't feel grateful that old lady Summerfield had passed on, even if it meant he got what he wanted.
Although, he realized, he had no guarantee Katherine had actually left him the estate. All the town's plans could blow up in their faces if he didn't get the deed.
* * *
Two days later, Justin's anger solved his guilt problem. He'd had to read the e-mail three times before picking up his cell and calling Clint. "Who the hell is MacKenzie Dillon?"
"As far as I can tell, she's Katherine Summerfield's great-niece." Clint went straight to the facts. "She wasn't born in Penny Hollow, and I'm not entirely certain she's ever stepped foot in the town."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Justin stared across the room. He'd drawn up designs over the weekend based on historical records and styles, and the blueprints and designs now decorated the board on the far wall of his office. He'd been sketching an idea for a gazebo for Summerfield — an image that kept recurring in his mind. Could there have once been such a structure on the property? If Clint couldn't figure out who held the deed, he may never know.
"Maybe she won't be interested in our little town ..."
"That's possible. Google says she's an author," Clint continued. "Appears she wrote a lot of chick books. And according to her fan page, she just came off an ugly divorce."
The last thing they needed was a stranger holding the deed to the "key" of the town's plans. The council would go ballistic if they couldn't secure the historic property. Justin glanced back down at the sketching. Crumpling the paper into a tight ball, he sighed.
"Justin?" Clint's raised voice jerked him out of his thoughts. "What do you want me to do?"
"Okay, but that means jail time and I think my sister would be a little put out if I missed her wedding. What else do you want me to do?"
A laugh burst from him, then he considered the question. "Make a preemptive offer. If she turns down the first one, double it."
"Are you insane?"
"Quite possibly. I mean, what's the worst thing that can happen?" Katherine Summerfield's niece had to say yes. He was too close to getting his life back. He shot the crumpled sketching of the gazebo at trashcan, but could only stare as it bounced off the rim.
Apparently, this wasn't his lucky day.
* * *
In the kitchen of her great-aunt's home she'd inherited a week before, MacKenzie Dillon leaned against the counter and stared at a chocolate bar. She knew she'd left it on the counter by the door. But now it sat next to the sink. Nudging it back to where it belonged, she blinked hard as it began the slow slide back. Either the house was tilted or her grandmother's ghost stories were more real than she remembered. Either way, she wanted that darned chocolate to stop playing games with her.
She grabbed the bar, unwrapped it, then broke off two full rectangles, popped them in her mouth, and sighed as the chocolate melted on her tongue. Heaven, after living on a diet of freeze-dried noodles and tap water for weeks, courtesy of her ex-douche. Although if I had actually paid attention to the finances instead of trusting him, I would've known what he was up to.
Closing her eyes, she did a mental count to ten, twice. Just thinking about her ex caused her an instant headache, but her life would be okay. After dealing with a silent muse for months, she'd been overwhelmed with the desire to start writing the minute she'd stepped foot on Summerfield. She could do this — write a great book and kick-start the next chapter of her own life.
Getting a divorce? Four thousand dollars. Moving to Virginia? A couple hundred dollars. Hiding away in a haunted house and finishing a book? Priceless.
Her cell phone rang in her back pocket. She pulled it out, only to glare at Kevin's number and face that appeared on the caller ID, then declined the call from her ex-husband. Her life now was all about the future. Bigger and better things.
And right now, the only obstacle to getting her better and brighter future was unpacking the U-Haul.
Ready to get back to work, she headed out the open door. In the U-Haul, she grabbed a box, only to have the lid pop open. She stared at the number of unfamiliar books inside. They were old, some plain and well-worn. She flipped open the top book and read the first page. A diary?
Now she remembered. She'd received the box along with the notice from an attorney that she'd inherited Summerfield. As tempting as it was to start reading the books now, she made herself put the diary back and closed the lid. She could read them later, she promised herself. After she'd unpacked, settled in, and started in on her new book.
"It's all going to work out," she told the box as she folded the lid shut. "Everything happens for a reason."
"Does it?" A purely masculine voice echoed behind her.
MacKenzie screamed and jumped. The box fell, hitting her foot, and she had to steady herself with a hand on the wall of the trailer. She stared at the blond Adonis blocking her exit. Six feet of pure, masculine sex appeal stood before her, wearing well-worn jeans and a plaid button-down and attractive enough to eat. Broad-shouldered and thick-chested, this was a man who worked hard rather than worked out.
He grimaced and held up both hands. "Sorry. I thought you heard me pull up."
"Clearly not." No way she would have missed him if she had. "May I help you?"
"Justin Kent." He took a step forward and picked up the box. "Your neighbor."
She knew that name. Had heard from his lawyer several times since she'd inherited Summerfield. So this is the guy who wants to buy my house ... He wasn't exactly a welcome sight. She reached out and took custody of her box. "MacKenzie Dillon. Not selling."
At first she didn't think he would let it go, but then he relented and turned sideways to let her exit the U-Haul. She made it two steps when she realized he'd grabbed another box and was following her.
"Seriously, Mr. Kent. Not interested in your offer. Told your attorney three times, in fact. I think I was pretty clear." Although, two people could definitely off-load the truck faster — and he was so not hard on the eyes. But she didn't want to accept help from someone who wanted something from her. She'd had enough of that.
She took a closer look. He'd seemed so solid, dwarfing the interior of the little trailer, but outside of it? Tanned skin crowned by wheat-blond hair and those blue, blue eyes were the icing on top of a very attractive beefcake package. Not interested, she reminded herself. Moving to Summerfield was supposed to be a new beginning for her. Lusting after her neighbor — who, in turn, was lusting after her property — was the last thing she needed. Hell, she hadn't even fully moved in and already a ghost was making its presence known.
Haunted house for the win.
"Helping you unload is about being neighborly," he said. "I don't mind, especially since it seems like you're on your own. Besides, it's a guy thing."
"Alone doesn't mean helpless." Defensiveness edged her tone, but she didn't care. Sure, it would be nice to have help, but she couldn't afford any more bites taken out of her pride. "I'm fine. As you can see, I'm almost done."
"Uh-huh. Well, just point me where you want this to go and I'll help you finish."
"Nothing personal, but I just met you, and I would really rather you didn't come in my house." She slid the box she carried onto the counter and turned to catch the one he had, effectively blocking him from entering at the same time. The shirt did little to hide the flex of his muscles and she tried to ignore the flutter in her stomach.
Surprise filtered through his expression, and his mouth tightened. "My apologies, Ms. Dillon. I was just trying to be neighborly."
"Really? Were you just being neighborly when you doubled your offer to buy my house? Or was it more neighborly to let me know about all your plans and how I was getting in the way of what my great-aunt really wanted for the town?" Guilt stabbed her at the less than hospitable reaction, but dammit, she held her ground.
"All right, then."
The nonanswer didn't do much for her, but the corners of his eyes crinkled. Her heart did a little back flip at his easy smile, but she reminded herself no one looked that good and turned out to be. Her ex had been a damned attractive man, too.
Once burned, lesson learned.
But he didn't leave. He pivoted and walked back into the trailer, retrieved another box, and returned to the door before she could slam it shut. He held the box out, being obvious about not crossing over the threshold. The corners of his mouth curved upward when she grabbed it from him. Then he turned and left her to gape at him as he strode back to the trailer. His jeans stretched taut over his rear, and she snapped her mouth shut before she started drooling.
She gave up. He could help if he wanted to.
Twenty more minutes later, between them they'd off-loaded all but the furniture. A fort of cardboard, stacked two-deep in front of the kitchen cupboards, surrounded the two of them. Sweat soaked her shirt and her throat had gone dry. She grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge — one for her and one for her irritating yet hunky neighbor.
"Water?" She held out her peace offering.
Justin accepted it with a smile. "Thank you." He twisted the cap off and took a long drink. Sweat darkened his gray T-shirt, which clung to the damp skin beneath. "That bed frame in the U-Haul is pretty heavy." He cast a sidelong glance at her.
"I'm a lot stronger than I look. I can handle it."
"Or I could help you." He pointed out the obvious, all reasonable-like.
Amusement bubbled up, surprising her, and she wrinkled her nose. She shouldn't laugh, because it might encourage him to stay. "You don't seem to take no for an answer."
"I didn't step a foot inside your house, per your request." He gestured at her with the water bottle. "But it's hot out here. And you're on your own ..."
Again, he sounded perfectly reasonable, but that didn't change the fact she didn't know him, and if she were honest with herself, she didn't want to know him. This move was about finding who she was without a man in her life, without all the shadows, doubts, and insecurities that came from her past. Thank God for Aunt Katherine and the out-of-nowhere inheritance.
"I'm sorry. You're trying to be nice ..."
"But?" He raised his eyebrows, not bothering to disguise his amusement at her predicament.
"But I'm not comfortable asking anyone for help — especially the person who wanted to buy my house."
Instead of answering, he tipped the bottle of water up and drained it. After recapping it, he handed her the bottle. Then he stripped off his shirt.
All the moisture fled her mouth at the ripple of muscle. He tossed his shirt on the counter, headed back to the U-Haul, where he lifted the heavy footboard with a flex of those same muscles.
"You ..." she sputtered.
"No worries." He exhaled the words on a hard breath. "You didn't ask for help." He carried it right on inside, leaving her no choice but to follow.
It took Justin less than ten minutes to unload what few pieces of furniture she'd brought with her. When the U-Haul was completely empty, he dusted his hands on his jeans and strode outside. On the porch, he paused and turned back to face her. "By the way, welcome to Penny Hollow," he said. "And I'm right across the street if you need anything."
Right across the street must mean the positively gorgeous Southern plantation house up the half-mile-long gravel driveway, across the two-lane road, and down a bit. If that was his house, he hadn't been exaggerating about being her neighbor.
Puffing a loose strand of hair away from her damp forehead on an exhale, she nodded to him. "Thank you for your help." When he grinned slowly, her stomach did a little flip.
"You're welcome. Not that you asked for any help." With a wink, he was off. Electricity sizzled over her. Damn if he doesn't look as good walking away as he did arriving.
* * *
A few hours later, after returning the U-Haul and splurging on fast food for dinner, Mac headed home, pushing thoughts of her sexy new neighbor out of her mind. After parking her ten-year-old Ford Explorer under the carport, she glanced around the little plot of land.
Sitting squarely atop a hill in the middle of twenty acres, behind a stone wall and overgrown hedges, was the single-story saltbox house with an added-on wraparound porch and a swing. Mac swung her gaze around the property, taking in the overgrown vegetation. She'd have to either grow some muscles and learn how to landscape or write another bestseller and hire someone.
Excerpted from Haunt Me by Heather Long, Rochelle French, Kate Fall. Copyright © 2014 Heather Long. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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