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Five months later
Chantelle sat in her car and fiddled with her keys while staring at the door to her apartment. She'd loved the place when she first saw it, and the location was perfect, on Magazine Street in New Orleans. She'd liked her previous house, a rental in a nice Metairie subdivision, but after A. D. Romero had attacked Kayla in that house, Chantelle simply couldn't go back. Besides, the Magazine Street apartment was perfect. While she was the only tenant under fifty in the complex, she didn't mind. Though her neighbors would be deemed nosy by most, Chantelle welcomed their inquisitiveness. It allowed her to never feel totally alone.
Chantelle hated to be alone.
The quaint complex was near the Garden District, where old New Orleans was new again, and also near the homeless shelter where Jenee Vicknair volunteered. Chantelle helped out at the shelter every now and then; it was a way to not only honor her sister, who had died beside it, but also to visit with Jenee and keep up with the Vicknair familyand Tristan.
He'd been on her mind lately. Or rather, he'd pretty much dominated her thoughts for the past five months, ever since Dax's wedding, when she propositioned him to sleep with her, and he'd given her a night that she simply couldn't forget.
Tristan had held nothing back in their lovemaking. Unfortunately she hadn't been able to do the same. He'd touched her not only physically, but also emotionally, bringing her to tearsand scaring her enough that she'd left the next morning without so much as a proper goodbye.
That night he'd nearly conquered her fear of men. Nearly. She'd felt her body getting oh-so-close to letting go, but evenwith Tristan Vicknair, the only man she'd ever truly wanted, the memories of her past had invaded her attempt at finding pleasure with a man. So she'd pretended, put on an act, because it was easier to act as if she was normal, as if she hadn't been damaged in the past, than to admit the truth .
After that night, she feared that she may never be rid of the ghosts from her past.
And now, she was also unable to rid herself of the real honest-to-goodness ghost haunting her present.
As if on cue, the car grew colder. New Orleans was never what one would call cold, especially not at the end of May, but it was chilly tonight. Or was that simply her fear getting the best of her? Was he in her apartment again? And what would she do if he was?
She shivered as her blood passed through her veins. She'd thought about relocating again, somewhere far away from New Orleans and the pain of her past. But Ms. Rosa, the woman who'd cared for her during her teen years at the orphanage, had worked hard to find this place for her, and at a rental rate far below market value, because Chantelle had needed a little help getting on her feet after Lillian's death. She'd wanted to start over and pursue her dream of writing, and getting such a great deal on this place had given her that opportunity. And Chantelle was definitely back on her feet now; her first advance check for her novel had been a pleasant surprise, and the book's success even more shocking. She'd submitted it to a small press in New Orleans, and they'd wasted no time putting Stuck in the Middle Realm on local shelves. It wasn't on the NewYork Times list or anything like that, but New Orleans touristsand localshad really connected with the story based on Lillian's death, and Chantelle couldn't have been more pleased.
She'd simply followed Lillian's final piece of sisterly advice: pursue her dream of writing and live life to its fullest. Chantelle had written about what was close to her heart at the time, communicating with Lillian while she was in the middle realm. During her stay at the Vicknair plantation, she had learned plenty about the other side, and she'd taken that knowledge and turned it into a fictional account of a ghost who was trapped between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The book's unique premise had propelled it into a quick release, a nice print run and, basically, its becoming a local bestseller.
In her book, a beautiful ghost, Lorelei, can't cross over until she learns to trust someone enough to let them help her find the light. That someonea medium named Evanprovided a romantic element to the plot that Chantelle truly hadn't anticipated when she began writing the book. But she knew Lorelei's inability to trust Evan reflected her own inability to trust mento trust Tristan.
Unfortunately, though, based on her conversations with Jenee and Kayla, the Vicknair family was less than pleased that Chantelle had written something that so closely resembled the truththeir truth. And revealed their secrets. Jenee said that while she understood that Chantelle needed to write about something close to her heart and realized that no one would peg Evan as a fictitious member of the Vicknair family, the remainder of the familyparticularly Nanettedidn't see it that way. They were simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, such as the media showing up outside their house one day and proclaiming it a freak house.
Kayla had been more positive in her assessment, saying the family simply needed time to realize that no one would have any reason to suspect their part in the story. Chantelle put more stock in Jenee's interpretation. However, ever since Chantelle had confided in her about her attempt to make love with Tristan, Kayla wasn't about to say anything that would upset her friend. But Chantelle sure hadn't intended to bring any trouble to Tristan or his family, and she honestly didn't think she had.
Jenee was right; she had simply written about something near and dear to her heart, and the next time she saw themif she ever saw all of them againshe'd tell them that. She'd planned to tell Tristan personally when he'd left her a message to call him earlier this year. She'd called him back but then she'd lost her nerve and hung up without even leaving a message. What would she say, anyway, to the guy she'd literally left after a one-night stand? Even worse, a one-night stand she'd initiated? She had next-to-no experience with decent men, and she certainly didn't have experience with how to treat one after sneaking out on him the morning after.
Chantelle recalled a comment from her editor when the woman had told Chantelle that the first few chapters for her second book appeared even more promising than the first book and that she could foresee Chantelle's "being a continual bestseller and never having another problem in the world."
But Chantelle did have problems, significant problems, including the one currently haunting her apartmentand her life. It was one thing to realize that ghosts had the ability to stay on this side until they were ready to cross, but it was something else entirely to have one personally haunting you, scaring you, making you afraid for your own life. Now she was truly second-guessing her decision to write about spirits; obviously this one had taken serious offense to her book. But what about Evan and Lorelei's story could have ticked off a ghost this much?
The knob on the radio in her car turned on its own, regardless of the fact that she held the keys in her hand, and the thing started playing "Unchained Melody." Then the locks on the doors all clicked into placeand a frisson of pure terror shot down her spine.
He hadn't bothered her outside of her apartment before, and she now realized that she'd erroneously assumed that meant she was safe outside of those walls. But she wasn't. He was here, and she was trappedtrappedin her car.
"No!" She slammed her palms against her window.
It didn't matter. The street was empty, and even if anyone was nearby, she suspected they wouldn't come rushing to the aid of a woman who appeared to have locked herself in her vehicle and then started screaming about it.
She tried to get out, but the door wouldn't budge. Even so, she grabbed the icy handle and shook it hard enough to make the metal inside rattle eerily. Her breath coming out in harsh puffs of fog, she pried her fingers beneath the lock and attempted to force its release, only to find it was cemented in its current position.
As her panic increased, the music grew louder and louder, and she closed her eyes to try to combat the deafening sound. This ghost used the same tune for her torture every time. When he'd haunted her apartment, "Unchained Melody" had blasted from her radio until she'd finally smashed the radio this morning in an attempt to control the madness.
Had that ticked him off enough to make him come out here and confine her to the car?
Like every other time, Chantelle saw the vision that always emerged with this songPatrick Swayze and Demi Moore, their hands entwined as they sat behind a pottery wheel with soft, wet clay oozing between their fingers as the two of them began to make love.
What was this ghost trying to tell her? Had he been taken from his lover? Was he trying to get her back? And why had he picked Chantelle to torment? Because of her fictional lovers? Chantelle had ended the book with an epilogue that catapulted to the future, when Evan died of old ageand found out that Lorelei had been waiting faithfully for him on the other side throughout his lifetime. Why would that upset this ghost? Was he tired of waiting for his lover to cross?
She listened to the music, blasting even louder. Patrick Swayze's character was murdered. Had this ghost been murdered? And what did he expect her to do about it?
"Let me out," Chantelle whispered. "Please."
The music continued to increase in volume, until the windows of the car vibrated with it, and Chantelle couldn't hold her tears back anymore. She'd worked so hard to finally have some semblance of control in her life, and this ghost was effectively taking that away, terrorizing her on a daily basis. She sobbed loudly, painfully, the despair of her situation gripping her as completely as fear gripped her soul. When she exhaled, her warm breath was cloudlike within the icy car.
She had no doubt now that the frigid temperature only existed around her; New Orleans wasn't this coldeverbut this ghost certainly was, and he wanted to chill her, to freeze her to the bone.
He was succeeding.
She hated fear. She'd hated it since she was a teenager and had been forced to live with the emotion every day, fearing the dark, fearing those men, fearing that wretched knife against her throat, fearing life itself.
Did the ghost know about that? Was her past a part of this? Or was this torment because of her book?
More important, how could she stop it?
Chantelle didn't know, but she had to find out. She simply couldn't live this way any longer. Slowly but surely, this ghost was driving her mad.
"Let me out," she pleaded again. "I'll do something.
I'll try to find whatever you need, try to help you and fix what's wrong. But you have to let me out!"
The music immediately ceased. Then the locks clicked loudly as they disengaged.
Chantelle opened the door, tumbled to the ground and was met with the blissful warmth of New Orleans. She stared at her car; the windows had fogged over with the contrasting temperature. A wave of exhaustion washed over her, and she knew that he'd leftfor now. It had only been three days since she'd first sensed him, and that time had been merely a tingle at the back of her neck, an odd feeling like she was being watched. But with each visit, she felt more. Either she was becoming more perceptive or he was growing stronger.
No, regardless of whether she was becoming more perceptive or not, he was definitely growing stronger. This time, he'd shown up outside the apartment and had even managed to lock her in her car. In spite of the thick New Orleans heat, she shivered, wondering what else he could do.
Chantelle didn't attempt to get up; she still felt way too disoriented to even try. A ghost had the ability to trap her. Another mana dead manhad found a way to abuse her. Not in the way she'd been abused as a teenager, but still he'd made her stay in that car until he decided to let her go. Made her do something she didn't want to do. She'd vowed that would never happen again, yet it was happening nonetheless.
That infuriated her.
She didn't know for sure that her specter was a male, but she sensed a masculine presence every time the ghost was near and would wager that her personal haunter was most certainly male.
"Where are you now?" she whispered. "And what do you want?"
A door snapped closed, and she turned her head to see one of her elderly neighbors, Sundra Williams, exiting her apartment with her dog leading the way. The woman gasped, then rushed toward Chantelle. Her dog, a silver toy poodle named Beignet, got to Chantelle first and started licking her cheek.
Chantelle turned her head away from the busy little tongue, while the woman shooed Beignet away.
"No, no, Beignet. Oh, dear, oh, my, did you fall?" The woman's knees cracked loudly as she bent over Chantelle and gingerly tried to ease her to a sitting position. She pushed Chantelle's long, blond curls behind her shoulders, gently tucking a wayward strand behind her right ear. "Poor dear."
"I'm okay, Mrs. Williams."
The woman placed the back of her hand against Chantelle's forehead, and her eyes grew wide behind her round, silver-framed glasses. "No, you're not okay. You're burning up, child. Let's get you inside, and I'll find something to help with that fever."
Burning up? Chantelle was freezing. "Fever?"
"Yes, dear. Now, come on, let's get you inside." In spite of her tiny frame, she took Chantelle's hands and actually pulled her to her feet, while Beignet nipped at the hem of Chantelle's jeans.
"I'll be okay, Mrs. Williams." But she allowed the woman to guide her to her apartment, then fished her key from her jeans and focused on sliding it into the lock. She had no idea whether her personal haunter was on the other side of the door, and she didn't want to scare Mrs. Williams if he was. "You can go on home. I'll be okay."
"Nonsense," the woman said, ushering Chantelle inside and steering her to the couch. "Now you wait right here, and I'll go get some aspirin from my place."
Chantelle surveyed her surroundings and prayed that her ghost wasn't here. "I've got some in the kitchen cabinet," she said. "To the left of the sink."
Her neighbor nodded primly. In a matter of seconds, she and Beignet returned from Chantelle's kitchen with a cup of water and two pills. "Take these, dear."
Chantelle did as Mrs. Williams instructed and found it oddly comforting to be cared for by the older woman. True, there was nothing physically wrong with her; she'd simply been spooked by a persistent ghost. But she hadn't had anyone take care of her since she left Ms. Rosa and the orphanage, and this was very nice.
"Well, I'm not sure what's going on, my dear, but you need a little old-fashioned TLC. Too bad you don't have a nice young man in your life to give you that." She slowly added, "My grandson is coming into town for a visit next month. Maybe the two of you can"
"No," Chantelle said quickly, then improvised, "I'm really too busy for dating right now." It was a lie, sort of, unless you counted the fact that her personal ghost was keeping her busy by scaring her to death. She really wasn't ready to try the dating thing. She'd given up after her night with Tristan. If any guy could have done it for her, it'd have to have been that beautiful tribute to Acadian ancestry. But there were way too many ghosts in her life now, both from the past and the present, to fit a living man into the picture.