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Every morning when Mike drove his daughter to school past the old Lindsey cottage, he bit back a sigh of regret over its decrepit state. It was like a neglected doll's cottage, abandoned by a fickle child who'd moved on to other toys. The screens on the side porch had been torn by vandals, the front steps sagged, the paint was peeling. One dangling shutter slapped against the side of the house whenever there was any sort of breeze.
The house sat on a valuable piece of property that backed up to the Chesapeake Bay. From the road, the view was all but invisible thanks to the overgrown grass and shrubbery, but it had to be incredible. That anyone could abandon such a place and leave it to the elements to be destroyed was a crime. If they weren't going to use it, they should sell to someone who'd take proper care of it.
But if the sorry state of the house bothered Mike, it was the garden that made him want to leap from the car with his pruning shears, rakes and shovels. Landscape design was his passion, and he could tell that once upon a time, this place had been a garden showcase. Someone had nurtured the roses that struggled to bloom there now.
Someone had given thought to the placement of the lilacs right beneath the windows where the fragrance would drift in on a spring morning.
Now, though, the roses were out of control, tangled with thorny vines. Honeysuckle had taken over the lilacs. The paint on the picket fence was peeling, and parts of it were close to collapse under the weight of the untamed bushes. A few perennials continued to struggle against the weeds, but the weeds were winning. It made him heartsick to see it all gone to ruin.
He'd wanted to buy it himself at first sight six years ago, but the real estate agent said the owner wasn't interested in selling. Apparently the owner wasn't interested in anything having to do with the house, either.
"Daddy," Jessie piped up from beside him. "Why are we stopping here? This place is scary."
Mike glanced over at his six-year-old daughter, who, at the moment, looked like a Victorian painting of a blue-eyed, blond-haired angel. There were no smudges on her cheeks, no tangles in her hair, no rips in her clothes. In fact, she was having a good morning so far. There had been no tantrums over which dress to put on, no battles over the scrambled eggs he'd set in front of her for breakfast because they were out of Cheerios. Days like this were so rare, Mike had learned to cherish them when they came.
Not that he would trade one single second of the time he spent with her, tantrums or not. Jessie was his precious girl, his little survivor. She'd been through way too much in her young life. She'd been born addicted to the drugs her mother hadn't been able to quit, drugs Mike hadn't even realized Linda was hiding from him. When doctors at the hospital had told him his irritable, underweight baby girl was going through withdrawal, he'd been stunned.
He'd spent the next six months after that battling with Linda, trying to get her into rehab, trying to make her see that she was destroying not only her own life and their marriage, but their daughter's life, as well. Unfortunately, nothing he'd said had gotten through to her. The drugs were far more powerful, far more alluring than his love or the needs of their baby girl.
Finally, filled with despair, he'd gone to court, gotten his divorce and full custody of Jessie, and left. Linda's folks knew where to find them, if Linda ever got her act together and wanted to see her child. Until then, though, Linda was out of their lives.
Linda's heartsick parents had agreed that he had no choice. That, at least, had given him some comfort, knowing they believed he'd done what he'd had to do. They visited regularly, but Linda's name was rarely mentioned, especially in front of Jessie. Now that she was old enough to understand, when she asked the inevitable questions about her mother, Mike answered as honestly as he could, but it broke his heart to see the hurt in Jessie's eyes.
Being a single dad would have been hard under any circumstances, but dealing with Jessie's lingering behavior problems was enough to test the patience of a saint. As a baby, she'd screamed her dissatisfaction night and day. Now she was simply unpredictable, sunny one minute and hysterical the next.
Most days Mike was up to the task of dealing with her mood swings, but there were times when it was all he could do not to break down in exhaustion and weep for the damage that had been done to his beautiful little girl.
That was one reason he'd chosen the small town of Irvington on the Chesapeake Bay. There was plenty of work to be had here, but the pace was slower and less
demanding than it would have been in a major city. If he needed to spend extra time with Jessie, he could do so without feeling he was shortchanging his clients. And, because his reputation was excellent, he could pick and choose among those who sought his services, making sure that each of them understood that Jessie would always be his first priority.
"We need to go now!" Jessie commanded. Even at six, she had the imperial presence of a queen commanding her subjects. She lowered her voice and confided, "I think ghosts live here, Daddy."
Mike grinned at her. It wasn't the first time she'd expressed a negative opinion about the rundown place, but the addition of a ghost was something new. "What makes you think that, pumpkin?" he asked.
"Something moved at the window. I saw it." Her lower lip trembled, and panic filled her eyes.
"Nobody lives here," Mike reassured her. "The house is empty."
"Something moved," Jessie said stubbornly, clearly near tears. Whether she'd actually seen something or not, her fear was real. "We need to go!"
Rather than argue, Mike accelerated and continued on to the school. Any logical response he could have made would only have escalated the tension, and the rare serenity would have been shattered.
As soon as they were away from the house, Jessie's shoulders eased and she gave him a tremulous smile. "We're safe now," she said happily.
"You're always safe when I'm around," Mike reminded her.
"I know, Daddy," she said patiently. "But I don't like that place. I don't want to go there again. Not ever. Promise."
"We have to drive by it every day," Mike said.
"But only really, really fast," Jessie insisted. "Okay?"
Mike sighed, knowing that reasoning with his daughter when she was like this was a waste of breath. "Okay."
"Have a good day, pumpkin," he said a few minutes later when he left Jessie at the front door of the school. "I'll be right here when you get out this afternoon."
He'd discovered early on that she needed to be reassured again and again that he would be back, that he wouldn't forget about her. The psychologist he'd spoken to said Jessie's need for constant reassurance was yet another effect of not having her mother in her life, of knowing that Linda had abandoned her. Some days he wondered if he shouldn't have lied and said Linda was dead, if that wouldn't have been less cruel, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to do it. Maybe he'd naively held out hope that someday Linda would straighten herself out and want to be a part of their daughter's life.
"Bye, Daddy." Jessie turned away, then looked back at him, her expression filled with worry. "You won't go back to the bad house, will you? I don't want the ghost to get you."
"No ghost is going to get me," Mike promised, sketching a cross over his heart in the way he always did to reassure her that he meant what he said. "I wear ghost repellent."
Jessie giggled. "You're silly," she told him, though genuine relief flashed in her eyes.
Then she was gone, racing to catch up with a friend. Mike stared after her, wishing it could always be this easy to calm her fears. Some nights there was no consoling her. Some nights she had nightmares she refused to describe, calming only when he held her.
When Jessie was finally out of sight, he turned on his heel and went back to the car, already planning his jam-packed schedule for the few hours till school let out again.
But instead of heading toward the job he had landscaping a newly completed house overlooking the bay, he drove back to the Lindsey place, drawn by something he couldn't quite explain.
Had Jessie actually seen something move? Or was he simply reacting to her too-vivid imagination, caught up in the mystery of the deserted house that had fascinated him from the moment he'd arrived in town? Whichever it was, it wouldn't take more than a few minutes to put his mind at rest and satisfy his curiosity. Maybe then he'd be able to put his mild obsession with the place behind him once and for all.
Melanie was standing in her grandmother's kitchen ineffectively battling cobwebs, when the front gate creaked, sending her already jittery nerves into a full-blown panic attack.
Only a few minutes earlier she'd thought she heard a car stop on the isolated road, but when she'd peeked through the curtain of her upstairs bedroom, she'd seen only a glimpse of sun on metal before hearing the car drive on. The incident, which would have been commonplace enough in Boston, had been oddly disconcerting here.
With her heart pumping and her pulse racing once more, she crept into the living room and edged toward the window she'd thrown open to let in the cool spring breeze.
"What the hell?"
The very male voice just outside had her plastering her back to the wall, even as her heart ricocheted wildly.
"Anybody here?" the man shouted, rattling the doorknob.
This wasn't good, not good at all, Melanie decided. Her cell phone was across the room, just more proof that she wasn't thinking clearly of late. Even with all the recent development she'd noticed as she drove in, the nearest neighbor was a quarter-mile up the road. There were a few boats on the bay this morning and sound did carry near water, but would anyone get here in time even if she shouted for help?
She tried to think what Ashley would do. Her fearless big sister would probably have a firm grip on a lamp by now and be in attack mode by the door. Picturing it, Melanie reached for the closest lamp with its heavy marble base and tested its weight. This sucker could do some real damage, she concluded, suddenly feeling more confident and in control.
"Who's there?" she shouted back in what she hoped was a suitably indignant tone. "You're trespassing."
"So are you."
She was so taken aback by the outrageous accusation that she swung open the door and scowled at the interloper. It was amazing how much braver she felt with that lamp and a little indignation on her side.
"I most certainly am not trespassing," she said again, trying not to let her voice waver at the sight of the hulking man on the threshold.
At least six-two and easily two hundred pounds, he was all muscle and sinew. Even though it was barely April, his skin had already been burnished gold by the sun, and his dark brown hair had fiery highlights in it. His T-shirt stretched tightly over a massive chest, and his faded jeans hugged impressive thighs. An illustration of Paul Bunyon immediately came to mind.
At any other time in her life, she might have been more appreciative of such a gorgeous male specimen, but in recent days anything driven by testosterone was the enemy. That didn't seem to stop her heartbeat from skipping merrily at the sight of him. Given his obviously sour mood, her instinctive response was doubly annoying.
"Cornelia Lindsey is dead," he announced, his blue eyes steady and unrelenting as he challenged her to dispute that.
"I know," Melanie said. "She was my grandmother. She died seven years ago this month."
He nodded slowly. "You've got that much right. You're a Lindsey?"
"Actually I'm a D'Angelo. Melanie D'Angelo. My mother was a Lindsey until she married my father."
"Cornelia Lindsey was Southern through and through, according to the neighbors. You don't sound like you're from around here."
"I'm not. I'm from Boston."
"You have any ID? "
She regarded him with a mix of amusement and defensiveness. "None with my family tree printed on it. Who are you? The local sheriff or something?"
"Just a neighbor. This place has been empty a long time. Someone turns up out of the blue like this, I just want to be sure they belong here. If you are who you say you are, I'm sure you can appreciate that."
It was evident to Melanie that he wasn't going to budge without some sort of proof that she wasn't a stranger setting up housekeeping in an abandoned property. He was right. She ought to be grateful that a neighbor would take such interest in making sure the cottage was secure.
"Stay there," she muttered, then stared at the lamp she still held clutched in her hands. She set it back on its table, then crossed the room to grab her purse and several of the framed snapshots sitting on the old oak sideboard.
When she returned, she handed him her driver's license, then a photo of a grinning girl with freckles and hair bleached almost white by the sun. "That's me at six," she said, then showed him the rest. "My sisters, Maggie, Ashley and Jo with our mom. And this one is of all of us with my grandmother, Cornelia Lindsey, just before she died. Did you know her?"
"No," he said, taking the photo and studying it intently.
To her surprise, he barely spared a glance for her sisters, all of them long-legged beauties. Instead, his gaze seemed to be focused on something else in the picture.
"I knew it," he mumbled, then scowled at her. "You all should be ashamed of yourselves."
She flinched at the outrage in his tone. "I beg your pardon!"
"The garden," he said impatiently. "You've let it go to ruin."
Melanie sighed. She could hardly deny it was a disgrace. She'd all but had to chop her way through it to get inside. She was pretty sure her car was likely to be swallowed up by aggressive vines if she didn't move it on a regular basis.
"I noticed," she conceded mildly.