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There were those who could not be allowed to mingle with the innocent. Monsters, some would call them. Evil, the leaders of the Order of Cahir proclaimed. Or so she'd heard in her time in this dark, dank place.
Roxanna sat on a narrow cot, her knees drawn up, her chin down in an instinctively protective manner. She was hungry. The old man fed her now and then, biscuits and cookies and fried chicken, but she wasn't hungry for food. In the past year she'd seduced a dozen men and taken their souls, strengthening herself, building an unimaginable power. But now she was hungry again. She was weaker than she'd been when they brought her here, which was likely just as they had planned. Even if she hadn't been chained to the cot, she wouldn't have been able to make it very far if she tried to run.
She'd be easier to kill now.
Roxanna lifted her head and looked at the redheaded one. At the moment they were alone, just one weakened sorceress and one guard. Even though he had taken part in her torture as they tried to discover if she was working alone or with a coven, there was a part of him that desired her. Another part was afraid of her and what she could do. If she could call him to her, if she could take his soul, she'd be strong enough to escape. This time she wouldn't be so easily found.
"I could use some water," she whispered.
"Later…" the redhead began.
He hesitated, scowled, then poured water from a jug into a paper cup and carried it to her. If their hands touched, if she could use all she had learned on him…
Their hands did touch; he did react, with a gasp and a widening of his eyes. She stared into those eyes and stroked with one finger. A moment more and he'd be hers.
"Kill her," the old man said. She hadn't heard him come down the stairs but he was there, behind the redhead. "She's weakened enough now that it won't be difficult." The man before Roxanna didn't immediately do as he was told; he was close to being hers. "Kill her now, or I kill you."
At those words, the redhead reacted quickly. Water splashed over Roxanna's dress, the same stained dress she'd been wearing for almost a month. He drew a knife from a leather sheath at his waist, and without hesitation he drove the blade into her chest. Once, and again, and then again.
Roxanna fell back on the cot, her chains rattling. She'd known she'd die a violent death, had dreamed of it, tried to heed the warnings. And yet now she was dead. With her last ragged breath, she decided that no matter what she'd done, no matter what they said, she was not a monster.
"I don't need a vacation," Miranda insisted stubbornly.
"You do," three voices responded in concert.
She pursed her lips, but arguing with this bunch was a waste of time. Autumn and her husband of two years, Jared Sidwell, stood side by side and glared at her over sweet iced tea. Cheryl Talbot smiled and nodded.
FBI Agent Roger Talbot flipped a burger on the grill and belatedly he agreed with the other three. "This last job was a doozy. It drained me, and I didn't have to do what you do. You're pale and you've lost weight and there are dark circles under your eyes. Let's be honest here. You look like crap."
"Roger!" Cheryl chastised. "There's no need to be so…so…"
"Honest?" he said, lifting his head to look at his wife with undeniable love.
Miranda had met Roger Talbot three years ago in the line of work she'd taken up a year after the accident that had killed her sister and in return given her what some called a "gift." Some gift. No one wanted an interior decorator who saw ghosts in the rooms they wished to adorn. No one wanted to walk into a room and find the woman they had hired to bring together paintings and curtains and upholstery fabrics talking to Grandma— who'd been dead seven years. Miranda knew that to be true. She'd been there. She'd tried so hard to live a normal life—but the spirits she'd begun to see after the accident continued to haunt her. The only way she could find any peace was to help them.
When she'd first heard from a murder victim, she'd tried to ignore the bothersome specter. The man—the ghost of a man—had been annoyingly persistent and would not leave Miranda alone. After a few days she'd given up and gone to the police. Naturally they'd dismissed her as a nut and sent her on her way, but the ghost did not take the hint and get lost. Instead, the spirit of the murder victim had stuck to her like glue, an unrelenting stalker no one could see, a dead man insisting on a justice only Miranda could deliver.
The only way she could get rid of him was to hand him off to someone else. The man wanted his murderer caught and punished—naturally. It had taken a while, but eventually Miranda had found someone who would listen to her. That someone had been FBI Agent Roger Talbot. They'd been working together—more or less under the table, when it came to official business—for years. For the first couple of years she'd been able to keep her ability secret, but eventually word had gotten out. There were plenty of people who thought she was a nut, or worse, a con artist, but there were also more than enough people out there who wanted her services.
Jessica had been right. Less than five years after that fateful night Miranda had clients lined up out the door. She was very much in demand. In some circles she might even be called famous. Miranda Lynch, who'd discovered an uncanny ability to talk to ghosts after the horrific car accident that had taken the life of her sister, was a hot commodity.
These days when she felt like someone was watching her, she was probably right.
Roger and Cheryl were several years older than Miranda, but they had become like family to her. Roger was a big brother, protective and sometimes teasing, and Cheryl had become almost a surrogate mother, even though she was only ten years older than Miranda. Cheryl cooked healthy meals; she introduced her young friend to shoes that were comfortable and cute, insisting both qualities were essential; she made sure Miranda went to the doctor when she was sick. Their three kids felt like family, as well, especially fifteen-year-old Jackson, who looked so much like Roger he might as well be a younger, thinner clone. They were the center of Miranda's personal life, pretty much the only personal life she had. The Lynch love curse seemed to be fully in effect, since every unattached man Miranda met was either repulsed by her ability or else wanted to make a profit from it.
Autumn and Jared had met the Talbots through Miranda, and in the past year or so there had been occasional cookouts and birthday parties like this one. Jared and Roger weren't exactly close friends—they didn't have much in common, since Roger was in law enforcement and Jared was in computers, and Roger liked to hunt and fish and Jared's idea of fun involved computer games or paint-ball fights—but Autumn adored Cheryl as much as Miranda did. These four people had become the only family Miranda had left and at this rate they were the only family she would ever have. The last attempt at having a significant other in her life had ended so badly she'd sworn off men. She was twenty-six years old and a determined old maid who devoted more of her life to the dead than she did to the living.
Not exactly the life she'd planned for herself.
She really should listen to these people when they told her she needed time off, but she had clients waiting, meetings to make and obligations to fill. Sure, beyond law-enforcement consultations most of her clients just wanted to know that their loved ones still lived on, somehow and somewhere, or else they wanted to know where the will or the family jewelry had been hidden.
"I have a cabin in Tennessee," Roger said.
"I know." He'd been trying to get her to take advantage of the place for the past two years, but she was usually too busy to take an entire weekend off, much less go on a real vacation. There was always so much to do! People died every day. Most of them traveled directly to their place in the afterlife, but some of them reached out for her after they should've passed on.
"I don't get to use it nearly often enough," he continued, studying the burgers, instead of her. "Cheryl doesn't like the cabin much."
"I like the outlet malls, which are only forty-five minutes or so away," Cheryl responded with a wide smile. "I don't like the single bathroom that's the size of the hall closet, and I hate that my cell phone doesn't get a signal there. It's medieval to be so out of touch. It doesn't help that the man who owns the only other house on the mountain glares daggers at us every time we cross paths. I swear that psycho wants the damn mountain all to himself. I don't know what he's doing up there that he can't stand the idea of neighbors, but there must be some kind of nefarious dealings going on. The man has to be hiding something."
Miranda looked at Cheryl, hoping for support from that quarter. "There's a psycho on the mountain and your husband wants to send me there for a vacation?"
"A psycho and outlet malls," Cheryl said with a wide grin. "Sounds like a fair enough deal to me."
"You don't like it," Miranda argued.
Cheryl shrugged. "Not all that much, but it is nice and quiet there, and Roger's right. You look like you could use a little nice and quiet. A couple of weeks—"
"A couple of weeks?" Miranda interrupted shrilly. "I was thinking of maybe a long weekend."
"So you were thinking of taking a few days off?" Autumn asked, a hint of hope in her gentle voice.
"I said maybe." Did she look that bad? Could everyone around her see that the work of talking to ghosts was draining her, robbing her of sleep, making her feel much too old for her twenty-six years?
That was certainly possible. It was as though she didn't only understand the emotions of the spirits she talked to, she experienced them. She didn't only hear and see how they died, she felt their pain. She was tired all the time, and lately if she got four hours of sleep it was a good night. It wasn't all that unusual that those closest to her might see the effects of the strain.
"Maybe is a start," Roger said. He took the burgers off the grill and put them on a platter. "We should've done steaks," he said beneath his breath.
Thank goodness, a change of topic. "It's my birthday and I wanted your burgers," Miranda said.
"And chocolate cake!" Jackson called, walking out of the kitchen door and into the backyard bearing a huge birthday cake complete with fudge icing and decorative yellow roses.
"What more could a girl ask for?" Miranda said, her eyes flitting from Autumn and Jared to Roger and Cheryl. Two couples, each so different, each so close— each a part of something intimate and special that Miranda had given up on ever knowing. She finally pinned her eyes on Roger and sighed. "Fine. A long weekend will be enough, though."
"Two weeks would be better," he countered. "Fresh air, complete quiet, outlet malls…"
"A psycho," Miranda added.
"Korbinian's not a psycho," Roger argued with a sharp and slightly censuring glance to his wife. "He's just odd as hell, and he's pissed because I won't sell him the cabin. You leave him alone, and he won't bother you. I'll run you up on Saturday."
"Can I go?" Jackson asked, his voice bright and his eyes lighting on Miranda briefly. Fifteen-year-olds were not particularly good at hiding their emotions, especially where women were concerned. Roger's son had had a crush on Miranda for the past several months.
A living being liked her for herself, and he was really cute. Too bad he was a starry-eyed kid.
"We're not going to stay long," Roger warned his eldest son.
"That's okay," Jackson responded.
Roger nodded. "Sure, you can ride with us."
"What about you, Cheryl?" Miranda asked.
"No thanks," she answered quickly. "I'll leave it to the Talbot men to see you there. The girls have dance class on Saturday, and besides, I suspect we won't be in Tennessee long enough to make a visit to Pigeon Forge and the outlet malls." She sighed in feigned distress. "Another time. Now, let's eat!"
With the window to his four-wheel drive truck rolled down to let in the cool mountain air, Bren heard the chatter of change on his mountain. Birds flew; critters scrambled. Either some tourist had taken a wrong turn and was horribly lost, or Talbot was at his cabin. Damned, stubborn man. Sure enough, there was a familiar car parked in the drive of the small, red-roofed cabin that marred the side of Bren's mountain. He drove by slowly, and as he did the front door opened to frame the big man who owned the place—and refused to sell. Bren's last offer had been ridiculously high, and still Talbot had turned him down without even taking time to consider selling.
Bren braked a bit when he caught sight of a smallish woman standing behind Talbot. That was not Mrs. Talbot, who was a tall, thin brunette. This woman was a short, shapely blonde. Was she a mistress? A new wife? Hell, a cabin this isolated would be the perfect place to carry on an affair. No wonder Talbot wouldn't sell!
Spotting the truck, Talbot stepped onto the porch and waved, almost as if he wanted Bren to stop. Bren kept his eyes on the curving road ahead as he drove up the mountain road. No way would Talbot be able to drive all the way to the house at the top of the mountain, not without four-wheel drive—not that he'd ever been all that social.
It was no mistake that getting to the Korbinian house was such an effort. Bren didn't want visitors; he didn't like surprises.
He glanced in the rearview mirror just in time to see the blonde woman step onto the porch. She had long, straight hair that was as pale as Bren's was dark, and she was smallish without being frail-looking. She had a womanly shape he could appreciate even from this distance. Nice. He couldn't see her face well, and still he felt something unexpected. A pulling, almost. A draw that made him consider turning around and driving back down the hill just to see her better. He fought the urge and kept going, slowly.