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The man appeared in her peripheral vision, just like all the others who had come before. A hazy shape, flickering into mist before solidifying somewhat. Her black cat, Leroy, hissed his usual back-arched warning. Anabel Lee clenched her teeth and ignored the apparition, willing the ghost's ethereal form to dissipate so she wouldn't have to look at him.
Or worse, hear him try to speak to her. Mentally, she cringed. The voices were what bothered her the most. Whispers and muffled laughter. Wisps of conversation drifting on the breeze.
And pleas for help. Almost always cries for help. She had come to realize ghosts never appeared unless they wanted something. For whatever reason, they all seemed to think she could give it to them. Instead she steeled herself and sent them away.
This wasn't the first time one had appeared inside her home either. They were prone to popping up in all kinds of places, everywhere. Some wailed; some screamed. Others simply glared at her with burning eyes, as if she could read whatever was left of their mind. And most askedbegged, actually. Until she ordered them gone. Doing so cut off the voices.
Since there seemed to be a method to her madness, she simply closed her eyes. "Go away," she ordered, speaking slowly and loud. "I don't want you here."
Having spoken, she counted silently to ten, quite confident that when she opened her eyes again the apparition would be gone. They always went, once she ordered them gone.
Only he wasn't. Instead it seemed he'd moved closer. Her eyes widened. Dimly, she registered he wasor had beena beautiful man. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a narrow waist and capable, long-fingered hands. He wore his dark hair unfashionably long, which she also appreciated, since she too made a practice of skirting the edge of current style. This hair did not go with his camouflaged military fatigues and combat boots.
Leroy hissed again, then gave an indignant yowl and stalked away, his yellow cat's eyes flashing.
"What do you want?" she asked rudely, pretty sure she already knew the answer. And she got ready to strain to hear the whisper or brace herself for the shriek, since ghosts apparently couldn't speak in a normal tone.
"I need your help," he said, his deep voice strong and edged with velvet. Such a sexy voice, she felt the impact all the way to her toes.
Stunned, she stared at him. "I didn't expect that."
One corner of his well-shaped mouth quirked. Damned if she didn't feel a little electric tingle deep inside.
"What, that I'd need your assistance?"
"No, not that." She waved him away. "All the ghosts want some kind of help. But you're different. You can talk. Not whisper, but speak. That's unusual."
"Is it?" Appearing unconcerned, he shrugged. To her consternation, he appeared to be solidifying the longer she looked at him. Handsome, sexy and getting more real by the second. Maybe she finally had lost her mind.
"I've been sent back here for a reason," he continued. "And your energy is strong. It directed me to you."
This was new. Of course, she'd never gotten this far with a specter before. This ghost was different. For one thing, he was massive. And ruggedly handsome. His self-confidence was even sexy, making her feel something she hadn't since David's death. Things she definitely shouldn't be feeling.
Resolutely, Anabel ignored him. Eventually, he'd disappear. He had to. He had no reason to hang around haunting her. She'd brought her vegetables in from her garden for dinner. She planned to roast summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes and onions. Not only did she love the fresh taste, but the bright colors made eating feel like artwork. This, along with some quinoa, had become one of her favorite meals ever since she'd decided to give vegetarianism a try.
Which had given the townspeople of Leaning Tree even more to talk about. After all, who'd ever heard of a shape-shifter who didn't eat meat?
Anabel didn't care. At least that was what she told herselfever since David had been killed and she'd lost her mind, she'd long ago stopped caring about what other people thought of her.
"Earth to Anabel." The ghost snapped his fingers. At her. And she could actually hear them. "Shutting me out won't make me go away."
Ignoring him should have worked. Sometimes she'd found she could actually will them away, as if she had magical power over ghosts or something. Closing her eyes, she wished him gone.
"Hello? I know you can hear me. This is really important. Otherwise I wouldn't have come."
Him again. Still here. Worse, he actually knew her name. None of the other ghosts had called her anything but lady, or ma'am, or even Ms.
"Fine." Sighing, she crossed her arms and faced him. "I'm listening. Go ahead and tell me what you want."
She expected him to immediately start listing his demands. If they followed along with the other spirits who'd visited her, they'd be along the lines of find so-and-so, my wife, my mother, my father, and tell them I love them and that I'm at peace. Which she absolutely refused to do. Mostly since she knew no one would believe her. She already had a reputation as a nut job anyway.
So she waited for him to begin his laundry list of demands before she could shoot him down.
Instead he cocked his head and studied her. Anabel realized she'd never seen eyes that hazel, in either a live man or a ghost. Especially a ghost.
"You miss him, don't you?" he asked, his deep voice kind. "Your husband, that is."
She started, only the slightest twitch, but she thought he noticed it anyway. "If you're here to tell me he's all right, that he's not in pain and that he's happy, don't."
Even though she tried to keep the misery out of her tone, she knew she'd failed. "After all," she continued, "if he really wanted me to know, he'd have told me himself."
"I'm sure he couldn't." Again the flash of a smile, far too radiant for an apparition. "It seems to be some kind of rule or something, prohibiting us from appearing to those who loved us the most."
Which made sense. Though it didn't lessen the hurt. "I see ghosts. Not everyone can do that. I would appreciate just a short visit, or even a message " She broke off, squinting at him and not bothering to hide her suspicion. "And don't take that as a good excuse to hand me some syrupy fake message. I'll see right through you. David and I had our own form of code. He'd definitely use it to prove to me that any communication actually was from him."
As she wound down, she noticed how his mouth quirked upward in amusement. He had a ruggedness and vital power she found very attractive. Which felt not only weirdhe was a ghost, after allbut entirely unwelcome.
"I don't have a message from anyone," he said, not sounding the slightest bit regretful. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Irritated, embarrassed and more than a little bit flustered, she waved his words away. "Just tell me what you want so I can get on with the rest of my day."
"What I want " His expression stilled and grew serious. "I need you to help find my sister. Somehow she managed to reach out to me. She's in danger."
This was a new one. "But you're a ghost. You should be able to find her yourself."
"I have tried." He sounded frustrated. "And all I can tell is she's in some dark, windowless place. Underground, maybe. No matter how long I search, her exact location is blocked. She's still alive, though her light is beginning to fade. She is running out of time. The man who has her will kill her soon."
Her heart skipped a beat. "The man who has her? Are you talking about a serial killer? Or just some sort of psycho?"
"I don't know." His lips thinned as his expression turned inward. "He's probably killed more than once, because when I'm around my sister, I can also feel the whispers of other lost souls."
A shiver snaked up her spine. This just kept getting stranger. Not only did a ghost too good-looking to be real show up, but now he was spouting stuff about serial killers? She really, really needed him to go away.
Crossing her arms, she studied him. His massive shoulders filled out army camouflage. Her stomach swooped. The combat uniform had been exactly what David was wearing when he was killed. Coincidence? She thought not.
Steeling herself, she took a deep breath. "I have to ask. Why me? I don't even know you. Did someone else, some other ghost, send you to me?"
"No." His quick answer crushed all her hopes. "Your energy drew me to you. I need someone with your power. Not only that, but you live in the same town as I used to. My sister still lives here." He frowned. "Don't you ever wonder why you can hear the voices of the dead?"
"Not really. Mostly I only hear whispers."
"You can hear me. And the energy you send out directs the spirits to you."
Pain stabbed her. "Funny thing, that. You're right. I do attract a lot of departed spirits. All of them want something from me. But the one voice I most want to hear has never come to me."
"Your husband, of course " Gaze intense, he frowned. "Maybe I can help with that."
"I received word David was killed in Afghanistan eighteen months ago. I just knew he'd come to me, at least to say goodbye. But he never did."
His frown deepened. "I cannot appear physically to my sister, even though she's in danger."
"That's nonsense." The words burst from her, practically vibrating with hurt. "I hear all the time of people seeing the shade of someone close to them. I don't understand why " Tears pricking at the backs of her eyes, she couldn't finish the sentence.
He dipped his chin, as if he understood. "All I can say is I'm sorry."
"So am I." Though for once, she'd been able to say David's name without her voice cracking. "It's been really tough. David and I were mates. That's why I just don't understand."
"Mates. Interesting. During my time on earth, I never had the privilege of meeting my mate."
"Not everyone does. I got lucky. And I don't think it's too much to ask that he contact me. Or, if there's a rule to prevent that, he could reach out to someone else and send a message to me." It dawned on her that was what all the other spirits she'd sent away had been trying to do and for all she knew, David might have had the same luck if he'd made the attempt.
"Sometimes, when a soul has suffered a traumatic injury, he is taken away and given positive, healing energy," the handsome ghost continued. "Time passes differently there. Your David may not even be aware eighteen months has passed since his death. For him, it may feel merely like minutes."
His words felt like a soothing salve poured on a festering wound. They helped, even if she didn't really understand the logic behind what he'd said. The connection between mates should have transcended both space and time.
This ghost simply didn't understand. She felt bad for him; she really did. And she felt worse for his poor sister. Being held prisoner in a dark place sounded like her worst nightmare come to life. Add in serial killer, and it went way beyond the realm of terrifying. So much so that she knew she didn't want to have anything to do with it.
Now to convince him of that. She swallowed hard, lifted her chin and boldly met his gaze.
"Your eyes are the color of burnished copper," he said.
Nonplussed, she completely lost her train of thought. "Uh. Thanks. I guess."
The quick flash of a devastating smile further derailed her. "You're welcome. And I should thank you, for agreeing to help."
That snapped her out of whatever twilight land she'd gone to. "That's just it. I haven't agreed to anything. Look, I understand that I can hear you. But I'm just one person, a widow who, quite frankly, isn't well regarded in this town. Serial killers scare the heck out of me too. So what do you think I can do to find your sister?"
"More than I can," he shot back, his smile vanishing. "You have a physical presence. You can talk to people and be heard. You can ignite a fire under law enforcement. And you are able to research and hunt down the clues that occasionally flash into my consciousness. Once you and I figure out who this man is, we can have him arrested."
Still, she considered. Lately, she'd made a career out of avoiding just about everyone in town. For all she knew, they'd laugh at her if she started asking questions about a missing girl.
"How did you die?" she asked, feeling as if she needed to know.
"In Afghanistan," he said, his voice curt. Clearly, he didn't like discussing his death. "Like your husband and a lot of others. For me, it was a suicide bomber at a roadside checkpoint."
A chill snaked over her. This ghost and David had both lost their lives in a similar fashion. It couldn't be a coincidence, even if she wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"I'll find your husband," he offered. "And try to bring him to you. If I can't, I'll bring back to you exactly what he'd like you to know. But time is of the essence. The longer Denamy sisteris in that place, the weaker she becomes."
Again the image. A poor woman, curled up on the cold concrete floor, hoping to ward off blowsor worse. That could be any woman, even Anabel. She had to try to save her. Just like that, she decided.
"If I help you find your sister," she said, pretending she still didn't know, "you say you'll make sure David comes to me."
"Yes." A muscle worked in his jaw. "But not just find. Save my sister. And not if, but when!''
"Fine." She cleared her throat. "I promise you, when I commit to something, I go all out. I will devote every spare second I havewhen I'm not working, that is." These days, unlike the job she'd had as an executive secretary when she was married to David, she worked as a cook in the back of the diner, which suited her perfectly. It was easier spending her time interacting with food rather than people.
He continued watching her, his hazel eyes both intelligent and insolent. "I'll need your word."
Of course he did. She decided not to tell him that her word wasn't worth anything around this town. "Then I give you my word. I will do whatever I'm permitted to do."
Gliding closer, in that disconcerting way of all ghosts, he held out his hand. It looked remarkably solid. Even though she knew it wasn't. For a second, she pictured how such sensual fingers would feel on her skin.
Seriously. She gave herself a mental shake. What on earth had gotten into her?
"Tyler Rogers," he said, the velvet murmur of his voice filling her with longing.
"You do know I won't be able to shake that," she said, hoping he didn't notice how breathless she sounded.
For half a second, he appeared abashed. And then he grinned, an irresistible, devastating grin that made her knees go weak and her entire body tingle. "You're right," he said, lowering his hand.
"I'll do some checking," they both said at the same time. Anabel found herself smiling, something she didn't do very often. It felt good. And wrong. Again she wondered if she'd finally lost what was left of her mind.
"I'll make sure no other ghosts bother you," he told her, apparently not noticing her inner struggle.
As distractions went, his statement was pretty good. Intrigued, she tilted her head. "How will you do that?"
"Simple. I'll ask my spirit guide to put a circle of protection around you."
"What?" she started to ask. But he was gone. Just like a candle flame snuffed out by a gust of wind.
Alone again, she sighed. Maybe she'd dreamed all this up. It was entirely possible the eighteen months of celibacy since David's death had made her come completely unhinged.
Except for one thing. Why would she even think about serial killers and sisters in need of rescue?