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Maggie didn't have to check her watch to know what time it was. She'd felt every minute ticking away from the moment she'd crawled into the sleeping bag and settled in for the night.
Staring into the darkness, she waited. Not for sleep.
She didn't know what form it would arrive in. The shattering of glass. A beam of light piercing the dark. A floorboard creaking from the weight of a foot that shouldn't be there.
So she waited. For one of them. For all of them. For the trouble she knew deep in her bones would be coming eventually. It was the entire reason she was here, on the living-room floor of this decrepit old house, when she could be in an actual bed in more comfortable surroundings. To catch the vandal responsible for the damage the house had suffered the past two weeks.
The silence echoed around her. The wind knocked at the windows, rattling the glass or whistling through holes in the tape holding the cardboard in place over the broken ones.
Another minute ticked by. Then another.
The moments that passed without incident provided no relief. Her tension grew the longer she waited, her certainty rising.
It was possible that her presence had scared off whoever was responsible for the damage. The broken windows. The cut electrical line. Anyone who saw her truck parked out front would know she was here right now, waiting for them, ready to catch them. Could driving them away really be that simple?
She'd like to think so. But she didn't. The town's obsession with the house and what had happened here was even creepier than the event itself. She'd endured too many comments, too many pointed glances, over the past few weeks to think they'd be so easily dissuaded. They wanted her to give up, they wanted her out of the house. If anything, they might like the idea of acting when she was here, causing havoc under her very nose.
Not tonight. Not on my watch.
Maggie clenched her fists tightly and listened even closer, determined not to miss the telltale noise when it came.
She heard nothing. Only the whistle of the wind and the empty, endless silence echoing around her.
That didn't mean there wasn't someone out there. But if there was, the person was managing to move with the utmost stealth, not making a single revealing sound.
Like a killer had once done, stalking the halls in the middle of the night to claim two victims.
And like them, she wouldn't even know anybody was here until it was too late.
A burst of emotion made her lurch upright, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest. She threw the top of the sleeping bag aside and climbed to her feet, eyes scanning every inch of the darkness, unable to sit still any longer as the feeling hammered through her veins.
She wanted to believe it was annoyance. It felt too much like fear.
"Damn it," she muttered, quickly sucking in a breath. She was letting the townspeople's comments get to her, and that was the last thing she could do. Someone had to be sane in this town.
The Murder House. Nobody wants it to stay standing. Ought to just tear it down.
"The hell I will," Maggie grumbled.
Her breathing continued to come in rapid, shallow gasps. Trying to calm her racing heart, she moved to the front window and peered out.
Not that she could see much. It was a cloudy September night, with the moon barely making an appearance. There was no house directly opposite, though there was a streetlamp, one which should be illuminating both this stretch of road and the house. When she first arrived in town, she'd discovered the bulb had been broken, the only one on the street that was. Despite her best efforts to have the town replace it, nothing had been done. As much as it irritated her, she suspected they were right not to waste their time. She would bet anything the light had been broken deliberately, much like the front porch light she'd replaced herself last week had been busted. Twice.
Nobody in Fremont, Pennsylvania, wanted to look at the Murder House, any more than they wanted to see it restored.
Well, that's just too bad, she thought.
She was about to move away from the window when something grabbed her attention out of the corner of her vision. Something barely visible. Something that most definitely should not be there.
She froze, her gaze pinned in the darkness across the street. Her tension returned in a burst as she tried to absorb the sudden certainty of what she'd seen.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Someone was out there.
As soon as she thought it, she felt a flicker of doubt, as the figure she thought she'd seen disappeared from view. It may have been the shifting light, the clouds moving to cover the moon and blocking its glow. She narrowed her gaze and peered closer into the darkness on the other side of the street, trying to convince herself it hadn't simply been a trick of the light.
Gradually, she thought she spotted the faint silhouette. The figure was so hazy and indistinct it barely seemed to be there. Almost like a—
A chill rolled slowly down her spine, like a cold finger being dragged along her bare skin.
Almost like a ghost.
She immediately shook off the idea, annoyed by the thought. She was letting the townspeople's ghoulish obsession with the house get to her.
The house might have many problems. No one ever claimed being haunted was one of them.
No, the person out there was real. Which raised the question of why someone would be standing outside in the middle of the night, staring at the house.
Several explanations came to mind, none of them good. Was he planning something, the trouble she'd been expecting all night? Or did he know she was watching, and this was some new intimidation tactic to drive her out of here and convince her to sell so they could tear down the house, the way they wanted to?
Her annoyance exploded into full-blown anger, shock waves of fury surging from the pit of her belly to every inch of her body. She'd had enough. Whatever they were planning, she wasn't going to wait for them to start to put an end to it.
Before she could even think about it, she grabbed the wooden baseball bat she'd found abandoned in one of the upstairs rooms and threw the door open.
She'd barely set one foot outside when she yelled out. "Hey!"
She almost expected her sudden appearance to be enough to scare him off, sending him running off into the night. Instead, the person didn't move at all as she pounded down the steps and stalked across the lawn toward the street. As she came closer, she spotted the outline of a vehicle behind him. A pickup truck. The figure was standing in front of the driver's side door.
She was halfway to him before it hit her just how foolish she was being. She might have a baseball bat, but he could have a gun for all she knew. He might not even be alone. It could be an ambush.
She felt a flicker of relief when he didn't reach for a weapon. He didn't react at all, simply watching her approach, as if she wasn't waving a bat and yelling at him.
And then they were mere feet apart. She had to force herself to slow to avoid slamming right into him, skidding to a halt far less gracefully than she would have liked. He was at least a half foot taller than she was, and she had to crane her head to look into his face. Or at least where she assumed his face must be. It was so dark she couldn't make out his features. She only knew he was big, his silhouette that of a large, muscular man.
She wasn't exactly tiny, but she also knew enough to be wary of a man—a stranger—his size. She braced her hands on the bat, ready to swing at the slightest indication of an attack.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
He took his time answering. From the tilt of his head, he was staring down at her in the dark. She wondered if he could make out her features any more clearly than she could his. In case he could, she hardened her expression, not about to let him think she was the least bit scared or intimidated. She tried to ignore the way her heart was jackhammering in her chest.
"Nothing," he said, his voice low and deep and annoyingly unconcerned. "Is that a crime?"
"It is if that nothing turns into something. Like breaking a few windows?"
Again he said nothing for a long moment. "I'm guessing you've had some trouble around here."
"And I bet you don't know anything about that."
"Only what you just told me."
"Then what are you doing here?"
After a beat, this time he did reach into his jacket. She automatically tightened her grip on the bat, ready to strike if she saw even a hint of a weapon. Would she even be able to in the dark? Or would she only see when it was too late?
It was the sound—paper crinkling—that told her what he was pulling out rather than the sight of it in his hand. "I came about this ad."
She didn't have to ask what ad he meant. There was only one he could mean, especially given the size of the paper she could barely make out. It was the flyer she'd placed around town, advertising for someone to help her work on the house. When she hadn't received any responses, she'd gone farther out, posting it at the gas stations on the roads into town and the truck stop even farther. It hadn't helped. Despite the lack of jobs in the area that should have left her with plenty of takers, she'd had none. The house's reputation was too well-known. As she'd learned from her first day in town, no one wanted this house restored but her.
She gaped at him in disbelief. "You came here in the middle of the night to apply for a job?"
"I came here in the middle of the night because that's when I got into town," he said as though it were the most logical thing in the world. "It didn't seem worth trying to get a motel room for what's left of the night, so I figured I'd camp out in the truck until morning. It's not the first time."
It was the kind of thing some people might have judged him for, the idea that he'd slept in his truck in the past. Some might wonder if he were homeless. Maggie had worked in the restoration business too long, worked with too many guys who were just passing through, to find it unusual.
"Where'd you get the flyer?"
"The truck stop," he said. "I wasn't planning on stopping, but I could use the work and it seemed like as good an opportunity as any. Thought I might as well check it out."
On the surface, his words made sense. Given the circumstances, not to mention everything she'd put up with the past several weeks, she couldn't entirely brush away her wariness. "What exactly is your background? Have you worked construction before?"
"Yep. Done a little bit of everything. Whatever paid the bills."
The words were plain-spoken, his tone even. If he was a liar, he was a good one. She just couldn't figure out why he would be lying, why he would be there with that flyer at this time of night for any reason but the one he'd stated.
She wished again that she could see his face. Just a glimpse. The moon offered no help, remaining stubbornly hidden behind the clouds. He was little more than a dark shadow looming over her.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"John," he said. "John…Samuels."
He'd answered slowly again, taking his time before provid ing his first name. If she hadn't been listening closely, she might have missed the slight beat before he offered his last, as well.
That slight hesitation, so brief she might have imagined it, made her hold on to the last bit of wariness she'd been about to relinquish. Why the pause? Because that wasn't really his name? Or was she simply imagining what she thought she'd heard, her instincts so on edge because of everything that had happened lately she was reading things that weren't there?
Whatever the case, she wasn't exactly in the right frame of mind to be interviewing a job applicant. It was two in the morning and she was standing in the dark in nothing but a T-shirt and sweatpants, talking to a complete stranger whose face she couldn't even see.
The man might be trouble, but not the immediate kind. She could wait to deal with him in the morning.
"Well, John Samuels," she said. "As you can imagine I wasn't expecting any job applicants right now. We can talk about it
in the morning. That is, if I haven't scared you off the idea of working for me."
"I don't scare that easily."
That was reassuring. Given the number of people who'd probably try to warn him off if he took the job, it was a good quality to have.
"Okay, then," she said. "I guess I'll see you in the morning."
There was a flash of motion that might have been him nodding. "Sounds good."
Maggie slowly backed away, not quite ready to let down her guard. Only when she was on the other side of the street did she finally turn. She marched back to the house, glancing over her shoulder at him every few steps. He never moved her entire way there. She could feel his eyes on her, hot and unrelenting.
Finally reaching the house, she hurried up the steps and rushed inside. She closed the door behind herself and locked it, then sagged against it. She drew in a breath, once again trying to slow her suddenly racing heart.
That had certainly been odd.
Considering the circumstances, she wouldn't blame the man if he was nowhere to be found when morning came. Despite his words, she had to believe anyone would have second thoughts about working for someone who introduced herself by coming at him with a baseball bat. A reluctant chuckle worked its way from her lungs. And after all the trouble he'd gone to to find the place at this time of night—
The laugh died in her throat. Only then did it occur to her that the address hadn't been listed on the flyer. At this time of night, nothing would have been open in town, so no one would have been around to give him directions.
So how had he known how to find the house?
The thought drove her back to the window.