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Fourteen months earlier
The moment Jillian stepped into the tower room, she knew she wasn't alone. It wasn't just the steady dip in the temperature as she'd climbed the circular iron staircase. Although that was a big clue. According to the research she'd done, haunted houses were known for those cold spots.
Another big clue was she suddenly had goose bumps and the hairs on the back of her neck were snapping to attention like soldiers at the first sound of reveille.
Jillian peered into the gloom. The grime on the windows that circled the outer wall cut down on the amount of sunlight. But there was definitely someone else here.
The only answer was the muted sound of the Atlantic sweeping into the rocks below.
"I'm not a trespasser," she said. "The real estate agent gave me the key."
"She gave it to me because I'm one of the new owners. My sisters and I put in a purchase offer and it was accepted today."
The air shimmered. She was certain of it. Encouraged, she took another tentative step.
Sensing the presence of an incorporeal being was a first for Jillian. And it kicked up her heartbeat considerably. A ghost-buster she wasn't. Or at least she never had been.
What she had been was an avid reader of the Nancy Drew mysteries when she was a child. She'd always admired Nancy's fearlessness and her ability to take on challenges. At one point in her life, she'd wanted to be Nancy Drew. Right now, she'd settle for a little of the teenage sleuth's luck.
Because there was a ghost in Haworth House, and Jil-lian was sure she was here in the tower. Hattie Haworth was her name. Belle Island's top real estate agent Vivian Thorley had told her the story when she'd given her a tour of the property and Jillian had asked why the door to the tower levels was boarded up.
Vivian's tone had been prim and proper. "I'm bound by full disclosure to let you know that the second owners of Haworth House believed that the place was haunted."
The original owner, Hattie, was a successful silent-film star who'd been dropped by her studio and her husband when she'd failed to make the transition to talkies. According to Vivian, Hattie had sought refuge at Belle Island and had lived in seclusion at Haworth House before she'd passed away.
"And ever since the tower room was boarded up, there haven't been any complaints," Vivian had assured her. And she'd quickly steered Jillian back into the sunny open courtyard at the center of the old stone mansion—where the view of the Atlantic could work its magic.
Drawing in a deep breath, Jillian moved a little farther into the tower room. When the agent had told her the story, she'd felt an instant empathy for the silent-film star. "I think it's awful that they've kept you boarded up all of these years."
Of course, she hadn't mentioned the ghost in her phone calls to her sisters. Why muddy the waters? The important thing had been to sell them on the idea that Haworth House was the perfect spot for their business venture. And she had.
Nerves danced in her stomach as she glanced around the room again. She'd taken risks before, but never one this big, and never one that had involved anyone but herself.
Still, she'd known from the first instant she'd seen the stone tower rising into the sky that this was the perfect place for them.
Now, all she had to do was convince Hattie Haworth. Taking a deep breath, she said, "I wanted to give you a little heads-up. My sisters and I plan on turning Haworth into a luxury hotel."
"We've had this dream of going into business with one another since we were in our teens. In fact we took a vow to do just that." And turning Haworth House into a hotel would allow the Brightman sisters to fulfill that vow.
Naomi had been a senior in high school, applying to colleges, when she'd come up with the idea that they should go into business together one day. Her older sister had been four, she'd been two and Reese had been a baby when their father had left them with the nuns who ran the boarding school.
It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. He was still recovering from their mother's death, and he needed some time. He'd been on his way to collect them when his car had gone off a cliff near Monte Carlo. The nuns had kept them, and she and her sisters had grown up inseparable. But Naomi, always practical, had foreseen that their career paths were going to separate them. She'd chosen business and law, Reese had already known she wanted to be a chef, and Jillian's heart had been set a little more vaguely on travel and art.
"This hotel idea is not some kind of harebrained scheme," she continued as she strolled around the room. Up close, she could see that the toile in the faded silk draperies could only have been imported from France. Delighted, she moved on to inspect some of the furniture, continuing to talk as she went. Keeping up the one-sided conversation was easing her nerves.
"Naomi works at this law firm in Boston and she's handling the business side. Reese, my younger sister, is a five-star chef. Amazing. She'll handle the kitchen. And I'm going to handle the interior design." She might not have been as focused as early on as her sisters had been, but she knew what she wanted now. And Haworth House would be the perfect place to launch her career.
Pausing, she ran her hand over what she was sure was a Queen Anne desk. "Some of the pieces you have here are lovely."
There was another little shimmer in the air.
She moved even farther into the room and discovered that what had appeared to be only a dark shadow was a huge, four-poster bed in hand-carved mahogany.
"This was your bedroom. No, your boudoir. The word bedroom is way too pedestrian."
This time there was more than a shiver. Jillian could have sworn she heard something. A laugh?
It was only as she turned in the direction of the sound that she saw the beveled mirror, gilded in gold.
"Oh, my." Hurrying toward it, Jillian reached out to run her fingers gently down part of the frame. "This is beautiful."
Then she stepped back two paces. Had there been a tiny flash in the mirror? Or had she imagined it?
This time the flash was brighter and an image of a woman appeared. She was beautiful—tall and willowy. Her red-blond hair tumbled in loose waves below her shoulders and a filmy white dress billowed around her.
Jillian's heart skipped a beat, and for the first time since she'd stepped into the tower, she couldn't think of a thing to say. Not that she would have been able to make a sound around the hard ball of fear lodged in her throat. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that she was looking at Hattie Haworth.
Sensing the presence of a ghost was one thing. Seeing one was quite another. But just as she was getting used to it, the image began to fade.
"No. Wait," she managed as she placed a hand on the mirror.
Then Hattie was gone. All that remained was her own image in the glass. As Jillian stared, willing Hattie to reappear, she saw something move in the wall beyond her reflection. Whirling around, she watched a panel slide open.
Drawing out her flashlight, she approached the opened space and discovered what every Nancy Drew enthusiast dreamed of—a secret room. A small one—no larger than five by seven. And the only thing inside was a hatbox. It was covered in faded linen and there was a parchment label on the top.
Picking it up, Jillian carried it back to the mirror and sat down cross-legged on the floor to study it. The label read Fantasy Box: Choose carefully. The one you draw out will come true.
Jillian glanced into the mirror. "What have we here, Hattie?"
For a few seconds, she hesitated, weighing her options. The label was a clear warning. And maybe she should wait until her sisters could come and they could look inside together? But patience had never been her strong suit.
Very carefully, she lifted the cover off the box. Inside, there was a pile of envelopes. She didn't hesitate as long this time. But she didn't choose the top one. Instead, she dug deep and drew out one near the bottom of the box.
After all, what could be the harm? In her life experience, fantasies were nice, but they didn't come true all that often.
Opening it, she read it and her head spun. As fast as she could, she stuffed the parchment back into the envelope, returned it to the box and closed the lid. Jumping up, she walked on legs she couldn't feel to return the hatbox to the secret room. Then she pushed the lever that slid the panel back into place. Because she still had a bad case of jelly knees, she leaned against the wall.
It had to have been a coincidence. Who could possibly have known about the fantasy that had fueled several of her adolescent dreams?
Perhaps all the envelopes held the same fantasy. But she didn't have the courage left to reopen the hatbox to find out.
And it was ridiculous to feel so…unsettled by a silly parchment. What she'd read, after all, was just words pure and simple.
Lifting her chin, she turned and strode to the mirror. All she saw was her own reflection.
"What were you doing with that box, Hattie? And why is it the only thing in your secret room?"
No answer. Except for the words that flashed as bright as a neon sign in her mind. The one you draw out will come true.
Heart pounding, she whirled and barely kept herself from running down the iron staircase.
As her car hit the oil slick and went into a spin, Jillian kept her foot steady on the brake and gripped the steering wheel for dear life. It badly wanted to jerk out of her hands, but she fought it just as one of her ex-boyfriends had taught her.
The hairpin curve she'd been negotiating had blocked the oil slick from view until she was nearly on it. Still, she might have sailed through it without incident if only the SUV hadn't appeared out of nowhere.…
Sounds assaulted her ears—the squeal of tires, the whir and rat-a-tat-tat of gravel as it struck the car. Her heart thundered like a freight train speeding its way through a tunnel.
In a distant part of her mind, she waited for her life to flash before her eyes.
All she saw was a rotation of freeze-framed images—the ditch at the side of the turn, the tall tower of Ha-worth House shooting into a cloudless blue sky, a row of tall pines, followed by the large vehicle blocking the road ahead. And all the while the pavement beneath her screamed.
With one final shudder, her car stopped spinning and the noises stopped. She drew in a deep breath, felt it burn her lungs, and then finally focused on the view through her windshield. Only then did her heart shoot to her throat. Even through a haze of dust, she could see the front of the large, silver-toned SUV only inches away.
She pried her hands from the steering wheel and noted they were trembling. Beyond them she saw a figure unfold himself from the driver's seat of the SUV and move toward her.
Because of the glare of the sun on her windshield and the fact that her sunglasses had flown off while she was in ditch-and-tree-avoidance mode, she got only a dim impression of a tall, lanky figure. A man?
"Are you all right?" Definitely a man. The deep voice clinched it.
"I'm fine." She glanced down at herself just to make sure. But she had to be fine. There was no time for Jil-lian Brightman to be otherwise. To emphasize the point, she scrambled out from behind the wheel of her Beetle. Her knees only threatened to buckle. Good news. "How about you?"
"I'm okay, but I didn't just bring my car out of a tailspin that racecar fans would have applauded. Nice driving."
"I didn't expect that oil slick, and I was in a big hurry. I usually am." It seemed she hadn't had time to breathe in the fourteen months since she and her sisters had bought Haworth House and begun work on opening their hotel.
When she used her hand to brush the dust off her jacket, she saw that it was no longer trembling. Good.
"It was a close call."
"Yeah." When she glanced up, a wide, solid-looking chest filled her vision. She hadn't heard his approach. Now they stood toe to toe, only inches separating them.
Move back. The warning flashed into her mind as awareness rippled through her and her heart gave a little thud.
He was big. At five foot two, she was used to men being taller. But as she tilted her head way back, she figured he had to be six-three or -four. Since he hadn't lost his sunglasses, she couldn't see his eyes but she noted the shaggy straw-colored hair, the very male face with a slash of cheekbones, the trace of stubble on his jawline. When her gaze lingered on his mouth, her heart gave another thud.
This time when the warning flashed, she drew back and slammed into the side of her car.
He grabbed her arms to steady her. One of his feet had moved between her legs and for a moment, she felt the long hard length of his thigh pressed against hers. Heat arrowed out from the contact point and pooled in her center. A mist settled over her brain, and her throat went dry.
"Are you all right?"
She was still coming down from the adrenaline rush of nearly hitting him. That had to be it. Her senses were still in overdrive. That was why she felt the pressure of each one of his fingers on her arms. That was why she was having trouble finding her voice.