The sight of the dead man stretched out on her couch stopped Dr. Charlotte Stone in her tracks.
Except for the flickering glow of the TV, the house was dark, but his big body sprawled across the pale natural linen upholstery was impossible to miss. Freezing in place just inside the threshold of her living room, Charlie fought desperately to get a grip. Lying on his back with his head resting on one of the couch’s thickly padded arms, eyes closed and arms folded across his wide chest, he could almost have been asleep. But she knew better: he was beyond sleep now. The sudden tightness in her chest as she looked at him made it difficult to breathe. Her heart pounded. Her pulse raced.
She was swallowing hard, working on corralling her runaway emotions and whipping them into some kind of acceptable shape, when he opened his eyes and looked at her.
Even seen by TV light, those sky blue eyes of his were enough to make an unsuspecting woman go weak at the knees. Luckily, she had experienced their power before. Plus, she knew what he was, what he was capable of. But the sad fact was, she was a sucker for him anyway.
He smiled at her. It wasn’t a particularly nice smile. Didn’t matter: her stomach still fluttered.
“So how’s that whole moving on thing working out for you, Doc?” he drawled.
The hint of acidity in Michael Garland’s honey--dipped voice didn’t stop the warm rush of—-let’s call it relief—-that had started flooding her veins the second she’d laid eyes on him. She absolutely should not have been so glad to see him. In fact, she should not have been glad to see him at all. But where he and she were concerned, “should” had flown out the window a while back.
“Fine.” Charlie’s answer was as cool and untroubled as she wasn’t feeling. Regaining her power of movement, she hit the wall switch that turned on the lamps on either side of the couch. Then she walked across the polished wood floor to the bleached oak coffee table, picked up the remote, and turned the TV off, ending the deafening blast of the sports channel he had been watching. Cranked to an almost painful loudness, the sound was what had brought Charlie rushing in from the porch a couple of moments before—-and what had broken up the more than friendly good--night that she’d been exchanging at her front door with Tony Bartoli, the handsome FBI agent whom Garland thought she was moving on to. Garland had clearly seen her kissing Tony, and he just as clearly hadn’t liked it. What his jibe meant was that he thought that she was moving on to Tony from him. Not that she and Garland had the kind of relationship that she could move on from, exactly, but—-well, it was complicated.
The short version was, she was a psychiatrist who studied serial killers. Garland was a convicted serial killer, and, as an inmate at Wallens Ridge State Prison, where she was conducting her latest government--sponsored study, her former research subject. That association had ended with his death.
This was the part that bore repeating: Michael Garland was absolutely, positively, no--coming--back--from--it dead. As in, what she was looking at and talking to was his ghost.
See, she had the unfortunate ability to see ghosts. Oh, not all ghosts. Only the recently, violently departed, who, confused about what had happened to them, sometimes lingered for a short period on earth after their passing. Garland had been murdered eleven days before, shanked by one of his fellow inmates. Charlie had tried to save his life, to no avail. In classic no--good--deed--goes--unpunished style, his ghost had attached itself to her at the moment of his passing, to torment and harass (among other things) her until he should finally pass on to the Great Beyond.
Which, in typically irritating fashion, he was resisting.
Usually the ghosts she could see lingered for no more than a week. By that yardstick, Garland was already well past his sell--by date.
Which was one reason she had been so glad—-strike that—-so surprised to see him. She had last set eyes on him some four days before, when he had saved her life. Since then, she had been afraid—-strike that, too—-increasingly convinced that she would never see him again.
Much as she hated to admit it even to herself, the thought had made her heart bleed.
But here he was, all six--foot--three hunky inches of him. Thirty--six years old at the time of his death. Chippendales--worthy body in a snug white T-shirt and faded jeans. A thick mane of tawny hair that didn’t quite reach his wide shoulders. Square jaw, broad cheekbones and forehead, straight nose and well--cut mouth. Absurdly tan and healthy--looking for a ghost—-or a man who had spent the last four years of his life in federal prison, which he had done. Outrageously handsome. Certifiably dangerous. The proverbial bad penny.
Who could make her heart pound and her blood heat and her good sense fly out the window. He was the very last thing she needed—or wanted—-in her life.
Dead or alive.
Not that she had any choice in the matter.
She could no more control his presence in her life than she could control the sun, the moon, and the stars. He had just shown up, and one day—-probably sooner rather than later—-he would disappear. The universe was in charge here, not her.
The thought steadied her.
“Where have you been?” If there was a snap in her tone, he had earned it, simply because he had somehow managed to make her care about the answer. Still, afraid her question might reveal how stupidly involved with him she had become, she would have taken it back if she could have.
“Missed me bad, hmm?” Garland swung his long legs off the couch and sat up. Under other circumstances, Charlie would have given a dirty look to the scuffed cowboy boots that he hadn’t seemed to have any qualms about planting on her pristine couch. But ghost boots—-she was pretty sure that they didn’t leave marks.
Anyway, the smirk in the grin he directed at her was way more annoying than the boots on the linen, so she directed her dirty look right into his twinkling baby blues before turning on her heel and walking away.
“Nope.” She hadn’t missed him one bit, she told herself. She threw the reply over her shoulder as she reached the hall and headed toward the kitchen, past the old--fashioned staircase that led to the second floor. Standing up, he followed her. She was wearing nothing more exciting than a silky white sleeveless blouse and a pair of well--tailored black slacks with heels, a little dressier than her usual attire because Tony had been taking her out to dinner but nothing special. Still, she could feel Garland’s eyes on her, and strongly suspected that he was watching her trim backside with appreciation as she walked. Casting a quick, suspicious glance over her shoulder, she tried to catch him at it, but he was (a) too quick, (b) too wily, or (c) just too damned lucky to get caught. As their eyes met, he grinned at her.
“Liar,” he said.
She snorted, shaking her head in firm denial. Terrifying to think that having a ghost following her made her feel more fully alive than she had in days. Even more terrifying to realize that what she really wanted to do was turn around and walk right into his arms.
Which she couldn’t do, because he had no more substance than air. And which she wouldn’t do even if she could.
Because she truly wasn’t that self--destructive. She didn’t think.
Moonlight pouring through the kitchen windows—-a tall, wide one that took up almost all the back wall behind the eating area, and a smaller one set into the top of the kitchen door—-illuminated the white cabinets and stainless steel appliances and hardwood floor. She’d left the curtains in the front of the house closed, so no one could see in from the street. The kitchen blinds were raised all the way to the top of the windows, because there was no one living behind her to see in, and because she liked the view. As she stepped from the hall’s gloom into the silvery light, Charlie saw her reflection in the big window’s dark glass. Her chestnut brown hair hung in loose waves around her shoulders. Her fair skin was, as usual, pale, but her denim blue eyes looked kind of sultry because she had deliberately played them up with liner and shadow, which she almost never wore, and an extra coat or two of mascara. Her wide mouth looked full and soft, but more vulnerable than it should have, given that right after dinner she had freshly applied deep red (vampy) lipstick. That softly smudged look would be because, she realized belatedly, Tony had subsequently kissed all her lipstick off, so her lips were now both slightly swollen and bare. She was five--six, slender and fit at age thirty--two, and over the years a lot of guys had told her that she was beautiful. If she remained skeptical, it was because most of the time those same guys had been trying to talk her into the sack. Tonight, the makeup plus the three--inch heels made her look, um, sexier. Ordinarily she wore low--heeled, sensible shoes because the last thing she wanted to do was give off any kind of look--at--me--I’m-hot vibe. This almost daily exercise in discretion owed a lot to the fact that her usual work was carried out in a prison full of incarcerated men. Which was also why she customarily wore her hair up and minimal makeup. But tonight, for Tony, she’d made an effort. With, yes, the thought that she might allow their relationship to pro-gress to the next level, as in, sleep with him. Because Tony was way handsome and because she really liked him and because she badly needed a normal, uncomplicated man--woman relationship in her life.
And because she’d feared—-thought—-that Garland was gone for good and she was determined to eradicate any lingering memories of him. Of them.
In the end, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to invite Tony in.
She’d already been sending him on his way when the blasting of her should--have--been--silent TV had reached her ears and caused her heart to swell with hope and hurried things along. Sex with Tony, she had decided somewhere between dinner and her front door, was something that just wasn’t going to happen. At least, not yet.
But Garland didn’t have to know that.
In fact, she wasn’t about to let Garland know that.
He was way too full of himself already.
Charlie suddenly realized that hers was the only reflection that she saw in the window, although Garland was right behind her. A lightning glance over her shoulder confirmed it: he was still there.
But to judge by what she could see in the window, she was alone. His reflection didn’t show up. And that would be because, in the physical world in which she and every other living creature existed, he did not.
Only she could see him.
“Admit it, Doc: you were worried about me.”
Charlie closed her eyes.
Worried about him. That vastly understated the case. Truth was, when he had not shown back up after materializing for just long enough to take the killing blow meant for her, she had been sick with fear over him. Afraid that he had been sucked up into Eternity, and that she would never see him again.
The pain that had accompanied that fear had shown her how very vulnerable she had become where he was concerned. Now that he was back, she was determined to better guard her clearly way--too--susceptible heart.
Falling in love with him was not an option. In life he’d been the baddest of bad men, the convicted murderer of seven women, sentenced to death for horrible, brutal crimes.
And as sexy and charming as he might be, he was the exact same person in death.
That’s what she had to keep reminding herself of, even if some too--stupid--to--live part of her refused to accept it.
He claimed he was innocent. All the evidence said other-wise.
Even if, for the sake of argument, she allowed herself to believe in his innocence, believe that the exhaustive police investigation and all the evidence and the courts and the entire criminal justice system were plain wrong in his case, she still wasn’t about to let herself go where she feared their association was headed.
She wasn’t about to commit the ultimate folly of letting herself fall in love with him. No way, no how.
Bottom line was, he was dead, she was alive.
Whatever their relationship was or wasn’t, the hard truth was, there was absolutely no future in it.
If she let herself forget that, she deserved every bit of heartbreak that would be hurtling her way.
So get over being so ridiculously glad to see him already.
Charlie opened her eyes. There she still was, looking at her own reflection in the kitchen window, with not so much as a glimmer to indicate that a gorgeous (dead) guy was standing right behind her.
“I was actually very comfortable with the idea that nature had finally taken its course with you.” She spoke over her shoulder, admirably cool, as she crossed to the light switch beside the back door and flipped on the kitchen light. A round oak table with four slat--back chairs stood in the eating area in front of the window. Because she had been away, the table was piled high with mail. Beyond it, out the window, she could see the tall, nodding shadows of the sunflowers that grew in a patch along her back fence. Backlit by moonlight, they were striping the grass with shifting lines of black. Beyond that, a thickly wooded mountainside formed an impenetrable wall of darkness as it rose to meet the night sky.
This old--fashioned, two--story white clapboard farmhouse with its gingerbread trim and wide front porch was the first real home she had ever had, and she loved it. Located on a quiet street at the edge of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, a coal mining town deep in the heart of Appalachia that was still reeling from the recession, it provided her with a much--needed respite from the daily grimness of her work at the prison, which perched like a vulture at the top of the mountain, overlooking the town. Decorating and furnishing the house had been a project that she had enjoyed.