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Your sister is dead. The words on the screen blurred together, and Mia St. Regis slammed down the cover of the laptop to dismiss them. Why should she take the word of a ditzy psychic like Kylie Grant?
Mia stretched her arms over her head, and then slumped against the soft cushions on the love seat in the corner of the coffeehouse. Of course, here she sat in Coral Cove, but it hadn't been Kylie's email that had prompted her return.
She had to do something with the old ancestral home, Columbella House, before it fell into the sea. Maybe she should just let it.
She swept her computer from the low table in front of her and shoved it into her bag. Shaking back her sleeve, she glanced at her watch. She still had time to check out the family manse before it got completely dark. She'd have to make arrangements to turn on the electricity and whatever else needed connecting out there.
"Bye, thanks." As she pushed off the love seat, she waved to the barista clearing stale breakfast goodies from the glassenclosed shelves.
The young woman peered over the top of the glass case. "Are you really going to turn Columbella House into some kind of resort?"
Mia banged her shin against the table. "Huh?"
"You're Mia St. Regis, right?"
"Uh, yeah." This girl had probably been in grade school the last time Mia graced the shores of Coral Cove. How the hell did she know her identity?
"The article in the Coral Cove Herald said you were coming home to turn Columbella into a beach resort. Cool."
Mia hitched her bag over her shoulder and strode toward the counter. She must've looked as ornery as she felt because the young woman dropped to her heels and took a step back.
"There was an article about me in that little paper?"
The barista bit her lip and pointed an unsteady finger with black polish on the nail toward the front door of the coffeehouse. "The papers are still in the rack if you want to read the article."
Mia spun around and zeroed in on a wire rack near the door sporting a few throwaway papers and the Coral Cove Herald. "Definitely want to read that."
"Okay, well, have a nice night." The young woman had backed up a few more steps and crossed her arms.
Mia's heels clipped across the wood floor, and then she paused by the rack and slid a paper off the top of the stack. Her jaw tightened as she took in the picture of her smiling face next to an article with the headline Columbella Heiress Has Remodeling Plans.
With narrowed eyes, she squinted at the bylineJimmy Holt. She knew that name: some journalism dweeb from high school. So much for flying in here under the radar.
Another face on the front page caught her attentionwindswept hair, high, broad cheekbones, strong chin, intense stareDylan Reese. She scanned that headline, tooAnother Chief Reese.
So Dylan had filled his father's shoes as police chief of Coral Cove. The single ladies in town must be licking their chops over that news. In fact, she had to wipe a little drool from the corner of her own mouth. Even though Dylan had always treated her as an annoying sister, his general gorgeousness hadn't escaped her.
She stuffed the paper in the side pocket of her laptop case and swung out the door. She'd had a long flight from New York to San Francisco that morning, and a long drive from the city down the coast to Coral Cove. But the coffee had fortified her and she wanted a look at the old place before the darkness descended. She even had a flashlight for the occasion.
Standing by the alley entrance where she'd parked her rental, she closed her eyes and let the cool air brush her skin. Summer nights in Coral Cove never got too warm. The humidity never got too high. She filled her lungs with the salty air and exhaled slowly.
Okay, maybe she did miss a few things about her hometown.
"Chief, Chief. Someone's in my parking space."
Mia's eyes flew open and she spun around. One of the merchants on Main Street had snagged the new chief and was dragging him to his private parking space
where she'd stashed her rental car.
She strode into the alley and beeped the remote. "That's my car."
The chief, Dylan Reese, turned a pair of dark blue eyes on her and the temperature in Coral Cove, along with the humidity, shot up a few degrees.
"That's my private space. You can't park there." The merchant waved his arms around while hopping up and down next to the chief, like a bird on hot cement.
Or maybe he just seemed so agitated because Chief Reese had a silent, still presence, like he was sizing up the situation and deciding which one of them to shoot first.
Mia slid between the two men, yanked open the back door and dropped her laptop case on the seat. "Sorry. I didn't realize Main Street had reserved parking spots."
The little man jabbed at a metal sign over the space that read Reserved for Owner.
"Oops, my bad."
"Give her a ticket, Chief. She's in violation."
"She might be in violation
of a lot of things, but she's moving the car now, Leon."
Leon shook a stubby finger at her. "You may own the biggest house in town, that eyesore on the coast, but you don't own Main Street."
Who didn't know her identity?
Mia raised one brow. "Not yet."
That sent Leon sputtering and muttering back to the side entrance of his antiques store.
"Making friends and influencing people already, Mia?"
She laughed and stuck out her hand. "As usual. How are you, Dylan, or should I call you Chief?"
"Dylan or Chief is a lot better than some of the names you used to call me." He took her hand, engulfing it in a warm, rough clasp, and pulled her in for a peck on the cheek.
A brotherly peck on the cheek.
Her gaze dropped from his handsome face, a little thinner, a little craggier than she'd remembered, and then flitted across his broad chest as it stretched the khaki material of his uniform. He looked about as good in that uniform as he'd look out of it.
He squeezed her hand harder, as if he knew her mind had wandered into dangerous territory. As she slipped her hand from his, she noticed the tail end of a tattoo peeking out of his long sleeve. Had the chief taken a trip on the wild side before settling into law enforcement like his father?
She laughed again, this time to cover the confusion she felt at his touch. Dylan always had the looks, but Mia had been friends with his twin sister, Devon, and had always valued him as a brother. She'd always wished her twin had been a brother.
Your sister is dead.
A sliver of anxiety needled her flesh, and the laugh died on her lips.
"Are you okay? I'm not going to give you a ticket for parking in Leon's special space."
And just like the Dylan of old, he could tune in to her feelings. "I'm fine. Lot of ghosts in this town."
"If a ghost. .or anyone else
starts getting to you, give me a holler."
"Thanks, Chief. See you around." She scanned the sky, streaked with orange and red. She'd need that flashlight for Columbella after all.
Dylan stood with his hands shoved into his pockets, one shoulder leaning against the brick facade of Leon's store, watching her as she slipped into the car.
She cranked on the engine and waved. Why would anyone else in town get to her? Dylan's words had carried an edge of warning, or the town was already casting its spell on her.
Cruising down Main Street, she glanced right and left at the new shops and restaurants. She'd picked late August to take care of business to avoid the height of the summer tourist season.
She'd also avoided quite a bit of drama over the summer, most of it occurring at Columbella House, which had given her further incentive to take some action. She hadn't needed Kylie-the-fortune-teller's email about her sister to make a journey to Coral Cove.
She pointed her car toward the Coast Highway, but turned right toward Columbella instead of left toward her motel. She'd lingered in the coffeehouse and on the sidewalk chatting to Dylan a little too long, and now the sun had dipped halfway into the ocean. But meeting up with Dylan had been worth it.
Chewing her lip, she squinted into the headlights of an oncoming car. She should've called the electric company from New York so she wouldn't have to stumble around with a flashlight in the house. Maybe it would be better to view the house and assess the damages in the light of day
when the ghosts were sleeping.
She pinned her shoulders against the car seat. No time like the present. She'd take a quick peek and then return tomorrow.
She'd put off dealing with the eyesore, as that shopkeeper had called it, for several years. Might as well dive right in.
She took the turnoff to Coral Cove Drive and rolled down the darkened street. Since Columbella took up a huge portion of the street and no light came from the house, it cast most of the block in darkness, giving it an eerie vibe.
The Roarkes lived in Hawaii now, visiting only sporadically. A light glowed on the porch of the Girard house. Michelle had stayed on in the house after her father died. Michelle was a teacher, so maybe she was still enjoying the last few weeks of summer before school started. Lights also dotted the Vincents' placelooked like they might be home.
Mia blew out a breathnot as deserted as she'd feared, not that she feared Columbella House. After all, most of the wacky people who had done wacky things in this house were her wacky people.
She pulled into the long driveway and cut the engine. The house had been built into the rock and a portion of it hung over the ocean. Her great-grandfather had harbored some strange notions of what an appropriate beach house should entail. Stepping out of the car, she soaked in the sound of the waves crashing below, and she could almost feel the salty sea spray on her face.
She'd put the key to the house on her key chain, which she swung around her finger as she walked up the steps. She stumbled on a portion of the crumbled porch and flicked on her flashlight, sweeping the beam of light across the entrance. Mia hunched her shoulders. Old Leon had hit the nail on the headeyesore.
The key scraped as she shoved it into the rusty lock, the sound sending a chill zigzagging down her spine. Don't be ridiculous. She pushed open the door and straightened that same spine, banishing the chill.
She was a St. Regis. This house belonged to her. Even the ghosts belonged to her, and she was ready to take names and kick some spirit heinie.
Stepping into the entrance hall, she bathed the walls and ceiling with the beam of her flashlight. A chandelier tinkled above herdusty, but still a beautiful antique. The staircase twisted in front of her, and she scanned the two landings for signs of any more hanging bodies. Apparently, Columbella House had become the de rigueur place to commit suicide.
She trailed her hand along the wall and turned the corner into the sitting room. A couple of men had been killed in here a few months ago. Kieran Roarke had saved Dylan's sister's little boy. Where had Dylan been on that one?
Sheets covered most of the furniture. Some had slipped off here and there, and dust blanketed the exposed pieces. Wouldn't Leon love to get his pudgy hands on this stuff?
Mia wandered into the library, and her light played over the scorched wall, a grim reminder of another death in the house. She'd known about the secret room off the library, but the house hadn't given up all its secrets to her
Creeping into the hidden room, she clutched her purse to her chest. A serial killer had died in this room, one of her second cousins once or twice removed. Not removed enough. Why did this house attract all the kooks and weirdos?
A board creaked on the stairs and she spun around, dropping her flashlight. The flashlight rolled, throwing distorted shadows on the walls. Mia gulped in a few breaths and lunged for the flashlight. She scooped it up and charged into the library.
Hadn't that sheet been covering the chair in the corner when she'd walked in here? Had that mirror been cracked?
She sped out of the library, keeping the line of light in front of her, looking neither left nor right. She glanced over her shoulder once at the spiral staircase. Something was hanging from the third-floor landing, but she had no intention of investigating.
She blew out the front door and slammed it behind her. Then she raced to her rental car and locked all the doors. Breathing heavily, she gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
Then she laughed. She'd allowed the old place to get to her, even though she'd sworn she wouldn't. She started the car and backed out of the driveway. What kind of lunatic visited a haunted house at night on her own, anyway? The seeds of madness in the St. Regis family must've sprouted in her head, too.
She careened back onto the highway and accelerated, buzzing down the window so she could breathe and think. She'd head back tomorrow and assess the condition of the house. Maybe she'd clean up a bit, and then talk to a couple of Realtors in town, starting with the mayor's wife, Linda Davis. Mia might restore the old place to its former grandeur, or she'd demo the whole thing and start over with a modern hotel.
The car picked up speed downhill, and she pumped the brakes a few times as she hugged the curve in the road. This little rental jobby sure didn't perform like her Lexus. She squeezed the brake pedal again, and the car barely responded. Her tires squealed as they gripped for purchase on the road, churning up gravel from the shoulder on her right, which descended to the rocky cliffs above the ocean.
As she came out of the turn, the car zoomed forward, and she jammed her foot on the brake. The car lurched and shuddered, and she gripped the steering wheel with clammy hands. It didn't want to stop.
A turnout for a viewpoint loomed ahead, its steel guardrail acting as a barrier to the cliffs. Mia eased the wheel to the right, glancing in her rearview mirror. A car coming the other direction honked. She aimed the car toward the turnout, and it jostled as it left the smooth asphalt. Mia stomped on the parking brake and the car skidded into the wide turnout.
Her back wheels fishtailed, sending the car into a spin. The right side of the car slammed into the guardrail. The air bag exploded, pinning her against the seat and knocking the wind out of her. Mia gritted her teeth against the scraping, tearing noise of metal on metal. A shower of sparks flashed outside the passenger window.
The car heaved to a stop, but she could still hear something spinning. Her nostrils flared at the smell of burning rubber.