Ray Ramos has a problem–the King William District mansion he and his business partner purchased for a fast renovation needs more work than expected. Ray could use a quick infusion of cash. Enter Emma Shea, assistant to Gabrielle DeVere, the star of American Medium. Gabrielle is looking for San Antonio houses to use for her televised séances, and Ray’s fixer upper seems to fit.
When Gabrielle does a sample séance, Ray and Emma become the target of a touchy ghost with no respect for boundaries. After Ray learns his family has a special affinity for ghosts, the two decide to investigate the haunted house. It doesn’t hurt that Emma is immediately attracted to the laconic Ray or that Ray is intrigued by the buttoned-down beauty who seems determined to hide her considerable assets behind sober business suits. But can the two of them fight off a vengeful succubus bound to the house while getting a lot closer than either of them planned?
Meg Benjamin writes contemporary romance for Berkley InterMix and Samhain Publishing. Happy Medium is the final book in her Ramos Family trilogy after Medium Rare.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Son of a fuckin’ bitch.”
Ray Ramos managed not to kick the baseboard or punch the wall. Given that he was wearing steel-toed boots, kicking the baseboard could leave a sizeable dent. Punching the wall could conceivably break a couple of fingers. He probably shouldn’t damage either the house or himself. That left cursing, which he did lustily.
However, he had to admit he felt like breaking something right then, like maybe his partner Kevin’s skull.
The whole molding, the whole mother-effing molding in this room, was ruined. He’d have to pull it down, find some new molding that worked in the space, paint it, and then reattach it. This in addition to yanking off the pressed-wood paneling some freakin’ fucktard had seen fit to install on the far wall, probably sometime in the seventies from the look of the stuff.
And then there was the ceiling medallion, a beautiful piece of plasterwork. Or it had been beautiful until some other fucktard had decided to install a ceiling fan through it. He’d have to remove the ceiling fan, then take down the medallion and see if the edge that had been damaged when the fan was hung could be repaired. And if it could, he’d have to fix it, probably by making a cast from one of the other edges and recreating the parts of the medallion that had been destroyed.
And then, of course, there was the wallboard all through the house. The mother-freakin’, God-blessed wallboard. Scarred and dented with occasional holes. It looked like he’d have to pull it down in every bedroom and a couple of rooms on the first floor as well. Then he’d have to replace it and paint it.
And all of this would take time. More time. Time he hadn’t planned on spending on what was supposed to be a relatively quick turnaround. If Kevin had been in the room, Ray would have relieved him of some surplus teeth for managing to miss two-thirds of the crap that would need to be taken care of around the place before they could even hope to sell it.
It’s perfect, Ray, just what we need. Seriously underpriced. On a block that’s being renewed. We grab it, do the renovation, flip it. Five, six weeks tops. And presto, we’re into the San Antonio market.
He should have known better than to listen to Kevin’s estimation rather than trying to get his brother’s opinion. Danny, the real estate guru, was on vacation for a couple of weeks, but Ray knew he should have waited for him to get back. Instead of letting Kevin convince him the house wasn’t a freakin’ money pit where dreams went to die.
In reality, of course, he couldn’t blame Kevin entirely for this disaster. Ray had done a quick walk-through himself. He’d seen the windows with missing sash chains and damaged hardware. He’d noticed the scarred wood around some of the doors. He’d even seen the wood paneling and the crappy wallboard.
But he’d let himself listen to Kevin’s siren song, mixed in with his own sirens, all of them singing “Walk Right In, Sit Right Down, Make Some Cash.”
Now that he’d had a day to inspect the house more carefully, he figured they could pretty much kiss that earlier five– or six-week estimate goodbye, even if he spent all his time here. The work would take at least two months, possibly more if they wanted the house to be in optimum shape. And he didn’t have two months to spare. Not if they wanted the firm of Ramos and Dubinski to stay solvent.
Ray blew out a breath, rubbing the back of his neck. The house still had some definite pluses. It was structurally sound, they knew that for a fact. It had solid central heat and air, which wasn’t true of all the houses in the King William District. And Kevin hadn’t been wrong about what was happening on the street. Houses on other lots had already been renovated and were going for the kind of money that made visions of dollar signs dance in Ray’s head.
Kevin was supposed to be handling their main office, thirty miles away, in Boerne, where he and Ray had started the business two years ago. But they both knew Kevin couldn’t handle all the jobs that came in. Kevin was great at the real estate side of things and a wizard at finding buyers. But Ray was the one who turned the houses they bought into places where people might actually want to live. When it came to renovations, Ray was the man.
They’d done well in Boerne. Ray liked Boerne. Ray would have been satisfied to keep their operations entirely in Boerne. But Kevin wanted San Antonio. And Kevin Dubinski was not only his partner. He was the man who’d supplied their seed money, what there was of it.
Face it. If we want to expand, to grow, we need to have a foot in San Antonio and a foot in the Hill Country. Do a few houses in the historic neighborhoods and we’ll be set. Hell, your brother can put us onto stuff, can’t he?
Which was one of the problems. Danny could always put them onto stuff. Danny had wanted him to work in San Antonio rather than Boerne from the beginning. So had his mom and dad. Hell, for all he knew his sister, Rosie, might have been pining for him too. Ray was the one who’d decided he needed to make it somewhere else, without the family hanging over his shoulder—his mother bringing him enchiladas and his dad checking his balance sheets and his big brother and little sister critiquing every move he made. Of course, they still did that from time to time when he was thirty miles away in Boerne.
But Kevin had a point. If they wanted the business to expand in the region, they either needed to get further into the Hill Country or into San Antonio. And San Antonio was where they both knew the neighborhoods.
Thus the house, the perfect house, which was found after Kevin had spent the better part of a month checking out the possibilities. Part of an estate in the King William District that had taken years to settle. Unoccupied. Unwanted. Primed for a quick sale.
With molding that had been cracked and cut apart by previous owners. Floors that had been covered in shag carpeting by previous owners. Walls that had been hung with fake wood paneling and cheap wallboard by previous owners. Ray figured if he ever encountered those previous owners, he’d be fully justified in beating them about the head and shoulders with a pry bar.
But the reality was clear—if he wanted this house to be done in weeks instead of months, he’d need more cash for subcontractors. And cash was one thing Ramos and Dubinski were pretty short on at the moment. Kevin had sunk most of their “liquidity” into buying the house in the first place, and the idea of saddling the company with more debt to get the place up and running had little appeal for either of them. They needed what was left of their money to run the business in Boerne.
There were a few options. Ray could try doing some renovations simultaneously, doing a house or two in Boerne while he worked on the King William house when he had a chance. Of course, that would probably require him to clone himself since he didn’t have a second foreman he could rely on to keep the King William job running, but hey, it would be worth it, right?
Maybe he could sell something. His car. His blood. His spare kidney. He’d already sold the condo where he’d been living, pooling the money with Kevin’s to clear the King William house. They’d figured he could live at the house while he renovated it, use one of the upstairs bedrooms that wouldn’t be immediately affected by the dust and debris.
At least he’d managed to move some minimal furniture over from the condo—a bed and dresser, a couple of chairs, a kitchen table. And at least there was a functioning kitchen in the house so he wouldn’t be spending extra money on takeout.
There was even a storeroom where the previous owners had left some furniture that was too crappy to take away. He figured he could always drag some stuff out of there if he really needed extra places to sit.
Ray stared up at the molding again. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why somebody had cut random pieces out of it. Maybe they were hanging pictures or something. Maybe they had some kind of weird compulsion. Maybe he should have noticed it when he first wandered through the house.
He sighed, rubbing his eyes. Yeah, he really should have noticed it. And the chipped wallboard. And the leaky window frames that would have to be replaced. And the damaged medallion. He just hadn’t paid attention.
So now here he was, living in his own private hell, hoping for a miracle. Maybe somebody would arrive with a fat check from the Texas Lottery Commission. Shit, might as well make this a high-functioning daydream. Make it a female somebody dressed in a cat suit like Scarlett Johansson and carrying a cold beer.
Now that really could make a shitty day turn golden.
Emma Shea turned her car up yet another street, trying to find the King William District. She had a map of San Antonio. She had a set of vague directions from the motel manager. She even had a GPS. What she didn’t have was an address, and right now she was pretty sure she’d been down this street before since she could see the Tower of the Americas again through the trees.
Her lousy sense of direction meant she usually got lost at least once per show on location. But in the other cases she’d been out in the countryside looking for something like a La Llorona sighting—phantom weeping women rarely appeared in town. It was flat-out embarrassing to get lost in the middle of San Antonio. Plus she could sense her hair frizzing in the humid heat. In another twenty minutes she’d look like somebody handing out crank pamphlets door to door rather than a production assistant for the highest-rated show on the network.
Of course, it was a small network.
She had to find some possible houses before Gabrielle arrived tomorrow evening at seven. Preferably several of them because Gabrielle would want choices, and they’d probably do more than one show from San Antonio, given the cost of bringing American Medium here in the first place. Plus, of course, Gabrielle wouldn’t want any building that had been done on any other show, which pretty much ruled out all the well-known haunted sites around town like the Menger Hotel.
Too bad. She would have enjoyed seeing Gabrielle take on Teddy Roosevelt, always assuming Teddy was interested in talking to her.
Emma had been rolling around the streets of San Antonio since early afternoon, looking for houses that were suitably bizarre. Of course bizarre wasn’t a word she’d use if and when she spoke to the homeowners. Picturesque was always good. Atmospheric worked too. What she knew not to say was haunted.
Because few people wanted to be told that their house was haunted even if the place looked like the second coming of the Addams Family. Not that it mattered one way or the other. So far as Emma could recall they’d never worked with a house that already had an established reputation for ghostly apparitions. Gabrielle claimed that this was because she always searched out houses that hadn’t been “exploited by other sources.” Emma figured it was actually because with houses that had no previous history of being haunted, Gabrielle could work up her own backstory, the more lurid the better. Or rather Emma could work it up since Gabrielle left that part of the production to her. Then Gabrielle could get rid of all the spirits she’d managed to find when no one else had a clue that they were there.
But the whole process would only work if Emma could locate the right house, or houses, for Gabrielle to visit. Houses that fit the popular image of places that were haunted. Houses that looked like you might actually be caught dead there.
She’d already been through the area around La Villita, which was both too well kept up and too full of tourists to be useful. She’d cruised through Monte Vista and Mahncke Park, and found a couple of possibilities. The area around Fort Sam Houston looked promising. She only wished they could visit some of the historic officers’ homes on the Quadrangle, but the chances of that were roughly nil. She was pretty sure the US Army wouldn’t want to be associated with American Medium.
Now, as the afternoon shadows lengthened around the live oaks, she was headed for the King William District, the one area that everybody in town cited as the most likely to supply suitably spooky buildings. She’d figured she’d save it for last to give herself something to look forward to. Assuming she could find the place before it got too dark to see any buildings at all, spooky or otherwise.
She fumbled in her purse, pulling out her Ziploc bag of celery sticks. They looked a little dried out by this time of day, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Particularly hungry beggars who hadn’t had any lunch. Not that she needed any lunch since the last time she’d checked she still had to shed five more pounds to reach goal weight.
She finally turned down South Alamo Street, going in the right direction for once. According to the brochure on the King William District she’d picked up at the motel, if she turned toward the San Antonio River, she’d move into the more prominent part of the district, the part with the oldest and most prestigious homes. In her experience, prestigious didn’t usually translate well to haunted, but oldest was definitely a plus.
She glanced up at the houses on either side of the street as she drove closer to the water. Several were multi-story with galleries stretching around the front and sides—sometimes on more than one level—with gingerbread trim, Grecian columns, crested roofs, and dormer windows. Jackpot!
It reminded her of a cross between Dickens and Dark Shadows.
Every house she saw looked like it housed a resident spirit. Or like it should have housed one. Throw in the cast iron streetlights, the spreading live oaks, the lush flower gardens surrounding most of the buildings, and you had the perfect setting for ghostly visitations. Or for suggestions of ghostly visitations, which was sort of the American Medium stock in trade.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the perfect setting for a visitation from Gabrielle DeVere. Realistically, Emma figured few of the homeowners on this street needed cash badly enough to allow a film crew from American Medium to trample through their oleanders. They’d be a lot more likely to run her off their property for even suggesting the possibility. And she had to admit, any ghosts who hung out in the houses she was currently driving past were unlikely to manifest anywhere in Gabrielle’s vicinity, given her tendency to find nasty details in their pasts.
And then there was the fact that Gabrielle preferred her haunted houses somewhat more decrepit than the ones Emma saw here. In Gabrielle’s opinion, the more broken down the mansion, the more believable the haunting. And believability was the key. In fact, it wasn’t really necessary that the houses they used be actually haunted. It was only necessary that the audience believe the houses could be haunted. Then when Gabrielle inevitably found spirits to talk to, nobody would be terribly surprised, except possibly the owners.
Emma turned down a street that ran beside the river. Couples walked along the hiking path hand-in-hand, dodging around the occasional dog on a leash or mom with stroller. Dark water flowed slow and thick between the grassy banks while Frisbees sailed through the air and children giggled in the twilight.
Nice. Probably way too nice for American Medium. The river didn’t seem to have the necessary ghostly mood. On the other hand, spending some time there would definitely improve Emma’s own mood. She wondered if she could take a few minutes to just sit on one of the wrought-iron benches and enjoy the way the slowly fading afternoon sunlight cast shadows across the water.
The houses along the riverbanks all looked much too nice for the show, even though they were the right vintage. She headed up one of the side streets at random. Surely not all the homes in the King William District had been restored to their former glory.
Of course they hadn’t been. In fact, the farther she got from the river, the less grand the houses seemed. They were old, but several of them had peeling paint and splinters. Still, none of them were exactly right for the show. Some had been divided into apartments, which would make it tougher to get releases from all the tenants. Others looked dilapidated but tacky, which wouldn’t satisfy Gabrielle. She might put up with peeling paint, but broken-down plastic flamingoes would probably disturb her aura.
Emma turned down the next street, which seemed to be in a sort of transitional state. Some of the houses looked good, like they’d been painted and reupholstered recently. Some looked like they were in the middle of being renovated. Some looked like they were ready for a total overhaul.
Like the one on the corner. Emma slowed and then parked the car, pulling into an open spot at the curb. The house was fairly large with a couple of stories. Limestone with gray trim, the kind of gray that came with a lot of punishing weather and not much in the way of repainting. Live oaks shaded the front gallery with its slender columns and gingerbread trim. A large pecan tree cast shadows toward the rear of the lot.
It looked like it had once been respectable, maybe even grand. But now it was a few degrees past prime. It also looked like the kind of place where a spirit or two might be willing to take up residence.
She wondered if anybody lived there right now. The front windows were dark, and nobody was working around the yard. But the grass had been cut, and the bushes looked like they’d been trimmed lately. Gabrielle would love the way the live oak branches dipped low over the front gallery. The shadows would make for some really spooky shots as she walked up to the front door.
Emma rested a hand on the steering wheel, trying to decide what to do. If she talked to the owners before Gabrielle decided she liked the house, they might be disappointed if Gabrielle didn’t want to use it. On the other hand, it might be a good idea to have at least one house signed, sealed, and ready to be delivered when Gabrielle stepped off the plane. There was always the risk that she could reject San Antonio altogether if the preliminary steps took too much time. Patience was never Gabrielle’s strong suit.
Emma liked San Antonio. It had all sorts of possibilities.
After another moment, she blew out a breath. Screw it. She might as well at least knock on the front door. The owners might not be around, but if they were, it would definitely save some time. She opened the car door and stepped into the street.
Ray was working off some of his frustrations by pulling up the carpet. No matter what else they did to the house, the Goddamned shag had to go. The sound of the fabric ripping away from the carpet tacks turned out to be therapeutic, although the clouds of dust made him glad he’d put on a mask before he started. He yanked and rolled, being careful not to impale himself on the strips of nails at the sides.
Underneath was an ancient rubber pad, so worn that it was basically lumps of crumbling gunk. He’d have to scrape parts of it up off the floor where it was stuck, and the rest of it was too brittle to be rolled. In fact, it could hardly be picked up. He’d have to use a broom, or maybe his shop vac.
He moved a couple of the pieces aside and saw the first good news of the day—hardwood floors that were still intact. They’d have to be cleaned up, maybe sanded and refinished, but they were solid.
He’d just leaned down to finish pulling the end of the carpet loose when someone rang the doorbell.
He blew out a breath. Kevin would have just walked in. That left salesmen and people collecting for charity. Or maybe some nosy neighbors hoping to get a quick glimpse inside. Whoever it was, chances were it was somebody he didn’t have time or patience for.
The ringing came again. Persistent sucker. Might as well get it over with. He pushed himself to his feet and headed down the hall, glancing through the beveled glass in the front door.
The woman on the other side didn’t look like a door-to-door salesperson or a collector for the March of Dimes. In fact, she sort of looked like somebody’s executive secretary. Her gray skirt dropped to the tops of her knees. Her white blouse had pearl buttons and a hint of lace around the collar. She wore black leather shoes with low heels that reminded him a little of ones Granny Ramos wore to church when she was serving at the potluck lunch afterward.
If she’d been sixty or so, she would have looked stylish as hell. Since he gauged her age as in the mid-twenties, she didn’t. On the other hand, she had a kind of sexy librarian thing going on that wasn’t half bad. Maybe she intended to save his soul—he couldn’t think of any other reason somebody dressed like that would show up on his doorstep.
At the last minute he remembered to yank the dust mask down below his chin before he opened the door. “Can I help you?”
Ms. Dress-For-Success gave him a startled look, her blue eyes wide. Apparently, she hadn’t been expecting a guy in a sweat-stained T-shirt. Tough shit, baby cakes.
“I’m looking for the owner of the house,” she said a little tentatively. She pushed a slightly frizzy lock of reddish-brown hair behind one ear.
“That’s me. And I don’t want a security system and I’m really happy with my cell phone provider. So if you’re selling something, this isn’t the place.” He folded his arms across his chest, dislodging a little dust as he did.
“No, I didn’t . . . I mean, that’s not why I . . .” She paused, taking a quick breath before she slapped on a smile. “My name is Emma Shea. I’m with DeVere Productions.” She pulled a business card from her purse, shoving it in his general direction.
Nice smile. Eyes the color of clear skies. Complexion like roses and cream. Shea was probably her real name—she looked about as Irish as his mom did. He was ready to revise his earlier critique of her appearance. The body beneath that shapeless gray skirt looked nicely rounded. Her clothes were really bad, but the rest of her had potential.
Ray took the card from her fingers, doing an exaggerated job of squinting at the print. At least he could entertain himself by drawing this encounter out for a few minutes before heading back to the rotten carpet. “Never heard of it.”
If his mother saw him now, she’d no doubt slap him upside the head for rudeness. Fortunately, she was cruising toward Alaska with his dad, who’d probably slap him on the other side of the head on principle. Then again, he was enjoying himself for what seemed like the first time today. Ms. Shea had very nice blue eyes.
Her jaw firmed. “It’s a television production company. We’re filming in San Antonio next week.”
“Yeah? So why do I need to know this?”
“Because your house might work as a location for the show.” She took another deep breath. “Could I come in and look around?”
He took another glance at the business card, for real this time. At least it looked legit. And television could mean money. “Sure.” He stepped back to let her walk in front of him, then watched her enter the parlor on the left.
He hadn’t gotten around to ripping up the carpet in there yet. And it had its own problems with gouges in the baseboards and more chewed molding. Still, once he pulled up the shag, it wouldn’t be bad. Afternoon light trickled in from the triple window at the front, and there was a good view of the pecan tree in the side yard from the windows in the sidewall.
Ms. Shea’s nose wrinkled, probably from the carpet dust. “Are you renovating?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” Like it wasn’t obvious.
She frowned. “We might need to clean up a little to make it look better on film. Are any of the rooms intact?”
Ray pulled the mask over his head to get it out of the way. “Okay, before we go any further with this, what’s the show that you’d be shooting here?”
She licked her lips a little nervously. “It’s called American Medium. Starring Gabrielle DeVere. Are you familiar with it?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Nope.”
“It’s very popular on cable. The network’s highest-rated show, in fact. I’m sure it’s on here in San Antonio. I’ll see if I can find out when it’s being broadcast.” Her gaze flicked to his face and back to the shag carpeting.
Ms. Emma Shea suddenly seemed uneasy about something. Ray figured it probably had to do with this show, whatever the hell it was. He folded his arms across his chest. “What goes on in this show?”
“Well, various things.” She licked her lips again. Definitely nervous. “Gabrielle visits houses in a particular town. We’re based in Houston, but we’re on the road quite a bit.”
“And what does she do when she visits these houses?”
She shrugged. “She talks about the history of the house, whatever I’ve been able to find out.”
He nodded. “And then?”
Ms. Shea sighed, dropping her gaze again. “She holds a séance and tries to contact any spirits living in the house,” she said very quickly.
Ray blinked. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but that wasn’t it. Then again, the name American Medium should have been a tip-off. He shook his head. “There aren’t any ghosts in this house.”
“You can’t really be sure of that. Gabrielle usually finds something. She won’t visit a house where she doesn’t sense a presence.” Ms. Shea was looking at him again, her blue eyes earnest.
“Then she won’t want to visit here.” He leaned against the doorjamb. “There’s nobody living here but me. And I haven’t run across anything ghostly since I’ve been around. Unless you count the great horned owl that likes to hang out in the oak tree in the backyard.”
“Gabrielle still might like to visit the house. Sometimes she senses things other people don’t.” She was looking very determined now, which was sort of cute but not particularly convincing.
He sighed in exasperation. “Look, Ms. Shea, I don’t have a whole lot of time to spend on something like this. I’m on the clock for these renovations.” And he’d already wasted more than enough time talking to her—not that it hadn’t been an interesting break.
“We’ll pay,” she blurted.
Ray paused. “How much?”
“If we use your house, say five hundred.”
He narrowed his eyes, ignoring the quickening of his pulse. Five hundred would be a drop in the bucket. “Total?”
She shrugged. “Well, yeah.”
“Not enough.” He wracked his brain quickly, trying to remember what his brother Danny had gotten when a production company had shot a commercial at one of his properties.
She chewed on her lower lip, which was, he noted, nicely pink. “What would you consider enough?”
“Five hundred an hour, with a minimum. Say five hours.”
Her jaw tightened again. “I might be able to go three hundred an hour. With no minimum.”
“Split the difference. Say four. And a three-hour minimum.” Twelve hundred bucks would definitely help.
She nodded. “I can probably do that. Assuming that Gabrielle wants to use the house. She’s coming in tomorrow and she’ll want to look it over.”
“Maybe. More probably the day after tomorrow.” She glanced around the admittedly crappy-looking living room. “Could you possibly clean it up a little between now and then? Maybe pick up some before Gabrielle comes to see it?”
He shrugged. “Possibly. For four fifty an hour, I’d say certainly.” Given that he was already going to be working the place over, he might as well get paid for it.
One corner of her mouth edged up. “Let’s go with possibly.”
“Okay.” For the first time since he’d seen the chewed-up molding, his shoulders relaxed. “Want to see the rest of the place?”
She nodded. “Might as well. That way when I go over it with Gabrielle, I’ll at least know what I’m talking about. By the way . . .” She gave him another slightly crooked smile. “Who are you?”
“Ray Ramos.” He wiped off his hand on the rag he had tucked in his back pocket, then stuck it out. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Ramos.” She shook his hand, then nodded toward the hall. “Shall we?”
The last of the afternoon sun caught the red in her hair, bringing out the cream in her skin. Interesting. “Let’s.”
Emma worked on keeping her attention on the house rather than Ray Ramos. He was certainly worth her attention—probably more than the house was, at least at the moment.
She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting when he’d opened the door—maybe a sweet little old lady living her twilight years in the family home. What she undoubtedly hadn’t been expecting was a six-foot Adonis in a sweat-stained T-shirt and low-slung jeans. If he’d been wearing his carpenter’s belt, she’d probably have thrown herself at his feet. She’d never been quite this close to somebody who looked like him.
Even now, the sight of those well-toned shoulders through the damp fabric of his T-shirt was enough to give her mild palpitations.
Too bad he was such a jerk.
Of course, he’d dialed down the jerk factor somewhat since they’d talked cash. And she supposed she couldn’t entirely blame him for being annoyed since she’d interrupted his work. But still. He seemed to be going out of his way to be provocative.
She detoured around a sawhorse and managed not to trip over a bit of carpet at the side. Between the construction junk and the general effect of Ray Ramos, she’d be lucky to get out of this place without at least a sprained ankle or two.
The house had all kinds of possibilities, even though it was basically empty. An empty haunted house could really work well for the show since Gabrielle wouldn’t have to dodge around furniture when she was doing her thing. Breakable knick-knacks tended to inhibit her more dramatic gestures. Plus, of course, an empty house was much more spooky.
Since there was so little furniture in the house, they’d have to bring in the right kind of table for the séance. And get some chairs that matched. But that shouldn’t be a problem, assuming that Gabrielle would be willing to spring for the expense.
On the whole, Emma was pleased with the location. Gabrielle should be satisfied. Of course the distance between should be and satisfied was sometimes large where Gabrielle was concerned.
Ramos knelt down in the doorway ahead of her, exposing a swath of tanned back as he leaned forward. “You can see the original flooring here,” he said. “Some numbnut installed carpeting on top of it, but it looks to be in good shape underneath.”
Good shape. Definitely. Lordy, she needed to get out of here and take a cold shower or something. “So you’re going to take up all the carpeting?”
He nodded. “Eventually. If you’ll tell me which rooms you’ll be working in downstairs, I’ll pull it up there first and get the floors cleaned.”
“Okay.” She made a great show of looking at her watch. “Gee, look at the time. I’d better get going. I have some things to set up for Gabrielle tomorrow.”
“Okay.” He stood again, wiping his hands. “What time do you think she’ll want to see the place?”
“I’m not sure.” Emma turned toward the stairs, trying to escape as casually as possible. “I’ll call you after I talk to her. Probably the day after tomorrow.”
“How are you going to call me?”
She paused at the bottom of the staircase, turning back to look at him. “Pardon?”
His lips edged up in a dry grin. Nice lips. Nice brown eyes. Sandy hair, cut short, just long enough to run her fingers through. Not that she’d ever have the chance to do that.
“You don’t have my number.” His grin became a little more pronounced.
Well, crap. She pulled out her cell. “Could you give it to me?”
She tapped the numbers into her address book quickly, then turned back toward the door again. “Well, then, I’ll call you tomorrow,” she trilled.
Trilled? She was willing to bet she’d never trilled at anyone in her life before. Ramos was rapidly reducing her to mush. She really needed to get out of there before she did something incredibly stupid. She started across the foyer, tripped over a loose seam in the carpet, and just managed to catch herself on the doorjamb.
Ramos stepped beside her quickly, his hand dropping to her shoulder. “You okay?”
She blew out a breath, trying to pull back her last few shreds of professionalism. “Sure. Just a trip. I’m fine.”
“Great.” His voice sounded slightly dry. She decided not to notice.
“Thanks again.” She turned back to give him one last glistening smile and froze in the doorway. The sunlight coming through the side window outlined his squarish jaw, his high, flat cheekbones. Holy crap, he was gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. And absolutely out of her league.
“You sure you’re okay?” His expression morphed from slightly amused to slightly concerned. Probably because she was behaving like a lunatic.
“Sure. Fine. Talk to you tomorrow.” She shot out the front door, trotting to her car as if he were following her.
She should be so lucky.
She turned to take one last look at the house. Gray. Shadowy. Mysterious. Gabrielle would love it.
As long as she loved Ray Ramos too, they should be fine. Emma didn’t pause to analyze just why the idea of Gabrielle loving Ray Ramos made her shoulders clench.
Ray called Kevin first thing the next morning. He figured he might as well find out if his partner had any objections to séances before they went any further.
However, objections didn’t seem to be a problem. “American Medium?” Kevin sounded a lot more excited that Ray did. “Cool. Sherry watches it every week. She loves it.”
The fact that Kevin’s girlfriend was a fan didn’t do much to make Ray feel better. As much as he liked Sherry, Ray would have felt better about the whole thing if Kevin had watched the show himself.
“What about you?” he asked “Do you watch it with her?”
“It’s okay. The money won’t hurt.”
Definitely not. “If they say the house is haunted, will that make it harder to sell?”
“Nope. Might even make it easier.” He could almost hear Kevin’s grin. “I mean, it’s King William. Every damn house in the neighborhood’s got something going on, right?”
“Right.” He blew out a breath. The money won’t hurt. He’d just keep telling himself that.
“It isn’t really, is it?” The grin in Kevin’s voice wasn’t quite as definite anymore.
“Not really what?”
“Haunted. I mean, you’ve been there for a week or so. You haven’t seen anything, have you?” Now Kevin sounded slightly nervous.
Ray sighed. “No. It’s just a house, Kev. In lousy shape.”
“Right.” Now it was Kevin’s turn to sigh. “You want to bring the crew in? We could take McCoy and Sanchez off the Briscoe house.”
“Not yet. Let them get finished there. I’ll do as much as I can on my own.” Given that the Briscoe house was a paying proposition, while the King William house was currently a large, limestone white elephant, it made more sense to let all the crew stay in Boerne.
“Right, well, I’m glad it’s not haunted. Let me know what happens with the whole American Medium thing.” Kevin was grinning again. “Sherry’s going to go nuts when I tell her.”
“Great. I’m glad somebody gets to be happy.”
“I’m sorry, Emma dear. I’m just not feeling any emanations.” Gabrielle regarded the house from the air-conditioned interior of Emma’s car, her lower lip protruding slightly in a pout. She lifted one heavily ringed hand to smooth back a strand of hair that had slid loose from the mass of blonde waves.
Emma managed not to sigh. “It’s sort of the right period, Gabrielle. And the grounds are nice.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “None of that matters if the spirits don’t cooperate. I get no feeling from this place at all, no presence.” She sighed. “Let’s go on to the next one.”
Emma put the car in gear, pulling away from the curb. The streets in Monte Vista were fairly narrow and full of parked cars, making navigation a little like an obstacle course. She probably should have started with the Mahncke Park house, which would have been easier to look at quickly.
Gabrielle always rejected the first house—Emma was used to it by now. Maybe it took a while for the spirits to start cooperating. Or maybe Gabrielle just wanted to make a point about who was in charge. Usually, they began with a “burner” house that could be skipped quickly, but even if Emma had started with her best choice, she was pretty sure Gabrielle would have rejected it anyway. Rituals had to be observed.
The real question was how she’d feel about the second house. Was she ready to get down to business or was she still trying to tune up her psychic aura? Emma was never sure how long it would take Gabrielle to get in touch with the universe. She hated to waste her best prospects if Gabrielle wasn’t warmed up yet.
On the other hand, she really didn’t want to spend more time chauffeuring Gabrielle around San Antonio in the summer heat than she had to. It gave Gabrielle way too many opportunities to tell her about another diet that would surely, absolutely help Emma lose those last nagging pounds. The ones Gabrielle could see even if nobody else noticed.
Screw it. Emma turned the car toward the King William District.
Gabrielle settled deeper into her seat, watching the San Antonio streets slip by with a slightly dreamy expression. She wore one of her working dresses, something soft and billowing in sea foam. It would look absolutely great if she were walking across a misty lawn in twilight. In full sunlight in San Antonio, she looked a little like a refugee from a garden party.
A lot of things about Gabrielle were over the top—the pale golden hair that usually flowed around her ageless face, the suspiciously taut skin across her chin line, the dangling chandelier earrings that swung seductively when she walked. But nobody wanted to argue with success, least of all Emma. After all, she had a relatively well-paying job in the entertainment industry. What more could she ask for? Besides a boss who didn’t have such exacting standards for employee appearance, that is.
“How’s your diet going, sweetheart?” Gabrielle cooed, right on schedule.
“Fine. I’m supposed to be on maintenance now, according to the Web site.”
“Maintenance?” One perfectly penciled eyebrow arched up. “Really?”
“That’s what they say. For someone with my height, anyway.”
“Oh dear.” Gabrielle shook her head. “You can’t trust those charts, you know. They always exaggerate the sizes.”
Emma managed not to roll her eyes. She felt like she’d been on a diet ever since she’d come to work for Gabrielle. Probably because she had been. “I’m close to my goal weight now. According to Calorie Counters.”
“Well, goals can always change, can’t they? People in our business really have to be careful about weight, you know. The camera adds ten pounds.” She turned to stare out the window as they entered the King William District.
People in our business. Right. Since Emma never appeared before the camera, she didn’t quite see why she had to be super thin. Gabrielle, needless to say, disagreed.
“Where are we going?” Gabrielle squinted at the mansions passing by. “Oh my, this doesn’t look promising. It’s all been renovated. Renovation can drive away the spirits.”
Because the spirits hate that new paint smell apparently. “Not all the houses here have been renovated. And it’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city.”
Gabrielle subsided into ominous silence. Emma’s heart dropped. Maybe she’d decide to reject the second house, too. Which meant the third house would be make or break. If Gabrielle rejected them all, they’d be back to square one. Or rather, Emma would.
She pulled the car into a slot in front of the Ramos house. “This is another one. It’s currently being worked on, but the owner says he can get it cleaned up if you approve.”
Gabrielle gave a faint “hmph” as she studied the house through narrowed eyes. “Can we get inside today?”
Emma nodded. “I called the owner. He should be here.” Knock on wood. If Ramos wasn’t around, Gabrielle would probably decide the spirits weren’t cooperating here either.
“Let’s look at it.” Gabrielle pressed her fingers to her lips, staying in her seat until Emma opened her door. She drifted pensively up the sidewalk, studying the house’s exterior. Emma had the feeling she was trying to frown, although her forehead wasn’t cooperating.
Watch it, Gabrielle. There’s only so much Botox can do.
Emma rang the doorbell as Gabrielle stared around the front gallery. “Interesting shadows at the end of the gallery,” Emma said tentatively.
Gabrielle sighed. But at least she didn’t shake her head.
Ramos opened the door, almost smiling this time. He wore a polo shirt with his jeans rather than a T-shirt, and he still wasn’t wearing his carpenter’s belt. Probably just as well—Emma didn’t need any added distractions, given that she still had to deal with her employer.
Emma gave him a quick smile. “Good morning.” She nervously cleared her throat as she turned to her employer. “Gabrielle, this is Mr. Ramos. He owns the house.”
Gabrielle turned in Ramos’s direction, then paused, taking a longer look and extending her hand languidly. “Delighted.” She sounded like she meant it. Considering the Ramos wow factor, she probably did.
Ramos shook her hand briskly. “Come in, ladies.”
Emma followed them up the hall, watching the slightly accentuated sway of Gabrielle’s hips. She might have been on the far side of fifty, but apparently she appreciated a good-looking man as much as the next woman.
She paused in the parlor doorway, her eyes widening slightly. “You’re working here?”
Ramos nodded. “I took up the carpeting yesterday. Eventually, I’ll have to strip off the wallboard and fix the molding, but that can wait if you want to film in the house.”
“Oh my, that sounds like a great deal of work. We’d need to have the room cleaned before we could do anything with it. You do understand, don’t you?” She gave him another seductive smile, regarding him from beneath her lowered lashes.
Ramos nodded again. He didn’t seem to feel like smiling himself. “The floor can be cleared off. And I can take down the curtains if you need more light.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Oh no, the lighting seems fine as it is.”
Of course, she meant the lack of lighting was fine. Ghosts were never as convincing in full sunlight. Too bad. Getting rid of the heavy brocade curtains would have improved the room a lot in Emma’s opinion. They looked like they dated back to the fifties.
Gabrielle sashayed further down the hall. At least she seemed to be enjoying herself. She paused in the dining room doorway. “This one has good space, but the carpet . . . Oh my dear, I’m sorry. Just impossible.”
Ramos nodded. “The carpet will go. I’m tearing it up throughout the house. I just haven’t gotten to this room yet.”
“Is it . . . difficult work?” Gabrielle directed a sultry glance in his direction.
He appeared not to notice. “Not really. Just rip it up and get rid of it.”
Gabrielle’s glance stayed sultry. “I see. It must be very hot working in here.”
He shrugged. “It’s hot working anywhere around this time of year.”
“I’m sure it is.” Gabrielle gave him a slow smile, then pivoted on her heel and sauntered toward the other rooms that opened off the hallway, pausing about halfway down. “What’s this one?”
Ramos stepped behind her, peering over her shoulder. “It’s a storeroom right now. The previous owner left a lot of odds and ends. We piled them all in here.”
Gabrielle nodded slowly. “Interesting.”
This time Emma did roll her eyes.
It took them thirty minutes to survey the first floor, given that every room brought forth new levels of flirtation on Gabrielle’s part. Ramos stayed polite but neutral. Apparently, the man’s acting skills were advanced.
Finally, they were back at the front of the house again. Ramos nodded at the staircase. “Would you like to see the upper floor?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No, don’t bother. I’ve seen enough for today.” She turned to Emma. “Do you have Mr. Ramos’s number?”
Emma nodded. “Yes, Gabrielle.”
“Good. Then we’ll be in touch.” She gave Ramos one more torrid smile, extending her hand for a languid shake, then sauntered out the front door.
Emma turned back, fighting the impulse to roll her eyes again. “I’ll let you know if she wants to use it.”
“Do that.” Ramos gave her a smile that was just a lip flex. “Have a good day.”
“Oh yeah. Definitely.” She headed down the front steps to open the car door for the waiting Gabrielle. Good days weren’t in the cards just yet.
Ray spent the rest of the day pulling up carpet and hauling it to the Dumpster out back. He hadn’t called Kevin yet to fill in more details, but he was pretty sure they’d both buy in if American Medium decided to use the house. What choice did they have?
Gabrielle DeVere was a piece of work. Of that, he was absolutely sure. He wasn’t certain whether she was actually coming on to him or whether it was just a reflex that kicked in whenever she was around somebody of the male persuasion. Whatever it was, by the time she left, he felt like he’d been mentally groped.
Emma Shea seemed used to it, though. Ray was guessing she’d be able to get DeVere to commit, at least to a few hours of filming. At four hundred per hour. That could buy a lot of wallboard. Or at least keep the wolf from nipping at the door quite so quickly.
The doorbell rang while he was using a paint scraper to remove some of the rubber matting in the living room. Shea. Had to be. Maybe she had some news about DeVere. He brushed off his hands and headed down the hall.
Emma Shea stood on his front gallery wearing the same gray suit and white blouse she’d had on when she’d brought DeVere by in the morning. He found himself wondering just what she’d look like when she was wearing normal clothes. Assuming she ever wore normal clothes, that is. Maybe this suit passed for casual wear in her world. He stepped back to let her in. “Hi, what’s up?”
“Just wanted to let you know Gabrielle decided to do the show here. I’ll have some forms and releases for you to sign in the next couple of days.” She gave him a dry smile. “Four hundred an hour, three-hour minimum, right?”
He nodded. “That’s it. When is this going to happen?”
She walked past him, pausing in the parlor doorway. “I’ll need to do some research on the house and pass it on to Gabrielle. And then we’ll need to do a kind of dry run in advance, probably next week some time.” Another half smile. “And, yes, we’ll pay for that too, but no minimum.”
He felt like rubbing his hands. A quick infusion of cash would be good. “What rooms does she want? I’ll get them cleaned up.”
Shea stepped into the parlor, narrowly avoiding his paint scraper. “Gabrielle liked this room, the parlor, but I’m not sure we’ll use it. More likely the front gallery for the intro. She’ll definitely want the dining room for the séance.”
He frowned. For some reason, the whole séance thing made him feel twitchy. “What will that involve?”
“We set up a table and chairs—I’ll find something if you don’t have one. Gabrielle has the participants hold hands and she tries to contact the spirits.”
Yeah right. He had a feeling Gabrielle usually succeeded, whether there were spirits around or not. “Who are these participants?”
“Volunteers. People who write in to the show. You can be part of it too if you want.”
“Me?” He could think of few things he wanted to do less.
She shrugged. “Only if you want. You don’t have to.”
“I’m not planning on it.” He paused. “You’re not going to identify this house, are you—not supply the address or anything?”
“No, of course not. But I can’t guarantee local media won’t guess where it is.”
Ray figured with any luck the house would be so changed by the time the show aired nobody would recognize it. Unlike Kevin, he wasn’t convinced that rumors of a spare ghost or two would be much of a selling point.
Shea turned back toward the hall. “Could I look at the dining room again?”
“Sure.” Fortunately, he’d finished working on that room after DeVere had made her inspection—the carpet was stripped and the floor mostly scraped clean. Of course it still had the crappy walls and chewed-up molding, but he figured he could tear those out after the show was over.
Shea stepped through the door into the dining room, her footsteps echoing off the newly cleared wood floor. “Wow. I didn’t know pulling up the carpet would make such a difference.”
“I took down the curtains, too.”
The windows at the back of the room gave a great view of the lengthening shadows in the backyard, particularly beneath a dead tree with twisted black branches. Funny. He’d never noticed how dark it was out there before.
She rubbed her hands along her arms absently.
“Cold, Ms. Shea?”
She turned back to look at him, her blue eyes luminous in the dim light. “Call me Emma. Doesn’t it seem cool in here to you?”
He paused, considering. Now that she mentioned it, it did seem a little colder than usual. Which made no sense since the uncurtained windows offered less insulation than the curtains had. “Maybe. I’ll check the thermostat.”
She nodded, glancing around the room again. “Spooky in here. Should make for an interesting séance.”
“Is that good or bad?”
She shrugged. “Good mostly. The more haunted the place looks, the more likely people will be to accept that there are ghosts around.” She rubbed her arms again.
“So have you seen many ghosts?”
“You mean working for the show?” She shook her head. “Gabrielle’s the medium. I’m just her assistant.”
“But you’ve been with her for a while, right?”
“I’ve been with her for a couple of years.”
“So have you seen ghosts in some of these séances?”
She looked away from him. “We don’t usually see things. I mean, Gabrielle has some instruments. And she’ll probably set them up in here. They’re supposed to measure stuff—energy and so on. Usually they pick up on things during the séance. But that’s as close as we’ll come to actually seeing anything.”
“So you’ve never seen a ghost?”
Her jaw firmed. “I’ve seen the readings on Gabrielle’s instruments, like I said.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Emma?”
She turned to look at him, dropping her arms to her sides. The dim light seemed to emphasize the delicate lines of her face, darkening the hair that curled around her neck to a thick curtain. “I’m not sure, Ray. Do you?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“No imagination, I guess.”
“What if they’re not imaginary?”
He shrugged, leaning back against the wall to study her. “I’m a carpenter. I’m used to things I can touch and hold. I’m not big on intangible stuff.”
For a moment the silence in the room seemed to take on weight. Things I can touch and hold. He suddenly had an almost irresistible impulse to run his hands along her arms. To know the feel of that creamy skin, cool first, then warm, then . . .
Whoa. He took another deep breath. This was Emma Shea he was thinking about. Gabrielle DeVere’s buttoned-up assistant. Time to yank his libido back under control.
“But you’re letting us set up here.” Her voice sounded slightly hoarse all of a sudden.
It took him a moment to remember what they’d been talking about. “And being well paid for it. Let’s just say if you find anything here, I’ll be very surprised.”
Outside in the backyard an evening wind rattled the leaves. He could hear an owl muttering in the oak tree.
Emma gave him a faint smile. “In the movies that would be asking for it.”
“Maybe so.” He pushed himself to his feet, stepping close enough to hear the slight rasp of her breath. “Want to see anything else?” He had a sudden vision of his bedroom upstairs, cool and dark in the late afternoon.
She shook her head. “I’m good.”
Yeah, babe, I’ll bet you are. He closed his eyes for a moment. Time to get a grip. Emma Shea was a nice-looking woman, although right now she was a little the worse for wear. But she wasn’t the first nice-looking woman he’d seen. And he hadn’t exactly been living on an oil rig for the past six months. He wasn’t sure why he was having this reaction.
If everything she said made him think of sex, he probably needed a cold shower. “Okay, then. I’ll work on getting the parlor into shape. I think this room’s already set.”
She nodded. “I’ll find a table and chairs we can use. Will you be around if I have them delivered?”
“Yeah, sure.” He started back toward the door, hoping she’d follow. After a moment, she did.
She paused at the front door. “Well . . .”
“Well. Let me know when she wants to do that dry run.” Run along now, sweetheart. Before I do something that gets us both in trouble.