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Kiss Me If You Dare
By Nicole Young
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One In the sweep of the headlights, the house on the hill looked like a gaudy mansion dating from California's gold rush era. I felt a surge of exhilaration. I could imagine the view of the mighty Pacific I'd have in the morning from windows overlooking the cliffs. And the thought of crumbling plaster around the panes got my blood pumping. Digging my teeth into this place would make the perfect distraction.
Chunks of heaving cement led to an old-fashioned carport at one side of the home. The vehicle pulled behind an older model Honda and stopped.
The driver cut the engine and touched my arm. "Despite her appearance, Ms. Rigg helps where she can. Please don't undermine her desire." He held my gaze for an extra beat, an Einstein look-alike with his shaggy white hair and Coke-bottle glasses. The lab-coat look with mix-n-match clothes beneath screamed "permanently out to lunch." He got out of the vehicle and disappeared inside.
Relief swept over me with his departure. We'd been cooped up in the car together on and off for the past seventy-two hours. And while Professor Denton Braddock obviously meant well with his endless stream of words to the wise, I felt like a four-year-old trapped in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.
A blast of pain shot up my arm. The moist ocean air with its tinge of salt seemed to add to the agony. I rubbed at the bandage that extended from elbow to shoulder, ready for another painkiller. I grabbed at the handle with my good arm and opened the car door.
A single bulb dangled above me in the weathered porch area. Shadows shrank and grew as the stiff breeze sent the light scuttling. I shivered, though the early summer evening was balmy.
I stared at the entry to my newest renovation project and sighed. Fixing up houses and selling them for a profit had been my living for much of the past decade. But I'd intended to make the log cabin back in the deep woods of Michigan my final project. I'd been ready to settle down. Thanks to the redneck mafia, I had to live with Plan B-at least until I could return home and make my dream a reality.
Ahead, warped steps led up to a screen door and into the house. I put a foot on the bottom tread. This was the first time I'd arrived at a renovation empty-handed. No cot. No sleeping bag. No coffeemaker. No tools. No Goodwill bargains. No identification.
Just the clothes on my back. I even had to live under another name while I hid out in Del Gloria. No more Patricia Louise Amble, the name on my birth certificate. I was now Alisha Marie Braddock, the professor's supposed niece visiting from Galveston.
"Why Galveston?" I'd asked him somewhere between Minnesota and Wyoming.
"I like how it sounds."
"I've never been to Galveston," I said.
"Then you can't give any details about your previous life, can you?"
I hated his answer. I'd walked away from great romantic possibilities with Brad back in Rawlings in order to dig into my past. I hadn't felt right starting a relationship when I couldn't give an intelligent account of my ancestry. According to Denton, I was now supposed to brush off any questions that would give clues to my identity.
I scuffed across the porch and through the screen door. It slammed behind me.
Beyond an entryway, I found the kitchen, tall and narrow with cupboards stretching beyond human reach along two walls. A library ladder would have been at home in the galley layout.
Far overhead, two bulbs cast a dim light on the room. The cream-colored walls seemed in perfect condition. The finish on the dark cabinetry shone to a high gloss, without a fingerprint in sight. I ran my hand along a cool stone countertop. Though clearly a replacement, the flawless surface looked original to the home. All in all, a remarkable restoration job.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the counter. When Brad set me up with this hideout, he'd assured me that Denton was offering food and shelter in exchange for my restoration skills. I could only assume the rest of the house, minus the kitchen, needed my expert touch.
The thought of Brad delivered a new dose of pain, starting at my heart and radiating to every limb.
A door swung open at one end of the room.
"Welcome, Miss Braddock," said a woman's voice.
Remembering my name change, I stood to attention at the brisk Irish accent.
"I'm Ms. Rigg." She spoke the title as if Mizz was her given name as she shuffled into the light. "Do you need help with your bags or can you get them yourself?"
Ms. Rigg was a tiny woman wearing a black cotton dress over black socks and black sneakers. White legs poked out beneath her hem with each step. As she drew closer, I realized her small stature could be attributed to a curved spine. The hump on her back rose almost as high as the top of her head.
I tried not to stare. "No. I'm fine. I have no bags."
"Then what about food? You must be hungry."
I focused my mind on my stomach. It growled on cue. "Food would be great. Thanks."
The words seemed to trip a switch. The woman moved with purpose to the stove and lifted the lid on an oversized pot. "Beef stew. The professor's favorite."
Steam billowed as she stirred. The succulent scent of juicy tomatoes and spice filled the air.
"Mmmm. Smells delicious." I liked the thought of a built-in cook during my stay in Del Gloria.
She plopped the lid back and retrieved a stepping stool from a corner of the kitchen. She set it down near the sink, climbed up, and pulled open a cabinet. Even with the added height, she struggled to reach the bowls. At her grunt, I intervened.
"Here. Let me help with those." Just a smidge under six feet, my height came in handy in the restoration business. Those hard-to-reach corners were easy for me. Long arms, long neck, long legs ... I either resembled a supermodel or an ostrich.
The fingers of my good arm barely touched the smooth ceramic bowls before Ms. Rigg swatted me away.
"Don't you be interfering in my kitchen." Her voice rose to shrill peaks. "It's bad enough the professor agreed to take you in. Barely through the door and you think you own the place." Gray hair in a bun shook loose with her anger. "Well, you don't own it yet. Relation or not, you'll not be taking my place in this house."
I recoiled at her words. "I'm sorry. I just meant to help. And please, don't worry about me. I'm not really-"
The far door swung open.
Professor Braddock strode in. For a moment he seemed strong and decisive, not the awkward nerd-type I'd ridden here with.
He took me by the arm. I winced at the pressure on my bandage.
"I'm showing Alisha to her room. She can help herself to stew later." Denton led me out of the kitchen. We stopped just outside the door.
He turned me toward him, showing no mercy to my wound. "Heed my words. You will not survive if anyone suspects you are not who I say you are."
I shook off his grip. "Sorry." I cradled my arm. "She got so defensive. I didn't want her thinking I was here permanently."
"Perhaps you are here permanently. We won't know for some time." His lips pursed under a bushy moustache as he started to walk. "I warned you about Ms. Rigg. I specifically asked you not to help her."
I hurried to keep up, thinking back to his parting words in the car. "I had no idea she'd be so offended."
He halted at the foot of a grand staircase. "Now you know. Don't help unless she asks."
I stared at a mole on his cheek. Denton certainly offered asylum-as in loony bin, not sanctuary. What had Brad been thinking? When I found the body in my basement two projects ago, the killer had been behind bars within six months. Could I last around here for six months?
I sighed and followed Denton up the stairs. It wasn't as if I had a choice.
Excerpted from Kiss Me If You Dare by Nicole Young Copyright © 2009 by Nicole Young. Excerpted by permission.
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