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Her heart pounded and cold sweat trickled down her face and between her breasts. There was no mistaking the creaks of the aged floorboards outside her room.
He was there, pacing, watching, anticipating the moment when he would place his cold, meaty fingers around her neck and squeeze the breath from her lungs.
The doorbell rang. Jacinth Villare's heart jumped to her throat and the gritty suspense novel she'd been reading slipped from her hands and slapped against the blue quilt. Apprehension lingered. Who would be visiting this time of night?
She glanced at the clock next to her bed. It was only ten after ten, not really considered late in the Big Easy, though Jacinth had snuggled into bed with her book a full hour ago.
The visitor at the door was likely a lost tourist looking for the bed-and-breakfast where he'd rented a room for the night. There were two in Jacinth's block alone, one owned by the friendly gay couple who lived just to the right of her.
The bell rang again. She untangled herself from the crisp percale sheets, threw her legs over the side of the bed and felt the familiar tingle of old wool as her heels and toes caressed the worn rug.
She reached back for the book to tuck it beneath the covers, and then realized the act would be a waste of time.
Romantic suspense was her secret escape from the stacks of historically accurate novels and legitimate works of nonfiction that defined her serious, academic persona.
But no one would be visiting her bedroom tonight.
Unfortunately, that was also true for every other night in the recent past and likely the immediate future. Working toward her doctorate and keeping up with her duties as a teacher left no time to invest in a relationship.
Her hands automatically grabbed for her tatty chenille robe before she changed her mind and left it hanging from the bedpost. Her nightshirt covered more than the shorts and T-shirt she'd worn to rake the yard this afternoon.
She flicked the light switch at the top of the winding staircase. Shimmery illumination from the cut-glass chandelier crept over the walls like golden wings.
Repairing and cleaning the monstrous antique had taken months, but the air of opulence it provided the old family home was definitely worth the time and cost.
The floorboards creaked eerily as she traipsed the hallway of the sprawling mansion. Reaching the wide double doors, Jacinth cautiously put her eye to the peephole. The gas lantern near the front walk painted entrancing shadows across the man at her door, but did nothing to disguise his rugged masculinity.
Hard bodied, clearly evident in the black T-shirt he was wearing. Unruly dark hair peeking from beneath a Saints cap. A face with character and craggy angles. The kind of stranger you'd invite into an erotic dreambut not into your living room at ten at night.
Jacinth unlatched the door and eased it open a crack, leaving the security chain firmly in place. "Can I help you?"
"Just thought I'd warn you that you're going to have one hell of a water bill if you don't turn off your sprinkler system."
"I don't have a sprinkler system."
"Then you've got bigger problems."
She glanced past the man and at a stream of water flowing across her soggy front yard and pouring over the curb like an infinity pool.
She groaned. "Another wretched trick of this money pit posing as a house. I know the plumber better than I know my neighbors. I'll call him."
"I can locate the outside valve and turn your water off if you like. Then you could wait until morning to call him. That might save you paying double or even triple for an after-hours emergency call."
Money she didn't have to waste. "I'd appreciate that." Her wary nature checked in again. "Who are you?"
"Sorry. Guess I should have introduced myself. Name's Nick Bruno. I'm moving in next door to you."
"Into the B and B?"
"The other next door. I rented the carriage house apartment from Gladys Findley."
Bruno. The same last name as the man who'd killed her father. Not that she could hold that against this guy, unless
"You're not kin to Elton Bruno, are you?"
He looked bewildered. "Who is that?"
Jacinth couldn't see the street in front of the Findley house from this angle, but she had noticed that the "furnished apartment for rent" sign had still been in place when she'd raked the latest deluge of oak leaves from the lawn late this afternoon. "When did you move in?"
"I haven't yet. I just closed the deal this afternoon and I was bringing over a few boxes tonight. I didn't expect to need rubber boots."
"Sorry. Years of neglect have left this house a catastrophe waiting to happen. I'm afraid that living next to me, you'll never know what to expect."
The deep timbre of his voice coupled with a seductive smile raised her pulse more effectively than her nightly sit-ups had. "I'm Jacinth Villare," she said, finally unlatching the safety chain and extending a hand.
Her cat appeared from nowhere and curled around Jacinth's ankle, feigning protectiveness. Jacinth reached down to pick her up, but the feline yowled and made a stealthy dart toward freedom.
"Come back here, Sin," she ordered a cat that never followed her commands.
Nick snatched up the cat before it could sink into the watery slush. "Sin? Interesting name for this bad boy."
"She's a girl. And Sin is short for Sinister, a name well deserved for her evil stare when the royal high-ness's dignity is affronted."
He held the cat up for Jacinth to rescue from his strong arms.
Sin arched her back and showed her claws as if ready to attack. Nick ignored her antics.
"I'd recommend filling some kitchen pots and your bathtub with water before I cut it off. But with that leak, you can expect the pressure to be low."
"Thanks. I will. Give me ten minutes."
"Welcome to the neighborhood," she called as he walked away.
Jacinth hurried to the kitchen, filled a few pots for drinking water and then raced up the stairs to fill the tub in her bathroom. The pressure was indeed low, but if Hunky Nick gave her the full ten minutes, she could collect enough water to flush the commode until the leak was fixed.
Hunky Nick who was now her next-door neighbor. Probably married or gay, she cautioned a few unexpected, lustful vibes.
The bathtub was almost full when the decreased flow from the faucet turned into a trickle and then stopped altogether. Evidently, Nick had located the valve and likely saved her a fortune on her water and plumbing bills.
Married or not, the guy was handy to have around. Now back to bed to finish the last chapter in her book, though she feared Nick's image might replace the description the author had provided for the hero. Her hand was on the doorknob when a crash behind her created a deluge of flying debris.
She spun around to find that the back wall had caved in, dropping huge chunks of plaster into her tub of previously clean water. A wall she had only last week spent hours painting.
Her spirits caved with the chalky drywall. Why had she fallen in love with a house that didn't love her back?
More plaster fell, a lump of it landing near her feet. She started to step over it. Only
It wasn't plaster. It was
A scream tore from her throat as a decaying head rolled against her bare foot and its remaining, wiry blond hair came to rest against Jacinth's toes.