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Isabella feels as empty and forlorn as the buildings she restores. The last living member of the Warner family, she desperately seeks the historic mansion in a sketch found in her granddad’s attic. After a long painful year of mourning his loss due to her negligence, she finally finds the derelict home of her ancestors in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and wins it at auction. With the vast resources of her renovation business, she sets out to save the haunted, decrepit Chatham Hall. Isabella hopes to find a measure of peace by owning a part of the family history her grandfather desperately wanted to discover, but angry spirits seem to have other ideas.
Jack, the owner of a small historic rehabilitation company, has been waiting his whole life to buy Chatham Hall. He’s determined to save the house he believes saved him. To survive a childhood of abuse from his father, he made the derelict building his refuge. Dark anger haunts him day and night as he tries to find a new way forward after losing the house to the bossy Isabella Warner.
Jack and Isabella put away their instant dislike and distrust to uncover the heinous crimes committed by the evil spirit haunting Chatham Hall. They are drawn closer as they peel back their shared history – until the horrifying truth threatens to tear apart the love and solace they’ve found in each other.
Isabella ignored the weathered do not enter sign tacked to the door, against her better judgment. The crumbling, creepy house seemed to scream Go away! But she couldn’t. She’d finally found Chatham Hall after a long, painful year of searching.
A crisp autumn breeze whipped along the deep veranda of the abandoned mansion, tossing her short curls into her eyes. A tear slid down her cheek. She dashed the moisture away with her fingertips. Granddad should be here with her. Guilt and regret clawed at her heart. This moment, which should have been a celebration, stood as a stark reminder of how alone she really was.
She stretched her hand toward the tarnished brass knob, leaned her shoulder into the ancient, worn wood. Shoved it open.
A magnificent central staircase rose from the center of a vast foyer. Light from a glass dome three stories above illuminated the grungy, frayed Turkish carpet running up the middle. A gorgeous statue of a sensuously-clad Greek goddess was mounted on the right-hand newel post, an Olympic torch held high in her uplifted hand. She was filthy, but all the more beautiful for the grime she’d had to endure.
A strong forearm across Isabella’s stomach came out of nowhere, yanking her back against a hard body. Adrenaline pumped through her veins, her heart hammered loudly in her ears.
“Can’t you read?”
She barely heard the gruff baritone growling above her head. Isabella wrenched free and confronted the man, her fist cocked back. Any other woman would probably be scared half to death. Not her. She’d dealt with a skid-load of rude, obnoxious men over the years on her renovation sites. It took a heck of a lot to frighten her. Granddad didn’t raise a lily-livered pantywaist. She reined in her instant temper and focused on the guy.
He was so pretty it hurt to look at him. The type of guy who would never give a second glance to a girl like her.
Blackish wavy hair brushed the tops of broad shoulders encased in faded red flannel. He wore loose-fit Levi’s and scuffed brown work boots. His eyes, sparkling blue framed by thick black lashes, narrowed at her inspection.
“Well?” He lifted a dark brow as he bent to pick up a padlock still locked to a hasp. The shadow of day-old beard emphasized his strong jaw and full lips.
“Who the heck are you?” Isabella lowered her fist and braced her hands on her hips. She itched to swipe the lock from his palm and throw it in the fountain pool on the other side of the drive. Childish, she knew, but she didn’t care.
“Can’t you read? The sign clearly says Do. Not. Enter.” He shook his head in disgust. “Prying off the lock –”
“You ain’t pinning that on me, buster. The lock was on the ground when I walked up.”
“Right. Sure.” He nodded sarcastically.
“Right. Sure.” She rolled her eyes.
His nostrils flared as a muscle ticked in his jaw. He leaned through the open door to grab the handle, clearly avoiding stepping inside.
Isabella glanced down. Holy smokes! She sucked in a silent breath. Right across the threshold, a gaping hole in the wooden floor spread out like the Grand Canyon. The drop had to be at least fifteen feet.
The man’s shirt sleeves were rolled up, revealing springy dark hair on suntanned forearms. He pulled the door firmly closed and shoved the hasp with the screws still protruding from the hinged metal plate back into the holes in the double door.
“Seriously?” Isabella snorted. Surely he wasn’t stupid enough to think that would work.
A tan leather tool belt was slung low around his hips. Mr. Frowny dug around in one of the pouches, producing four or five toothpicks.
Maybe not so dumb after all. Few people knew such woodworking tricks. Isabella really wished he wasn’t so freaking unfriendly. She might’ve liked him. What if he knew the history of the house and the people who’d lived there? Gaaah! What if he was related to her? The thought was so repellant, she refused to contemplate it.
He glared down at her. His scowl darkened even more.
Yikes! She mentally scrunched her nose. Um…maybe she’d ask a town elder later about the former inhabitants of Chatham Hall?
Mr. Frowny broke off pieces of the toothpicks in the screw holes. He whipped out a bottle of wood glue and squirted a dab into each hole. She shoved the hasp in then the guy pulled a small screw gun out of another pouch on his belt and zipped them in.
“Who are you, anyway?” She gave the padlock a decent yank to see if the hasp would hold.
“The owner.” Could his expression be any fiercer? Was he a long lost relative then?
“You’re a Warner?” Please don’t let him say yes.
“No.” A gust of wind tossed his hair into his eyes. She could’ve sworn a flinch of pain flashed in his blue gaze before it was obscured.
“So you mean former owner?” Isabella crossed her arms over her chest, puzzled.
The double door also had a crisp white piece of paper taped to it with the particulars of a sheriff’s auction. The proceedings were scheduled for the next morning.
“It’ll be mine tomorrow.” His cocky, self-confident attitude grated.
Grrrr! She’d had it up to her eyeballs with men like him! “I hate to burst your bubble.” Isabella smirked. “This house will be mine tomorrow.” She didn’t know what on earth possessed her to snipe at him, but she couldn’t seem to stop. And she’d never been surer of anything in her life. If she had to liquidate every asset she possessed to buy it, she would. Chatham Hall belonged in her family and it was up to her to figure out why Granddad had never known anything about the mansion or the people who lived in it.
The man’s bark of laughter and flash of white teeth startled her. “You think?” His eyes ran up from her brand new work boots to her cute aqua stocking hat. Amusement laced his snort.
She needed to wipe the smirk from his face. “I don’t think it, I know it. This house deserves a professional renovator, not a simple handyman,” she shot back. Isabella braced her hands on her hips.
She’d never seen a fiercer scowl. He turned on his worn boot heel and walked to the east end of the porch where he took the side steps down two at a time. He didn’t look back.
“Cocky, arrogant…jerk,” Isabella muttered.
She crossed the wide flagstone veranda, grumbling like a thwarted cartoon character. The crunch of broken stones underfoot sounded harsh as she descended the steps. The mortar joints on the time-worn brick walls were in desperate need of repair. “I bet he doesn’t even know it’s called tuck-pointing.”
She flung open the door of her Jeep parked on the drive and paused to drink in the view. The three-story, faded red brick mansion was framed by an angry dark gray sky and dying fall foliage spilling down the Appalachian Mountains. All the basement windows were covered with plywood, as were the side lights flanking the double front door. Most of the other windows were intact, with only a few of the divided light panes held together with duct tape. Tattered curtains dangled behind some of the frames, while others were bare.
The smell of decaying leaves and moist earth filled her nose. She turned her face to the wind to let the brisk breeze whisk her hair from her eyes.
A movement in a first floor window caught her attention. It appeared Mr. Frowny’s brother or uncle was as unfriendly, glaring at her from behind the filthy glass. He wore an odd coat and a girly scarf tied around his neck in a bow. A humongous dog with bared teeth stood by his side.
Whatever. If they weren’t Warners then she had no reason to feel guilty for buying it out from under them. It didn’t appear they could afford the property taxes anyway. How on earth could they possibly hope to restore the place and deal with the constant upkeep? Thank heavens she’d found Chatham Hall in time. She hopped into her Jeep and drove past the lichen-covered statue of a maiden. No water had flowed in decades from the jug she held. The large fountain would’ve been a beautiful feature long ago. And it would be again.
Traces of cobblestones, barely visible, buried by years of weeds and dirt, led through the thick forest. Isabella burst through to the main road and headed back to Stockton, the nearest town large enough to have a couple of inns and a diner or three.
Plans started banging around in her head. A moment of shear giddiness bubbled up from her belly. She couldn’t wait to get started.
Isabella pulled into the parking lot on the side of a little diner. The sign, whimsical but professionally done, proclaimed it The Hen House. She turned into a parking spot then cut the engine. Grabbing her laptop bag, she hopped out and bypassed the side door as the heady smell of greasy french fries wafted by on a light breeze. Her stomach rumbled as she hurried around the corner. A large front window was colorfully decorated with local advertisements taped to the bottom corners of the glass. A canned food drive for the local pantry was the price of admission for the first home football game of the season.
She stepped through the door and into the bright restaurant. A group of guys in blue coveralls sat eating at a round table across from a big screen TV hanging on the wall. It reminded her of having lunch with her own employees back in Indy. A couple of the guys gave her a once-over and returned to talking. She sighed. There was no escaping the indifference she evoked in the male species. She usually tried to tell herself it was no great shakes, but it was. A long, lonely life without a husband and children loomed ahead of her. No family at all.
An older couple sat at a booth with milkshakes in hand. It hurt to watch them. Her parents would’ve been around their age had they not died. She pushed the guilt away. Isabella needed a break from the near-constant mental flogging she tortured herself with every day.
It wasn’t quite eleven-thirty, so the lunch crowd had probably yet to arrive. She stepped up to the order counter as a twenty-something girl in faded jeans and a red t-shirt passed through a pair of swinging doors with a tray of food. The same white hen logo adorned the front of her shirt
“Hi!” Her cheerful voice greeted Isabella. “Have a seat and I’ll be right with you.” She continued to the couple and placed their burger and onion ring baskets on the table.
Isabella chose a booth in halfway down one wall of the restaurant and picked up the menu tucked between the salt and pepper shakers. She was sick to death of eating salads with yucky lite dressings. Besides, it hadn’t done a daggone bit of good with all her binge snacking on Twizzlers and Pringles while searching down countless country roads for the mansion.
The mansion. If she hadn’t given Ancestry.com one more try, she wouldn’t be here. Wouldn’t have found it. A single newspaper article from the Pittsfield Republican dated 1835 mentioned a Jackson Warner had completed construction of a furniture factory near Stockton. It didn’t say exactly where, though.
The local records department would have birth and death certificates, building permits, and other pertinent documents that would fill in the blanks. Now to figure out how it, and the mysterious letter she and Granddad found in the attic of their Indiana home, connected to her family.
The waitress appeared at Isabella’s table. Swiped up the little receipt tray with the last patron’s money on it from the clean but scuffed red Formica surface. She stuck it in her white apron pocket. A yellow plastic tag pinned to her shirt read Amber, written with one of those old label punches. She held a pen poised above a green-lined pad. “What’ll ya have?”
“A bacon double-cheese deluxe, large fries, and a medium root beer.”
Amber jotted down the order. “Got it.”
“Thanks.” Isabella smiled.
The waitress hurried back with Isabella’s drink.
A gust of cool air on the side of her head ruffled her hair.
“Hi, Jack,” the waitress greeted the newcomer on her way back to the to-go order counter.
Isabella knew that deep voice. She’d had the great misfortune of meeting its owner not thirty minutes earlier. She slowly turned her head to eye him. Didn’t that figure? She was searching for a Jackson and found a Jack.
A chorus of other “Hey, Jack” followed the girl’s. He lifted his chin to the guys at the table and waved a two-finger salute at the couple. He belonged here.
He coolly returned Isabella’s gaze then pointedly looked away. “How’s your mom and dad, Amber?”
“Pretty good. Still oohing and aahing over the awesome job you did on refinishing the stairway.”
“Excellent.” He smiled at the waitress. “Tell them we’re still on to start the kitchen remodel at the end of this week.”
“Will do. You having the usual?”
“Yep.” While he waited by the counter for her to fill his drink, he glanced over his shoulder. His blue eyes clashed with Isabella’s.
Oh brother. She pulled her phone from her pocket and pointedly focused on the screen. It seemed Mr. Frowny was well-liked in this town.
She tapped Ann’s name on her contact list, telling herself it was to check in at work when she really just needed to hear a familiar voice. The phone rang twice before her secretary picked up.
“Hi, boss lady.” Always so sunny. Always ready to do anything that was asked of her.
“Hi, Ann.” Isabella tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder while pulling out her laptop and starting it up.
“Calling for a status report?”
Isabella wanted to tell her the truth. That she needed her friend to lean on. Her always compassionate shoulder to cry on.
Though Ann had been Isabella’s executive secretary for the past three years, and had become one of her best friends, she couldn’t bring herself to crap on Ann’s always busy day. There wasn’t anything she could do about the hole in Isabella’s heart anyway.
“Yes, but also to get you started on Phase One of a new reno. It’s going to be the biggest we’ve done yet.”
“Only you could go on vacation and discover a project.” Ann chuckled. “Did you find it on your way to St. Augustine?”
“Not exactly.” Isabella bit the inside of her cheek. She shouldn’t have kept Ann in the dark. “More like Stockton, Massachusetts.”
“Massachusetts? Aren’t you supposed to be in Florida?”
“You know how Granddad and I were hunting for the house in the sketch?”
“Oh, Bella.” Sorrow and sympathy softened Ann’s voice. “You’d given that up.”
How could she explain the overwhelming need to feel connected to someone in her blood line? She couldn’t stand being the only one left. “I thought I’d give an Internet search one more try and I got a hit. So instead of heading to St. Augustine, I came here.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Now she sounded a lot hurt and maybe a bit angry.
“I don’t know.” Isabella expelled a heavy breath. “I don’t know. I’ve felt so lost these last several months.”
“I’m so sorry, Bella, I wish I could hug your pain away.”
Isabella’s lower lip trembled. “I know, gal pal.” She hoped and prayed renovating Chatham Hall would help heal her broken heart. “Well, I found the house –”
“What?” Her shriek of excitement lifted Isabella’s lips in a happy grin.
“– and it’s going up for auction tomorrow.” The computer screen flashed on and the antique sketch of the mansion filled the desktop background. “I intend to buy it.”
“Yay! I’m so happy for you! Give me the address and I’ll start the wheels rolling.”
“Thanks, Ann! I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d hire a better secretary.” A smile was back in her friend’s voice.
“I can’t imagine there being a better expediter anywhere in the world. You’re the best.” And Isabella meant it. Somehow, some way, she’d have to show Ann how thankful she was. Her stupid eyes started watering again. Time to change the subject. “Okay, what are the current project ETCs?”
“The estimated time of completion for each is on schedule.” Ann paused. Isabella could hear her nails clicking on the keyboard. “NOLA needs…”
A burst of electricity zipped through Isabella’s belly. The sounds in the diner faded away. Of all the empty tables in the place, Mr. Jack Frowny sat down at the table next to her booth, less than two feet away. So close, if he were the man of her dreams, he could easily reach out and slip his big, manly finger through one of her curls. Slide the tip of that finger along her jawline, and if she turned her head ever so slightly his way, the pad of his thumb could trace the outline of her lips –
“Are you okay?” The concern in Ann’s voice penetrated Isabella’s pathetic fantasy.
She angled her body toward the wall and lowered her voice. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.”
“It feels like you might’ve forgotten how best friends behave with one another.” Her light voice held more than a note of censure. “How can I or Tam help lighten your load if you don’t let us?”
Ooh. That was a good point. “You’re right, Ann. I’d be a raging orangutan if you or Tamela shut me out. If the company didn’t need you there, I’d fly you here and we’d drown my sorrows with super large hot fudge brownie delights.”
Ann paused a moment. It sounded like a muffled sniffle on the other end. “Daggone straight.” She changed the subject this time. “I found brick to match the NOLA rehab. It should arrive on Thursday. I couldn’t find an exact cabinet hardware match for the Chicago job.”
“Have Kent mail one of the handles to the forge.”
“Okay. Let me know what this reno is going to need and I’ll get it ordered. I’ll start looking for the Phase One people and equipment in that area.”
“Awesome. Thanks, Annie! Talk to ya later.”
Isabella struggled to recall what was next on her mental list of things to do. She gave up and let the phone auto turn off. She focused on the historic sketch of the house on her laptop screen. It was the only sure thing that would take her mind off the gorgeous jerk sitting out of reach.
If he hadn’t sprinted from the west end of the house to stop her, she’d be a heap of broken bones in an area of the basement paramedics couldn’t get to. At first, Jack thought she was another teenager exploring a supposedly haunted house. But then she spun out of his arm and lifted her face, small fist cocked back.
He could still see her short red curls bouncing in the breeze, the deep, fiery color vivid against her smooth-as-porcelain skin. A fierce fire flickered in her pretty brown eyes as she glared at him. He took in her expensive canvas coat and brand name work boots. It irritated the crap out of him that she might be his type. Confident. Not all girly flirty trying to impress him with her sexiness like most other women. Her eyes, framed by darker lashes, had narrowed at him, as if he were the one being an idiot.
How stupid could she be? Stepping into the unknown, throwing all sensible caution to the friggin’ wind. And then her perfectly kissable lips had started moving. Who the heck was she to come out of nowhere and claim Chatham Hall would be hers?
He gritted his teeth as he hurried through the side portico to his truck parked on the back drive. Instead of taking the hidden north lane past the old furniture factory to town, he drove around the house to the front entrance. As far as he knew, the only person to use it recently was Sheriff Winkler when she put up the auction notice four weeks ago.
Was the woman from the Massachusetts Historical Commission? The clerk over at the county records office said someone from MHC had been in to do a property search. One of their representatives would be bidding on the house.
The old formal driveway to the mansion was a horseshoe with an entrance and exit onto the main road. Jack followed the trail of smashed tall weeds run over by her bright yellow Jeep. Ahead, she turned onto the main road toward Stockton. Whoever she was, she stank of money and it scared the crap out of him.
Jack was drawn to the instrument of his destruction like Ironman to Pepper Potts. Even if he hadn’t needed to know who she was and why she was at Chatham Hall, he still would’ve been attracted to her. He wouldn’t have been able to resist. She’d mocked him and rolled her eyes.
He was positive she would’ve let her fist fly if he hadn’t stepped back. Most women were intimidated by him. No matter how hard he tried to get over the past and move on, his bitterness oozed through the cracks of the genial façade he sometimes managed to erect. They always ran screaming when the real Jack surfaced.
Either she was so self-absorbed she didn’t notice his rotten attitude, or she was unfazed by ugly, rude men.
What would she do if he reached out and slipped his finger through one thick, red curl? He’d like to bury his face in the shiny mass. He breathed deeply and thought he caught a whiff of barbecued potato chips. A snicker caught in his throat. Surely that was his imagination matching scent to color. He leaned back in his seat to see what was on her computer screen. “What the—?” He choked on a gulp of soda.
Curly’s pretty face whipped around. Her eyes focused on the dribble at his chin before she turned back to her monitor.
He grabbed a napkin to dab at the soft drink now running down his neck as panic stabbed him in the gut. “Where did you get that picture?”
She glanced at her screen and slightly lowered the lid. The image dimmed. “How the heck is that any of your business?”
Jack’s fingers clenched into fists under the table. He wanted to hit something. Somebody. He took a slow, deep breath. Tried to relax. Be cool. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk out at the house earlier.”
“Yes, you did, but now you want something, so you’re apologizing. What is it?”
Beautiful and smart. “Who are you bidding for at the auction?”
She bit her upper lip, closed her laptop, and slid it back in its brown leather bag. She fidgeted in her seat and moved away a fraction or two, as if closing herself off from him. As if increasing the distance between them would decrease his curiosity.
“Why do you want to know?”
Jack settled back in his chair, affecting a casual demeanor. It sounded like she was a secretary for a restoration company. She must’ve found out from the Mass Historical Commission. But where did they get the sketch of Chatham Hall?
He couldn’t stand the terrible suspense. Someone sent her that sketch. Someone who didn’t want him to own the mansion. Lots of people in town had been shafted by his dad at one time or another. No doubt it was payback time. Would the sins of the father ever stop being paid by the son?
“You know I intend to bid on it. I thought maybe you’re a representative from the Mass Historical Society. And I really am sorry I was rude to you. I didn’t mean to be. Surprised to find someone about to fall in a hole in the floor.” He stuck out his hand across the aisle.
She cocked her head. Considered him. Lurking in the depths of her brown gaze was a sort of sadness.
What the heck did he care? He was so close to finally realizing his lifelong dream. He couldn’t let his attraction to Curly or his imaginary thoughts about her state of mind get in his way.
She reluctantly reached out to clasp his waiting hand in a firm, warm shake. Her palm wasn’t soft and tender as he’d expected, but slightly rough and calloused. “Isabella Warner.”
“Isabella Warner?” The name echoed through his head. Felt like she’d sucker-punched him square in the chest. Why now? Why not seven years ago when old William Warner died?
Amber appeared between their tables, her presence giving him a minute to come up with a plan, of sorts anyway. She placed Isabella’s basket on her table. A bacon double-cheeseburger and large fries. She slid the same exact order in front of him. Deluxe. So what if she happens to like the same burger as me? So what if I’d like to kiss her? She’s the enemy!
“Excuse me, Amber.” Isabella waved her stubby-nailed hand. “I’ve changed my mind. Could I get these wrapped to go?”
“Sure. No problem.” Amber left with the basket of food.
Curly tugged down her shirt sleeve, held the cuff between her fingers and thumb.
Jack worked to relax the muscles in his face. It wasn’t easy to achieve a neutral expression. “Hey, I didn’t mean to run you off, Cur –” He glanced at her left hand. No ring. “Ms. Warner. How are you related to William Warner? No one around here knew the old man had any family.”
“William Warner?” She paused in the process of shoving her arm into her navy blue canvas coat.
What? He was confused. “The last Warner to live in the house. He died almost a decade ago with no living family members left.”
Her eyes widened. No faking her definite surprise. “Warner. How are you connected to the house?”
“I’m not.” The only way he’d survived hell on earth was Chatham Hall. He’d been waiting seven years for this one chance to save the place that had saved him. “I’m just a guy who has always wanted to buy it and restore it.” He tried a genial smile. “Jack Haverhill.” He stuck out his hand again.
“Haverhill?” Her eyes widened again, then narrowed.
She ignored his outstretched hand. A smidgen of disappointment shot through him. He really wanted to feel her small fingers wrapped around his palm one more time. “That name mean something to you?”
She jammed her other arm in her other coat sleeve. She hooked the strap of her bag over her shoulder. Grabbed her keys. “I really have to go. I forgot something important I have to do.”
“Hey, we have a historical records department at the library. I could take you there and we could do some genealogy research.”
The expression on her face as she slid out of the booth screamed creep louder than if she’d actually spoken.
Smooth move, idiot.
He watched her with a bleak sensation nagging at the back of his mind. In the space of a half hour, he’d gone from complete elation to complete despair. Isabella Warner appeared to have the means and determination to buy Chatham Hall, and a family connection to the mansion.
She grabbed her drink and the white paper sack Amber held out on her way to the door.
His carefully thought-out plan was crashing down around him. He glanced out the window. Roiling rain clouds rolled in. Perfect. The weather might as well match his mood.
But it wasn’t over yet. His buddy Mike forever harped about there always being hope. Jack left his food on the table and hurried out the door, past the rear of her Jeep. Her nose seemed to be buried in her phone.
If she was searching for her connection to the mansion, the only place to find it in this town was the library. And he had every right to find out why his name meant something to her.
© Lis’Anne Harris 2012-2018