Ghost of a Chance
It didn’t look like a haunted house.
Holly Clarke stared at the three-story house between swipes of the wiper blades across the windshield of her rental car.
Less than five minutes after her plane touched down in Louisiana, the heavy gray skies had erupted in torrential downpours. Although it had taken over an hour to find Beau Arbor House—nearly three times longer than her GPS had originally promised—she was still drenched from her mad dash to pick up her rental.
“Turn left in .2 miles.”
Tempted to toss the useless GPS out the window, Holly settled for silencing it with a stab of her finger. She would have ended up in a bayou had she taken the next left.
Following a car-shaking boom of thunder, she turned off the vehicle and threw open the door. Her earlier discomfort at being back in New Orleans, the last stop on her story assignment, had nearly faded. Driving the dark, rainy streets hadn’t brought back nearly as many memories of Sam as she’d feared when her editor added the Most Haunted City in America to her assignment itinerary.
Beau Arbor House had merited barely half a dozen hits by the almighty Google when Holly had researched the place two days ago. With dozens of haunted houses catering to Big Easy tourists, she couldn’t imagine why this one warranted a mention in her article.
Arguing that point with her editor—and best friend Lena—would be pointless. Holly could be done her assignment and on a plane bound for home before she’d ever sway Lena once her mind was made up. She trusted her friend’s judgment, though, except when it came to Holly’s love life. The last time she took Lena’s advice on that front she’d ended up with a broken heart.
Grabbing her bags from the passenger seat, Holly bolted from the car, slamming the door behind her. It took only seconds to sprint past moss-covered trees and up the curved stone staircase to the covered front porch, but the rain still managed to soak her all over again.
Shivering, she set her bags down and wiped the rain from her face.
In front of her, the door swung inward with a heart-jarring creak.
Stumbling back a step on instinct, Holly then swore under her breath at the over reaction, blaming the goose bumps that raced across her skin on her wet clothes. Beau Arbor wasn’t any more haunted than the five other bed and breakfasts she’d visited already. The food and eccentric staff had proven far spookier than any of the sightings and unexplained sounds the other B&B’s were supposedly famous for.
She was batting 0 for 5 in the haunting department and even accounting for dark, rainy nights and hinges in need of oiling, she didn’t see that changing any time soon.
“Ms. Clarke?” A soft Cajun accent preceded the middle-aged woman who appeared in the doorway. Barely taller than Holly’s shoulder, the woman cocked her head, her otherwise flawless caramel face undermined by an unexpected scowl.
Holly opened her mouth.
“I’m Charlotte,” the woman interrupted, her intimidating gaze openly sizing Holly up.
Caught off guard by the scrutiny, she shifted in place. “Sorry for the late arrival—”
“You best hurry inside. I don’t have much time. It’s nearly nine o’clock.” The woman spun away from the door, her long pleated skirt twirling up in a black wave of fabric tamed only by the thick braid falling down the middle of her back.
Dressing for the part? That was new.
“I’m in mourning,” Charlotte clarified, though Holly hadn’t said a word aloud.
Left to close the door, Holly finally grabbed her bags and stepped inside. Another shiver crawled up her spine at the thought of Charlotte seeming to read her mind. She shrugged it off, along with the sensation that she might be better off putting her fate in the hands of a malfunctioning GPS.
Charlotte was already halfway up an ornate mahogany staircase to the left of the main parlor and showed no sign of checking to see if Holly followed. Darting a quick glance overhead at the impressive stained-glass chandelier hanging overhead, she trailed after the housekeeper who definitely scored points on the creepiness scale.
If nothing else, Holly would be picking her next assignment for Lena’s travel website, and sun, sand and tropical drinks were at the top of her list. She’d heard enough ghost stories in the couple of weeks to last a phantom’s lifetime. Strangely enough, Charlotte seemed to be in too much of a hurry to fill her in on Beau Arbor’s history.
Every other B&B owner had barely given her time to turn the car off before they were filling her in on each place’s haunting details. While Holly knew Beau Arbor House was supposedly haunted by two brothers who’d both loved and lost the same woman near the end of the Civil War, she’d anticipated a more detailed recounting when she’d arrived.
From somewhere below the music of a fiddle drifted up, and Holly looked over the rail in search of the source.
“Ms. Clarke?” All but tapping her toes, Charlotte waited at the top of the second floor.
She hurried to join her. “What happens at nine?”
“I leave.” With another head-to-toe survey that barely masked her skepticism, Charlotte carried on down the hall.
Wondering what she’d done to annoy the other woman, Holly followed. “I’m sorry if waiting for me made you late for something. My GPS—”
“The spirits don’t care about your GPS.”
“Spirits,” Holly echoed. The Beau Arbor staff may have skipped the history lesson, but certainly didn’t waste any time playing up the ghost angle.
The fiddle music grew louder, and Holly glanced over her shoulder, hoping to catch a peek at the person playing. “They won’t be playing all night, will they?”
The woman arched a brow. “Depends on William’s mood.” She checked her watch and pulled a key from a pocket in her skirt before opening the door. “Oscar is the louder one.”
“Another guest,” Holly guessed.
“Hardly. Though our resident vampire is the one most likely to keep you awake.”
“Hope he’s not hungry.” If Charlotte was pulling out all the stops, Holly didn’t mind playing along.
Charlotte didn’t appreciate the humor. She didn’t even crack a smile.
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“I was being metaphorical,” the housekeeper continued. She arched a brow, seeming to contemplate Holly’s mental state. “I’m talking about the new owner. He has a tendency to wander the halls at night. Occupational hazard.”
“Ghost hunter?” Holly supplied, hiding her smile.
Charlotte ignored her, nodding to the phone on a table next to the four-poster bed. “If you need anything he’ll take care of you. You may help yourself to anything in the kitchen but the third floor is restricted access.”
Nothing said haunted house like part of it being off limits. “The vampire’s domain?”
With a hurried nod, Charlotte stepped into the hall. She withdrew something from her pocket and pressed it into Holly’s hand. “Keep this close.”
Holly studied the folded-leather, recognizing the gris-gris, a voodoo charm.
Charlotte hesitated. “I hope you’re everything he thinks you are.”
Well that explained the woman’s attitude. Charlotte must not have approved of the owner agreeing to using Beau Arbor House in her article.
“Good night.” Before closing the door, Charlotte’s expression softened a fraction. “If you need someone to talk to later, you can find me in the small house at the rear of the property.”
Alone in the room, Holly put the odd housekeeper out of her mind and set her overnight bag and laptop case on the bench at the foot of the bed.
She caught a glance at herself in the mirror across the room. She immediately ran her hands through her hair in an effort to detangle the mess of auburn curls that were about to frizz out. Faint shadows lingered beneath her green eyes, but at least she wasn’t having problems sleeping anymore.
With her coat off, she finally started warming up. A hot shower would take care of the rest. Or a bath, she quickly amended, discovering the gorgeous claw-foot tub in the bathroom that she thankfully didn’t have to share with any other guests on the floor.
First, though, she was starving and in serious need of a drink. She felt too on edge and suspected that had nothing to do with haunted houses and everything to do with being back in New Orleans.
Ruthlessly shoving aside memories of her last time here, she retraced her steps back to the main floor, pausing halfway down the last staircase. The fiddle music played from above now, though she hadn’t heard the music pass her room.
Another staircase at the back of the house. Right?
Holly nearly laughed at herself. The woman’s whole performance about spirits had not unsettled her.
A sound burst from her pocket, she nearly tripped off the last stair, heart-thundering.
“God damn it,” she breathed, pulling her phone out of her pocket and checking the caller ID. Lena.
Deciding she’d give Lena an update after she’d had something to eat and looked around, she let the call go to voicemail.
The fiddle music followed her into the kitchen. While the rest of the house had been restored to its 18th century glory, the kitchen had been completely modernized, complete with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
The lights had been left on, making it easy to spot the glass-covered dish of cookies and beignets in the middle of the island. Extra plates had been set next to the serving dish, and once she grabbed a couple of each treat and snagged a bottle of wine and glass, she turned to leave.
Movement from the corner of her eye should have prepared her.
She screamed anyway, jumping away from the man who rounded the corner and nearly knocked her off her feet. She managed to keep a grip on the wine, but the plate along with beignets and cookies didn’t survive.
“Crap.” Holly crouched to pick up the chunks of shattered glass and cookies. “At least I didn’t throw it at you. I’ve done worse when someone scared me.”
“I’ve got the scars to prove it.”
Rich, sensual, and achingly familiar…
Holly fell back on her butt, staring up through another tangle of hair at the man hovering over her.
Not just another guest. Not a ghost either, and when faced with the reality of the situation she would have preferred a close encounter of the phantom kind.
“Sam?” Her voice came out sounding like someone had stepped on her windpipe.
Sam Reeves. Writer, lover—heartbreaker.
All six feet of him crouched opposite her, his rumpled red t-shirt straining across his shoulders and chest and looking like he might have fallen asleep at his desk again. Dark brown hair in need of a haircut fell across his forehead, and intense chocolate brown eyes locked her in place.
“The scar is more disfiguring than you remember, isn’t it?”
Holly blinked, her gaze sliding to the hairline scar near his left eyebrow that she’d given him two months ago when he’d jumped out of a closet at her. She’d been carrying her laptop at the time and it took less damage than his head. The ten-stitch injury had been covered with a bandage the last time she’d seen him.
The last time she’d been in New Orleans.
“What are you doing here?” Although Sam looked just as stunned to see her, the emotionless question cut nearly as deep as his departure from her life, wiping out dozens of memories that could have made her do something stupid—like launch herself straight into his arms.
Deep breath. Deep…breath.
Her pulse refused to settle as she concentrated on cleaning up the mess so she didn’t have to look at him. “Fuck a duck.” The muttered curse didn’t make her feel any better.
“What was that?”
She heard the smile in his voice, but it only stoked the anger brewing inside her. The unexpected emotion eroded the shock at finding herself face to face with the man who broke her heart.
“I stopped by your room, but you weren’t there.”
Her head snapped up. “You knew I was here?”
He nodded, carrying the broken plate to the garbage can. “I never thought you’d actually come. Figured you’d cancel once you knew…” he trailed off, his brows drawing together. “You didn’t know, did you?” He stopped opposite her.
“You arranged this?” He’d left messages before, though not for a few weeks, but she wouldn’t have imagined he’d pull something like this.
Sam’s hand closed around hers, and her eyes nearly slid shut at the tingling warmth that spread across her skin.
Then she remembered how mad she was, how devastated she’d been.
“So no one gets hurt.” That heartbreaking smile was back in his voice, and she glanced at the hand that gently pried the largest chunk of broken glass from her fingers, then meet his eyes.
He set the glass on the counter, then took the bottle of wine from her as well. “I’d rather not play the odds.”
“Thinking about hiding the knives too?”
He shrugged. “Frying pans are closer. I’m assuming you’d go for those first.”
She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder in search of them. “You don’t sound surprised.”
“I’m sure I deserve worse.”
Worse was a lot like calling a category 5 hurricane a tropical storm.
Her phone rang again, and to escape the intensity of his gaze without looking like she was avoiding it, she dug it out of her pocket and checked the caller ID. Lena again. When she let it go to voicemail only to have Lena call right back, she glanced back and forth between the ringing phone and Sam’s guarded expression.
“You called Lena.”
He didn’t look the least bit apologetic about it. “You wouldn’t answer my calls.”
“You left without a word.” Without a goddamn word.
She’d left him in her New Orleans hotel room after spending the most incredible week with him, and when she returned with breakfast, intending to fall back into bed with him, he was gone.
Stunned, she’d been unable to reach him until she’d returned home, the need for an explanation for the unexpected disappearance eating away at her. Had he lied about being a widow? Did he really have a wife at home or a girlfriend?
Sam’s dismissive explanation, that they’d had a great time together and that it was fun while it lasted, had stung more than if he had been a cheating scumbag. She’d cried for way too long, reliving the moments they’d lain together laughing until they couldn’t breathe, the protective way he’d sleep holding onto her, like she might be ripped away from him at any moment, the slow trace of his fingers across her cheek when she woke each morning.
She’d cried, called herself naïve and every kind of fool she could think of, then finally pulled herself together.
But ‘fun while it fucking lasted’? Remembering the brief conversation made the nerves in her stomach snap and crackle like vegetation caught in a brush fire.
“You said…forget it.” She had. Had forced herself to forget everything about him.
Or so she’d thought. Ten seconds in his presence and she could remember far too much. The smell of his cologne without tucking his face against his neck. The sound of his laugh and the goofy way he’d wiggle his eyebrows when he was trying to make her smile.
And worst of all, she could remember the way he kissed her, the slow slide of his bottom lip across hers, and the teasing nip with his teeth before he knocked her whole world sideways with his mouth.
“You said that before.” Right before he’d crushed her heart under his boot heel, and she’d let it happen.
Somehow she’d let herself fall in love with him after only a week affair, convincing herself that all their laughter and conversations into the middle of the night had meant something.
That she had meant something to him.
“I am sorry,” Sam insisted, sounding too much like the distant man who’d all but told her to have a nice life two months ago.
She might have been tempted to take a swing at him with the wine bottle if she thought it would make her feel less like a sucker for believing his feelings for her were genuine.
Sam watched Holly’s gaze land on the wine bottle and instinctively nudged it a little further out of reach.
Until ten minutes ago, he’d been convinced she wouldn’t come, had expected at least one phone call to tell him off. As much as he’d wanted to believe no phone calls were a good sign, he hadn’t dared to get his hopes up.
And here she was.
So close he could reach out and trace the splash of freckles across her nose, could slip his palm around the nape of her neck and slide perfectly into her personal space…
If she wasn’t staring at him like she might skip the frying pans and go right for the knives after all.
This wasn’t going well.
Charlotte had warned him that Holly might still be angry, that any woman had the right to be furious at him for playing the ultimate asshole card—love’em and leave’em. Charlotte had never met Holly before tonight and she’d still raked him over the coals weeks ago when he’d owned up to the real reason he’d walked away.
He’d been terrified.
Down to the wire editorial deadlines, rabid critics, hell even the twisted psychopaths he wrote about, were he to face one of his fictional villains, were nothing compared to loving and trusting someone the way he wanted to with Holly.
After seven days together, seven days of aching to spend more time with her than he had anyone else, he’d made the colossal mistake of getting the hell out of there.
And then spent the next seven weeks regretting every second of it.
“I didn’t mean what I said.”
“You mentioned that.” She stuffed her phone back in her pocket. “In a message you left on my voicemail. When you were drinking.”
“Drunk actually,” he admitted, then winced at just how bad it sounded aloud.
She whistled. “Wow. You’re racking up the brownie points now.”
“Is that why you didn’t call me back?” He’d passed out that night with the phone on the pillow next to him, half wishing he might find her there instead when he woke up.
Holly’s expression softened, then she crossed her arms, keeping a wall up between them. “Even I’m not dumb enough to take drunk dialing seriously.”
“It wasn’t like that.” All of the words he’d rehearsed in his head in the days since he’d reached out for Lena’s help had fled, leaving him stumbling the same way he had the night they met.
“So you didn’t drunk dial me?”
Drunk might have been an understatement, but he was already treading on dangerous ground so he kept that to himself. “I called because I needed to hear the sound of your voice.”
Holly’s eyes lost some of their hostility, the first sign that maybe he stood half a chance repairing the damage he’d done.
Without a word, she swiveled around on her heel and walked out of the room.
“Shit.” He braced his hands on the counter, wondering if he’d made a mistake bringing her here instead of being at her place, waiting for her when she got home from her trip.
“Wait.” He followed her.
Holly never made it past the front parlor, her gaze locked on the bottle of wine sitting in the middle of the bottom step.
She swung back around, retraced her steps and checked the kitchen to confirm what he already knew—that it was the same bottle of wine he’d set on the counter.
“I think we’re past the point of selling me on the haunted house, don’t you?” She ignored the bottle with only the slightest pause, as if she had to tell herself it was really just a trick, and then carried on.
He didn’t let her get too far ahead of him.
Halfway up, she glanced back, not all that surprised that he was right on her heels. “Could you kindly tell the fiddle player that this isn’t the Grand Ole Opry?”
Accustomed to the nightly music, Sam could only shrug.
“Please thank Charlotte for waiting around for me and that I’m sorry for the broken dish.” She walked into her room then spun around at the last second, like she was about to close the door in his face, but slammed into his chest instead.
On reflex he caught her around the waist, keeping her in his arms, exactly where he’d spent countless nights imagining her. Her gaze slid up to meet his, pausing on his lips just long enough to make him forget where they were, and whatever the hell they’d been talking about.
It seemed important, but with Holly so soft and warm and tucked so sweetly against him, simple brain function was a challenge. No other women had ever reduced him to such a complete tongue-tied, lust-filled moron, and he’d forgotten how accustomed he’d grown to that sensation whenever she was around.
The hungry ache inside him drew his attention straight to her mouth, and he lifted a hand, eager to smooth his palm across her cheek.
“Where’s my stuff?”
It took about three seconds too long to get his mind off how badly he wanted her naked and beneath him, and another two to process that she was definitely not on the same page he was. It was a safe bet they weren’t even reading from the same book.
Without sacrificing his hold on her entirely, he moved them further into the room. He gave the room a cursory sweep, not bothering to check under the bed or the closet for the bags he’d seen on her bed a while ago.
“That would be Oscar.”
Her brows scrunched together. “The loud one?”
“Charlotte warned you about Oscar?” Beau Arbor’s housekeeper preferred not to rile their permanent guests by talking about them, which had always annoyed Sam’s aunt. Haunted houses couldn’t make money if the staff refused to talk about it.
Holly’s gorgeous green eyes flared. “Too bad she didn’t warn me about you.”
Thunking footsteps echoed in the hall, saving him from defending his actions again.
She glanced at the door. “Would that be Oscar?”
She frowned at the grip he had on her hand, but didn’t shake him off. Either she realized he had no intention of letting her go or didn’t mind it so much. He hoped like hell it was the latter.
She poked her head into the hall. “There’s no one there.”
“Yeah, that’s sort of his thing.”
Holly shot him a sharp glance, tinged with disbelief. He wasn’t getting into it now, though. He had his hands full convincing her to give him another chance, let alone explaining about Oscar. He should have been prepared for the luggage to go missing, though. It was his typical MO.
“I screwed up, Holly. I never meant what I said—”
She cut him off. “Which part? That it was fun or nice knowing me?”
He flinched at the poorly chosen words he’d used to get her off the phone before he begged her to come back. “I don’t think I put it quite that way.”
She glared at him.
“It was stupid.” So fucking stupid. “I panicked and screwed up.”
He hadn’t planned on ever meeting anyone like her. Smart and sexy and sweet…he’d been convinced he couldn’t possibly deserve her. He’d loved someone once and lost her, but none of that prepared him for how deeply and how quickly he’d fallen for Holly.
“Really? And did you figure that out before or after I all but begged to see you again and you said it wasn’t a good time for you?”
Hurt laced her words, slicing him to the bone. It had been the worst time imaginable, and although he’d figured out by then just how much he needed her in his life, he’d refused to let her come.
“My aunt was sick,” he began.
She shook her head, not wanting to hear it. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s over with.”
“No, you were right. You had your life here and I had mine. Long distance relationships never last.”
“I never wanted that.” He could never have settled for just seeing her every other weekend or once a month.
“And you made that perfectly clear two months ago.”
He blew out a breath, scrambling for a way to fix this. “You get that I was an idiot, right?”
“Was? You think it’s okay to interfere in my life this way? To call my boss and sell her on a haunted house because you were looking for a booty call?”
It was the absolute worst reaction to have, but he couldn’t help himself—he burst out laughing.
Holly’s cheeks turned pink. She shook off his hand and stalked to the door. “You need to leave.”
Angry or not, she was the most amazing thing he’d seen in years. “I didn’t try to get you here for a booty call.”
“So you don’t want to have sex with me?”
He studied her face, sensing some kind of trap. “There is no right answer to that question.”
She folded her arms across her chest. Waiting for him to leave, or explain himself? He went with the latter.
“If I say no, that I don’t want to get you naked, you might think that I’m not attracted enough or something equally crazy. Or worse, that I’m trying to get you naked to fix the situation.”
“And you’re not?”
He took a step toward her, not stopping until only inches separated them. “If I thought I could make everything okay between us with sex, I would’ve had you up against the car in the pouring rain the second you got here.”
Her eyes locked on his, drawing out the moment. She let out a slow breath. “So you do want sex.”
He waited, wondering if there was an accusation buried in there somewhere. “Absofuckinglutely.”
Her lips parted, but he didn’t give her the chance to interrupt.
He tipped her face up, needing to be sure she wouldn’t look away and tune him out. “We need to talk. I know that. And I know that you need time to process this. But I won’t lie and say that I haven’t thought of having you in my bed a hundred times a day in a hundred different ways since I walked away from you.”
Pushing his luck, Sam lowered his head until his lips hovered above her cheek. He could still smell the rain on her skin and wanted nothing more than to peel off her wet clothes and feel her warmth against him.
Which was exactly why he released her and stepped back into the doorway instead. And it fucking killed him to do it.
“I’ll be upstairs. Possibly taking a cold shower.” And likely booking a flight to follow her home if she left without giving him a chance to explain everything. He would do whatever he had to, to convince her to take a chance on him—hopefully without looking like a stalker from one of his books. “But please don’t leave. Not while you’re mad at me.”
“I stopped being angry at you a long time ago.”
“Liar,” he said softly. He wasn’t even done being mad at himself yet. It shouldn’t have taken days to realize that the only place he needed to be was with Holly. Instead he’d pulled away, convinced himself their week together hadn’t been that big of a deal.
If it hadn’t been for his aunt, for the leukemia that took her far too soon, would he have realized what he’d nearly given up with Holly?
He retreated into the hall.
Anger and confusion darkened Holly’s eyes. “Why should I wait?”
He paused. “Aside from the fact that your luggage is missing?”
She cocked her head, and for a second he could have sworn the corner of her lips twitched.
“Fiery, intelligent eyes. Hair up, but falling down because you couldn’t stop tugging on the loose strands. Short black dress, like charcoal painted on your skin and showing off enough cleavage to make every man in the place wish they were standing as close to you as I was. Feet bare, your shoes underneath your stool at the bar. No jewelry and more pink lip gloss on your Hurricane glass than on your lips.”
“That was the—”
“The night we met.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, struggling to make the right choice, and not the selfish one by simply kissing her until she saw things the way he did. “The best night of my life.”
Then he turned and walked down the hall, hoping like hell he hadn’t dropped the ball for the second time.
On auto pilot Holly shut the door, and because her knees were shaking so bad, she sat on the edge of the bed.
Outside the shelter of the room, rain pelted the French doors leading to the private balcony and wind rattled the frame with the force of a rising storm.
Though she sat perfectly still, her insides teetered on the edge of a whirlwind. One step back and maybe she could keep all the pieces holding her together intact.
One step forward…
Holly was across the room and down the hall so quickly she nearly missed the staircase to the third floor. Ignoring the heavy footsteps and fiddle music, she jogged up the steps before she could ask herself if she was out of her mind.
Movement in a room she passed snagged her attention and she backtracked to find Sam in a home office. His?
He would have heard her coming up the steps, but he didn’t look up from the fireplace where the flames had nearly gone out.
“That’s the second time you’ve walked out on me.”
He glanced at her, the pain and regret in his eyes nearly taking her breath. She was intimately familiar with sexy Sam and laughing and joking Sam, along with mildly annoyed, curious and far too serious.
But vulnerable? Not so much. So attentive and strong and cocky, and a little bit…lost.
Between one breath and the next every feeling for him she’d so intentionally buried crashed through the surface, nearly unraveling her where she stood.
“There’s nothing that will undo the hurt, is there?”
Holly shook her head. What’s done, was done. Nothing he said or did could take back the moments when she would have ripped out her own heart just to make it stop hurting.
She’d been swept away the second he hit on here in the hotel bar with a cheesy pickup line. She’d felt such strength in his arms and love. He’d never said the words, but she’d read them in his eyes, tasted them in every kiss.
And then told herself, convinced herself, she’d been horribly wrong.
But she hadn’t been, had she? The doubt that swirled inside her faded with every second he stood there looking like he’d walk through fire for her.
Or was she being naïve all over again?”
She shook her head. “You don’t get to say that stuff.” His brows creased together, but she kept going. “You don’t get to say that, to remember the night we met even better than I do, and then walk away without…” She took a breath, her heart hammering in her chest.
“Without kissing me,” she finished, the words ending on a whisper.
Sam didn’t wait for her to get all the words out, and she was in his arms.
Just one minute, she promised herself. One minute to lose herself in him, to drown in the sheer pleasure of his touch, whether he was kissing her until she couldn’t breathe or hunting for the perfect ticklish spot.
Just one minute to ruin any chance she had of forgetting him for good.
“Holly,” he breathed, her name on his lips sending a sun-warmed shiver sliding down her spine.
And then he sealed his mouth over hers.
One minute would never be enough. Maybe not even one lifetime. Not when she was melting into him, diving headlong over the edge with only the arms dragging her impossibly close to hold onto.
His tongue pushed past her lips, seeking and claiming in one possessive sweep. She moaned at the pure carnal heat tunneling through her blood, marking her like a brand.
But far more sabotaging was the emotion swelling inside her, making her curl her fingers even tighter around the t-shirt gathered in her hands.
God, how she wanted this to be real. For the both of them.
“You’re here.” Two tiny words whispered against her hair between Sam’s breaths, between taking complete possession of her mouth, and the tension coiled insider her snapped.
She caged his face in her hands. “You really want this? Want to be with me.”
“With you is the only place I’ll ever want to be.”
“But you left.” No matter how good it felt in his arms, she couldn’t let herself forget that.
“I made a mistake. The biggest of my life. After Selene died, I never wanted to care that much for anyone, let alone fall even harder for someone else.”
“You love me?” The words trembled out, her instinct to believe him at war with the need to protect herself.
Sam nodded, his brown eyes so probing and intense, and holding back nothing.
“Then I really don’t understand.”
A tentative smile teased his mouth. “I freaked out, told myself that week with you was just a fluke. That I couldn’t handle any more complications. And really, I was just so…”
“Full of crap?” she provided, feeling like smiling for the first time. “You never said any of this on the phone.”
“By the time I told myself not to be such a chickenshit, I was needed here.”
She thought of Charlotte’s comment about being in mourning. “You’re aunt got sick,” she repeated, remembering what he’d tried to tell her earlier.
Sadness crept into his face.
“She’s gone, isn’t she?”
His slow nod tugged her heart until she was sure it couldn’t take any more tonight. “I miss her a lot. She would have liked you.” He pushed a few strands of hair behind her ear.
“And this was the house you talked about having to leave New York to visit every summer growing up? But you joked about it being haunted…” She trailed off, frowning.
“I believe you already met Oscar.”
Her eyes widened. “You weren’t joking, were you?”
“Unfortunately not. They grow on you, though.”
She glanced around the room, skepticism narrowing her eyes. “Oscar is one of the confederate soldiers I read about on the website?”
“You get used to him and William.”
“Is he the fiddle player?” She lowered her voice, half wondering if even asking the question would make it somehow real.
Sam laughed, the sound heady and intoxicating, and the only thing that might make her forget the whole idea Beau Arbor House actually being haunted.
“We’ll talk about them later.” He kissed her again, slowly, a teasing slide of his mouth across hers. “I need you to tell me that we can do this. Be together. You can stay here as long as you want or I’ll go wherever you want me to.”
“And when you get sick of me?”
“Never gonna happen.”
“Because you love me.” The more she said it, the more right it felt.
“Because I don’t want to go another minute knowing what it’s like to live without you.”
“Sam,” she began.
He shook his head, silencing the doubts that cautioned her not to fall so easily a second time. “I know it’s a lot to take in. Just give it some time. Give us some time.”
If she was wrong…
“I won’t hurt you again, Holly. Just stay with me. Please.” His mouth closed over hers once more, wickedly soft and melting her resistance faster than snowflakes caught in the rain.
He smiled against her lips. “You should know that I really want to get to the part where you’re naked in my bed.”
“Your ghosts aren’t going to watch, are they?” she teased.
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Oscar.”
She raised her hand to punch Sam in the arm just as the office door slammed shut.
“And they’re trapped here?”
It was the third time Holly had run him through the story of Beau Arbor’s haunting past, and Sam didn’t mind even a little bit. It helped that her amazing naked body was sprawled across his chest and he could content himself with running his hand up and down her back as they talked.
He woken half a dozen times throughout the night, awed by the sight of her asleep next to him. Only once had she opened her eyes and noticed him watching her.
Sleepy-eyed, she had snuggled closer and teasingly warned, “You’ve got two months to make up for, Sam. You’re going to need your sleep.”
He’d laughed and rolled her beneath him. “Then I best get started.”
Thinking about the hours he’d spent reacquainting himself with her body and the sounds she made when he kissed, licked and tasted every inch of her, only managed to get him fired up all over again.
Although he wanted her again—always wanted her—he ignored his increasing arousal, focusing on Holly’s recounting.
She propped her chin on her hands. “Two brothers in love with the same woman. They go off to war. The youngest deserts right before the end of the conflict, intent on declaring his love, only to realize she really is in love with his brother, Oscar. And though his heart was broken, William stays with her when she gets sick and develops a fever.”
“He took care of her the way Oscar would have. William felt he owed his brother that much.” Sam knew Holly would have a clearer understanding when she read William’s journal.
“Then right after she dies, Oscar returns wounded and dies of an infection less than a week later. And if that’s not tragic enough, William contracts the same fever that killed the woman they both adored, and dies himself.” Her eyes glistened. “It’s so sad.”
“Losing people you love is hard.”
Holly glanced up at him. “Do you think your aunt’s ghost is here too?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. Better for William and Oscar that way. The woman was a tyrant.”
“You loved that tyrant.” She lowered her eyes. “I wish you would have told me when she was sick. I would have come.”
“I wasn’t so sure you would. And to be honest, as much as I would have loved that, I loved spending those last few weeks with her. Even if she spent half the time bitching about the music or Oscar keeping her up at night.”
Although she’d heard the music and footsteps throughout the night and had discovered her bags had been returned without Sam leaving her sight, her rational, journalistic mind struggled to make sense of everything. He couldn’t blame her. If he hadn’t spent summers here growing up, he would be just as skeptical and determined to explain the unexplainable.
“Now that the history lesson is complete, I believe it’s time to move on to a lesson in anatomy.” Sam tugged the sheet down, watching the white cotton slowly reveal the curves of her breast.
Laughing, she tried to squirm free, only to still the moment he ran his mouth down her throat.
Footsteps echoed in the hall.
“Again?” Growling, Holly rolled away from him and slipped out of the bed.
“It’s a waste of time.” He cocked his head, enjoying the view of her phenomenal ass as she stalked to the door.
“I’ve had enough of the stomping up and down the hall.”
“It’s morning,” he tried to warn her, then recognizing that she didn’t care what he thought, he relaxed back on the pillow to watch the show.
Holly wrenched the door open, “Ghost or not you really need to stop skulking up and down—”
“Good morning to you too, Ms. Clarke.” Charlotte stood in the hallway.
Holly shrieked, turned and dove back into the bed, nearly ripping the sheet off him in her attempt to cover herself up.
Salvaging little more than a fistful of the sheet to keep himself from becoming the star of the show, he glanced at the housekeeper. “Did you need something Charlie?”
Not the least bit concerned that he was three cubic inches from a fully monty, his housekeeper set a tray with the newspaper and two cups of coffee on the chair closest to the door. “Should I assume this means breakfast for two?”
Her lips twitched. “And she’ll be staying with us for a while?”
A muffled, “Yes,” came from the woman hiding beneath the sheet.
As soon as the door closed, Holly punched him in the arm. “You could have warned me.”
He grinned at her.
She narrowed her eyes. “You knew it was her in the hall.”
“I had my suspicions.”
A get-even glimmer lit up her eyes. “You’re gonna pay for that. Slowly. Painfully.” She tugged at the corner of the sheet covering him.
Heat flared through him, but before she could lower her head and begin the best kind of torture he could think of, he dragged her up his body. Her lips were still curved in a smile when he coaxed her down to meet his mouth.
He couldn’t imagine a better start to the rest of their lives.