It was his first assignment as a P.I., and Matt needed this job to show he was nothing like his hometown reputation suggested. Mysterious and alluring, Kylie was a complication he didn't count onnor were the death threats against her. Working together, all day and all night, was testing every professional skill Matt was determined to prove. And challenging every private desire he was finding impossible to ignore.
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Her mother's body dangled before her like a life-size puppet waiting for some puppet master to pull the strings and give her life. But that wasn't going to happen.
Kylie Grant's mouth yawned open in a silent scream as her mother's body swooped toward her. The head of the puppet jerked upright, and the eyes clicked open.
You should have known. You should have known.
Kylie struggled to wrench her gaze away from the accusing figure before her. If she looked away, it would disappear. If she looked away, she would awaken from her nightmare. If she looked away, she would never get the answers she needed.
Kylie managed a strangled cry as she bolted upright in the hotel bed. A cold sweat claimed her flesh, and she shivered.
Now. She had to make a move now.
Tumbling out of the bed, she squinted at the lighted green digits of the alarm clock. Not exactly witching hour, but late enough for her to slip into Columbella House unnoticed while the tourists wined and dined.
She splashed some cold water on her face, stuffed her feet into her sandals and grabbed her purse from the back of the chair. She didn't need anything else. All the tools she required resided in her head.
She slipped out of her hotel room and punched the call button for the elevator. After a briefjourney for three floors, the doors opened onto the lobby.
Kylie flew out of the elevator, bumping shoulders with a tall, broad man entering the car.
She glanced up, way up. "Excuse me."
The man ducked his head, but Kylie spun on her heel and raced toward the lobby before he could respond.
A flash of recognition pierced her brain. Matt, the town bad boy and all-around troublemaker from her high school class. She should've figured she'd run into some former classmates when she returned to Coral Cove. Too bad the first one had to be someone she particularly despised. Rock 'n' roll playing, motorcycle riding, black jeans wearing Matt Matt Conner.
Kylie breezed through the lobby and shoved open the front doors. The cool night air hit her face and she put all thoughts of former classmates, even gorgeous ones like Matt Conner, out of her head. She was on a mission and the timing couldn't be better.
The restaurants of Coral Cove's Main Street teemed with activity, tourists home from the beach and all cleaned up, rubbed elbows with the locals home from work. Kylie's stomach rumbled. She'd eaten a late lunch and then zonked out in her hotel room. She could use a snack, but Columbella House called and she was ready to answer its demand.
After a short drive on the Coast Highway, Kylie turned onto Coral Cove Drive and rolled to a stop at the curb that fronted the abandoned Victorian. She grabbed the flashlight from the seat next to her and slipped out of the car.
She eased open the side gate, holding her breath as it squeaked a protest. It wasn't as though anyone would hear her approach. The house had been empty for years. She blew out the trapped breath and followed the path to the side of the house, her sandals crunching on the sand beneath her feet.
The beam of her flashlight played across the side door to the kitchen, a piece of warped plywood in place of the window. Rumor had it that anyone could get into Columbella through this side door or the secret door from the beach if one knew how to reach it. Kylie knew about the beach access, but she'd have to come up to the house through the basement and, well she wasn't going near that basement.
She peeled back the plywood and unlocked the door from the inside. Stepping into the kitchen, she aimed her flashlight into the hallway. Her feet moved in the direction of the light, ready or not.
Kylie shuffled into the hallway and placed her flashlight on a dusty credenza. She gazed up at the third-floor landing where her mother's body had once hung. Clutching her upper arms, she shivered.
"Mom?" The whisper escaped her lips like a sigh.
Columbella House seemed to close around her, wrapping her in a clammy embrace, inviting her to stay awhile. She swallowed and straightened her spine, brushing off the macabre welcome. She had no intention of succumbing to the house's gloomy atmosphere.
Just as she had no intention of succumbing to the same demons that had dogged her mothernot that Kylie didn't have the same demons. The horrors of her particular gift visited her with alarming frequency, but she'd been able to whip them into shape, bend them to her own will and make them dance to her own tune. The cliches that tumbled through her mind allowed her to impose a sense of normalcy on her powers.
She turned from the stairs, not ready to confront what awaited her on the landing. She snatched her flashlight from the table, and the dust particles gleamed in the beam of light.
She aimed the light at the basement door, and goose bumps trickled across her flesh all over again.
One of these days, she'd make her way down to the basement of Columbella and test out the strength of her gift, but not now. Not tonight. She had a mission.
Actually, she had two missions in Coral Cove this summer, but the personal one took precedence on this particular night. It was no coincidence that the job she'd signed on to do in Coral Cove coincided with the anniversary of her mother's suicide.
Kylie didn't believe in coincidences. She wandered into the library. Remnants from the police investigation into the two deaths that occurred in this room remainedstrings outlining the dead bodies' positions and chalk markings from the spent bullet casings. But these were recent bodies.. just two more in the continuing parade of death that marched through this house.
At least in the case of these two deaths, the good guys had prevailed. Hometown boy turned war hero, Kieran Roarke, had taken out a couple of killers who'd had their sights on a little boy, his boy. Maybe Columbella's reputation was changing.
Her gaze tracked to the burnt-out room tucked off the back wall of the library. Another case of good triumphing over evil. Another Roarke, Colin this time, had rescued Michelle Gi-rard from a crazed serial killera crazed serial killer who'd happened to be Kylie's high school algebra teacher. No wonder she hated math.
Her fingertips buzzed as she trailed them along the scorched walls. She was in a state of heightened sensitivity. She'd known it from the moment she'd rolled out of bed after her nightmare. That's what had led her to this house tonight.
Of course, she should be using her heightened awareness to get down to business and do the job that Mrs. Harris had hired her to do. But she owed it to her mother to investigate her suicide. She'd been too traumatized to do it before.
Since returning to Coral Cove a few days ago for the Harris job, she'd been waiting for the right time to visit Colum-bella House. Nobody visited Columbella these days. People came here to explore, to rendezvous, to hide, to investigate. To confront old ghosts.
So maybe she should get busy.
She rubbed the soot from her fingers on the seat of her jeans, and drew in a deep breath. She couldn't waste this opportunity. She'd already wasted three years.
She crept back to the staircase and put a tentative foot on the first step. It squeaked. With her hand skimming the carved wood banister, she jogged up the remaining steps to the second-floor landing. One more floor to go.
When she hit the top step of the third floor, she dug into her purse and withdrew the necklace Mom had always wornup to and including the day she killed herself.
Clutching the necklace in one clammy hand, Kylie set the flashlight on the scarred wood floor, pointing the beam of light at the ceiling. Her purse slid from her shoulder, and she let it drop to the floor next to the flashlight.
She took two steps forward and tripped to a stop. She'd been plotting and planning this moment for so long, her reluctance surprised her. Not that she ever believed it would be easy. That's why it had taken so long for her to get around to it.
Gripping the balustrade, she shuffled toward The Spot. How long had it taken Mom to climb those stairs? Had she done it with fear? Confidence? Desperation?
Time to find out.
Kylie faced the house. Creating two white-knuckled fists, her hands curled around the railing, crushing the chain of the necklace against her palm. She closed her eyes and filled her lungs with the musty, sea-dampened air that permeated the house.
Breathing deeply, she rolled back her shoulders and loosened her grip. She had to let down the guard she'd perfected over the years. Topple the barriers her mother had taught her to erect, barriers Mom wasn't strong enough to maintain herself.
Kylie allowed the sensations that had been hovering on the brink of her consciousness all day to take over. She took another deep breath through her nose and sidled to the left a few stepsright to the place where Mom had slipped the noose over her head and jumped.
She gulped around the lump in her throat. "Why, Mom?"
A gush of cool air swirled past her, and she hunched her shoulders. With her senses on high alert and her mind an open portal, all manner of otherworldly phenomena had access to her very being. But she wanted to focus on just one tragedy of the past. She let the others roll across her mind and body, filtering with every ounce of her will, squeezing the necklace in her hand so hard, the imprint of the chain burned into her skin.
A jolt of terror stabbed her chest, and her body bucked. Fear so strong she could sense the metallic aftertaste in her mouth swept through her limbs, weakening her knees. She sagged against the railing.
"Were you afraid before you did it, Mom?"
A cold presence pressed against Kylie's back, forcing her against the railing. She couldn't open her eyes, couldn't turn around couldn't breathe.
She sifted through the images and messages cascading through her brain. She scrambled to locate her mom's spirit.
This thing behind her, this malevolent force had nothing to do with Mom's tragedy. Did it?
The wood railing digging into her ribs creaked. The noise pierced the fog of her self-induced trance. She shook her head, choking and gasping for breath as if she'd just hauled herself out of deep water. She pushed toward the surface of her consciousness, infusing her limp body with strength.
As she gained control of her muscles, she twisted around to confront the force behind her. As she turned, the balustrade cracked beneath her weight.
She teetered on the edge of the landing, her arms flailing at her sides like a pair of useless wings. As she pitched forward, she made a last desperate grab for the railing. Her palm slapped against one of the decorative slats of wood that comprised the balustrade and she clutched it, her fingers wrapping around the wood.
Her body fell and then yanked to a stop. She dangled over the tiled hallway, her body swaying slightly as her arm twisted. She tilted her head back to stare up at the empty landing.
What did she expect to see, a grinning ghost? A flesh-and-blood person? Something or someone had forced her against that railing so hard it broke. She would've cracked her skull on the tile floor if she hadn't come out of her trance and made a last grab for the slab of wood she now clutched like a lifeline.
Glancing down, she bicycled her legs, trying to judge the distance to the floor or at least the next landing. Could she swing in and make it to the second floor?
She licked her lips. She might get her feet to the next landing, but then what? If she let go and tried to jump, she'd hurtle to the tile.
With her sweaty palms, she tightened her grip on the slab of wood. She swung her legs toward the second-floor landing to test the distance. The toes of her sandals skimmed the balustrade. Maybe she gasped. During the Tarzan stunt, her piece of railing shifted. If that came loose, she'd be toast.
She gulped back a sob. If she'd stashed her cell phone in the front pocket of her jeans, she could make a call to the Coral Cove P.D., but she'd tucked her phone in the side compartment of her purse.
Was this why Mom had called her to Columbella House, to meet the same fate? Not quite the same. Mom had engineered her own drop from the landing.
Or had she?
The presence behind Kylie had been evil. If she'd channeled Mom's spirit, maybe that same presence had been with her mother up there, too.
Her shoulder ached and her fingers were cramping. How much longer could she hold on?
Her gaze shifted down again and she caught her breath. A glow of light had appeared on the second-floor landing. Maybe she'd been in such a deep trance, she only thought the presence behind her had come from the spirit world. Maybe a human had stood behind hera human who had come back to protect the secrets of Columbella.
Her heart pounded and her hand slipped a little more. Then she saw ita grotesquely huge shadow on the second-floor landing, its arms reaching out for her dangling legs.