Roxanne’s Ghost, a complex story of identical twin sisters’ love for the same man.
A nanny came for an interview. The day was Friday the 13th.
Dr. Ben Arnold is still grieving the death of his wife, but needs someone to care for his four-year-old autistic daughter. The last thing he wants is an insanely strong physical reaction to the nanny candidate. When she fell on top of him, no one could have foreseen the furor about to erupt over Weltevreden – no one except Ethel, Ben’s ancient housekeeper. Ben refuses to even consider Jessica James for the position.
Jess is determined to demonstrate to the very handsome yet very rude widower she is the perfect choice, no matter how much he scowls. She is the unseasonal storm to disrupt Ben’s life, and may be the balm he needs.
While strange happenings all around them defy common sense, Jess’ glimpses into a life long past adds to the surreal quality of Ben’s estate. Unknown to her, it is the first anniversary of Roxanne, Ben’s wife’s death. The event brings his three oddball sisters-in-law, including Roxanne’s identical twin, to his home. They claim Roxanne isn’t dead after all, and intended to find her and bring her home. The twin, Millicent, in particular, isn’t happy with Jess being at Weltevreden…
Trouble is immanent, but only as far as Ethel allows…
Question is, if she isn’t dead, where is Roxanne?
Targeted Age Group:: women between 18 – 45
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
It combines two elements I am most interested in, ghosts and twins – identical twins, to be specific. I wondered what would happen if identical twin sisters fell in love with the same man. Would they still be as close as twins are supposed to be? And of course, there has to be at least one restless dead person in my stories – actually, I very rarely plan the ghostly characters. They seem to arrive in my story without an invitation, and they really don't need one. I love my ghosts to speak for themselves.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Well, if you're going to have identical twin sisters fall in love with the same man, the man is a requirement. And he can't have it all his own way, he has to have a handicap. So he became a widower with a four-year-old autistic daughter in need of a nanny. Then a nanny comes into the picture. As this is romance first and spooky paranormal second, the man and the nanny are instantly attracted to each other. But it can't be an ordinary attraction, either – it has to be paranormally 'enhanced'. So, a creepy ancient housekeeper enters the story. Apart from the twins, there are two other sisters involved to add a sense of family standing together against the stranger in their midst, namely the nanny. And all the sisters, of course, have to have agendas of their own. That's all the main characters, except the ghost.
Does anyone live here?
The house looked deserted, kind of spooky. Jess couldn’t see any other homes nearby. Sally had not been kidding—this was a rather isolated place.
Dilapidated outbuildings behind the sprawling house looked as unused as the house itself. Some sort of creeper covered most of the buildings but not the house—it looked far too fragile to bear the added weight.
There were what looked like turrets on each end of the house, and a domed one in between. That might be a skylight. Jess worried her bottom lip. How old was this place?
Lightning played over the majestic mountains behind the house, silhouetted against the darkening sky, but down here in the valley, the late sun cast long shadows over an overgrown garden.
If she believed in it, this all fit so well with Friday the thirteenth, because this was creepy. What had she been thinking? She should have postponed the interview until Monday. One weekend surely wouldn’t have made that much of a difference.
Jess studied the map on her tablet, which she held propped up against the steering wheel. This could be the right place, but she’d thought that about both the previous two places, and neither had turned out to be Weltevreden. Neither had been as eerie as this place, either.
She hoped this wasn’t it. Tapping her finger against the edge of the tablet, she studied the house again. This whole thing smacked of a Friday the thirteenth Sally-prank.
Sally, her bestie since high school, ran a very successful employment agency. The professional image notwithstanding, she still loved pranks of any kind—she’d never outgrow them.
Her eyes had lit up that morning when Jess sat in front of her desk, mugs of coffee steaming on the polished wood between them. The platter of doughnuts had been for Jess’ benefit. Sally and her perpetual dieting.
“Something different,” Sally mused, tapping her pen against her front teeth, then pressed a button on her laptop, and reached for the sheet of paper the printer spewed out. “This might be just the thing. It came in a few minutes ago.” She’d tossed her platinum curls over her shoulder, grinning at Jess.
Another thing Sally would never outgrow, her Barbie-doll looks.
“It has my name on it, then.” Jess leaned her forearms on Sally’s desk. “Tell me, tell me, tell me.” She grinned back, barely able to contain her excitement. “Does it involve a man?”
Neither Sally nor Jess had found their Mr. Full Potential yet, although both had been ready for wedded bliss, the kids and the house in the suburbs thing, a long time ago.
“As a matter of fact it does, but he doesn’t seem to be in the market. It says here that a nanny is required for a four-year-old autistic girl. Dr. Arnold specifically requested that only older women be put forward for the position.”
“How old-fashioned. Where is this job?”
“In the Wellington area.” Sally frowned at the sheet of paper in front of her.
“There you go. He won’t find anyone qualified to work that far from Cape Town. It is his child, I presume?”
“It is, but do you seriously want to give this a go?” Sally looked worried as only she could. It went with the Barbie look.
“I’m intrigued. What kind of doctor is he?”
“A veterinary surgeon. And a widower, it says here. That’s all the information I have for you, I’m afraid.” Sally sat back in her chair. “I shouldn’t disregard so specific an instruction, Jess, but just this once, I’ll make an exception. It’s up to you to change his mind for him. It’ll be in his own best interest in the end.” She passed an information sheet across the desk. “I’ll tell Dr. Arnold to expect you at four. I’d pack an overnight bag if I were you. Call me, okay?”
Now, sitting in front of the house that might or might not belong to Dr. Ben Arnold, Jess didn’t feel all that confident anymore. And it didn’t really sound like a prank, unless Sally had kept some information to herself.
There was only one way to find out, and that was to knock on the door and ask.
If there was anyone in the house to ask.
Switching the engine off, she consulted the rearview mirror to apply some color to her lips and pat her shoulder-length bob into place. She took a moment to admire the rich, auburn color in the late afternoon sunshine and sighed.
I don’t know about this. It was a long way from Cape Town. What did people do around here for fun?
Trying her best to ignore the goosebumps on her forearms, she opened the car door and stepped out. Her heels sank into the gravel, her shadow stretching all the way back to the gate.
Only when she turned to the house did she see the man sitting on the top step in the shadows, his shoulder against the railing, one knee pulled up with his arm resting on top of it. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and it looked as if his feet were bare, too.
Was he there a moment ago? Why didn’t I see him?
Smoothing her palms down her red pencil skirt, she started toward the house and the man on the steps, leaving the car door open for a quick escape, should she need it. If he wasn’t Dr. Arnold, maybe he could give her directions.
Taking a deep breath, Jess reminded herself that she wasn’t superstitious about this Friday the thirteenth nonsense. People liked to scare themselves with the silliest things. What was supposed to happen on this day? It was a day like any other.
That certainly looked like a real man on the steps. He wasn’t going to bite her. Today being a Friday and the thirteenth meant nothing, but now she’d thought of it, the idea would stick with her like the taste of garlic.
She’d gone no more than a few steps when she heard something other than the crunch of her shoes on the gravel. It sounded suspiciously like a dog whining.
She slowly turned her head, her fingers curling into the fabric of her skirt. It couldn’t be a dog. She hadn’t seen any dogs when she drove through the gate.
I don’t do dogs!
Then she saw them. Her breath hitched in her throat.
They were right next to her car, beside the door she’d deliberately left open, a whole pack of them. Their lips curled away from their teeth, their tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths, dripping saliva onto the gravel. Yellowish eyes watched every move she made.
Where did they come from?
They cut her off from the safety of the Fiesta!
Now she had only one way to go—into that house. Why hadn’t that man called them off?
Why isn’t he helping me?
Slowly, making no sudden moves, she took another step toward the porch. The dogs followed. Her heart hammered against her ribs. Another couple of quick steps forward. The dogs did the same.
That was more than her nerves could handle. She broke into a trot. The dogs followed. Her scream shattered the still of the afternoon.
Missing the first step, she stumbled, recovered her balance, and took the rest of the stairs two at a time. The dogs were on her heels, whining and yelping, their breaths hot on the backs of her legs.
She’d nearly made it to the top when a sharp whistle rent the air.
Before she had a chance to look for the source, she careened into the man she’d all but forgotten. Her momentum crashed them both to the floorboards, with her landing on top.
The dogs were everywhere, licking her and whining, and all she could do was to hide her face in the man’s neck. Another whistle—right in her ear—made her cringe, but through her fingers she saw only empty space. The dogs were gone.
When the man lifted his head off the floorboards, his hands at her waist as if he was about to lift her off him, she pressed her palms flat against his chest to lift herself for a look at him.
He was clearly not amused.
At a glance she took him in. Stubble covered the bottom part of his face, his lips compressed into a tight line; a muscle jumped in his cheek. She gasped when she caught him dragging his eyes out of her gaping blouse to meet her stare.
She pushed herself upright. That those eyes were the greenest she’d ever seen, didn’t matter, his ogling her did.
That was when she noticed how much leg was exposed by her skirt bunched around her hips. She quickly scrambled to her feet, pushing her clothes back down her legs as she straightened.
“Sorry,” she muttered, her face on fire. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him, but from the corner of her eye, she saw the stranger slowly unfold himself from the floor. Up and up he went, until she felt him peering down at her. Even in her heels, the top of her head barely reached his nose.
Peripherally, she saw his fists move to his hips, and flashed a glance up at his face. He was glaring hard at her. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she lifted her chin and stared back.
Despite her bravado, she was intimidated, and she had no idea if she had reason to be. She didn’t have a clue who he was. For all she knew, he was a vagrant taking advantage of an abandoned house.
Quickly casting her eyes over him, hoping he wouldn’t notice, she mentally clicked her tongue. A vagrant, looking like that? This man looked too strong, too well-fed, and clean, to be homeless. He smelled good too, of soap and sunshine.
Trying her best to be discreet in her study of him, she couldn’t help noticing how the wide shoulders tapered to a flat stomach and slim hips. But when her eyes reached the well-washed denim cutoffs, she had reason to suck her breath in sharply and whip her eyes away. It wasn’t that she was a prude or anything, but the button on the shorts was undone and the zipper halfway down.
And he had a hard-on!
Jess swallowed with difficulty, trying to look anywhere but at him. Eventually, her eyes settled on the garden, her safest bet until she managed to find out where the hell she was.
Mentally shaking herself, she decided he had to be the gardener or something around here. He’d be lucky if she didn’t report his inappropriate reaction to her to his boss. If only she could locate Dr. Arnold.
If he was the gardener, he wasn’t very good at it, judging by the state of the place. The flowerbeds were overgrown with weeds, and grass seeds reached for the sky. With a bit of care, it could be a rather pleasant garden.
Her attention whipped back to the man when he spoke. “What’s wrong with you, woman? Those are lap dogs.” His voice was deep, the timbre vibrating on her skin. “They thought you were playing with them.”
Opening her mouth to inform him his apology would not be accepted, she snapped it shut when she realized he wasn’t apologizing. She’d forgotten about the dogs. Erections did that to her, they made her forget everything else.
She took another look at the animals. There were only four of them, and now that they were at a safe distance and there was a man on hand whom they seemed to obey, they didn’t look all that fierce, or even very big. By panicking, she’d unnecessarily gotten them both in a rather embarrassing situation, although he could have sidestepped her to avoid the collision.
The veranda was shadowed, despite the lightning dancing over the mountains, yet the peeling paint was clearly visible, she noticed. She should ask the man for directions so that she could be on her way, but her nose itched and she sneezed, just barely managing to get her hand across her nose in time. It was covered in dust from the floorboards, and she most likely had it all over her face now. She needed to freshen up before she met with Dr. Arnold. Rubbing her hands over her face was probably making matters worse.
“Bless you,” the man said, his jaw clenched. “Explain yourself.” Fists still planted on his hips, his bare chest rose and fell.
Jess’ fingers curled into her skirt when she realized he was actually angry. But why? Knocking him over had been an accident, which he could have avoided it if he’d controlled the dogs sooner or stepped aside in time. His annoyance didn’t stop him from giving her a thorough inspection, though.
Barely suppressing the urge to stamp her foot, she snapped, “Those animals should be locked up.” The hand she pointed at the dogs with was streaked with dust. Dropping it, she rubbed at the smudge with her other hand.
“They were, until a few minutes ago. When the visitor I expected didn’t show up, I let them out. Who are you and what do you want?”
“How rude!” Jess gasped. “Do you welcome all visitors half naked?” His arousal combined with his anger disturbed her.
“Uninvited visitors never come into the yard,” he growled. He knew she was aware of his condition. “That’s what the clinic entrance is for. And I’m not half naked, I’m shirtless because I took it off when my visitor failed to show up for her four o’clock appointment. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s hot. If you’re Jessica James, you’re too late—”
“The directions weren’t very clear,” she interrupted. “I got lost.” Hesitating only a moment, she stuck her hand out to him. “You’re Dr. Arnold, I presume?”
He ignored her hand and question, reaching instead for the shirt draped over the railing behind him and shrugged it on.
Doctor or not, the man has no manners.
Buttoning the shirt, he leaned in closer. “So, it’s my fault you can’t follow a set of simple instructions? Look, miss, you might as well go back to wherever you came from. The position has been filled. Good day.” He started to turn away.
“What? When? I had an interview for this afternoon!”
He glanced at his wristwatch. “You missed the appointment. You wouldn’t have gotten the job, anyway. Sorry for the inconvenience. It was nice meeting you, Ms. James. Goodbye.”
She noticed his eyes on her lips even as he dismissed her. “Just a minute. You’re going to disregard my application because I’m a few minutes late? I have excellent credentials, and the agency—”
“Had been told that only older women need to apply.”
“So you’re dismissing my application because of my age, is that it?”
“Yes. And you’re more than a few minutes late. The appointment was for four o’clock sharp, and it’s nearly six now. Take your gripes up with your agent, Ms. James. Your time-keeping actually has very little to do with it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, you’re wasting my time.”
Jess narrowed her eyes. “I pity the person you’ve employed if that is, in fact, the truth. You are a very rude man, Dr. Arnold.”
He wasn’t exactly what she’d expected—in his early to mid-thirties, and attractive, in a wildly blond caveman kind of way. And hot.
If only he had some manners.
It had sounded quite romantic when Sally first told her about this position, but in reality it was far from romantic. She didn’t need this man or his job, and especially not his erection. There had to be other positions available in Cape Town. Sally would find her a good job, with interesting work. She should get into her car and drive away without a backward glance.
A damp gust of wind blew her hair into her eyes when she turned to the stairs. Not being given a fair chance had nothing to do with it being Friday the thirteenth, she reminded herself.
It had everything to do with him being turned on by her.
Jess remembered the dogs when they jumped to their feet, tails wagging. She froze, clutching her skirt. They might be small, but they were dogs. They had teeth.
Damn it, she was going to need this man’s help to get back to her car. Gnawing the corner of her mouth, she glanced at him. Would he help her, or would he cross his arms and enjoy the spectacle from the veranda?
Before she could do anything, the door behind them creaked open. Pale, gnarled fingers curled around the edge of the wood. Jess took an involuntary step closer to the doctor, goosebumps covering her entire body, her hand to her throat.
Jess stared at the door, holding her breath, as a very old face appeared. Only when the ancient lips smiled to reveal startlingly white teeth did she realize it was an elderly woman. She exhaled her breath, thankful she hadn’t made a fool of herself by throwing herself into the doctor’s arms. Imagine how he would have reacted to that?
“Are you going to keep the young lady on the veranda all night, Mr. Ben?” she queried. “Where are your manners? You could have offered her a drink by now.”
A sudden rush of relief made Jess want to giggle. She opened her mouth to inform the woman that Dr. Ben Arnold didn’t seem to have any manners, but he got in first with, “Ms. James isn’t staying.”
“Nonsense. Of course she is. Come to dinner. I set up in the dining room, in honor of our guest.” The door swung shut with a little bang, her footsteps receding.
The doctor frowned, sucking in air through his teeth. “That was Ethel, my housekeeper. She won’t forgive me if I don’t, so you’d better join me and my daughter for dinner. It’s the least I could do before sending you on your way.” Locking eyes with her, he pulled his zipper up all the way, then scowled up at the sky. “Looks like we’re in for a spot of rain.”
Jess squared her shoulders, making an effort to relax. It wasn’t the most gracious dinner invitation she’d ever received, but she was hungry. That little action of pulling his zipper up in the midst of an eye-lock spoke volumes, but she’d analyze it later.
And just because she knew he’d rather be rid of her, she accepted the invitation with a nod—to prolong his discomfort. But mostly, she had to at least see the child who had been the reason for her coming all this way in the first place.
What was his fixation with age, anyway? Didn’t he trust himself?
Remembering how she’d straddled him minutes before and his unmistakable interest, she bit her lip and silently ceded him the point—the action of closing his zipper seemed to say hands off.
What he didn’t seem to understand, was that his virtue was more than safe with her, regardless of the sexual tension between them. An hour or so over dinner with the child might validate her. She could demonstrate that she could maintain a professional relationship, even if he doubted himself.
Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by a faint rumble of thunder. He was correct about the weather closing in. Odd for this time of year, isn’t it? Still, it had nothing to do with Friday the thirteenth. It wasn’t her superstition, and the brewing storm was only weather patterns.
With a long-suffering sigh, the doctor opened the screen door and invited Jess into his home with a sweep of his hand, but the moment she turned to the door, the dogs scampered up the steps, yapping and snarling at each other.
He pointed his finger at them. “Stay!” They retreated and lay down on the gravel again, chins on the bottom step.
At least they were obedient, but that was all that could be said for the beasts. I’ll never like dogs, no matter what.
The wind slammed the outer door behind them, flinging a few drops of rain against Jess’ back. She shivered. As she walked down the passage ahead of him, she was very aware of Dr. Arnold’s eyes on her. It would be best not to flaunt her femininity—it wasn’t her qualifications he had a gripe with.
When she reached the hall, she stopped to look around. A weight settled over her like a cloak, overshadowing the disappointment of not being given a fair chance. The very air around her seemed to vibrate with sadness. A chill quivered down her spine, even though the dilapidated outer appearance of the house didn’t extend to the inside.
The entrance hall was beautifully appointed, with dark wood paneling on the walls and somber dark wood floors. An intricate chandelier high in the domed skylight provided soft light refracted by dangling crystals. Pinpoints of light danced on the walls. A round, red patterned carpet under a round table in the center of the room softened the shining dark floors.
Jess jumped when she glimpsed herself in a silver framed mirror. It hung from the wall above a half-moon table, between two sets of glass doors. For a moment, she’d thought someone else was there with them.
Both sets of glass doors stood open, with blazing light spilling from them. On the one side was a formal lounge, and on the other the dining room. Everything shone with care, yet the house somehow felt…unwelcoming. She took a deep breath, trying to push the odd feelings aside. Her imagination was riding her hard. Dr. Arnold, still barefoot, ushered her into the dining room.
That was when she saw her, already seated at the table. She was the most exquisite child Jess had seen in a long time. Masses of white-blonde curls tumbled over her shoulders when she turned vivid blue eyes to Jess, her hands flapping against the tablecloth. Sally had mentioned that the child was four years old and autistic, but she looked delicate and small for her age.
When the doctor stooped to plant a kiss on the smooth baby cheek, the child jerked her head away, flapping harder. Smiling down at her, patting her head, he was about to take his seat at the head of the table when he seemed to remember his guest. The smile tightened as he held the chair to his right for Jess. Grudgingly, Jess guessed as she slipped into it.
He could take a flying leap—she wasn’t interested in him as a man. Well, not much, anyway. It might have been a different story if he wasn’t so grumpy, because he was hot, and she was a young woman ready to fall in love.
Deliberately, she turned her attention to the child. She knew she could make a difference to her, even if her father would deny his child her care.
“Hello,” she smiled, ignoring the scowling doctor and her errant feelings. “What’s your name?” The child eyed her suspiciously before shaking her head violently from side to side. “My name is Jessica, but you can call me Jess if you like.” The flapping and shaking continuing, she didn’t acknowledge Jess or her father any further.
“Amber,” the doctor said sharply. The child stilled instantly to stare at the placemat in front of her.
Interesting. From frenzy to catatonia at a command from her father. Hmm.
Jess shook her napkin out and spread it across her lap, casting a furtive look about the dining room. The heavy drapes moved in a draft, the building storm muted behind them. She looked at the little girl as she smiled at her father.
“Now, Daddy?” she asked like any four-year-old would.
“Yes, sweet pea, go ahead,” the doctor said, draping his own napkin over his leg.
Still hiding an erection, or is he over that now?
Amber scrambled to her knees. She could barely reach the crystal bell in the middle of the table, but when she had a firm grip on it, she shook it enthusiastically above her head.
Jess’ brows drew together. That was odd. Now the child didn’t show any symptoms of autism at all. She glanced at the doctor to see if he’d noticed, but looked at her as if everything was just peachy.
The old woman interrupted that look when she pushed through the door with a tray. The dim flash of lightning curled around the drapes, followed by thunder rolling down the valley. Seeing her in better light, she didn’t look half as scary as she had out on the veranda earlier. Jess smiled at her, grateful for her insisting that Jess stayed for dinner.
The doctor watched the housekeeper take the bell from his daughter’s hand after depositing the tray at his elbow. “Thank you, Ethel,” he said when she replaced the bell in the middle of the table.
See, he can be courteous when he puts his mind to it.
Jess caught her lip between her teeth when the old woman lifted her brow at the doctor, but when he mimicked the expression at her retreating back, she had to suppress a giggle. The clearing of her throat was neatly veiled by rain starting to tap against the glass in the windows. Jess doubted the doctor would appreciate her laughing at him.
The door oscillated in diminishing half-moons when he turned the wine flutes over and lifted the corkscrew. “Wine?” he asked, still frowning at the door.
She nodded. “Please.” One glass wouldn’t affect her driving. On the tray with the glasses and wine, was a frosty glass of what she assumed to be milk. “Is this for you, Amber?” she asked as she lifted the glass off the tray. When the child didn’t respond, Jess set it down within reach on her placemat.
The doctor scowled. What was eating him now? Was he always this grumpy, or did visitors rub him up the wrong way? Too bad. That was his punishment for not giving her a proper interview.
Watching his hands deftly uncork the bottle, a shiver stole over her body. What gorgeous hands he has! The nails were neatly trimmed and clean, the fingers long and slightly tapered. She’d swear those hands knew their way around a woman’s body well.
She dropped her eyes, her cheeks warm, as she murmured her thanks for the beautiful crystal glass the doctor set down beside her placemat.
What is wrong with me? What would he think if he could read my mind?
To distract herself, she studied the table setting. This country vet certainly liked to dine in style, although one would never have guessed it by looking at his house from the outside. His abrupt manner also didn’t leave one with the impression that he was a lover of beauty, who liked to surround himself with lovely things, like a beautifully laid table—a lace overlay with the buttercup yellow under-cloth, shiny cutlery, even a gleaming silver candelabra in the center.
Jess glanced at his face and away again when she caught him scowling at her. Her cheeks heated another couple of degrees. The child was a safer option, and she turned her full attention to her. She was yet again unresponsive, poor little dear. The place to the doctor’s left, next to Amber, was also set. Who was be joining them for dinner? Mrs. Arnold? Sally had said the doctor was a widower.
Frowning, she lifted her glass to her lips. The wine was a deep, ruby red. Like blood. She shivered. Why had she thought that? She looked at the doctor just as he lowered his flute from his lips and met her gaze. A drop of red clung to his bottom lip, which he cleared with the tip of his tongue.
Jess stared, her breath stuck in her throat. Oh God, what was with her? She was on the cusp of trouble here, and that never happened to her. She had to remember she was here in her professional capacity.
It was an effort to drag her eyes away from his face. His glass was still in his hand, now half empty.
Thirsty or nervous?
In a way, she should be flattered her presence disrupted his equilibrium so much. He wasn’t as immune to her as he seemed to want to be. As if that was her fault.
Fortunately, the kitchen door swung open again and Ethel appeared with another tray. Thunder rumbled overhead when she placed the tureen in the middle of the table and the ladle in front of the empty place opposite Jess. Standing behind the empty chair, Ethel rested her gnarled hands on its back and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling until Jess could only see their whites. After a moment, Ethel pushed the chair forward onto two legs so that the back rested against the edge of the table.
Jess looked up at the ceiling and then back at the chair balancing against the table. What the heck? The little hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
As if she was unaware of the weather and the creepiness around her, Amber squealed, “Now, Daddy?”
“Yes, pumpkin, now.” Dr. Arnold smiled at his child. It softened the planes and angles of his face and made his eyes glow. He should smile more often, but not while she was here. He was too attractive for her delicate constitution as it was.
He caught Jess looking at him and their gazes locked. Amber might as well have been in the kitchen when she rattled all in one breath, “For-what-we’re-about-to-receive-may-the-Lord-make-us-truly-thankful-amen,” because Jess didn’t hear a word of it. She was drowning in those green eyes. She had to open her lips to breathe, and that broke the spell. She turned her eyes to Ethel.
“That’s lovely, honey,” the old woman said, patting Amber’s shoulder, but she grinned at Jess.
This can’t be happening to me.
The child fixed a serious eye—for a four-year-old—on the elderly face. “Is my mommy here now?”
“Yes, she is, sweetie.”
Ethel lit the candles in the candelabra, muttering something about the electricity on her way out. Pushing against the door, she glanced over her shoulder, her eyes going from the doctor’s face to Jess’.
“Soup, soup, soup.” The child bounced up and down in her chair. Ethel was gone, but the doctor was still looking at Jess—she felt the weight of his gaze. What was he thinking now?
Jess touched her lips with her fingers. They felt tender, as if she’d just been thoroughly kissed. Shaking her head, she tried to clear the fog in her brain, but instead, she saw the doctor’s gaze where her fingers had been a moment before.
And then the lights went out.
It took a moment for Jess’ eyes to adjust to the yellowish glow the candles cast around the table. How did the old woman know the power was going to fail? Did the storm knock it out? Looking around, she peered into the dark corners where the lightning, now more pronounced, didn’t quite reach.
Oh, my word, this is a creepy house.
The doctor reached over and patted Amber’s hand. “You’re not scared, are you, baby girl?” Amber didn’t pull away, her eyes going from her father to Jess and back. Were visitors that strange a thing in Ben’s house? Or was it a woman at their table that had caught the child’s attention? Surely, she couldn’t have picked up on the tension between her father and their dinner guest.
A particularly loud clap of thunder rattled the windows, startling Jess. Even the glasses on the table trembled. It seemed to her to coincide with the doctor briefly resting his hand on the back of the chair balancing against the table. She shuddered violently.
Thunderstorms, creepy old houses, and Friday the thirteenth didn’t seem to be a good combination. Jess shook her head and just barely stopped herself from clicking her tongue.
I am not superstitious. Just like I am not attracted to the grumpy doctor.
Thinking about him drew her eyes to the man. He still had his hand on the back of the chair when he glanced up at the ceiling before lifting the bowl from the unoccupied setting to ladle soup into it.
Mystified, Jess looked up at the ceiling. Why did both Ethel and the doctor look at that spot on the ceiling when they touched that chair?
There was nothing there.
Dr. Arnold served Amber next, then Jess and himself last.
“You can eat now, Jess,” Amber declared, and added, “If you don’t eat all your food, you can’t have any honey cake.”
“Dessert,” the doctor explained. “Amber’s favorite.”
“Oh,” Jess said, then to Amber, “I’ll make sure to eat up. I don’t want to miss out on the honey cake. It sounds delicious. Does it come with custard?”
She looked at the place opposite, half expecting the thick chicken soup to disappear into thin air. What had Ethel meant when she said Amber’s mother was here? There was no one in that chair still leaning up against the table, and a few minutes later Ethel collected the untouched bowl of soup along with the three empty ones.
The little hairs on Jess’ arms stood on end and she knew her nipples were pebbled. But she didn’t want to draw the doctor’s attention to that part of her anatomy by glancing down to check. Heavens only knew what he’d make of her physical reaction to the strangeness in his house.
Clasping her hands under her chin, her elbows on the table, she hoped to hide her anatomy with her arms. It was mostly a reaction to his spooky house, not him so much. Although his virtue was still safe, she knew she was telling fibs. In a different setting she’d never have reacted so strongly to his maleness.
The Beef Wellington was served to the empty place first—with Ethel rolling her eyes to the ceiling again—then to the rest of them. Again Jess expected the food on that plate to disappear into the ether, but it was delicious and she had no trouble finishing her own.
She glanced often at the doctor while they ate in silence, and a few times his lingering look on her dropped away when she caught him out. It would have been helpful if she could read his mind, but as she couldn’t, she had no idea what he was thinking. Earlier he couldn’t get rid of her fast enough, now he was staring at her to the point of making her uncomfortable.
It was raining in earnest now, drumming against the window, and Jess had to raise her voice to thank Dr. Arnold when he refilled her wineglass. She was beginning to understand why he wouldn’t consider her for the position. A flurry of restless excitement bubbled up in her every time she looked at him, so much so that she imagined his lips on hers. And he kept looking at her in that way. He must have been alone for a long time.
Would it be rude to ask?
Jess couldn’t even be sure this attraction was real, or whether it was the combined effect of the storm and his spooky house. Was it always like this around here, or only during unseasonal thunderstorms?
Still, Friday the thirteenth didn’t come into it, she was sure of it.
And then, as suddenly as they had gone out, the lights came back on. All three of them blinked at the sudden brightness.
The little hairs on her arms didn’t relax their vigilance, but she had to know if the doctor had something to ogle at. She preferred to assess her condition in the privacy of the bathroom. Pushing away from the table, she inclined her head at the doctor. “Where is it?”
He half-lifted off his seat. “In the hall, near the front door.”
By the light spilling from the lounge, she made her way to the hall, and paused mid-stride when she saw Ethel beside the door she presumed to be the guest bathroom under the stairs, as if she’d been waiting for her. In the gloom, relieved only by sporadic flashes of lightning, the old woman looked insubstantial and unreal.
How old was she? Seventy, seventy-five? Whatever the number, she was too old for those heavy trays and looking after a four-year-old child with problems.
Oh well, not my circus.
The sounds of the storm were more pronounced here; rain pounded on the roof of the veranda and the wind shook the front door. As Jess was about to pass her, Ethel put her misshapen hand lightly on her arm. “You’re finally here,” Ethel said over the noise.
“What? Here at the bathroom door?” Shame, was the old thing a bit loopy?
“Cut the flippancy. I sent for you weeks, months ago. It was high time you graced us with your presence.” The old voice was low but insistent.
When Jess tried to free her arm, Ethel tightened her grip. There was surprising strength in those bent old fingers. Jess’ concern about the weight of the trays seemed unfounded, but still.
“I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else.” She tried to sound confident, although tremors shivered down her spine.
“No, dear, I’m not confused. I sent for you, Jessica James.” Ethel squinted at Jess in the low light. “You’re very bright, the complete opposite of them. That’s good. He won’t make comparisons. A whole new beginning is what he needs.”
Jess swallowed and tried to hide the fresh shivers. “What are you talking about?”
“Think of yourself as a gift, dearie.” Ethel blinked, patting her arm.
“A gift.” Unbelievable. Now she was convinced the old woman wasn’t all present. “You can’t give people as gifts,” she said with a smile, yet she had to suppress the desire to run screaming from the house.
“I saw the way you two looked at each other over dinner. There has been enough tears in this house. I am so sorry for him.” Ethel wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “The little one is waiting for her pudding. Come to the kitchen later, after the child has gone to bed. We need to talk.” The lights fluttered when Ethel started to turn away, but they didn’t go out.
“I’m sorry, Ethel, I won’t be here when Amber goes to bed. Why did you think I was staying?” In fact, the sooner she was gone, the better. This place, and its people, were seriously creeping her out.
“Haven’t you been listening to me? You’ll be staying the night, all right, and tomorrow night, and the night after that. You will never leave again.”
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