“So, how’s that gorgeous guy of yours?” Susan’s voice rang through the phone loud and clear.
Seated at the dining room table, Amber Harrison stared at the handsome hunk through the open archway. Carter Miller stood on a ladder in the disassembled kitchen not ten feet away. Sweat marks darkened his shirt while muscles danced under the surface. The steady rhythm of his movements had kept Amber entertained throughout her lunch break.
She bit her lips and shoved her plate to the center of the table. “It’s very chilly here.”
Longing bubbled in her chest, but Amber ignored the ache. “And I don’t expect it to warm up anytime soon.”
“He’s in the room?”
“Yes.” Amber glanced at the construction in the new combination breakfast and kitchen area. Both were coming along nicely.
Once the project was finished, her chances to ogle his muscular physique ended, too. “The view from inside the house can be quiet pleasing.”
“Right, and from the sound of your voice, your body is on overload from all the eye-candy,” Susan admonished, firmly marking her place as Amber’s best friend. “Why don’t you just jump the man? You know it’s what you’re hoping for.”
As her ex-roommate, Susan understood how much Amber longed to have someone special. Nevertheless, a relationship with Carter had no chance of working. He’d freak if he learned a whole family of spirits lived in the house with her.
“I’ll consider your suggestion later. At the moment, I’m busy with a few other things.” Amber traced her finger along the side of her glass and rubbed the moisture between her thumb and forefinger. She imagined the sweat on Carter’s neck.
“Not that busy,” Susan replied and changed the subject. “Have you heard from my sister? I told her yesterday when I talked to her that you wanted her to come see you. She said she’d call and set up a visit for this coming weekend.”
“Not yet, but she can come to Winston Manor whenever it’s convenient for her. I know she’s busy getting settled in her dorm room at Ohio State, so don’t rush her.” Amber brushed her long blonde hair away from her face. “Columbus is an easy town to get around, but it’s different from California.”
She recalled her fears when she’d first moved to Ohio; the strange, overwhelming impression of being detached from everything familiar. If it hadn’t been for Mattie Winston and the family spirits, Amber would’ve never stayed.
At times, she still missed sunny Orange County. Her gaze fell on the dreary mist falling outside the patio doors.
“When you do hear from her, make sure she tells you how she tackled a wide receiver on her first day of classes.”
“What?” A picture of Lilia formed in Amber’s head. “She can’t be more than five-six. How did she manage it?”
“In her normal, clueless way. She was walking across campus with her head in the clouds. He and his friends were tossing around a football. He didn’t see her on the path and blindsided her. They did a little dance, and she ended up on the ground with this six-foot hunk under her.” Susan laughed, “Talk about going down on a man. She thinks he might play for the Ohio State football team.”
Tackling one particular man did sound fun. Amber’s gaze slid to Carter’s lean form again. “What did she do?”
“Well, you know my psychic sister. She retrieved the ball, stood, and calmly handed it back to him with some friendly advice.”
“What, like he’d better watch where he’s going in the future or he’ll get hurt?”
“No! Picture this: she told him how he should hold the ball. High and tight, or he’d never score on any field.” Susan chuckled at her sister’s unusual antics. “I can almost envision her serious gray eyes, mesmerizing him with her gypsy charm.”
Amber pictured Lilia’s multi-color skirt floating around her ankles, her bangle bracelets jingling with her movements, and her wild hair waltzing in the breeze. “The guy probably thought he’d fallen down a rabbit hole.”
“Hey, and guess what my crazy psychic sister did next?” Susan answered her own question, “She simply walked away.”
Laughter rang through the phone.
“You shouldn’t give her such a hard time. She’s only trying to find herself.” Amber sympathized. Susan might not see it as being so funny if she had to cope with the same set of circumstances.
“No, Lilia knows she’s a psychic. Her problem is she wants the world to accept her as she is. What she doesn’t understand is the world doesn’t give a damn,” Susan expressed with sisterly clarity.
“All right, but you should be more understanding?” Amber had learned over the last few months how it felt to be different, especially now, in her new role as keeper of the Winston family spirits. The tasks she needed to accomplish could be overwhelming at times.
“No, Lilia needs to lighten up and have some fun.” Susan added, “Like someone else I know.”
After a quick goodbye, she hung up.
Amber closed her cell phone, stood, and stuffed it into her pocket.
Time to get back to work.
She left her dishes on the table. With the kitchen out of commission, she’d wash them later in the downstairs bathroom.
If I can beat Beth to them.
She walked through the archway into the construction zone. The breakfast nook now had a larger new window which allowed more light into the room. Sunbeams danced over the brick fireplace, turning the color to a bright red and contrasting nicely with the oak railing lining the back staircase.
On a cold winter’s morning, she’d enjoy the heat of a roaring fire. By then, with the kitchen completed and the vivid glow of autumn gone, she’d have the place to herself. Carter’s only reason for visiting then would be to see his dad, Quincy, and his new stepmother, Mattie. He’d not have to see or talk to Amber at all.
Dropping her lashes, she peered at him in the middle of the room. He’d not said more than two words to her in the past week.
Even with his rustling movements, she couldn’t take the silence between them. The eerie calm, along with her persistent desire to be close to him, played on her nerves and pushed her to break the impasse between them.
“How long before you install the new cabinets?”
He turned on the ladder. His dark brown eyes captured her, engulfing her in an encompassing warmth. She melted under his heated gaze, which ran from the top of her head to the white socks on her feet. He lifted a brow at her attire, but he didn’t comment on her pink sweat suit.
“With the old cabinets out of the way, I need to knock down this wall and tear up the flooring. The electrical work is next on the agenda.” He climbed off the ladder, yanked off his gloves, and slid a hand through his thick, wavy hair.
“It might be awhile before we install the new cabinets. Right now, we’re simply working to remove the old stuff so we can start fresh.” He smiled, which didn’t hide the dark circles under his eyes or the fatigue in the slump of his shoulders.
“There’s no hurry. If you’re busy with something else, this can wait until your Dad and Mattie come home next week.”
“No, Dad doesn’t want her dealing with this mess.” Carter unbuckled his tool belt and placed it on a workbench. “I promised him I’d have it done.”
“Is Grant helping?” Amber stepped around several pieces of sheetrock and stray bits of wood, to the bottom of the stairs.
He walked to the backdoor. “Friday, his classes are over at noon.”
With his hand resting on the doorknob, he appeared anxious to leave. “I’m headed to lunch, and then I need to drop by the office for a while. Are you sure you’re okay here by yourself?”
Amber toyed with the idea of saying no. She missed the taste of his lips and the strength of his arms, but she nodded instead. “Yes, I’m fine.”
After opening the door, he paused. “I guess I’ll see you later.”
She waved and turned to head to her room, satisfied she’d at least gotten him to talk. Her leaden feet trudged up the steps. Unexcited, she contemplated her latest assignment from the family council. How could she achieve such an impossible task?
Leaning back on the chaise lounge in her room, Amber studied Beth’s grandmotherly form as she floated across the sitting room to the antique table. The spirit’s movements didn’t disturb the silence.
Today the quaint charm of Amber’s bedroom suite didn’t hold its normal appeal. With the weepy sun unable to penetrate the thick cloud cover, only a dim light peered in through the French doors.
Amber reviewed possible solutions to Gwen’s problems, while watching Molly and Beth float around the room.
“I believe trust is Gwen’s issue,” Beth announced as if she’d found the answer.
“Trust?” Amber didn’t see how that would cause her great grandmother’s ghost to roam the halls of Winston Manor.
“Yes. I bet she thinks you’re the only one who has any faith in her.” Beth pushed her wire-rim glasses farther up on her regal nose.
“No, your theory doesn’t make sense. Gwen’s main objective is to protect Amber,” Molly argued. “Every time she’s appeared, her life has been in danger.”
“But it may not be her true reason for not crossing over into the spiritual realm.” Beth rubbed her hands on her crisp white apron.
“Wait.” Amber stood and stared at the two spirits. “Are you telling me Gwen has an excuse for being a ghost?”
Molly glided closer. The fringe on her 1920s style dress danced around her knees. “Ghosts live between worlds, not on Earth but tied to it. They have unresolved issues that won’t let them give up their prior life.”
“Until we find out what’s holding Gwen back, you’ll never be able to convince her to move on to heaven.” Beth shook her head in regret. “She can’t see us, so we can’t talk to her and discover the answer.”
“Still, the family council wants me to help her and will kick me out of my job, if I can’t achieve the task.” Amber walked across her suite and stopped next to the drop-leaf table. She retrieved her cup and gulped her coffee. The sour flavor mixed with her bitter frustration. Her second challenge from the family spirits should be easy to solve. After all, her first assignment, to identify a murderer, had sent her into a killer’s path and embroiled her in the family’s dark history.
Jonathan, as leader of the council, hadn’t appreciated her intruding into his past. He’d threatened to throw her out of the house when she’d tried to prove Gwen hadn’t deserted him for a younger man. If her great grandmother’s ghost hadn’t shown up, Amber might not have discovered the truth and saved her job. Again, she had to solve a two-hundred-year-old mystery. This task appeared to be even more difficult. “Jonathan only gave me a month.”
“We know, dear.” Molly wrung her hands as if uncertain as to the outcome of the assignment. “That’s why we’re struggling to determine Gwen’s motivation for staying a ghost.”
Beth lifted Amber’s cup and set it on the tray. “Look, you’re tired. Why don’t we take a break? You should go outside and get a breath of fresh air.” Molly stood, her dainty feet floating inches from the floor. “We’ll talk later.”
Both spirits vanished.
Disheartened with the slow progress of helping Gwen, Amber picked up the tray and walked toward the door.
Maybe she’d call Lilia never hurt to garner additional help from a psychic. Also, from the way Susan had described her sister, the girl needed a friend.
It’s worth a shot.
The light from the bathroom exposed the cracks running through the worn tile floor. Add in scarred furnishings and shifting shadows playing across the off-white walls from the window; the eerie atmosphere in the cramped dorm room didn’t evoke a homey appeal.
The girl, standing in front of the dresser, didn’t notice. She stood like a statue with her gaze glued to the mirror. The reflection, staring back at her, had the same color eyes, nose, and facial features. Except for the permed hair on one head, they were identical.
“Delilah, why are you so interested in me visiting Amber?” Lilia queried, convinced her sister wasn’t sharing everything she knew concerning the woman. “You’ve never even met her.”
“Yes, but she lives in Hawkins County, near Newark. That’s where the lawyer lived who handled our adoption,” the apparition stated, driving home the fact as if it was new information.
“But he’s dead. He can’t help us now.” Lilia shifted restlessly, irritated with the interruption and unwilling to deal with her sister’s restless spirit at the moment. She had a shitload of assignments due tomorrow. “I know,” Delilah responded sarcastically. “Who do you think was in the car with him when he hit the tree?” Lilia waved the comment aside. “Yes, but Amber doesn’t know anything about the accident. She only moved here from California a few months ago, and I don’t have time right now to track down leads on where our mother is.”
The reoccurring argument played through her head, and she fought to dampen her sister’s excitement. “It’ll have to wait until I get settled here at school.”
“But that’s the point.” Delilah didn’t let the subject drop. “Susan’s friend might be able to help you with the search.”
“She won’t want to take on our problem.”
“You can ask.”
Lilia stared at her twin, who in appearance resembled her in every way. Her sister had a very compulsive personality, which had driven her to seek answers about their parentage and had caused her death. Why couldn’t she just let go?
“Okay, I’ll call her. Between you and Susan, you’d think the lady was the best thing since sliced bread.” Lilia turned away from the mirror and refused to glance back at the image. “Now, leave me alone. I have homework to do.”
She retrieved her cell phone from her pocket and walked to her nightstand. The piece of paper with Amber’s number lay next to cold fries and a half-eaten burger. Victims of disinterest, they’d lost their appeal hours ago. Ignoring the mess, she sat on the bed and punched in the corresponding digits.
The mirror across the room stood empty. Lilia listened to the phone ringing in her ear.
“Hi, Amber. This is Lilia Warner, Susan’s sister.”
“Amazing, I was just going to call you.” The voice rang with a pleased tone. “How’s it going?”
“Fine, I uh—” Lilia had met Amber several times at her sister’s apartment that they shared and had always enjoyed talking to her. Still, the thought of visiting her in Ohio caused butterflies to flutter through Lilia’s stomach.
“It’s Wednesday. I realize I haven’t given you much notice, but I’d like to stop by and see you this weekend.” She stumbled on, “Susan said you wouldn’t mind.”
“No, I’d love to see you.” Amber continued, “You can come whenever it’s convenient for you.”
Lilia brushed her nervous hands over her skirt. “Saturday, say around ten?”
“That’s fine. Let me give you directions to the house.” The cheerful quality of Amber’s voice eased Lilia’s fears regarding her visit.
Almost excited by the opportunity to break away from school, she jotted the information on a notepad and rang off with a simple, “Bye.”
To the empty room, she muttered, “Okay, the deed is done. Now get off my back.”
Carter opened the backdoor to Winston estate and paused. The brick fireplace along the back wall appeared ready for a fire, with logs lying on the grate. The staircase wound its way to the second floor, beckoning him to find where Amber might be hiding.
He stepped forward and studied the clean floor. With no basement under this part of the house, the cement foundation gleamed in the stark overhead lighting. What happened to the debris from yesterday?
He recalled his rush for the exit, and his gaze fell on the large garbage can in the corner.
He knotted his hands into fists. His sister, Carol, had interrupted his normal cleanup routine. She had insisted he pick up his young nephew and niece from daycare so she’d avoid after-hours charges. He’d argued with her to give him more warning, but she’d claimed she’d lost track of time.
He strolled to his workbench. The pungent odor of disinfectant hit his senses. Why couldn’t Carol handle her own problems?
He stroked his fingertip along the handle of a screwdriver. A picture formed in his head—blonde hair, blue eyes, sensual curves, Amber.
Why had she cleaned up his mess?
Her cold attitude after she had returned from California had given him the impression she wanted nothing to do with him. Then, with his father on vacation, all the business concerns of Miller Construction fell on Carter’s shoulders. He didn’t have time for a social life. Hell, he’d barely been civil to Amber in the last couple of weeks.
“Hey, I thought you said the place was a mess.” His brother stood in the doorway.
“It was.” Carter picked up his tool belt.
“Right, then who cleaned it?” Grant offered with a meaningful grin. “A ghost?”
“No.” Carter turned to his younger brother, not pleased with his joke. “Amber probably did it.”
“Why don’t we call it a day?”
“No, Dad will be home in a few days and he’ll expect to see progress.”
“But it’s Friday afternoon.” Grant stared at the bare walls and held the door slightly open. “If the mess is gone, why can’t we take off early? You’ve already said we’ll need to put in time tomorrow.”
The door’s latch clicked shut, but he didn’t step forward. “Why can’t it wait? I just got home for the weekend.”
“Good try, but no.” Carter paused at the low squeak of a loose plank on the stairs, a forewarning of Amber’s appearance. The sound had saved him more than once over the last couple of days. It provided him time to curb his reaction to the beautiful sight of her coming down the stairs.
Still, he was unprepared for her sexy form encased in tight jeans and a pink cotton sweater. Drawing in a quick breath, he lifted his gaze to her crystal-blue eyes.
Instantly swept away, he imagined sitting on a deserted beach with her standing before him in a tiny bikini. A salty breeze blew her long blonde hair over her shoulder and into her face. The curve of her waist flared into hips and lengthened into long elegant legs. Every drop of moisture in his mouth vanished, and need pooled in his loins.
“Hey, Amber, how’s the love of my life?” Grant sidestepped Carter and met her at the bottom of the steps. His brother lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it in a grand display of gallantry.
“Hey, handsome, it’s great to see you again.” She honored him with a smile.
Carter gritted his teeth and fought the urge to slam his fist into his brother’s gut.
“Ohio State must have an away game?” Amber continued down the stairs.
“Yep, and my mean brother says I have to work.” Grant retained her hand in his until she cleared the staircase. “So, what do you think of the transformation?”
“It’s incredible. Since you’ve gone back to school, Carter has torn out the wall between the kitchen and the breakfast nook, removed the cabinets, and disposed of all the junk. Plus, he scraped up that awful tile floor.” Amber leaned closer to Grant as if sharing a dark secret. “Do you suppose he’s related to Superman?”
“Well, I’ve heard rumors he might be adopted,” Grant teased, in a conspiring voice.
With them talking as if he weren’t in the room, Carter stepped forward to make his presence known. “Amber, I hope you’re free for dinner, because I’m taking you out.”
“What?” Amber’s jaw dropped, and she blinked at him several times. “Why?”
Grant laid his arm around Amber’s shoulders and tucked her into his side. A sour taste hit Carter’s tongue. Angry words gurgled at the back of his throat. His restraint tested, he bit his lip to keep his mouth shut.
“What my eloquent brother here is trying to say is, ‘thanks for cleaning up his mess.’ Because of you, he can now work on something else.” Grant raised his voice and glanced at Carter. “So, what’s on your agenda for today, big brother?”
The desire to wring Grant’s neck tempted Carter for a moment, before he reined in his emotions. “Grant, why don’t you retrieve the wire from the truck I brought over? I have to do the wiring for the light fixtures.”
Grant grinned at Amber. “Our hero has spoken.”
Carter waited until the door clicked closed before he spoke. “I really appreciate you cleaning up my mess. It was a very nice thing for you to do.”
“No problem, I, uh…” Amber strolled to the workbench. “I hope everything is where you can find it.”
He followed her and stood a few steps behind her. “How about seven? That’ll give me time to go home and shower before we go out.”
She turned and words tumbled from her gorgeous mouth. “You don’t have to—”
“But I’ll need a shower.” Carter intentionally misinterpreted her words so as not to debate the point of them having dinner together.
“No, you don’t have to take me out.” She didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, she stared over his right shoulder.
“But I want to.” He brushed a hand against her arm, and her focus shifted.
Their gazes met. Endless waves of desire crashed against Carter’s senses, drawing him deeper into a swirling sea. He floated for a second. Then lust’s sharp teeth bit into his mid-section and ripped at his gut. A low moan escaped.
Amber blinked and dark blue flares sparkled in the depths of her eyes. She rubbed her hand across his chest and heat seared a path through his heart.
“Hey, guys, I’d consider the staring contest a draw,” Grant’s gruff voice interrupted.
Her gaze fell. She turned to his brother before stepping past Carter and walking to the stairs. “He caught me with his x-ray vision.”
Grant set the wire on the floor. “Yes, he likes to use it to get people to agree with his plans.”
Carter ignored the comment and swiveled on his heels. “Then you’ll be ready at seven?”
She nodded without glancing his way and paused on the bottom step. “As long as it’s someplace casual.”
Her words registered, and he followed the gentle sway of her hips as she ascended the staircase.
Should he nudge their relationship in a new direction?
Friendship hadn’t worked. Maybe he should convince her they both needed something more.
“So, bro, are we planning to work or spend the rest of the day staring off into space?” Grant nudged Carter’s shoulder.
He whirled around and punched his brother’s arm. “You, bro, better get to work or else I might decide not to kill the electrical circuits you’re working with.”