Authors: Jo Barrett
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Ghosts, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban, #Contemporary Fiction
The Wild Rose Press
Copyright ©2003 by Jo Barrett
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
2003 by Jo Barrett
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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First Faery Rose Edition August 2006
"I know you're there. I can feel you.” Isabel Derrington cast a quick glance into the rearview mirror as she sped down the highway.
Over the last couple of months, the back of her neck prickled constantly. Eyes, a stranger's eyes, watched her every move. But why? What did he want? His notes disturbed her before, but she'd never felt threatened. They arrived regularly every week with an almost sweet bit of verse and a single red rose. In the beginning she was flattered. Men never paid any great amount of attention to her before, but apparently the romance was over.
She gripped the steering wheel tighter as she recalled his last note and the black rose lying like death in the box.
Loveliness such as yours belongs in heaven with the angels.
Who was he, and why had he picked her? The police hadn't been much help without a name or a face to go on. They checked out every business acquaintance and every date she ever had, which hadn't been all that many, and came up with nothing. All they could do was cruise by her apartment an extra time or two during the night.
More than anything she wished she had someone to stay with. A friend, a relative—a lover.
No, not a lover. No real experience there, she thought with a soft huff. Maybe if she hadn't spent the majority of her life in a boarding school for girls, she'd have a clue. Isabel wasn't afraid of men. She just didn't seem to be very popular with them.
Admittedly, she didn't meet today's standards of what men wanted in the looks department, and she had a tendency to ramble on about antiques—her favorite topic—but all that aside, men simply weren't interested. Chad was the only one who'd stuck around after the first couple of dates.
"Maybe—no,” Isabel mumbled. She couldn't stay with him. He'd start in again about sleeping together. Sometimes she thought that was all he wanted. He just couldn't understand her reluctance, and Isabel wasn't about to admit she was practically a virgin at twenty-eight.
Okay, not practically. A girl either was or she wasn't and in that respect she wasn't. There had been that fiasco with Billy Haynes when she was a sophomore in college. But how could less than five minutes of intimacy really count?
Isabel groaned. Maybe she should just go ahead and sleep with Chad. She cared about him, and they'd been dating for several months. Wasn't that a good enough reason?
She chewed her bottom lip as she considered it. No, that
was bound to stop her like always. She could never shake the feeling it wasn't right somehow. Almost as though she were cheating on someone, which was ridiculous because there was no someone. Just Chad.
"Maybe I'm frigid,” Isabel muttered, then quickly dismissed the notion.
She wanted to be intimate with a man, but she also wanted a lot more. She wanted a companion. Someone she could talk to, laugh with, share things with. She wanted to feel comfortable enough to just be herself around a man, but Isabel Derrington was about as interesting as mud. This raised the question she had yet to answer.
Why was Chad still around? It certainly wasn't her dazzling personality and fabulous looks. The more she thought about him the more she realized she'd been fooling herself. Just because he stuck around, for whatever reason, didn't mean they were right for one another. No matter how hard she tried, he would never fit her image of the perfect mate. The one who was her friend as well as her lover. The one in Isabel's dreams.
Late at night she could almost feel his gentle touch, hear his tender words. But whenever she tried to see his face, he disappeared like a puff of smoke in a stiff breeze.
She shook her head disgustedly. “Dream men don't keep a girl warm at night."
Then again neither did Chad, but sleeping with him wasn't the answer. What she needed to do was break things off. It wasn't fair to keep hanging on, allowing him to think they had a future. If only she could love him. If only he made her feel the way—she puffed out a breath, stirring her bangs.
Maybe what she really needed was therapy. Between her sexual hang-ups, her constant daydreaming of the perfect but nonexistent man, and eerie notes from a lunatic, her nerves were frazzled beyond belief. Anyone would snap under the circumstances. Still, that didn't justify continuing her relationship with Chad.
A car whizzed passed, startling her from her internal argument. “Geez, I need to get a grip."
Maybe she could stay with Susan, her old college roommate. They'd been trying to get together for weeks.
"No, not her either.” Isabel had to be honest with herself. They weren't really friends, not in the true sense of the word. She'd actually been avoiding Susan. Her perfect figure, her flawless complexion, her ability to dazzle every male on the planet, always made Isabel feel dowdy. Not exactly a morale booster. Something she was in short supply of at the moment.
Spying her exit, Isabel pushed thoughts of Susan and Chad from her mind and pulled off the highway. Reaching the traffic light at the end of the ramp, she pried her hands from the steering wheel and wiped her sweaty palms against her jeans. She should never have gone to the auction alone. The police told her to be careful, to keep someone with her when she was away from home, but her boss, Mrs. Hastings, had a store to run.
With the insanity of the furniture market finally over,
overflowed with customers looking for bargains. Mrs. Hastings couldn't afford to close up shop, and Isabel couldn't ask her to play babysitter with a clear conscience. This was her problem and she had to deal with it.
Isabel hadn't said anything to anyone about the stalker. Not even her Uncle Jerome. He would only worry and probably demand she come home, which she refused to do. She wasn't going to let some faceless cretin send her running for the hills.
The light turned green, and she eased through the intersection, heading across the bridge. Perhaps she should take a vacation and go visit her uncle. That wouldn't be the same as running scared. He was, after all, her only living relative, and she loved him dearly. A little visit would be a nice change and was long overdue.
Isabel winced at the flash of headlights in her rearview mirror. “You've got your brights on, jerk,” she grumbled.
As if responding to her verbal cut, the driver sped up, coming dangerously close to her bumper. She could hear the ominous roar of his engine as he revved it repeatedly, lurching forward then back.
Panic clawed at her throat as she pressed down on the gas, desperate to get across the bridge, but he refused to let her escape. He cut around her and sped up along side. Her heart slammed against her ribs as she snapped her head to the side for a quick glance, hoping to see a face—anything—but she could only make out the silhouette of a man wearing a hat before the truck swerved wildly in her direction.
The sound of metal scraping metal rang in her ears before she crashed through the guardrail near the end of the bridge. With a resounding crack, her head hit the windshield, and she fell into darkness.
"Egad, another wench.” Lord William looked down at the body lying peacefully in his bed. Although her forehead and nose were covered with bandages, her crown of riotous burgundy locks spread out like a halo upon the pillow clearly revealed her sex. Who was the chit and why the devil was she in his room and in his bed?
He watched as her chest rose and fell with each shallow breath and noted the dark circles ringing her eyes. Whoever she was, she was far too ill to get rid of like the other. He would have to wait until she recovered.
A devilish grin settled over William's mouth. He hoped to have a bit of sport. The previous wench proved to be no fun at all, vacating the room almost as quickly as she arrived—missing the sight of him in all his grisly ghostliness. This one, he hoped, would prove to be different, but he would have to wait until the time was right.
Although he took some meager pleasure in his haunting, he never wished to do anyone harm, and by the looks of the maid in his bed, she had seen more than her share. He idly wondered how she came to be at Derrington Manor and what had placed her in such a sorry state.
Hours passed with no more sound than the soft ticking of a clock and her steady breathing before the woman opened her eyes. She turned her head toward the window at the setting sun, then slowly pushed herself up and slipped her legs over the side of the bed. Gripping the sturdy nightstand, she cautiously got to her feet.
"Damn,” she hissed through clenched teeth.
"I am sorry for your pain, wench, but do not tarry long in your healing. I wish to have a bit of fun after so long a time with no one to torment.” As expected the woman did not hear William's words. No one heard him unless he wished it to be so.
After letting out a slow steady breath, she moved across the room to the bath, grasping every furnishing along the way for support. Once she reached her destination, William allowed her a moment of privacy. When assured she had completed her task, he passed through the closed door and observed her as she patted water on her cheeks and neck.
Gazing into the mirror, she spoke to her likeness. “You look awful."
"Aye. You look like bloody hell."
The woman glanced around the bath then shook her head slightly.
Odd, she seemed to have heard him. Perhaps he had wished it in some way, eager to be rid of her. He would need to be more careful. The time was not yet right.
She placed two pills in her mouth, sipped a cup of water, then resumed scowling at her reflection.
"Izzy?” a voice called from the bedroom.
A smile played at the corners of the young maid's lips. “In here."
William's mouth fell agape. It could not be she.
The young maid opened the door and Jerome Derrington appeared. “You shouldn't be out of bed."
"I'm all right. I had to go, and I'm not using a bedpan. Relax, Uncle Jerome."
Uncle? William stared with wonderment. Nay, she was but a babe the last time he laid his eyes upon her. That hair. He should have known by her beautiful mane.
"You should've called for help,” Jerome said. “What if you'd fallen? Do you want those ribs to break clean through and puncture a lung?"
Good God, how badly is she injured? Who has done this to his poppet?
"You're overreacting,” Isabel said.
"Nonsense. You will call Constance the next time, young lady. Understand?"
"Yes, sir. By the way, where is Constance?"
Jerome helped Isabel back into bed then placed her dinner beside her. “I wrestled the tray from her before she came upstairs."
"That was nice of you, knowing how uncomfortable she is in this room."
"Nice to that woman? Hardly. She is constantly finding new ways to annoy me. And what is wrong with this room, I ask you? Nonsense.” He twitched his bushy moustache then set about cutting her steak in to tiny pieces. Stabbing a bit of beef, Jerome held it to her lips.
Isabel smiled softly as she wrapped her fingers around his. “I think I can feed myself, but I appreciate you cutting it up first. That would require too many muscles."
William's heart warmed at her beautiful smile and the sparkle in her emerald green eyes. Perhaps she was not as ill as he first thought.
"All right. You're not a baby anymore, but no more strolls without help."
She nodded and ate her meal while her uncle talked about the gardens slowly coming into bloom, his latest antique acquisitions for the east wing, and various other topics. The mansion itself was his primary focus—as usual.