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Kayla Swanson doesn’t believe in ghosts so when she sinks her entire savings into an old Victorian house in the hopes of restoring it for business, she’s more focused on the here and now than the salacious and brutal history of the original owner, Archibald Blackstone. Kayla and her younger sister, Lola, are two of the hottest new interior decorators in the Bay Area and they’re determined to turn their fledgling business into a household name. But first, Kayla has her work cut out for her restoring the Victorian to its former glory. When odd occurrences start stacking up — ones she can’t explain away — Kayla starts to question her sanity. When the dreams start — dreams that leave her panting and moaning — she doesn’t know what to think anymore. Kayla doesn’t buy into the hocus-pocus, woo-woo stuff but there’s something about her house…even if she’s not ready to admit it.

Archibald Blackstone has waited decades for the right woman to come along, someone worth parting the veil for during the witching hour on Halloween and the minute he sees Kayla step over the threshold, he knows the time has come. For a man with a voracious appetite, the celibacy of the afterlife is an interminable torture but Kayla was a woman worth waiting for — and he’s done waiting. Archibald, openly wicked in life, is unabashedly wicked in death and Kayla is about to discover the pleasure — and delicious pain – of being claimed by the infamous Blackstone.

After one night…Kayla will never be the same again.

Kayla Swanson gazed around her newly purchased home, the key clutched in her hand and she felt nothing but elation. Her first home — and she’d gotten it for a steal! An older home, it needed some TLC but as a beginner interior designer in need of a project, this house was damn perfect — it even came furnished!. She didn’t see the cracking paint and worn window sills, she saw potential. Her sister, and business partner, Lola, wasn’t as enthusiastic.

“You paid how much for this dump?” she asked, her lip curling as she gazed around the living room, taking in the surroundings. “If you paid anything at all, you got ripped off.”

“For a supposed creative person, you have no vision,” Kayla said, smiling, not the least bit deterred by her sister’s dour opinion. “The bones on this place are fabulous. We can do so much with this space and then when it’s all finished, we can use it for our base of operations to save a little money on office space. We’re losing money on our current spot and I can’t wait to tell our landlord to kiss off.”

“I like that space. It has the best view of the bay.”

“Well, it’s costing us a fortune and Mr. Blowhard has used up his last chance in my book. I’m outta there as soon as possible.”

Lola sighed and then shrugged. “Fine. I wouldn’t mind saving a few bucks so we can start allocating some cash toward some things we really need such as—“

“We do not need a Keurig machine,” Kayla overrode Lola for the tenth time about the damn coffee machine. “You’re a broken record. Get over it. I hate the smell of coffee and you know it. I certainly don’t want it in my house.”

“If it’s our office as well as your house, don’t you think it would be a good idea to think of our clients, too? What self-respecting business doesn’t have a coffee service?” Lola insisted, clearly not ready to let it go. Kayla rolled her eyes and walked away but Lola was intent on following, no doubt to press her belief that a coffee machine was necessary to success when a large thump upstairs caught both their attention. “What the hell was that? It sounded like something fell upstairs.”

Kayla didn’t know but the house had been vacant for quite awhile. The chances were a wild animal, possibly a raccoon was skittering around up there. She went to the broom closet and pulled out the lone mop inside. “It’s probably a cat or something that got stuck inside,” she told Lola. “The house has been empty for a few years.”

“Try ten,” Lola mumbled. “It’s a miracle the plumbing still works.”

“You’re such a wet blanket. It’s going to be great.”

Lola shook her head and gestured for Kayla to go shoo away whatever was banging around upstairs and Kayla said, “You’re such a baby. I’ll be right back. Stay here, fraidy-cat.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that. You know in scary movies where the person goes and investigate the scary noise and then dies? That ain’t gonna be me.”

Kayla rolled her eyes. “This is real life, not a movie, there’s no such thing as ghosts. I’ll be right back.” She motioned for the front door. “Open the door so whatever I flush out, can go back outside.”

Lola opened the front door with a dubious expression. “If you say so.”

Kayla laughed and headed up the hardwood stairs, silently appreciating the craftsmanship in the details. Someone had put a lot of pride into the creation of this house and she couldn’t wait to bring out the natural beauty once again. She could see in her mind’s eye just how everything was going to look and in spite of what Lola thought, it was going to be spectacular. Kayla checked each room and finding nothing, returned downstairs to find Lola sneezing after pulling the cloth from one of the high-back chairs. “Did you find anything?” Lola asked, waving away the dust cloud. “I think I found where ebola originated. This place is filthy.”

“It’s just dust,” Kayla said, laughing as she pulled another cloth from the antique sofa. She gazed in admiration. “Would you look at this? Gorgeous. I can’t decide if we should keep it or sell it. I think I’ll keep it,” she decided on the spot. There was something so sensual about the deep, rich burgundy of the sofa, even if it need fresh stuffing and a good cleaning. “It goes well with this room. There’s just something about it.” For a brief moment, Monica’s vision blurred and she saw what couldn’t be there, a man dressed in a fine double breasted suit, circa 1940s if her guess were correct, sitting on that sofa, with a dark glint in his eye to match the slight curve of his lips, and she stumbled into her sister with a yelp. “Did you see that?” she exclaimed as Lola caught her. Kayla rubbed at her eyes and the man was gone. Holy crap. She needed more sleep. She uttered a shaky laugh as Lola stared at her in concern. “I’m sorry. I’m exhausted. I knew I should’ve waited to come see the house but I was so excited.”

“What just happened?” Lola asked. “Jesus, you scared me.”

“I scared myself. I thought I saw a dark-haired man sitting on the sofa. It was weird.”

“A man? Seriously? Who?”

“I haven’t a clue. He was wearing an old suit, like from the ‘40s or something.” Lola swallowed and opened her mouth but Kayla knew where she was going and cut her off. “Don’t go buying into those stories you heard about this place. There’s no such thing as ghosts and I’m not about to get freaked out over a mild hallucination from lack of sleep. Seriously, Lola. It was nothing.”

“Well, even if you’re not interested in the history of this place, I was and I did a little checking. Every sin

gle occupant of this house since the original owner died a brutal death has reported some kind of spooky goings-on. That can’t be a coincidence.”

“People with weak minds are susceptible to suggestion,” Kayla said, shaking her head at her sister. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“How do you know?”

“Because if there were, don’t you think science would’ve found a way to prove it? There’s always logical explanation to the things that go bump in the night. And a rampant imagination is one of the first prerequisites.”

“You know, you don’t have everything figured out, Kayla. It’s possible that you’re wrong. And then what? Then you’re living with a ghost. How does that sound? How would you deal with that?”

“I’d probably charge him or her rent because we could use the money,” she quipped, refusing to take her sister’s irrational fear seriously. “Did you see that bannister? Exquisite. The craftsmanship is so incredibly detailed. It’s a wonder it’s survived all these years.”

“You know what didn’t survive? The original owner. He died in this house. Doesn’t that creep you out?”

Kayla shrugged, eyeing the drapes and wondering which color scheme to go with for the sitting room. “People die everyday. If you tried to avoid every place where someone, somewhere hadn’t died, you’d go crazy. I was thinking of a rich burgundy with gold thread to bring back the rich opulence of the original furnishings,” she mused, narrowing her gaze as she envisioned the changes. “What do you think?”

“I think you’re crazy for sinking all your money into this place when we could’ve just resigned the lease at our old office space.”

Kayla scowled. “That pig tried to feel me up and then blamed me for being offended. No,” she shook her head resolutely “I wouldn’t sign another lease with that asshole if my life depended on it.”

“Famous last words,” Lola muttered, rubbing the shiver from her arms. “So, I guess you’re stuck with it now.”

“Yep. So let’s make the best of it,” Kayla said cheerfully. “C’mon, help me take the rest of these drop cloths off the furniture. I want to see what else is hiding under all these dusty sheets.”

“Hopefully not a dead guy,” Lola muttered under her breath, which Kayla ignored because even though she was fairly certain her imagination had run wild, there was the tiniest sliver of doubt that it wasn’t her mind playing tricks but something else far less ordinary —and frankly, she didn’t have time for that kind of paranoia.

***

Three months later

Music drifted in from somewhere in the house, something Kayla didn’t recognize but realized it definitely wasn’t from her own collection of Top 40. She followed the sound to the antique record player in the drawing room and saw with a start, a record playing. She lifted the thick needle from the old vinyl and clicked off the machine. The revolution slowed and she read the label, Bing Crosby, Only Forever, and she knew with a certainty, she hadn’t played the record, nor did she know where it came from. She chewed her lip with mild apprehension. Where’d this come from? She knew it wasn’t Lola’s style either. Lola was a die-hard grunge pop fan and all of her music she kept stored on her phone so she could rock out while she did her runs around the park. She closed the top of the record player with care because it was antique and worth a pretty penny but she was half-tempted to drive it to the local consignment store and leave it there. Don’t be silly. It was weird, true, but there was likely a logical explanation, she thought uneasily. As if a real ghostie had suddenly felt the urge to dance. Right. She ignored the little flutters of anxiety bouncing around in her stomach as well as the thoughts that immediately recalled some other equally weird happenings since moving in.

The scent of cigar smoke and whiskey — brief yet pungent.

A single red rose lying on the counter — dew still clinging to the petals.

Doors opening and closing — on their own.

And the feeling — as the hairs rose on the back of her neck — that someone was watching her.

Okay, so stop freaking yourself out, she chastised herself sternly. She had projects to finish and a business to run. The house was beautiful and just as she’d envisioned, the renovations and repairs had returned the grandeur to the old Victorian. It was a powerful calling card, particularly in the circles she hoped to attract for her design business and she was just starting to get a few solid clients that she could build upon. There was no way she was going to let a few odd instances get in her way. Speaking of, she checked her watch, one of her new clients was bound to show up any minute. Rushing to the hallway mirror, she double-checked her face to ensure she looked impeccable. She was passably pretty, or so she’d been told. Everyone always considered Lola the exquisite one, the sister that always got the swivel stare when they went out, but she wasn’t ugly by any means. She had the girl-next-door look cornered with her light brown, shoulder-length hair and bright blue eyes. A little on the petite side with almost obscenely large breasts for her height, she always tried to downplay her breast size so as not to give the wrong impression to clients. Kayla buttoned her blazer and straightened her skirt as the front doorbell dinged softly. You got this. You are smart, you are capable. She repeated the mantra a few more times before opening the door with a bright, approachable smile. “Estella, so happy you could make it,” she said to the blue-haired lady with the limitless pocketbook and well-placed friends in Bay Area society. “Would you please come in? I have fresh scones and tea, if you like.”

“Fresh scones? Sounds lovely, dear,” Estella said, approving. “It’s nice to see some people were raised properly.”

“Yes, of course,” Kayla murmured, hurrying to the kitchen to bring out the tray she’d prepared. She’d found the prettiest tea set in a small antique store in Berkeley and she just knew Estella would appreciate the delicate touch because Estella was notoriously old-world having originated from London, some say from royalty, distantly. “Sugar and cream?” she offered, as she took her seat opposite the older woman.

“Yes, please. Oh, where on earth did you find this exquisite tea set? I haven’t seen its like in ages.”

“It caught my eye while shopping for a credenza for another client. I think the owner didn’t realize what a steal it was. I managed to procure it for far less than it was worth. Much like this house. I seem to have a knack for finding the diamond in the rough.”

“Yes, that’s quite a talent,” Estella agreed, her gaze wandering the sitting room, openly appreciating the room. “You kept the original furnishings?” she asked after sipping her tea.

“Yes, as much as possible. I restored some of the furniture but some were too far gone and had to be thrown away. Not too much, though. I’d say eighty-five percent of the furnishings are original.”

Estella nodded, her gaze far-away. “Yes, I recognize quite a few pieces.”

That startled Kayla. “You knew this house? Did you know the owner?”

A small chuckled followed as she admitted, “Oh yes. He was a devil of a man. Handsome but very wicked.”

Kayla held her interested smile but her stomach did a small tumble. “Oh? Do tell. I love learning about the history of places.”

Estella held her dainty cup in her hand as a moment of reflection passed between them. “His name was Archibald Blackstone. He was the toast of the town when he arrived. It was the early 1940s, we were right in the thick of the war, you know, and Archibald was very active in the artillery supply — some say for both sides,” she added, behind her hand in a conspiratorial whisper. “He was a man without principle and yet, so dashing. And ridiculously wealthy. Why, one time he had Beluga caviar brought in by the pound expressly for an exclusive dinner party when the rest of the nation was suffering food rations. He was daringly eccentric and didn’t give a fig about what others thought of him. That was part of his charm, of course.”

The way Estella’s eyes twinkled briefly, caused Kayla to wonder just how well Estella had known the man.

“It sounds as if you…knew Archibald well?” she ventured, not wanting to overstep or make assumptions and inadvertently offend the woman. “I mean, how do you know so much about him?”

Estella sighed with a wistful smile as she answered, shocking Kayla as she said, “We used to be lovers. He was the most virile, most adventurous lover I’d ever had the good fortune to entertain in my bed.”

“Goodness gracious, Estella, you shock me,” Kayla exclaimed with a chuckle but the surprise was real. Estella de Clare was among the wealthiest of the Bay Area high society and frankly, Kayla had a hard time picturing Estella as anything but the sharply dressed, classy older woman that she knew her to be. But she supposed, everyone had been young at one time, right? “And here I thought we were going to talk about the ideas for your new house. This is far juicier, you sassy thing.”

Estella tittered like a young girl and Kayla laughed with her, feeling good about the connection they were making. If Estella felt comfortable enough to share her younger exploits, perhaps she’d feel more inclined to share her deep pockets, too. Not that Kayla was all about the money but let’s face it, she was young and just starting out and her business could use the shot in the arm. “So tell me all about this wicked, yet dashing gentleman,” she prompted as she lifted her own tea cup. “I have to know.”

“Well, as I said, he was a man who was accustomed to getting what he wanted. By all accounts, he was ruthless in business and equally ruthless in the bedroom, I can attest to that.” Estella’s hand fluttered to her chest and for a brief moment Kayla froze with anxiety but she could soon see that Estella was just enjoying the memory of a torrid love affair and relaxed. “He came to San Francisco in 1941 and began building this house straight away. Heavens, the money he threw around. He liked people knowing that he had excess when everyone else was struggling. Perhaps that wasn’t very charitable of him but he knew how to make an impression for sure. He wanted something grand, something that would cause people to stand up and take notice. He was the kind of man who, when he walked into a room, he seemed to take all the oxygen with him. Women were always all a flutter around him. It was quite scandalous, really. And there was no one who was immune. Married or otherwise. Even young girls,” she added in a hushed whisper as if the scandal still held power after all these years.



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