The vacant house looked haunted. Large and imposing, with a full moon hanging immediately behind, the old Victorian cast a grotesque shadow across the snow, and the windows shined like so many eyes.
Ignoring the gooseflesh that prickled her arms, Lucky Caldwell stood on the ornate porch, braced against a chill wind as she pushed the heavy front door open a little wider. She didn’t really want to venture inside now that it had grown so late. The house had sat empty long enough that rats, possums, raccoons or other crawling things could easily have taken over. Or maybe she’d find some mass murderer taking refuge in one of the rooms….
If she were anywhere else, she’d head into town and get a motel for the night. As soon as anyone in Dundee spotted the distinctive strawberry blond hair she’d inherited from her mother, word would spread all over town that she was back. And she didn’t want to alert anyone to her return just yet. She needed to get her bearings. Coming here was a risk, a huge risk, and she’d never been as lucky as her name.
The floor creaked as she stepped across the threshold. Instinctively she reached for the light switch, but then paused. Somehow waltzing inside and lighting the place up like a torch seemed far too brazen. She didn’t belong here; she’d never belonged here.
But she didn’t belong anywhere else, either.
Marshalling her nerve, she flipped the light switch anyway.
Nothing happened. The pace of life in Dundee was maddeningly slow but, evidently, not so slow that Mike Hill, executor of the Caldwell Family Trust, hadn’t gotten around to having the utility company shut off the electricity. Which didn’t come as any big surprise, after six years. She’d inherited this rambling Victorian when her stepfather died and hadn’t been back since. During that time, she’d received a couple of calls from Fred Winston, the town’s only real estate agent and a man she remembered as wearing a cheap brown toupee. He’d told her the paint was peeling and the porch was sagging and asked if she wanted to sell. But she knew who wanted to buy and the answer had been and still was—no. At least, not yet. She had unfinished business here in Idaho.
She set her backpack on the dusty floor and searched out her flashlight. Unfortunately, it was already on when she found it and had been, from the weak beam, for several hours.
Lucky considered returning to her car for the extra set of batteries. But she was afraid she’d lose her nerve if she turned back now. Better to forge ahead…
She hefted her backpack to her shoulder, trained what was left of the light in front of her and left the door open in case she encountered something or someone she’d rather not meet.
Stepping into the formal living room, she quickly swept the light around the perimeter. Nothing moved–but the familiarity of the place evoked bittersweet memories. As bad as her childhood had been, for a few short months in this house she’d been truly happy, especially that first Christmas after her mother had married Morris.
In the dark, cob-webby corner to her left, she could easily imagine the giant, splendid tree that had once stood there, proudly bearing a thousand twinkling lights and an abundance of shiny gold balls. That was the first Christmas her family had possessed enough money to buy a tree any taller than a token three or four feet. And to have it flocked with fake snow and decorated so elegantly was really an extravagance. Since she’d become an adult, Lucky bought as big a tree as her current abode would allow and flocked it every year, on principle. But she’d been living off the money she’d inherited from Morris, which was barely enough to get by, considering she gave most of it away. In order to keep traveling, she’d had to cut down on expenses. The places she’d been renting, for a few months here and six weeks there, had low ceilings and generally weren’t the nicest. Which meant she’d never been able to duplicate the opulence of that damn tree.
She wrinkled her nose at the musty smell and glanced back at the open door before moving deeper into the house. The moon filtered through the bare, thick-paned windows, painting silver squares on the hardwood floor and, together with the faint beam of her flashlight, made it possible for her to see.
The Georgian-style staircase swept up in front of her. A large office with double doors jutted off to the right, along with what used to be an impressive library. Lucky waved a cobweb out of the way and poked her head into the library, then the office, relieved to find them both vacant of scurrying animals and–thank God–anything larger.
She continued her search, pausing to listen carefully here and there, until she reached the kitchen and family room. Situated off the back of the house, these rooms were more like one big room with impressive floor-to-ceiling windows that curved into a semi-circle and looked out over the pond at the bottom of the hill.
Unfortunately, most of the windows were broken now. Bending to retrieve a small rock lying among the glittering shards of glass on the old cobblestone floor, Lucky tossed it up and caught it again. So much had changed. Morris was dead. Her mother, too. Her brothers, Sean and Ken, who were both older than she was, had sold the land they inherited and moved elsewhere. But the feeling of being unwelcome here, the resentment of this small community seemed to linger.
Lucky tossed the rock away, watched it skitter across the floor. So much for the hope that coming back would be easier than she’d anticipated. Owning a house didn’t make it a home.
Considering the state of the Victorian, she wondered whether she should sleep in her car. A metallic blue ’64 Mustang, it was fully restored and beautiful. But sitting out in her car would be as cramped as it was cold. She’d be better off inside. Despite the creepy feel of the place, she hadn’t seen anything more threatening than a few spider webs. Discarded trash here and there indicated that others had been inside the house since it had been shut up, but nothing showed recent activity.
Her tension easing, Lucky delved inside her backpack and retrieved her supplies. Ten tall, fragrant candles. Three Presto-logs. Matches. A jug of water. Trail mix. And barbecue flavored sunflower seeds. Her suitcase, cleaning supplies and bedding were still out in the car.
With its stone floor and broken windows, the kitchen was colder than the front of the house. But the family room portion had a wood-burning stove and provided the most natural light. Come morning, Lucky planned to make the place livable. For now–she blew on her hands to warm them—she just needed to get through the next six or seven hours.
She lit the candles, then arranged them on the marble countertop. They created a dim, ethereal glow and gave off a comforting, familiar scent that helped dispel the dank odor of neglect. Building a fire didn’t take long, either, thanks to the Presto logs. When Lucky was a senior in high school and Morris had divorced her mother and moved back in with his first wife, Red had stripped the place bare, taken everything of value down to the drapes, the stained glass window on the second floor landing, even the expensive knobs on the cupboards. But, thankfully, she hadn’t bothered carting off the wood by the stove. Lucky used the last of the split logs to build up her fire, welcoming the infusion of heat and hoping it would last for a few hours. Then she moved gingerly back, her feet crunching over the broken glass from the windows, which was thickest by the stove, to watch the smoldering orange flames catch and grow.
The fire seemed symbolic somehow—her first step, a beginning. But the settling noises of the old house reminded her that she still needed to explore the upstairs, just to be sure she was as alone as she thought she was.
After tapping her failing flashlight, to no avail, she went outside to retrieve the sack of items she’d tossed in the backseat of her car. She replaced the batteries, left the front door standing open again for reassurance, and climbed the stairs to the five bedrooms and three bathrooms she knew she’d find there.
A dark spot on the landing showed water damage. Clearly, the wind and rain had pushed through a flap in the plastic her mother had used to cover the hole when she took the stained glass window. Lucky frowned at the stain, disappointed that she hadn’t stood up to Red that day. Red hadn’t had any real use for the window. She’d ended up sticking it in a closet of the mobile home she’d moved into when she remarried.
But Lucky wasn’t sure, even now, that it would’ve done any good to fight her mother. Red had been determined to take absolutely everything she could loosely interpret as “furniture”–because that was all she’d been awarded in her and Morris’ divorce, and she wasn’t happy that ten years of marriage to one of Dundee’s wealthiest old ranchers hadn’t netted her more.
The door downstairs slammed closed, and Lucky bit back a startled scream.
“Hello?” she called, pressing a calming hand to her chest. Only the keening wail of the wind rushing through the eaves outside answered.
She gripped the flashlight tighter, her heart pounding as she listened for footsteps. She heard nothing but couldn’t help imagining ghosts. She certainly wouldn’t blame Morris if he’d decided to stick around and haunt this old place. After all he’d done for her mother, for the whole family, he’d been treated pretty shabbily in the end. It had been his first wife who’d come through and nursed him once his health turned.
But Morris had been a good man. Certainly he had better things to do in the afterlife, Lucky thought wryly. Chances were far greater Red would be the one rattling chains and roaming the grounds….
“There’s not much left here, Mother,” she muttered as chills rolled down her spine. “You took everything except the sheetrock and two-by-fours.”
Silence settled on the house like a fresh layer of dust as Lucky leaned over the banister and shined her flashlight into the corners below. She saw bird droppings, an old rug that looked as if it had been chewed on one end, a broken chair. Lucky’s brothers, who’d stayed in Dundee a little longer than she had, had once told her that Morris had never moved back in or fixed up the place after Red left—and they were obviously right.
Finding nothing of particular concern, Lucky moved on more slowly, still apprehensive as the plastic flapped noisily behind her.
She found bedrails in two of the bedrooms, an old mattress with no bedrails in a third. The master had a retreat which had been lovely. But the mirrored doors on the closets and the mirror over the vanity were now cracked. Graffiti covered the walls. “Bitch!… Whore!… Killer!… May you rot in hell!”
A searing pain in Lucky’s stomach—her ulcer acting up—made her feel as though she’d swallowed acid. She forced herself to turn away from those nasty words and think about practical matters. That was the trick, wasn’t it? To grow a thick skin like her brothers and not let the legacy of shame and embarrassment her mother had left behind bother her?
There was so much else to think about, so much work to be done.
She glared over her shoulder at the graffiti. Maybe she’d start by painting. After a few months, when she had the place fixed up, she’d finally sell out and put Dundee behind her forever.
Just as soon as she found what she was looking for.
* * *
Mike Hill brought his Cadillac Escalade to an abrupt stop in the center of the road and squinted toward the property next to his ranch. He couldn’t tell for sure, but a light seemed to be burning in the big Victorian. From the dim glow, he thought it might be candles. Kids in these parts loved to visit his grandfather’s old mansion. Occasionally, they broke in to make-out or vandalize it. On Halloween, he’d caught a group of teenagers trying to spook themselves by holding a séance, although they were too drunk to take anything seriously. He knew this because he’d done his best to scare the hell out of them so they’d think twice about coming back, and they’d simply laughed and fallen over each other as they piled out.
He grinned at the memory. Mike didn’t mind a few fun and games; he’d never been a saint himself. But he was afraid some poor kid would accidentally burn the place down, possibly injuring someone in the process. And he couldn’t bear the thought of losing the house. Mike had grown up spending his weekends there, with Grandpa Caldwell. He loved the Old Victorian, had always been told he’d inherit it one day. That hadn’t happened as it should have. Instead, his grandfather had left all his grandchildren equal shares in a large ranch located in Eastern Utah, which they’d since sold. But whether the house belonged to him or not, Mike couldn’t stand by and allow it to be destroyed.
Shoving the transmission into reverse, he made a quick, three-point turn and started bouncing down the long, rutted drive to the house. A set of car tracks cut through the crusty, week-old snow, confirming that at least one other vehicle had recently passed this way.
The tracks led to a vintage Mustang parked behind the silly fountain Red had bought and placed in the front yard. Mike didn’t recognize the car as belonging to any of the young people he knew—and in a town of only 1,400 people, most folks knew each other. But it could easily belong to someone from a neighboring town.
Grabbing the cowboy hat sitting on the passenger’s seat and jamming it on his head, he parked behind the Mustang and stomped the snow off his boots as he approached the door. He listened but didn’t hear any noise coming from inside—no music or voices—so he doubted anyone was tearing up the place. More likely it was a pair of young lovers borrowing the old mattress he’d seen in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
He scrubbed a hand over his jaw. He really didn’t want to walk in on something like that. But there was the issue of the candles. And he felt fairly confident, if a couple had to drive all the way out here for privacy, there was a mother somewhere who’d thank him for rousting them out.
“Damn kids.” He tried the door and found it unlocked. Probably the boy had climbed through a window around back and let his girlfriend in the front. That was how they usually did it.
Rusty hinges protested as he poked his head inside, but a rich vanilla scent greeted him immediately. The light came from the kitchen. Heat seemed to emanate from that part of the house, as well. Evidently someone was trying to make things cozy….
“Hello?” Mike banged on the door as he entered to give warning of his presence. “If you’re undressed, cover up. I’m comin’ in.”
He heard rustling at the back of the house. Then a flashlight snapped on and the beam hit him right in the face, blinding him before he could take another step.
“Stop right there!”
He put up a hand to block the light. “Or?”
He could tell by the voice that it was a woman. He had no idea where her boyfriend might be, but she seemed to be alone for the moment. “You have a gun?” he said incredulously.
“What do you think?”
Mike couldn’t remember anyone ever being shot in Dundee—unless it was in some kind of hunting accident. But he supposed anything was possible. “What kind of gun is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Just curious.” He was still doing his best to protect his eyes.
“One that will put a hole in you,” she said. “Happy?”
“Not particularly.” The quiver in her voice told him she was probably lying about the gun, which he’d suspected from the beginning. He could understand why she’d feel a bit intimidated with a six foot two, two hundred and ten pound stranger barging in on her. What bothered him was the light—that and the question of what she was doing here. “Who are you?”
“I could ask the same of you,” she said warily.
“Mike Hill. I own the ranch next door.”
Mike had grown up in these parts. Most everyone knew his family. But if she recognized his name, she didn’t say so.
“What are you doing here, Mr. Hill?”
“Do you mind?” He scowled at the light as she stepped closer.
“You’re the one who walked in uninvited. Why?”
She had to be alone, or he would’ve heard someone else by now. “I came to tell you that you’d better put out those candles and hightail it out of here before I call the police. You’re trespassing on private property.”
“Is it your property?” she asked.
“It should be.”
“But it’s not, is it?”
He didn’t like her tone. The fact that he’d lost the house, of which he had so many fond childhood memories, to a gold-digger and her children still bothered him. The fact that he’d been robbed of the time he could have spent with his grandfather in the last ten years of Morris Caldwell’s life rankled even worse.
“What happens here is none of your business,” she went on briskly. “Please go.”
Mike had no intention of leaving. No one was going to chase him out of his grandfather’s house–especially with nothing more threatening than a flashlight. “Get that damn light out of my eyes.”
“Or?” she said, coming back at him with his own line.
Mike welcomed the challenge. “Or I’ll take it away from you.”
“Shoot? You don’t even have a gun. If you did, you wouldn’t need to blind me.”
She hesitated, but Mike didn’t give her a chance to decide, just in case he was wrong about the gun. With two quick steps, he caught her around the waist and pressed her up against the closest wall.
The flashlight fell and rolled away as he pinned her hands out to the side. But he’d moved her close enough to the light in the kitchen that he could barely make out a straining chest covered by an overlarge sweatshirt, a pale oval face, and a thick halo of long curly hair that, if he had to guess, was blond. She was young, all right; but older than he’d thought. Certainly not a teenager. She looked small, perfect, porcelain–like an angel. But the glint in her luminous eyes had nothing to do with innocence and everything to do with red-hot fury.
She began to raise her knee, but he managed to keep hold of her and protect his groin at the same time. “Let go of me you, son-of–!”
“Whoa, calm down, little lady!” He used his body weight to press her more firmly against the wall, until she couldn’t move, so she wouldn’t try to knee him again.
“Little lady?” she bit out, breathing so hard he could feel every intake of breath. “I suppose you think that kind of condescending bullshit passes for manners out here, huh, cowboy?”
Mike blinked in surprise. What was wrong with little lady? “My manners are a hell of a lot better than anything I’ve seen from you,” he snapped.
“I’m not the one who came barging into your house!”
That took him back. “What?”
“You heard me. Whether you think this place should belong to you or not, I own it, so let me go.”
Mike didn’t budge. The last time he’d seen Lucky Caldwell she’d been a pudgy eighteen-year-old with more than her share of acne. She’d worn her reddish hair in a tight ponytail and waited for the school bus out front every morning, hugging her books to her chest and glaring daggers at him whenever he drove by. “I don’t believe you,” he said.
“Your grandfather told your whole family that my mother tried to kill him by giving him too much insulin. She claimed it was an accident, but he divorced her and cut her out of his will. Would I know that if I was just some squatter?”
“Pretty much everybody knows that,” he pointed out, trying to see her more clearly. “At least around here.”
“Okay, you bought the land next door from Morris when I was ten and you were somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five. Josh was a couple years younger. You and he started a stud service with a black stallion that had a white star on his forehead and white socks.”
At his surprised silence she added grudgingly, “That horse was beautiful. I used to bring him sugar cubes and apples.”
Slowly, Mike let go of her and eased away, wondering why his stallion hadn’t keeled over if she’d been feeding it food from her evil mother’s pantry. Now that he could see her a little better, he couldn’t help noticing that she wasn’t wearing anything, other than maybe a pair of panties, beneath that baggy sweatshirt. The hem hit her almost at mid-thigh; bare, shapely legs extended from there.
“It’s cold. Where’re your pants?” he asked.
“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s late. I happened to be in my sleeping bag when you so kindly broke into my house and ruined my night. Forgive me for not dressing more modestly.”
With that biting edge to her voice, he could tell she still had plenty of spunk. But she’d certainly changed in other ways. Mostly, she’d grown up. Although she had large breasts, especially for such a small woman, the fat had melted away, and her hair was long and curly and tumbled around her face almost to her waist. With the light from the kitchen acting like a halo behind her, he could now see that it was more red than blond.
Mike bit back a whistle and couldn’t help wondering whether she would’ve looked that good six years ago if she hadn’t pulled her hair back every day. If so, she might have commanded a little more positive attention from the boys in town. As it was, she hadn’t been particularly attractive. Nor, with her unpleasant personality, did she have anything else to recommend her.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” he asked.
Her hands curled into small fists. “Maybe I appreciate my privacy.”
More likely she enjoyed being caustic. He remembered Lucky clinging to Morris’s arm the day Morris had invited Mike over to meet his new wife and children. Because of his grandparents’ divorce and the quick second wedding, it had been a difficult year for Mike’s whole family, but particularly for Mike, since he’d always been closest to his grandpa. Everyone else had refused to acknowledge Morris’s invitation to come to the house, but Mike had shown up, hoping that everything he’d been hearing was a lie, or at least not as bad as it seemed. He’d thought he knew his grandpa. He’d thought his grandpa would never change. But Morris had been swept away in the excitement of his new relationship and was never the same after falling in love with Red. Mike had known he was in trouble when Morris hugged Lucky close and introduced her as “his new girl.” “This one’s a little doll,” he’d said, but the moment he turned his back, Lucky stuck out her tongue at Mike and ran away.
Mike blinked, wondering what had finally brought Lucky back to Dundee. After Red died, his mother had finally stopped talking about how “that woman” and “those children” had stolen Morris’s love and attention, as well as his money, then left him, when he was old and sick, for those who really loved him to care for him. She’d finally quit telling Mike, every chance she got, that it was Red who’d caused his grandmother to die shortly after Morris did. The doctor’s say it was heart failure. Of course it was. Her heart broke when she found out about Daddy’s affair with Red. She was never the same after she left him and moved to town. Finally, the scandal had slipped into the background. Mike hated to see the whole issue resurrected. “Are you here to stay?” he asked.
When Lucky threw her shoulders back and brought up her chin, he knew he hadn’t done a very good job of concealing his hope for a negative answer. But then, he couldn’t imagine her expecting anyone to be happy about her return, his family least of all.
“I might stay for a while,” she said. “You don’t have any problem with that, do you?”
He had a problem with it, all right, but he’d already done all he could about Lucky. As soon as he’d learned that his grandfather had never legally adopted her and her brothers as they’d all thought, he’d sued her for the house. And lost. Then he’d tried to buy it from her, several times. But she’d refused to sell. Bottom line, Lucky legally owned the place his grandfather had always promised to him; she could stay as long as she liked.
“What you do is your decision, of course,” he said, his tone as curt and formal as hers.
“My thoughts exactly.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “Now, if you don’t mind, it’s late, I’m nearly naked, and it’s cold.”
He leaned sideways to gaze through the short hallway to the kitchen. Aside from the candles, and the crackle of a fire, she didn’t seem to have many comforts in there. Surely, staying in such a barren, filthy place had to be miserable, especially for a young woman. But he didn’t want her to be too comfortable, did he? Then she might prolong her visit.
“Is there anything else?” she asked when he hesitated.
Letting his breath seep slowly between his lips, he stooped to retrieve his hat, which had fallen off when he’d “disarmed” her. “No.”
She moved to the front door and opened it expectantly.
If she’d been anyone else, he would’ve said something neighborly, something like, “If you need anything, I’m right next door.” Because she was a woman, and young and alone, he had a tough time not saying it. But she wasn’t just any woman. She the daughter of the most selfish, grasping woman he’d ever met, someone he’d never liked to begin with.
“Good night,” he said coldly and walked out, carrying his hat. If Lucky had turned out as much like Red as he suspected, she could certainly take care of herself.