Ours to LoveA Wicked Lovers novel featuring billionaire brothers
Something had been following me for days. Whether it was human, ghost or an in-between—like me—I had no idea. I’d never caught more than a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. No more than a flicker of light or a fleeting shadow. But it was there even now, in my periphery. A darkness that kept pace. Turning when I turned. Slowing when I slowed.
I steadied my gait even as my heart raced, and I berated myself for having strayed too far from hallowed ground. I’d lingered too long at my favorite market, and now it was nearing on twilight, that dangerous time when the veil thinned, allowing those greedy, grasping entities to drift through into our world, seeking what they could never have again.
From the time I was nine, my father had taught me how to protect myself from the parasitic nature of ghosts, but I’d broken his every rule. I’d fallen in love with a haunted man, and now a door had been opened, allowing the Others to come through. Allowing evil to find me.
A car thundered down the street, and I tensed even as I welcomed such a normal sound. But the roar of the engine faded too quickly, and the ensuing quiet seemed ominous. The rush hour traffic had already waned, and the street was unusually devoid of pedestrians and runners. I had the sidewalk all to myself. It was as if everything had faded into the background, and the scope of my world narrowed to the thud of my footsteps and heartbeats.
I shifted the shopping bag to my other hand, allowing for a quick sweep to my left where the sun had set over the Ashley River. The mottled sky flamed like embers from a dying fire, the light casting a golden radiance over the spires and steeples that dotted the low skyline of the City of Churches.
It was good to be back in my beloved Charleston, but I’d been on edge ever since my return, the raw nerves a symptom of the emotional and physical trauma I’d suffered during a cemetery restoration in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there was another reason I couldn’t eat or sleep, a deeper unease that made me pace restlessly until all hours.
I drew a quivering breath.
The haunted police detective I couldn’t get out of my mind or my heart. The mere thought of him was like a dark caress, a forbidden kiss. Every time I closed my eyes, I could hear the whisper of his aristocratic drawl, that slow, seductive cadence. With very little effort, I could conjure the scorching demand of his perfect mouth on mine…the honeyed trail of his tongue…those graceful, questing hands….
Returning my focus to the street, I glanced over my shoulder. Whatever stalked me had fallen back or disappeared, and my fear eased as it always did when I neared hallowed ground.
Then, a bird called from somewhere in the high branches, the sound so startling I stopped in my tracks to listen. I’d heard that trill once before in the evening shadows of a courtyard in Paris. The serenade was like no other. Gentle and dreamy. Like floating in a warm, candlelit bath. I would have thought it a nightingale, but they were indigenous to Europe and by now would have made the three-thousand mile trek to Africa for the winter.
In the wake of the songbird, a fragrance floated down to me, something lush and exotic. Neither sound nor scent belonged to this city—perhaps even to this world—and a warning prickled my scalp.
The breeze off the water carried a slight chill even though the sun had barely begun its western slide. It was still hours until twilight. Hours until the veil between our world and the next would thin, but already I could feel the ripple of goose bumps at the back of my neck, a sensation that almost always signaled an unnatural presence.
I resisted the temptation to glance over my shoulder. Years of living with ghosts had instilled in me an aberrant discipline. I knew better than to react to those greedy, grasping entities, so I leaned against the deck rail and stared intently into the greenish depths of the lake. But from my periphery, I tracked the other passengers on the ferry.
The intimate murmurs and soft laughter from the couple next to me aroused an unexpected melancholy, and I thought suddenly of John Devlin, the police detective I’d left behind in Charleston. This time of day, he would probably still be at work, and I conjured up an image of him hunched over a cluttered desk, reviewing autopsy reports and crime scene photos. Did I cross his mind now and then? Not that it mattered. He was a man haunted by his dead wife and daughter, and I was a woman who saw ghosts. For as long as he clung to his past—and his past clung to him—I could not be a part of his life.
So I wouldn’t dwell on Devlin or that terrible door that my feelings for him had opened. In the months since I’d last seen him, my life had settled back into a normal routine. Normal for me, at least. I still saw ghosts, but those darker entities—the Others, my father called them—had drifted back into their murky underworld where I prayed they would remain. The memories, however, lingered. Memories of Devlin, memories of all those victims and of a haunted killer who had made me a target. I knew no matter how hard I fought them off, the nightmares would return the moment I closed my eyes.
For now, though, I wanted to savor my adventure. The start of a new commission filled me with excitement, and I looked forward to the prospect of uncovering the history of yet another graveyard, of immersing myself in the lives of those who had been laid to rest there. I always say that cemetery restoration is more than just clearing away trash and overgrowth. It’s about restoration.
The back of my neck continued to prickle.
After a moment, I turned to casually glance back at the row of cars. My silver SUV was one of only five vehicles on the ferry. Another SUV belonged to the couple, a green minivan to a middle-aged woman absorbed in a battered paperback novel, and a faded red pickup truck to an elderly man sipping coffee from a foam cup. That left the vintage black sports car. The metallic jet paint drew my appreciative gaze. In the sunlight, the shimmer reminded me of snake scales, and an inexplicable shiver traced along my spine as I admired the serpentine lines. The windows were tinted, blocking my view of the interior, but I imagined the driver behind the wheel, impatiently drumming fingers as the ferry inched toward the other side. To Asher Falls. To Thorngate Cemetery, my ultimate destination.
I was nine when I saw my first ghost.
My father and I were raking leaves in the cemetery where he’d worked for years as the caretaker. It was early autumn, not yet cool enough for a sweater, but on that particular afternoon there was a noticeable bite in the air as the sun dipped toward the horizon. A mild breeze carried the scent of wood smoke and pine needles, and as the wind picked up, a flock of black birds took flight from the treetops and glided like a storm cloud across the pale blue sky.
I put a hand to my eyes as I watched them. When my gaze finally dropped, I saw him in the distance. He stood beneath the drooping branches of a live oak, and the green-gold light that glimmered down through the Spanish moss cast a preternatural glow on the space around him. But he was in shadows, so much so that I wondered for a moment if he was only a mirage.
As the light faded, he became more defined, and I could even make out his features. He was old, even more ancient than my father, with white hair brushing the collar of his suit coat and eyes that seemed to burn with an inner flame.
My father was bent to his work and as the rake moved steadily over the graves, he said under his breath, “Don’t look at him.”
I turned in surprise. “You see him, too?”
“Yes, I see him. Now get back to work.”
“But who is he—”
“I said don’t look at him!”
His sharp tone stunned me. I could count on one hand the number of times he’d ever raised his voice to me. That he had done so now, without provocation, made me instantly tear up. The one thing I could never abide was my father’s disapproval.
There was regret in his tone and what I would later come to understand as pity in his blue eyes.
“I’m sorry I spoke so harshly, but it’s important that you do as I say. You mustn’t look at him,” he said in a softer tone. “Any of them.”
“Is he a—”
Something cold touched my spine and it was all I could do to keep my gaze trained on the ground.
“Papa,” I whispered. I had always called him this. I don’t know why I’d latched on to such an old-fashioned moniker, but it suited him. He had always seemed very old to me, even though he was not yet fifty. For as long as I could remember, his face had been heavily lined and weathered, like the cracked mud of a dry creek bed, and his shoulders drooped from years of bending over the graves.
But despite his poor posture, there was great dignity in his bearing and much kindness in his eyes and in his smile. I loved him with every fiber of my nine-year-old being. He and Mama were my whole world. Or had been, until that moment.
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