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Nothing is as it Seems
From her perch on the back porch steps of Greenwood Manor, Charlene stared at the one room building in the corner of the yard. The schoolhouse with the chipped paint gave her the creeps ever since she arrived.
She sipped Pinot and rested her arm on her leg. Why did she tell Paul England she’d stay at the Manor tonight, Halloween of all nights?
He sounded desperate, that’s why. A group of her closest friends, affectionally named the Band of Friends, jumped whenever one of them needed help. The sun faded, casting a vibrant orangish-yellow glow on the grounds. With its descent, shadows loomed over the two hundred year old building, adding to her jumpiness.
A white patch, not square nor rectangle, but a shape with no borders flew from the building right in front of her to the schoolhouse. Her arm froze midair with her drink touching her lips and goose bumps rose on her arms.
“I need Larry.” She jumped up and darted into the house to grab her purse. After she was kidnapped in the mountains, he gave her his number and said to call whenever she needed him. She tugged the card out of the inside zipper pocket and dialed his number on her cell. It went to voice mail.
She looked out the kitchen window. A light beamed across the yard. She rushed to the counter and looked out. Evening dropped a blanket of darkness, but the moon shined. She rolled her eyes. A full moon. What more could happen on the ghostly night?
Outside, a door slammed, and her heart pounded in her ears. Paul trusted her to look after the plantation, not watch from a far. If her son came along, instead of choosing to be with his grandmother to go trick or treating, he would have rushed to the schoolhouse and checked it out. After all, the man of the family presented a brave front.
Light danced out the schoolhouse window and onto the boxwoods near the building. The tension between her shoulder blades tightened. Teens must be partying. She downed the rest of the wine and set the glass on the counter. Time to enforce what Paul asked. With feet of clay, she left the kitchen walked through the screened porch to the steps. The cooling air made her wrap her arms under her chest.
Crickets chirped. A coyote howled. Ghost stories involving the Manor thrashed into her mind. Her friends, Paul and Jake, once mentioned the ghost of a man who’d been murdered.
Remembering another tale, her hand covered her mouth. A hand appeared briefly in a window before disappearing. When the witness investigated, the search turned up no one. They called it the Madison Hand. She never Googled to learn if the tale held any merit. Now, she wished she had.
An owl hooted and Charlene darted her gaze toward the dark tree limbs hovering above. The moon glowed between the branches, illuminating the side of the schoolhouse. With each step, dread gripped her stomach, twisting it, yet a rose bush near the walkway gave her pause. Petite pinkish blooms covered the shrub.
Odd for this time of year.
She focused back on her mission, stepped onto the small piece of concrete in front of the building, and reached for the porcelain knob.
A cat screeched.
Her hand flew to her chest. She stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. A solid black cat ran across the yard and disappeared down the cellar steps. Relief washed over her.
Only a cat.
Full moon, black cat. If a ghost flew through the air or a witch rode a broom in front of the moon, the night would be a perfect scary movie.
“Are you okay?” A raspy male voice came from in front of the schoolhouse.
The air left her lungs and her heart stopped beating. She waited to observe the owner of the rough, scratchy voice.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Her throat constricted and a cool breeze touched her face. The need to wipe her mouth grew strong, but her hands wouldn’t move from the ground. She swung her eyes to the right … to the left … up. No one.
“Can you speak?”
“Yes.” The words shook. Teenagers pranked her. Nothing else made sense. “Okay kids, come on out. Games over.” She tried to sound authoritative.
“I haven’t seen any.”
This can’t be happening. “Where are you?”
“Sitting in front of you.”
She stared at the stoop. Empty, but the door stood ajar. “I can’t see you.”
A breeze blew the hair off her face.
“Now can you?”
A man in his late thirties or early forties materialized, a flannel shirt covering his wide broad shoulders. Auburn hair hung over his forehead and blue jeans covered the long legs that stretched out in front of him. Tan and gorgeous.
“Where’d you come from?”
“I’ve been here the whole time.”
She opened her mouth … closed it. Casper the Friendly Ghost crossed her mind and as dumb as it sounded, she asked, “Are you a ghost?”
“In the flesh.”
Darkness invaded her vision.
A puff of air on her cheek and earlobe sent a spiral of tingles over her body. She opened her eyes.
Panic replaced the tingles. Seconds ago, she sat on the ground. Now, scared out of her mind, she stared at a built in bookshelf from a soft surface in the schoolhouse she’d coveted.
She recalled the ordeal not too long ago: locked in a cabin, scared of the unknown while praying for a rescue. This time, FBI agents didn’t search for her. She needed to find an escape on her own.
To the left, moonlight filtered inside and heat penetrated her skin from behind. The smell of chicken soup drifted under her nose, and she twisted.
Her throat tightened. A long wooden spoon stuck out of a pot, sitting in the center of an iron stove.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Am I hallucinating? “This can’t be real.”
“But I am.”
Her eyes bulged. The man from outside appeared and grabbed the spoon.
“I’m Ben, Charlene.”
He knew her name. Fear raced through her, she jumped to her feet, darted forward, only to lose her balance.
Strong hands palmed her back and lifted her until she stood.
She trembled. How’d he move that fast and how could he caress her? “Who are you?”
On shaky legs, she eased backwards, away from the ghost of a murdered man. “Not possible.”
The air shimmered. He stood in front of her, a finger slid down her cheek. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Wh-why can I see you?” The issue with stuttering shocked her, but she’d never seen a ghost. She gulped.
“I let a few people.”
His breath drifted across her face. Lord help her, she wanted more.
Another stroke along her cheek and she quivered. He needed to stop that. It did strange things to her body and prevented her from grasping onto an emotion. One second, she was scared. The next, she melted. “How can I feel you?”
“You’re not asking the right questions.”
The one she asked was important. “What are the right ones?”
His hands slapped the wall on each side of her face, trapping her.
The sensation of being imprisoned didn’t hit her. A shot of desire went straight to her muffin.
None of this made sense. He possessed the five senses but didn’t exist.
She bit her lip and gazed into honey-colored eyes, the color so enticing, she wanted to be lost in them.
“What—” Her whisper broke off when he moved closer.
“Why do I allow you to?”
Good question. “Why?”
“I saw you …” A puff of air blew across her face. “… talking to a small boy. The way you looked at him so loving.”
Not too long after her horrific kidnapping, the caretakers invited the BOFs and families to a barbecue.
“He is my son.” With her lips a mere fraction to his, she wanted to taste him, have his lips move across hers.
He nodded. “Yes. You were lovely. You are. I watched you laugh with your friends. The way you tossed your head back, exposing your neck.” The pad of his finger ran down her throat, and she moaned. “I wanted you.”
“But how could you.” She rubbed her lips together. “You’re not real.”
“We already established that I am. Women are fascinating creatures. They need to be appreciated.” His gaze dropped to her lips, and she fought the urge to squirm. “The moist heat sparking from their lips captivates a man, and lets him know if he is worthy to be close.”
The seductive words he spoke warmed her body, chased away her fear, and she parted her lips.
“I’ve dreamed of doing this ever since I laid eyes on you.”
His gaze steadied on hers, and he lowered his head. A flutter bubbled from her stomach a second before he captured her mouth. Tender, warm lips shot fire in her veins. She grabbed the sides of his shirt, loved his body hovering over hers, and opened her mouth wider.
A low growl escaped him and his slick tongue mated with hers.
The insanity of the situation threatened to take away her blissful moment, but she shoved it away, refusing to give up this brief interlude, the deliciousness of him, and the amazing security in his presence.
His mouth crushed down on hers and when she moaned into his mouth, he hardened. An occurrence he missed. Her mouth, soft and wet, kissed him with such intensity that he wished he could stay with her forever.
Ben wrapped his hands around the curve of her waist. The spot he’d wanted to touch since she climbed out of the car in the driveway. He’d tried to figure out what to do to get her attention, to make her not scared of him. The solution came quickly once she walked to him. The sway of her hips walking toward his hideaway, to the lone area no one came, fostered his desire.
He groaned and pulled her to him until her breasts flattened against his solid chest. A state he assumed once a year on this night, All-Hollow’s Eve.
Ben knew how to kiss a woman, dreamed of kissing one. Since his death, he kept his mortal thoughts tucked away on the do not think list, the place where he buried his grief.
Tonight, he’d break the tradition and risk losing the next five years of the brief mortality on All-Hollow’s Eve by bedding the woman that occupied his fantasies. In the past, no woman came close for him to cave in and give up the one night that kept hope alive.
She eased away, and her brown eyes searched his face. “How can you not be real?”
He leaned his forehead against hers. “I’m real, not in the mortal form, at least, not all the time.”
The strobe danced a light around the room and he stepped away, raking his hand through his hair.
He hoped tonight they’d abandoned the idea and let him have a mortal night of peace.
“What’s wrong? How did the light turn on?”
She needed to leave before she ended up with the same fate. “You have to go,” he said.
Her mouth dropped open. “What? No. I’m not leaving.”
Music to his ears, but he couldn’t let her stay. They’d kill her. The light spun quicker and his stomach tightened.
“Please talk to me.” Her voice shook and her sweet face that glowed moments ago from their kisses turned white. “You’re scaring me.”
He laced his fingers behind her neck and pulled her into his embrace. “I don’t mean, too. Tonight is Halloween.” He rested his chin on her head, inhaled a peach scent, and his mouth watered. God, he missed this.
She tightened her grip around his waist, pushed her hips into his, no doubt aware of how much he wanted her. He needed to tell her what would be happening. “During the time I’m mortal which happens once a year. A group wants me not to exist between two worlds. If they kill me during All Hollow’s Eve, I’ll disappear forever.”
Her eyes widened. Her reaction touched him. Before twelve o’clock struck, they’d needed to talk.
The light spun with such furiousness, he expected it to fly off the base, signaling the arrival of The Impalers. Tonight when she arrived, he worked on his strategy: chicken soup cooking on the stove would cover his scent.
Previously, he’d hid in hay, around cows … goats, but they learned his tricks and he understood that this year he’d have to become cleverer.
He looked up. Her eyes wide, she pointed to the window that faced a field. On the horizon, lights came forth, signaling the imminent battle.
The strobe light spun so fast, it flew off the pedestal and Charlene ducked, preventing it from hitting her head.
“It’s an alarm, isn’t it?” She straightened and smoothed down her hair.
He flipped the switch on the base and the room went dark. “It is.” The glow of the moon made it possible for whoever stood outside to peer in. Boxes of supplies rested on the shelves that he’d gathered over time. He’d opened the first box and tossed the items aside.
She grabbed a box. “What are we looking for?”
The offer clenched his heart. His mortal family had offered to help, but no one else since. “Something to cover up the windows.”
In a flash, she held up two spray cans of black paint.
“That works.” He grabbed a can and headed for the window away from the field since she beat him to that one.
With each pass of the can, the light flittering inside disappeared.
He turned on a small lamp and raked his hands through his hair. “Good question.” The last moments of immortality lent him strength to make it another year. He savored each second and refused to let this time end without touching the woman of his dreams.
Near the bookcase, the vase filled with flowers from the bush outside, grabbed his attention. “I have an idea.”
Her eyes grew wide before a smile stretched across her face. “Okay.”
He laid her back on the chaise and slid the flower over her forehead, down her nose. When he reached her mouth, she kissed the petals.
“I want to feel the silkiness … on my skin.” Her breathless voice flamed his insides.
The control he tried to maintain shattered, and he used his powers. In an instant, their clothes vanished.
She smiled up at him, the warmth curled around his shaft and he let the flower continue the journey while he watched. It slid along her neck, the area he envisioned his lips and he bent, nibbling on the delicate area beneath her ear before pulling it into his mouth. Her skin warm and salty, he craved for more. He wanted her pressed against him, but when her eyes stayed closed with a blissful glow on her face, he let the petals of the flower touch where he longed and slid it between her breasts.
She moaned and opened her eyes. A flower floated above her.
“I like you watching.”
“Me, too.” The flower caressed her stomach, inching toward the spot he ached to touch.
“I want you.”
He covered her body with his, her warmth stroking him from chest to legs.
“I have to keep reminding myself you’re not real, that you’re a ghost.”
“Hmm.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Nothing is as it seems.”
The door crashed in.
Charlene bolted upright. A film of sweat covered her body and she panted. She scanned her bedroom. No sign of anyone. The man that loved her, made her want him, vanished, leaving her lonely and wanting. She pulled her knees toward her and rested her arms.
Tears welled. The pain of not seeing him again tore at her heart.
She dried her eyes and nose with the sheet and a flash of red caught her attention.
A rose off the bush at Greenwood Manor lay on the pillow beside her. She smelled the fragrant flower and went back in time, remembering what Ben did with it last night. Her eyes closed, last night’s adventure tiring her.
The door creaked open and she squinted. A shirtless man walked into the room. Her heart fluttered.
“Good morning.” After placing a tray on the nightstand, he settled on the mattress, his pajamas clad knee rubbing against her hand. His well-developed chest teased her.
Auburn hair highlighted his honey eyes and his contagious smile made her grin. He looked comfortable in her room. When did he arrive? She glanced from one side of the room to the other. How’d she get home?
He bent over, kissed her forehead, and her eyes shut. She remembered those soft lips, the gentle way they touched her.
“The fever’s gone.”
She raised an eyebrow and pulled the sheet up to her neck. “Fever?”
A side of his mouth lifted. “Yes.” His eyes narrow. “Do you remember calling me?”
“Ah … yes, but you didn’t answer.”
“I didn’t have cell service. Paul told me you’d stayed at the house alone.” He breathed in a lungful of air. “With everything you’ve been through, I didn’t think you should be alone on Halloween.”
“I don’t remember.”
He picked up her hand and rubbed circles with his thumb. “When I arrived, you laid on the ground unconscious. I assumed you hit your head on the way to the schoolhouse until I scooped you off the ground. Your skin burned from a fever. I called one of the guys at the bureau stayed to the house and I brought you home.”
She gazed at him, her eyes stung from them bulging. “I don’t remember any of it. So, there’s no Ben?” Sweet Larry, comforted and took care of her and while her mind focused on the ghost, on Ben.
Larry chuckled. “You called me Ben in your sleep.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I wondered the same. Have you spied on me?” He winked. “Benjamin Larry Newman at your service.”
Not a dream, yet dreamlike. Had they … had sex? She looked under the blanket. The silk nightshirt reached her thighs. “Did you change my clothes?”
He ran a hand down his face. “You don’t remembering anything, do you?”
She shook her head.
“What about this?” he lifted the rose.
“It came from the manor.”
“It did. You clenched the stem in your hand when I found you. Do you remember?”
She recalled everything, yet the lines muddled between what she dreamed and what he she hoped he did with her, to her. “I’m unsure what’s real.”
He stretched out beside her and tugged her into his tone chest. “It was very real.”
The smell of wood burning lingered on his skin.
“Why do you smell of smoke?”
“I should take a shower.”
When he moved to leave, she clutched onto him. “No, it’s fine. Did you build a fire?”
“I did. I cooked you chicken noodle soup on the stove. You said your grandmother made it for you when you were sick.”
The pieces of the puzzle merged and the picture became clear. In her state, the fever distorted facts. The same way a high temperature had affected her years ago. She acted well enough to fool her mom and dad into thinking she was okay. Did she do the same to Larry?
His arms tightened around her back. “We need to have a replay of last night when you’re well. The experience is worth remembering or in this case, repeating.” His breath brushed her neck. The tender words compelled her to press her hips against his leg.
She gazed into his eyes. “It was, but can we do it now?”
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth a second before his lips found hers.
Oh yeah, she did want to repeat this over and over again.
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