Excerpt for Abandoned by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Jack framed her face with his battered and bruised hands. Kissed her like he meant it. Like he’d never kissed anyone before. Because no other woman had ever knotted him all up inside like Isabella Warner.

Her sweet lips, tentative at first, melted into his. Her splayed hand trembled where it pressed against his stomach. His abs quivered. Jack pulled his lips away to say, “I’m sorry.”

Isabella dropped her forehead to his chest. “You hate me.”

“I could never hate you.” He had to be honest with her. “I’m angry. I’ve been angry at everyone and everything my whole life.” Jack closed his eyes. Clenched his jaw to keep his dark emotion in check. “You robbed me of the only thing that could burn away my rage. Even though I want you – it scares me how much I do – I don’t know how to go forward. I’m stuck in the past.”

Isabella laid her palm on his cheek. “Together we might be able to find a new path. One that will lead to happily ever after.”

Jack pressed his forehead to hers. “I’m afraid. What if I hurt you? Or infect you with my ugliness?”

She tugged his chin down, pressed her lips to his. “I’m pretty sure Granddad inoculated me against all forms of male bull crap. You can hurt me, but you can’t change who I am.”

“You’re perfect the way you are.”

She laughed at that. “Hardly. Can you give us a chance? See what might happen?”

The tightness in his chest eased. Isabella gave him hope for a better way forward than the one he’d always planned. He kissed her. The house only stood between them if he let it. He couldn’t be that dang stupid.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes


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Abandoned

Copyright © 2018 by Melissa A. Woolard writing as Lis’Anne Harris

ISBN: 978-1-9833488-6-0

Independently published



Editors: Nancy Johns & Julie Fisher



This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, incidents, and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, locales, or actual events is coincidental, save those events and persons known to be of historical relevance.



Cover © 2018 Melissa Woolard



The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our society. The transcribing/scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without explicit permission is theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use an excerpt from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact lisanne@lisanneharris.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s creative rights.



http://LisAnneHarris.com








Abandoned Series


Book One


Abandoned


Lis’Anne Harris

This story is dedicated to Julie and Steven, my very first exurban exploration buddies, and to Jimmie for all the years of feeding my need and keeping me safe.


Special thanks to Lee Roland, Janie Dean, Charlee Allden, Abigail Sharpe, Shelby Reed, and Priscilla Oliveras for their invaluable critiques!

Chapter 1


Isabella ignored the weathered do not enter sign tacked to the door, against her better judgment. The crumbling, creepy house seemed to scream Go away! But she couldn’t. She’d finally found Chatham Hall after a long, painful year of searching.

A crisp autumn breeze whipped along the deep veranda of the abandoned mansion, tossing her short curls into her eyes. A tear slid down her cheek. She dashed the moisture away with her fingertips. Granddad should be here with her. Guilt and regret clawed at her heart. This moment, which should have been a celebration, stood as a stark reminder of how alone she really was.

She stretched her hand toward the tarnished brass knob, leaned her shoulder into the ancient, worn wood. Shoved it open.

A magnificent central staircase rose from the center of a vast foyer. Light from a glass dome three stories above illuminated the grungy, frayed Turkish carpet running up the middle. A gorgeous statue of a sensuously-clad Greek goddess was mounted on the right-hand newel post, an Olympic torch held high in her uplifted hand. She was filthy, but all the more beautiful for the grime she’d had to endure.

A strong forearm across Isabella’s stomach came out of nowhere, yanking her back against a hard body. Adrenaline pumped through her veins, her heart hammered loudly in her ears.

“Can’t you read?”

She barely heard the gruff baritone growling above her head. Isabella wrenched free and confronted the man, her fist cocked back. Any other woman would probably be scared half to death. Not her. She’d dealt with a skid-load of rude, obnoxious men over the years on her renovation sites. It took a heck of a lot to frighten her. Granddad didn’t raise a lily-livered pantywaist. She reined in her instant temper and focused on the guy.

Daggone.

He was so pretty it hurt to look at him. The type of guy who would never give a second glance to a girl like her.

Blackish wavy hair brushed the tops of broad shoulders encased in faded red flannel. He wore loose-fit Levi’s and scuffed brown work boots. His eyes, sparkling blue framed by thick black lashes, narrowed at her inspection.

“Well?” He lifted a dark brow as he bent to pick up a padlock still locked to a hasp. The shadow of day-old beard emphasized his strong jaw and full lips.

“Who the heck are you?” Isabella lowered her fist and braced her hands on her hips. She itched to swipe the lock from his palm and throw it in the fountain pool on the other side of the drive. Childish, she knew, but she didn’t care.

“Can’t you read? The sign clearly says Do. Not. Enter.” He shook his head in disgust. “Prying off the lock –”

“You ain’t pinning that on me, buster. The lock was on the ground when I walked up.”

“Right. Sure.” He nodded sarcastically.

“Right. Sure.” She rolled her eyes.

His nostrils flared as a muscle ticked in his jaw. He leaned through the open door to grab the handle, clearly avoiding stepping inside.

Isabella glanced down. Holy smokes! She sucked in a silent breath. Right across the threshold, a gaping hole in the wooden floor spread out like the Grand Canyon. The drop had to be at least fifteen feet.

The man’s shirt sleeves were rolled up, revealing springy dark hair on suntanned forearms. He pulled the door firmly closed and shoved the hasp with the screws still protruding from the hinged metal plate back into the holes in the double door.

“Seriously?” Isabella snorted. Surely he wasn’t stupid enough to think that would work.

A tan leather tool belt was slung low around his hips. Mr. Frowny dug around in one of the pouches, producing four or five toothpicks.

Maybe not so dumb after all. Few people knew such woodworking tricks. Isabella really wished he wasn’t so freaking unfriendly. She might’ve liked him. What if he knew the history of the house and the people who’d lived there? Gaaah! What if he was related to her? The thought was so repellant, she refused to contemplate it.

He glared down at her. His scowl darkened even more.

Yikes! She mentally scrunched her nose. Um…maybe she’d ask a town elder later about the former inhabitants of Chatham Hall?

Mr. Frowny broke off pieces of the toothpicks in the screw holes. He whipped out a bottle of wood glue and squirted a dab into each hole. She shoved the hasp in then the guy pulled a small screw gun out of another pouch on his belt and zipped them in.

“Who are you, anyway?” She gave the padlock a decent yank to see if the hasp would hold.

“The owner.” Could his expression be any fiercer? Was he a long lost relative then?

“You’re a Warner?” Please don’t let him say yes.

“No.” A gust of wind tossed his hair into his eyes. She could’ve sworn a flinch of pain flashed in his blue gaze before it was obscured.

“So you mean former owner?” Isabella crossed her arms over her chest, puzzled.

The double door also had a crisp white piece of paper taped to it with the particulars of a sheriff’s auction. The proceedings were scheduled for the next morning.

“It’ll be mine tomorrow.” His cocky, self-confident attitude grated.

Grrrr! She’d had it up to her eyeballs with men like him! “I hate to burst your bubble.” Isabella smirked. “This house will be mine tomorrow.” She didn’t know what on earth possessed her to snipe at him, but she couldn’t seem to stop. And she’d never been surer of anything in her life. If she had to liquidate every asset she possessed to buy it, she would. Chatham Hall belonged in her family and it was up to her to figure out why Granddad had never known anything about the mansion or the people who lived in it.

The man’s bark of laughter and flash of white teeth startled her. “You think?” His eyes ran up from her brand new work boots to her cute aqua stocking hat. Amusement laced his snort.

She needed to wipe the smirk from his face. “I don’t think it, I know it. This house deserves a professional renovator, not a simple handyman,” she shot back. Isabella braced her hands on her hips.

She’d never seen a fiercer scowl. He turned on his worn boot heel and walked to the east end of the porch where he took the side steps down two at a time. He didn’t look back.

“Cocky, arrogant...jerk,” Isabella muttered.

She crossed the wide flagstone veranda, grumbling like a thwarted cartoon character. The crunch of broken stones underfoot sounded harsh as she descended the steps. The mortar joints on the time-worn brick walls were in desperate need of repair. “I bet he doesn’t even know it’s called tuck-pointing.”

She flung open the door of her Jeep parked on the drive and paused to drink in the view. The three-story, faded red brick mansion was framed by an angry dark gray sky and dying fall foliage spilling down the Appalachian Mountains. All the basement windows were covered with plywood, as were the side lights flanking the double front door. Most of the other windows were intact, with only a few of the divided light panes held together with duct tape. Tattered curtains dangled behind some of the frames, while others were bare.

The smell of decaying leaves and moist earth filled her nose. She turned her face to the wind to let the brisk breeze whisk her hair from her eyes.

A movement in a first floor window caught her attention. It appeared Mr. Frowny’s brother or uncle was as unfriendly, glaring at her from behind the filthy glass. He wore an odd coat and a girly scarf tied around his neck in a bow. A humongous dog with bared teeth stood by his side.

Whatever. If they weren’t Warners then she had no reason to feel guilty for buying it out from under them. It didn’t appear they could afford the property taxes anyway. How on earth could they possibly hope to restore the place and deal with the constant upkeep? Thank heavens she’d found Chatham Hall in time. She hopped into her Jeep and drove past the lichen-covered statue of a maiden. No water had flowed in decades from the jug she held. The large fountain would’ve been a beautiful feature long ago. And it would be again.

Traces of cobblestones, barely visible, buried by years of weeds and dirt, led through the thick forest. Isabella burst through to the main road and headed back to Stockton, the nearest town large enough to have a couple of inns and a diner or three.

Plans started banging around in her head. A moment of shear giddiness bubbled up from her belly. She couldn’t wait to get started.

Isabella pulled into the parking lot on the side of a little diner. The sign, whimsical but professionally done, proclaimed it The Hen House. She turned into a parking spot then cut the engine. Grabbing her laptop bag, she hopped out and bypassed the side door as the heady smell of greasy french fries wafted by on a light breeze. Her stomach rumbled as she hurried around the corner. A large front window was colorfully decorated with local advertisements taped to the bottom corners of the glass. A canned food drive for the local pantry was the price of admission for the first home football game of the season.

She stepped through the door and into the bright restaurant. A group of guys in blue coveralls sat eating at a round table across from a big screen TV hanging on the wall. It reminded her of having lunch with her own employees back in Indy. A couple of the guys gave her a once-over and returned to talking. She sighed. There was no escaping the indifference she evoked in the male species. She usually tried to tell herself it was no great shakes, but it was. A long, lonely life without a husband and children loomed ahead of her. No family at all.

An older couple sat at a booth with milkshakes in hand. It hurt to watch them. Her parents would’ve been around their age had they not died. She pushed the guilt away. Isabella needed a break from the near-constant mental flogging she tortured herself with every day.

It wasn’t quite eleven-thirty, so the lunch crowd had probably yet to arrive. She stepped up to the order counter as a twenty-something girl in faded jeans and a red t-shirt passed through a pair of swinging doors with a tray of food. The same white hen logo adorned the front of her shirt

“Hi!” Her cheerful voice greeted Isabella. “Have a seat and I’ll be right with you.” She continued to the couple and placed their burger and onion ring baskets on the table.

Isabella chose a booth in halfway down one wall of the restaurant and picked up the menu tucked between the salt and pepper shakers. She was sick to death of eating salads with yucky lite dressings. Besides, it hadn’t done a daggone bit of good with all her binge snacking on Twizzlers and Pringles while searching down countless country roads for the mansion.

The mansion. If she hadn’t given Ancestry.com one more try, she wouldn’t be here. Wouldn’t have found it. A single newspaper article from the Pittsfield Republican dated 1835 mentioned a Jackson Warner had completed construction of a furniture factory near Stockton. It didn’t say exactly where, though.

The local records department would have birth and death certificates, building permits, and other pertinent documents that would fill in the blanks. Now to figure out how it, and the mysterious letter she and Granddad found in the attic of their Indiana home, connected to her family.

The waitress appeared at Isabella’s table. Swiped up the little receipt tray with the last patron’s money on it from the clean but scuffed red Formica surface. She stuck it in her white apron pocket. A yellow plastic tag pinned to her shirt read Amber, written with one of those old label punches. She held a pen poised above a green-lined pad. “What’ll ya have?”

“A bacon double-cheese deluxe, large fries, and a medium root beer.”

Amber jotted down the order. “Got it.”

“Thanks.” Isabella smiled.

The waitress hurried back with Isabella’s drink.

A gust of cool air on the side of her head ruffled her hair.

“Hi, Jack,” the waitress greeted the newcomer on her way back to the to-go order counter.

“Hey, Amber.”

Isabella knew that deep voice. She’d had the great misfortune of meeting its owner not thirty minutes earlier. She slowly turned her head to eye him. Didn’t that figure? She was searching for a Jackson and found a Jack.

A chorus of other “Hey, Jack” followed the girl’s. He lifted his chin to the guys at the table and waved a two-finger salute at the couple. He belonged here.

He coolly returned Isabella’s gaze then pointedly looked away. “How’s your mom and dad, Amber?”

“Pretty good. Still oohing and aahing over the awesome job you did on refinishing the stairway.”

“Excellent.” He smiled at the waitress. “Tell them we’re still on to start the kitchen remodel at the end of this week.”

“Will do. You having the usual?”

“Yep.” While he waited by the counter for her to fill his drink, he glanced over his shoulder. His blue eyes clashed with Isabella’s.

Oh brother. She pulled her phone from her pocket and pointedly focused on the screen. It seemed Mr. Frowny was well-liked in this town.

She tapped Ann’s name on her contact list, telling herself it was to check in at work when she really just needed to hear a familiar voice. The phone rang twice before her secretary picked up.

“Hi, boss lady.” Always so sunny. Always ready to do anything that was asked of her.

“Hi, Ann.” Isabella tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder while pulling out her laptop and starting it up.

“Calling for a status report?”

Isabella wanted to tell her the truth. That she needed her friend to lean on. Her always compassionate shoulder to cry on.

Though Ann had been Isabella’s executive secretary for the past three years, and had become one of her best friends, she couldn’t bring herself to crap on Ann’s always busy day. There wasn’t anything she could do about the hole in Isabella’s heart anyway.

“Yes, but also to get you started on Phase One of a new reno. It’s going to be the biggest we’ve done yet.”

“Only you could go on vacation and discover a project.” Ann chuckled. “Did you find it on your way to St. Augustine?”

“Not exactly.” Isabella bit the inside of her cheek. She shouldn’t have kept Ann in the dark. “More like Stockton, Massachusetts.”

Massachusetts? Aren’t you supposed to be in Florida?”

“You know how Granddad and I were hunting for the house in the sketch?”

“Oh, Bella.” Sorrow and sympathy softened Ann’s voice. “You’d given that up.”

How could she explain the overwhelming need to feel connected to someone in her blood line? She couldn’t stand being the only one left. “I thought I’d give an Internet search one more try and I got a hit. So instead of heading to St. Augustine, I came here.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Now she sounded a lot hurt and maybe a bit angry.

“I don’t know.” Isabella expelled a heavy breath. “I don’t know. I’ve felt so lost these last several months.”

“I’m so sorry, Bella, I wish I could hug your pain away.”

Isabella’s lower lip trembled. “I know, gal pal.” She hoped and prayed renovating Chatham Hall would help heal her broken heart. “Well, I found the house –”

“What?” Her shriek of excitement lifted Isabella’s lips in a happy grin.

“– and it’s going up for auction tomorrow.” The computer screen flashed on and the antique sketch of the mansion filled the desktop background. “I intend to buy it.”

“Yay! I’m so happy for you! Give me the address and I’ll start the wheels rolling.”

“Thanks, Ann! I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“You’d hire a better secretary.” A smile was back in her friend’s voice.

“I can’t imagine there being a better expediter anywhere in the world. You’re the best.” And Isabella meant it. Somehow, some way, she’d have to show Ann how thankful she was. Her stupid eyes started watering again. Time to change the subject. “Okay, what are the current project ETCs?”

“The estimated time of completion for each is on schedule.” Ann paused. Isabella could hear her nails clicking on the keyboard. “NOLA needs…”

A burst of electricity zipped through Isabella’s belly. The sounds in the diner faded away. Of all the empty tables in the place, Mr. Jack Frowny sat down at the table next to her booth, less than two feet away. So close, if he were the man of her dreams, he could easily reach out and slip his big, manly finger through one of her curls. Slide the tip of that finger along her jawline, and if she turned her head ever so slightly his way, the pad of his thumb could trace the outline of her lips –

“Are you okay?” The concern in Ann’s voice penetrated Isabella’s pathetic fantasy.

She angled her body toward the wall and lowered her voice. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.”

“It feels like you might’ve forgotten how best friends behave with one another.” Her light voice held more than a note of censure. “How can I or Tam help lighten your load if you don’t let us?”

Ooh. That was a good point. “You’re right, Ann. I’d be a raging orangutan if you or Tamela shut me out. If the company didn’t need you there, I’d fly you here and we’d drown my sorrows with super large hot fudge brownie delights.”

Ann paused a moment. It sounded like a muffled sniffle on the other end. “Daggone straight.” She changed the subject this time. “I found brick to match the NOLA rehab. It should arrive on Thursday. I couldn’t find an exact cabinet hardware match for the Chicago job.”

“Have Kent mail one of the handles to the forge.”

“Okay. Let me know what this reno is going to need and I’ll get it ordered. I’ll start looking for the Phase One people and equipment in that area.”

“Awesome. Thanks, Annie! Talk to ya later.”

Isabella struggled to recall what was next on her mental list of things to do. She gave up and let the phone auto turn off. She focused on the historic sketch of the house on her laptop screen. It was the only sure thing that would take her mind off the gorgeous jerk sitting out of reach.

***

If he hadn’t sprinted from the west end of the house to stop her, she’d be a heap of broken bones in an area of the basement paramedics couldn’t get to. At first, Jack thought she was another teenager exploring a supposedly haunted house. But then she spun out of his arm and lifted her face, small fist cocked back.

He could still see her short red curls bouncing in the breeze, the deep, fiery color vivid against her smooth-as-porcelain skin. A fierce fire flickered in her pretty brown eyes as she glared at him. He took in her expensive canvas coat and brand name work boots. It irritated the crap out of him that she might be his type. Confident. Not all girly flirty trying to impress him with her sexiness like most other women. Her eyes, framed by darker lashes, had narrowed at him, as if he were the one being an idiot.

How stupid could she be? Stepping into the unknown, throwing all sensible caution to the friggin’ wind. And then her perfectly kissable lips had started moving. Who the heck was she to come out of nowhere and claim Chatham Hall would be hers?

He gritted his teeth as he hurried through the side portico to his truck parked on the back drive. Instead of taking the hidden north lane past the old furniture factory to town, he drove around the house to the front entrance. As far as he knew, the only person to use it recently was Sheriff Winkler when she put up the auction notice four weeks ago.

Was the woman from the Massachusetts Historical Commission? The clerk over at the county records office said someone from MHC had been in to do a property search. One of their representatives would be bidding on the house.

The old formal driveway to the mansion was a horseshoe with an entrance and exit onto the main road. Jack followed the trail of smashed tall weeds run over by her bright yellow Jeep. Ahead, she turned onto the main road toward Stockton. Whoever she was, she stank of money and it scared the crap out of him.

Jack was drawn to the instrument of his destruction like Ironman to Pepper Potts. Even if he hadn’t needed to know who she was and why she was at Chatham Hall, he still would’ve been attracted to her. He wouldn’t have been able to resist. She’d mocked him and rolled her eyes.

He was positive she would’ve let her fist fly if he hadn’t stepped back. Most women were intimidated by him. No matter how hard he tried to get over the past and move on, his bitterness oozed through the cracks of the genial façade he sometimes managed to erect. They always ran screaming when the real Jack surfaced.

Either she was so self-absorbed she didn’t notice his rotten attitude, or she was unfazed by ugly, rude men.

What would she do if he reached out and slipped his finger through one thick, red curl? He’d like to bury his face in the shiny mass. He breathed deeply and thought he caught a whiff of barbecued potato chips. A snicker caught in his throat. Surely that was his imagination matching scent to color. He leaned back in his seat to see what was on her computer screen. “What the—?” He choked on a gulp of soda.

Curly’s pretty face whipped around. Her eyes focused on the dribble at his chin before she turned back to her monitor.

He grabbed a napkin to dab at the soft drink now running down his neck as panic stabbed him in the gut. “Where did you get that picture?”

She glanced at her screen and slightly lowered the lid. The image dimmed. “How the heck is that any of your business?”

Jack’s fingers clenched into fists under the table. He wanted to hit something. Somebody. He took a slow, deep breath. Tried to relax. Be cool. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk out at the house earlier.”

“Yes, you did, but now you want something, so you’re apologizing. What is it?”

Beautiful and smart. “Who are you bidding for at the auction?”

She bit her upper lip, closed her laptop, and slid it back in its brown leather bag. She fidgeted in her seat and moved away a fraction or two, as if closing herself off from him. As if increasing the distance between them would decrease his curiosity.

“Why do you want to know?”

Jack settled back in his chair, affecting a casual demeanor. It sounded like she was a secretary for a restoration company. She must’ve found out from the Mass Historical Commission. But where did they get the sketch of Chatham Hall?

He couldn’t stand the terrible suspense. Someone sent her that sketch. Someone who didn’t want him to own the mansion. Lots of people in town had been shafted by his dad at one time or another. No doubt it was payback time. Would the sins of the father ever stop being paid by the son?

“You know I intend to bid on it. I thought maybe you’re a representative from the Mass Historical Society. And I really am sorry I was rude to you. I didn’t mean to be. Surprised to find someone about to fall in a hole in the floor.” He stuck out his hand across the aisle.

She cocked her head. Considered him. Lurking in the depths of her brown gaze was a sort of sadness.

What the heck did he care? He was so close to finally realizing his lifelong dream. He couldn’t let his attraction to Curly or his imaginary thoughts about her state of mind get in his way.

She reluctantly reached out to clasp his waiting hand in a firm, warm shake. Her palm wasn’t soft and tender as he’d expected, but slightly rough and calloused. “Isabella Warner.”

“Isabella Warner?” The name echoed through his head. Felt like she’d sucker-punched him square in the chest. Why now? Why not seven years ago when old William Warner died?

Amber appeared between their tables, her presence giving him a minute to come up with a plan, of sorts anyway. She placed Isabella’s basket on her table. A bacon double-cheeseburger and large fries. She slid the same exact order in front of him. Deluxe. So what if she happens to like the same burger as me? So what if I’d like to kiss her? She’s the enemy!

“Excuse me, Amber.” Isabella waved her stubby-nailed hand. “I’ve changed my mind. Could I get these wrapped to go?”

“Sure. No problem.” Amber left with the basket of food.

Curly tugged down her shirt sleeve, held the cuff between her fingers and thumb.

Jack worked to relax the muscles in his face. It wasn’t easy to achieve a neutral expression. “Hey, I didn’t mean to run you off, Cur –” He glanced at her left hand. No ring. “Ms. Warner. How are you related to William Warner? No one around here knew the old man had any family.”

“William Warner?” She paused in the process of shoving her arm into her navy blue canvas coat.

What? He was confused. “The last Warner to live in the house. He died almost a decade ago with no living family members left.”

Her eyes widened. No faking her definite surprise. “Warner. How are you connected to the house?”

“I’m not.” The only way he’d survived hell on earth was Chatham Hall. He’d been waiting seven years for this one chance to save the place that had saved him. “I’m just a guy who has always wanted to buy it and restore it.” He tried a genial smile. “Jack Haverhill.” He stuck out his hand again.

“Haverhill?” Her eyes widened again, then narrowed.

She ignored his outstretched hand. A smidgen of disappointment shot through him. He really wanted to feel her small fingers wrapped around his palm one more time. “That name mean something to you?”

She jammed her other arm in her other coat sleeve. She hooked the strap of her bag over her shoulder. Grabbed her keys. “I really have to go. I forgot something important I have to do.”

“Hey, we have a historical records department at the library. I could take you there and we could do some genealogy research.”

The expression on her face as she slid out of the booth screamed creep louder than if she’d actually spoken.

Smooth move, idiot.

He watched her with a bleak sensation nagging at the back of his mind. In the space of a half hour, he’d gone from complete elation to complete despair. Isabella Warner appeared to have the means and determination to buy Chatham Hall, and a family connection to the mansion.

She grabbed her drink and the white paper sack Amber held out on her way to the door.

His carefully thought-out plan was crashing down around him. He glanced out the window. Roiling rain clouds rolled in. Perfect. The weather might as well match his mood.

But it wasn’t over yet. His buddy Mike forever harped about there always being hope. Jack left his food on the table and hurried out the door, past the rear of her Jeep. Her nose seemed to be buried in her phone.

If she was searching for her connection to the mansion, the only place to find it in this town was the library. And he had every right to find out why his name meant something to her.

Chapter 2


Isabella sat behind the wheel and turned the key, already shivering in her chilly SUV. And tried to make sense of what just happened. His last name was Haverhill. What an unbelievable coincidence. Maybe it was a common name in these parts.

She cranked up the heat. Cold air blasted her cheeks like a splash of water from a Norwegian fjord in dead winter. She’d run into the library for a minute to talk to the librarian. Find out if the historical society was staffed with people able to work on specific families. She still had to make arrangements with her money manager.

How high would the bidding go? Jack didn’t appear to have more than two nickels to rub together. He was dang confident he’d be the next owner of the house, though. So was no one else bidding except for the MHC? If he thought she was a representative from the Mass Historical Commission, the mansion would be on a list of buildings they were attempting to acquire.

According to her GPS, the library was three blocks up from the little diner. She pulled into a parking space facing the side of a gorgeous old red brick building. She grabbed her phone from the passenger seat, brought up her text messages, and scrolled down to Ann. Please call Howard at the Mass Historical Commission to find out if a grant has been issued for the purchase of Chatham Hall near Stockton. If so, how much has been awarded? Thanks! :)

Isabella slid it into her coat pocket and stepped out of the Jeep, careful not to hit her door on the ugly vehicle next to hers. She rounded the front right corner of the beat up green truck then returned her focus to the historic building that housed the local library. It looked to be mid-nineteenth century. The masonry had been superbly maintained for the past one hundred fifty years or so. Either that or an expert with a keen eye for detail had restored it almost as well as she would have. A few of the windows needed re-glazing, but overall, they were in great shape for their age.

“It was built by the Freemasons.”

Gaaaah! She swung toward the man leaning against the driver side of the truck.

A rotten, sneaky grin lit his dreadfully handsome face. “The second story was used for their meetings, and the first was rented to a merchant who sold food and dry goods.” He tucked his keys in his pants pocket.

“You’re stalking me.” She spun on her heel and marched toward the front of the building.

“I am.” His long stride easily kept up as she increased her speed.

Grrrr!

“I thought you suddenly had something important to do,” he mocked. “I’m shocked and hurt that you would callously ignore my invitation to visit this very library.”

“Go away, Mr. Haverhill.” When she spared a glance over her shoulder, the wind fluttered his shiny black hair, whipped it around his shoulders. Must even the wind conspire to make her fall madly in love with his appearance?

“I’m here to do some research on the house I’m about to buy.” His reply didn’t miss a beat and came smooth and even. “You’re the one who dragged my family name into it. I have a right to know why it means something to you.” The man shot her his intimidating scowl again. He didn’t realize how much sexier it made him.

Isabella snorted. “You have no right to anything.” She stopped short as she turned the corner on the sidewalk. The front of the building was amazing.

Jack kept on walking to the door.

The entrance was inset and flanked by large windows. She could easily imagine fancy fabrics and household appliances on display behind the wavy plate glass. Book posters on easels filled the space now. She backed up on the sidewalk as far as she could to get a better view of the fancy stone corbels at the soffit without stepping into the busy state highway running straight through the middle of town. A semi roared past, rumbling the ground beneath her.

Isabella dragged her feet as she reluctantly followed Mr. Frowny across the library’s threshold. His boot steps on the well-worn wood floor echoed through the high-ceilinged space. The lemony scent of furniture polish vied with the delicious smell of fresh brewed coffee.

Rows of bookshelves stood to the left and a counter-height information desk to the right. A woman in her early forties with black-as-chimney-soot hair and fingernails painted in a wild assortment of colors thumbed through books on a rolling cart near the counter. She glanced up as Isabella and Jack approached.

“Hi. Are you the librarian?” Isabella inquired.

The lady nodded with a cordial smile. “Victoria Lyons. How can I help you?”

Isabella studied the array of sparkling gemstones climbing the rims of Victoria’s ears.

“Hi, Ms. Lyons. I’m Jack Haverhill. I need to do some genealogy research.”

If Isabella had hackles, they’d be standing on end. Mr. Frowny Haverhill needed to quit butting into her business. “Actually, I’m the one in need of those records. Anything and everything pertaining to the Warner surname.”

“Most of those records are on microfiche.” The librarian scrunched her nose. “We’re slowly getting them transcribed and uploaded to the online county GenWeb.org genealogy site. But between newspaper articles, birth, death, marriage, and divorce records, along with lawsuits, judgments, and other family histories submitted to the Historical Records department…we need more volunteers.” Her expression was less than hopeful. “The department is downstairs. First door on the right. You’re on your own searching through the records unless you can sweet-talk the volunteer ladies into helping.”

“Thanks.” Isabella gave the librarian a thumbs-up. Unfortunately, she had to follow Mr. Frowny unless she wanted to run in front of him like an adolescent on the playground.

And blast it all. Why did he have to smell so good? Like Old Spice mixed with freshly cut maple wood. Just like Granddad. A clear vision of Gramps stung the back of her eyes. She so missed watching him on his three-legged stool, hand-carving a leaf design into the front of a chest or some other piece of furniture. She blinked the sudden moisture away. Now was not the time to recall those precious memories. She mentally whapped herself in the head and marched on.

A dual set of stairs at the rear of the building led up to the second story and down to the basement. The basement opened onto a large area for kids. Posters of classic children’s books hung on the walls.

Small tables and little chairs in yellow, red, green, and blue were scattered between pods of shelves with colorful book covers facing out. Isabella was painfully aware of Jack’s hulking presence in a space where everything was so diminutive.

He opened the first of four doors along the wall and the musty odor of aged paper spilled out. The room was jam-packed with bookcases groaning under the weight of boxes and ledgers. Browned and tattered pasteboards barely hung onto brittle bindings.

An elderly woman with a gray pixie cut sat at an old wooden desk to the right. She peered back and forth between an ancient leather-bound census ledger and a computer screen. Another woman sat at one of two microfiche machines to the left. She peered at Isabella and Jack over the top of her teal cat-eyed glasses. Isabella loved her already. The clear crystal gems embedded in the frames spokes volumes about her personality. A poorly styled, reddish-brown wig sat on her head.

“Hi, Jack.” The woman smiled at them. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi, Mrs. Wayman. I’m looking for —”

Isabella cut Jack off mid-sentence. “Hi, Mrs. Wayman. I’m Isabella Warner.”

“Call me Judy.” She slid off a purple bejeweled clip-on earring to rub an angry red lobe, then yanked off the other and tossed the pair into a purple purse on the table next to the machine.

“Hi, Judy.” Isabella crowded Jack out of her way and perched on the edge of a metal folding chair across from the woman. “I need all records pertaining to Chatham Hall and the Warner family.” She slanted Mr. Frowny a rotten, sneaky grin mimicking him from earlier, then leaned in conspiratorially. “I’ll pay you thirty dollars for every hour you put into the research. However, you can’t share the results with Mr. Haverhill.”

Jack was halfway out of his coat and froze. “What?” He plopped down on the chair next to Isabella’s. “You can’t do that.” He turned to Judy for help. “She can’t do that!”

Judy raised her painted-on auburn brows and chuckled. She sat back in her chair with a broad smile lifting her lips. “Interesting. Very interesting.”

Isabella grinned at her. Nearby, the pixie-cut lady stopped typing and watched them with keen interest. “In fact,” Isabella added, “I’ll double it if you have your friend over there help and start immediately.”

“Heck yeah, I’m in!” Pixie Cut whooped.

“Wait. Wait. Just wait a minute.” Jack hopped up and whirled to stare at Pixie Cut. “Mrs. Harding! How could you?” His jaw dropped to his chest and eyes widened.

Mrs. Harding grinned. “I’m sorry, Jacky-boy, a retired teacher’s pension doesn’t go far. And we’re just volunteers here.”

Isabella leaned across the table to shake Judy’s hand.

Jack huffed out an exasperated breath. “Did sixth grade history mean nothing, Mrs. Wayman? You threw me under the bus. Just like that. No loyalty.”

“Now, now, Jack,” Judy tsked. “Business is business. Besides, Mrs. Harding taught you very well how to research for essays in tenth grade English Comp. You’ll be fine.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Harding.” Isabella crossed the smallish room to shake the woman’s hand.

“Gloria, dear.” Pixie Cut smiled. Brackets of deep wrinkles appeared around her thin lips and edged her watery gray eyes. “We can’t stop Jack from searching the records, you know.”

“I don’t care if he searches. He can’t have your help with anything pertaining to Chatham Hall.” Isabella dug into the inside pocket of her jacket, whipped out three business cards, and handed one to Judy and Gloria.

She saw Jack mouth the title of her company, National Historic Preservation Specialists, but he couldn’t have seen the smaller details on the cards.

Isabella flipped over the third card and slid it to Judy, along with a pen. “Write your email address on this. I have a letter that includes names for you to search, and what little I have of my family tree.”

“A letter?” Jack propped his hands on his hips. “Is my last name in it? Is that what you’re hiding?”

She ignored him. When the older woman jotted down her information and returned the card, Isabella’s coat pocket buzzed. “Contact me if you find anything,” she told her new partners-in-crime, then withdrew her phone and glanced at the screen. “I’ve got to run. Thanks!” She zipped her jacket and turned to Jack.

The slight narrowing of his gorgeous eyes set off a warning bell. She didn’t know this guy from Adam. Just because the townsfolk liked him and seemed to know him well didn’t mean he wasn’t a closet psychopath. Isabella snickered at her own wild imagination. “Buh-bye, Jacky-boy. I’ll see you in the a.m.”

Isabella opened her text message app as she hurried out of the building.

Ann: “The Mass Historical Commission received a $50,000 grant and raised another $18,000 through a fundraising auction.”

She leaned against her Jeep. A movement behind the clear rear side door of the library caught her attention. Her eyes connected with Jack’s through the glass. He stepped out onto the sidewalk. A mere ten feet separated them. She froze at the longing in his. A desperate need to fill the emptiness in her life seemed to echo in the sparkling blue depths of his gaze. Could he see the aching, soul-deep yearning that sometimes shook her to her core? An intense loneliness hurt her chest.

A weird sense of vulnerability struck her. Like he had the ability to hurt her. He bypassed his truck and kept walking toward the highway at the front of the building. He barely glanced at Isabella. She looked down at her phone, lost for a moment. She texted back to Ann. “Okay. Thanks. I’ll let you know what happens tomorrow.”

Isabella opened the door and tossed the phone on the passenger seat. Climbed in and put the Jeep in reverse. If she had a brain, she’d leave this town and never come back. To hell with the house.

What on earth was wrong with her? What was this feeling he invoked in her? Vulnerability? She’d never been vulnerable a day in her life. Her wild imagination was getting out of hand.

She snorted internally. Get a grip, girl. That man isn’t a kindred spirit and he can’t hurt you.

She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She wasn’t going to let any man stand between her and the house that needed her as much as she needed it.

***

She wasn’t at all like any woman he knew. She didn’t put on the fake helpless little girl act, but she didn’t swagger like a rough tomboy either. She seemed tough as nails, yet soft as mortar sand. The way she tilted her head as she’d narrowed her eyes at him through feathery dark lashes...

Jack’s heart ticked a beat faster as he watched Isabella through the door. He stepped out onto the sidewalk. For the space of several seconds, something indefinable passed between them. Time seemed to stand still as a moment of clarity knocked the air out of him.

Isabella was as driven by a bone-deep desperation to fill an inner emptiness as he was. There seemed to be an urgent plea in her eyes, begging him to understand…her need. But his had to outweigh hers.

Jack jogged across the street to his bank. Stepping inside the darker interior, it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust.

Good. The branch manager was in his office. The door stood open. Jack rapped his knuckles on the wood trim as he walked in. “Hey, man. How’s it going?”

“Not too shabby.” Mike smiled. Jack had called him best friend since they were five years-old. Their kindergarten teacher had arranged the desks in pairs of two and put the kids in alphabetical order. No one had ever come between Frazier and Haverhill since. “What’s up, buddy?” Mike relaxed in his plush leather office chair.

Jack sat in one of a pair of Victorian wingbacks facing the large cherry desk. Leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. Tried to stay calm and slow his heart rate. He’d never applied for any kind of loan in his entire thirty-two years. Heck, he refused to even have a credit card. It was all a trap for The Man to steal your money. He paid his guys out of the payments from each job. Bought his tools with cash. He was so used to living life with the bare essentials, he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in that mansion full of everything he’d ever wanted.

Mike sat up straight in his chair and gripped the edge of his desk with well-manicured fingers. “Is everything okay, dude? Are you about to puke?”

Jack leaned back and propped one ankle across his other knee. Tugged at strands of ripped leather where a hole grew between the upper and tread on his worn work boot. “I need a loan, Mike.”

The bank manager stared at him for a moment. A bark of laughter rang out as he fell back in his seat. “Well, well, well. The man who rants and raves about Wall Street raping the little guy has finally drunk the Kool-aid.”

Jack cringed. He hated being beholden to anyone. So many people had lost their homes and jobs when the stock market crashed. He’d lost several contracted renovations and had to walk away from projects unfinished when homeowners could no longer afford the luxury of a restoration. It was better to not live beyond one’s means. Period. But desperate times called for desperate measures. “You know I’ve been saving to buy Chatham.”

“Yeah, and you have enough plus extra. The MHC didn’t raise enough to outbid you.”

“It’s not the Mass Historical Commission I’m worried about.” Jack scrubbed his forehead with a callused index finger. “I was out at the house this morning. I came around the corner and found this woman on the porch reading every single word on the auction sheet. Then she opened the door.”

“Did she fall in?” Mike’s blue eyes widened.

“No. I grabbed her just in time. But—”

Mike waggled his groomed sandy blond brows. “I bet she was all kinds of happy to see you.”

Jack snorted. “Hardly.” He could still see the fire in her eyes as she said the house was going to be hers. The thought that he could lose it physically made him sick to his stomach. “She’s going to buy it out from under me.”

“She’s bidding?” Mike shrugged, his white Oxford cloth shirt stretched over solid muscle. “That doesn’t mean she’ll outbid you.”

“Two things. One, she’s money. She’s driving a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock.”

Mike whistled through his teeth.

“Yeah. With Fuel rims and Super Swampers.”

“What girl would have a clue which rims and tires would rock that Jeep? Probably daddy’s toy.”

Maybe. That’s what Jack thought. But if she’s got daddy’s toy, she probably had daddy wrapped around her little finger. If she wanted to play construction princess, no doubt he’d let her.

“Two, her last name’s Warner.” Jack still found it hard to believe his stupid terrible luck.

“She’s related to old Will?”

“Wouldn’t she have to be?” It was Jack’s turn to shrug. “And this Isabella Warner has an old sketch of the house on her laptop. I think it was drawn right after it was built. There weren’t any trees where they should be.”

“Wait a minute.” Mike held up one index finger, puzzled. “How do you know all this?”

Jack slumped in the chair and dropped his head back against the padded green brocade. “I’ve kind of been publicly stalking her.”

“You what?” Mike’s brows shot up. “Publicly?” He laughed.

“Yeah. I kind of followed her to The Hen House. Then to the library.” Jack sat up. “And get this, she’s paying Mrs. Wayman and Mrs. Harding to search for records on the Hall and the Warner family.” He scratched the day-old stubble on his chin. “Can she have a claim on the house if she’s an heir or something?”

“Naw. The old man died intestate – he didn’t have a will and no direct heirs – so there can be no familial claims on the house.” Mike crossed his arms over his thick chest. “I suppose she could’ve petitioned a court and proved she was the next in line to inherit, but it’s too late for that.”

Jack heaved a sigh of relief on that front.

The bank manager got up to pour a cup of coffee from a credenza behind his desk. He handed an insulated Styrofoam cupful to Jack.

“So I’m back to the question, can I get a loan?”

“What kind of loan and how much are you thinking?” He sat down and scooted his chair closer to the desk.

“Heck, I don’t know. Fifty to a hundred thousand?”

“You have no credit, good or bad, Jack. And nothing to use for collateral.”

“Can’t I use the house?”

“If you had all the time in the world to go through the normal steps for getting a mortgage, you might be able to buy a house. But since you have no credit to show your ability to make payments on time, your chances of getting a conventional loan are zero. Besides, you can’t get a loan on a house that’s up for auction. I’m sorry, bud. I wish the bank could help.” Mike leaned forward and took a sip. “I’d lend it to you if I had it. I know you’re good for it. But I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Thanks, man. You know I wouldn’t take it if you had it to give.” Jack knew it was a long shot, but he’d had to ask. “I’ll have to pray she doesn’t outbid me.” He stood and leaned across the desk to shake Mike’s meaty hand.

Mike nodded. “Good luck, bud. I’ll send up a prayer for you.”

“Thanks.” Jack grabbed the cup of coffee and left the bank.

He crossed the main highway through town and got back in his truck. This is what I get for freaking dreaming. The Haverhills were destined to be losers. That’s all they’d ever been.

Chapter 3


Isabella swung into the drive. The tall weeds were now smashed down enough to see a clear path through the woods. Two other vehicles were parked alongside the top set of steps to the porch. A man with short gray hair in a long tan coat stood on the veranda talking with a tall woman in a blue county sheriff’s uniform. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail beneath her sheriff’s cap. Both watched Isabella pull off the drive into the weeds and kill the engine.

Judy had called a half hour earlier to report that they hadn’t found anything yet. Isabella was anxious to find the family tree of the Warners of Chatham Hall. Once the rehab was underway, she’d help with the records search.

She hopped out of the Jeep into the frosty, chill air. Thank heavens she’d thought to pack her flannel-lined khaki work pants and a couple pairs of insulated cotton socks. The frigid wind whistling down the mountains whipped her hair into her eyes. She wrapped a warm aqua scarf around her neck over her long navy blue work coat and tugged on her matching aqua hat to corral the wild curls. She grabbed her leather messenger bag from under the driver seat. Strapping it over her shoulder, she trudged up the steps.

“Hi. I’m here to bid on the house.”

The man stuck his leather gloved hand out. “Benjamin Franklin, auctioneer.”

Isabella grinned at the familiar name and clasped his hand.

“Yes. He’s my several greats uncle.” Mr. Franklin smiled.

“Isabella Warner.”

“Warner, you say?” The striking woman offered her bare hand. “Bonnie Winkler, Sheriff.” Isabella tugged her glove off and clasped the sheriff’s hand in a strong, firm shake. Her brown eyes slightly crinkled at the edges. “Any relation to old Will?”

“Nice to meet you, Sheriff.” Isabella pulled her glove back on. “I’m trying to find out. Ladies at the genealogy department of the library are searching records for me.”

Two vehicles pulled up the drive, a white four-door SUV and Jack’s sad green truck. Her heart thumped harder for a beat or two. She turned away from her nemesis. She’d spent most of last night lying awake. Eyes closed, eyes open, all she could see was Jack’s face. Why couldn’t she have met him somewhere else? Under other circumstances?

She sighed. It wouldn’t matter if she had. Guys weren’t interested in Isabella Warner. She couldn’t turn off her vast construction knowledge and forceful nature. Both seemed to be serious character flaws when it came to being asked out for a second date. Heck, it had been a long time since she’d had a first.

Two women slid out of the SUV. One carried a clipboard.

“It’s my understanding the Mass Historical Commission will be bidding by phone,” Mr. Franklin commented.

The sheriff tapped the face of her wrist watch. “We’ll start precisely at ten o’clock. You can register with the clerk.”

Isabella gave her a thumb’s up then strolled over to the second tall window to the right of the double doors, waiting for the ladies to climb the steps. She scrubbed her cotton gloved fist on the filthy glass and peered in. Her mouth dropped open. An antique grand piano sat in the back of the large ballroom. A variety of other instruments lay on tables or were propped against crumbling plaster walls. A thick layer of dirt and pieces of broken plaster covered everything. Two chandeliers laced with cobwebs hung precariously by thin strands of wire.

If all of that was still in this room, what did the rest of the house contain? She couldn’t wait to get started on the restoration. What she wouldn’t give for Granddad to be with her right now. Finding Chatham Hall had been his dream more than hers. Tears stung the back of her eyes.

Well, dagnabbit. The dream was all she had now and she would do whatever she needed to hold it close and keep it alive. For Granddad.

A tingling awareness raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck. Something or someone shadowy darted across the room. Isabella rapidly blinked to clear her vision. She scrubbed a bigger circle on the window and swept her gaze around every inch of the room like a private investigator. Nothing.

Jack stepped up beside her.

It must’ve been his shadow in the grimy glass playing tricks on her.

“Is there anything I can say or do to make you change your mind?” Dark smudges beneath his eyes and deep grooves bracketing his mouth made him appear as derelict as the house. The day or more growth of whiskers highlighting his sharp jaw didn’t help.

She shook her head. And felt like crap. But she didn’t know him. Couldn’t let his need outweigh her need.

He crammed his hands in his well-worn brown coat pockets. Jack stared at her for a moment, the hope in his blue eyes dying. He turned away, the strong proud man of yesterday gone.

Isabella handed the clerk her proof of a transfer to the local bank of $1.5 million. The lady raised her bushy gray brows at the number and peered closer at Isabella through her super magnified black-rimmed glasses. The court clerk handed her a single sheet of paper with the property details. Isabella had found the listing on the tax sale website. She was curious to see the condition of the barns and other outbuildings located behind the house. And eager to explore the fifty acres of land the house and outbuildings sat on.

Jack handed the clerk a letter from a bank guaranteeing his ability to pay. He must not have much or he wouldn’t be so dejected before the bidding even started.


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