First of all, can we all take a minute to squee about how pretty my new website is?
It’s pink and gorgeous and my books are easy to find. And I have a shiny new blog!
For my inaugural post, I am sharing the first chapter of my current WIP. It’s a slightly paranormal contemporary romance with a bi heroine and a shy hero. And there might be ghosts.
This chapter is an entirely un-edited first draft version, so pleas excuse any typos or awkward turns of phrase. If all goes well it will be shiny and new and ready for you to read in October in it’s entirety.
Without Further Ado:
A Haunted Attraction
Jess paced the old wooden porch. She wasn’t entirely sure it was structurally sound, which only added to her annoyance. It was cold, she didn’t want to be here meeting the stupid contractor, with his stupid late face, for this stupid project, on this stupid porch that was probably about to crumble beneath her and drain her of even more of her money.
She checked her watch again. Jess should have waited in her car, but now she was too agitated to sit. Pacing the decrepit porch might just keep her toes from freezing off. It was only the beginning of October. Was it supposed to be this cold?
She didn’t even want to be in this stupid town. Topeka, Kansas had never been her choice. Sure, her sister lived here, and so did her cousin, but it was where Ana had moved when her firm had gotten the Capitol restoration project, and stupid lovesick Jess had followed her girlfriend. She’d quit her six figure corporate marketing job and gone freelance to do it. And she’d been dumb enough to go in on this B&B idea with her cousin, who was the first real client she’d had in this town. But Nell was just so sweet and convincing that Jess hadn’t been able to tell her no.
Buying this stupid house had seemed like a good idea in February. The world had been looking up. Jess’s business had turned a profit for the first time, the old house had been on the market for a steal, and Ana had volunteered to help with renovation plans.
Jess had felt like she hadn’t had anything to lose. Nell could renovate and decorate a showcase house for her interior design business while Jess could document the renovation process and drum up excitement for the finished product. When the construction was done they’d have a functioning Bed & Breakfast business that people would be chomping at the bit to stay in.
Except Nell’s contractor friend had given Jess the heebie jeebies. The first time they’d met he hadn’t stopped staring at her. His eyes had bugged and he’d gone pale and then just kept staring like she was a ghost or a monster. It had been creepy.
Jess had mostly been able to avoid meeting with him since then. She hadn’t even been supposed to take this meeting today, except Nell’s wedding dress fitting had been moved and since absolutely everything came after Nell’s wedding plans. Jess loved Nell, she’d been one of her best friends her entire life. It was nice having her close, especially since everyone in Kansas City basically hated her now, but she would never get why women got stupid about their weddings. It was just one day. She’d rather concentrate on the life that came after.
Jess had always assumed that she and Ana would spontaneously decide to go to the courthouse one day. They would have just finished a pleasant lunch at the Indian restaurant and be holding hands in the car and one of them would suggest swinging by the courthouse since they were downtown already to see if there was a free judge who’d do them a solid.
That was before of course.
Jess stopped pacing and looked out over the historical neighborhood. There’s was the only falling down house in the vicinity. It shouldn’t have taken them six months to convince the neighborhood association to restore this house. Just because they wanted to use it for business. It’s not like a B&B was going to be noisey. It would probably be rented out to visiting lobbyists or business people. It would be frequented by guests who would literally be there to sleep, grab a scone and a coffee, and leave in the morning.
And it had taken months for the permits to clear.
God, why did everything have to be so hard?
Tears welled, and Jess closed her eyes, willing them to recede. The last thing she needed was the stupid creepy contractor seeing her breakdown. He was probably already intimidated by a tiny woman who made more money than he did. No reason to give him any more motivation to be a chauvanist, and giving him the crying lesbian would be just that.
No. She stopped, opening her eyes and correcting herself. She wasn’t a lesbian. Jess was bisexual, and that had always been the problem. She’d probably still be with Ana if she wasn’t attracted to men too.
To distract herself, Jess pulled out her phone and texted Nell that the contractor was late which was going to make Jess late for appointment at the new boutique downtown, and Jess wasn’t taking anymore meetings with the contractor.
Nell’s reply, Ah, give Matt a chance. He’s actually really sweet. I promise, chimed on Jess’s phone at the same time a beat up red truck pulled up on the street directly in front of where Jess stood. When he hopped out of the cab, he was dressed the exact same what he’d been the last time they’d met. Old jeans, threadbare t-shirt paired with dusty work boots. Dark hair peeked out from beneath a faded red baseball cap, and two or three days of reddish brown stubble speckled his square chin.
That he was attractive didn’t help Jess’s mood any. Attractive men had the worst egos, and Jess did not have time pander to that today.
He stopped when his boot hit the stoop and he looked up for the first time.
“You’re not Nell,” he said, cocking his head to one side. He had light eyes, and Jess was pissed at herself for noticing.
“It’s Jess, right?” He started up the steps, offering his hand. “Matthew Zimmerman,” he said, as if he wasn’t sure what to do with the way she was glaring at him but reintroduce himself. After his hand hung in the air empty for a few more seconds he dropped it, muttering, “What the hell?” to himself like she couldn’t hear him from three feet away.
“You’re late,” Jess said.
Matthew checked his own watch. “It’s only nine-thirty-four. I was two minutes late at most.”
“Except you were supposed to be here at nine.”
His brows furrowed. “No.” He pulled out his phone and scrolled, then turned it around to show her his text thread with Nell. She had indeed agreed to meet Matt at 9:30.
Jess rolled her eyes. “When she asked me to take this meeting, she told me nine.”
“That wedding has completely taken over her brain, hasn’t it?”
If Matthew and Jess were friends, Jess might have smiled and agreed, but they were not friends. He was the creepy staring guy, and her toes were cold, and her nose, and how wasn’t he freezing just standing there in a t-shirt?
“Yeah, I guess,” Jess said and gathered her giant blanket scarf tighter around her neck and shivered.
“I’ll confirm next time.” He pulled his hat off his head and ran his fingers through his hair before replacing it. He had gray peaking through over his ears, and Jess wondered how old he was. He didn’t look old enough to be going gray.
“Anyway, I wanted to confirm some measurements, make sure nothing has shifted since we were in over the summer. Maybe get a set of keys so we’re all set to start on Monday,” he said, and Jess realized that he was waiting on her to unlock the door.
It hadn’t even occurred to her that she could have waited for him inside. It wouldn’t have been any warmer, but it would have been out of the wind at least. But the house was so old and in such bad shape, the idea of being inside it alone freaked her out. If she fell through the floorboards, who knew how long it would take someone to find her.
“Sure, yeah.” She pulled the keys out of her bag. “I have some photos to take anyway.”
Matthew held the screen door, which had now screen and hung on only two of the three hinges, for her while she unlocked the heavy, ancient front door. The lock stuck, and she could see him start to move forward before she got it open. “Like before pictures?” he asked.
“Kind of. I’ll be documenting the whole renovation process for the blog and social media.”
“That’s right. Nell said you run twitter or something.”
Jesus, was that supposed to be a joke? Jess coughed as they stepped into the front room. A musty, rancid smell washed over her along with the still, cold air. “I own my own promotions company,” she wheezed. “It did not smell like this in here last winter.”
The last time Jess had been in the house had been on the tedious day the previous February when Nell had dragged her and Naomi here to get Jess’ approval. Naomi, Jess’s older sister, had just been along for the ride, but Nell hadn’t been able to hide that she wanted Naomi’s professional opinion about the investment.
Naomi was what Jess liked to call “internet famous.” She had huge followings on all the social media platforms, a subscription only website, and a thriving merchandise line. She had started out giving intuitive Tarot readings and called herself a witch. She’d built herself a witchy empire, and basically anytime Naomi came out with a new program, product, or offer, her community threw their money at her. And Nell had kepts asking Naomi questions that weren’t questions, like, “It’s going to be so beautiful and successful, don’t you think?” and “Isn’t this the best way to start our empire?”
Naomi had said something about how if they could get past the squirrel problem, they’d be golden, and Nell had taken that to heart. That had been when Nell had been promising that the investment on this project would ensure both she and Jess were booked out for years. But it had been taken so long to get the project movin that Jess had long ago decided she would have been better off if she had taken the money and hired a couple of assistants instead. Especially now that she didn’t have Ana paying half the rent anymore. She needed to be taking on more work, having more revenue coming in, not shelling out thousands to a pain in the ass contractor.
“We had a problem with squirrels in the attic over the summer,” Matthew said. “One fell down into a wall somewhere and couldn’t get back out. Because I couldn’t get the permits pushed through, I couldn’t open the walls up and get rid of him.” He held his arms up like a magician who’d just performed a trick. “Hence the smell.”
Jess waved her hand in front of her nose. She was a skeptic, but score one for her sister and the squirrels. She could have done without the contractor’s attitude though. It wasn’t her fault the neighbors had put up a stink about getting the house rezoned commercial. She’d worked as fast as she could.
Ignoring him, Jess pulled her camera from her shoulder bag. The windows, though dirty, were letting in the perfect sort of hazy light to get haunting, melancholy photos of the abandoned building. She felt better now about putting off this photo session. She’d procrastinated on taking the before photos, part of her hoping she’d wake up one morning and the whole project would have magically disappeared.
She’d been so absorbed in her work that she didn’t hear Matthew approach until he said, “Kind of gloomy before pictures compared to what you normally post, huh?” from just to her right. She was shooting a cobweb laden built in bookshel separating the dining room from the formal sitting room.
“Excuse me?” she asked as she turned to face him. He stood closer than she expected, and she took a step back. Maybe next time he’d make sure Nell came with her so she wouldn’t have to be alone with this guy.
“I like to know who I’m working for,” he said as he pulled out the tab on his measuring tape. “And this is just about the last wall I need to check.”
Of course it was. Jess hadn’t even finished on this floor. And she was running out of time. She’d have to come back later to shoot the upper floors.
Matthew’s arms were stretched overhead as he took the measurement on the doorway when he asked. “So I assume you’ll be in and out taking photographs throughout the whole renovation process?”
“That’s how blogs work, yes. Is that a problem?”
Matthew made a note with the pen tucked behind his ear on his wrist and turned to face her, eyebrows raised, hands in pockets. “Not if you respect the rules of the jobsite.”
Seriously? She was paying him, and he wanted her to follow his rules?
“You wear a hard hat and boots when you’re on the site, even if we’re not actively working.”
Jess looked down at her new gray suede heeled booties.
So did Matthew. “Those don’t count.”
Jess rolled her eyes. “Fine. What else?”
“Any of my guys who don’t want to be photographed don’t get photographed. Those that do sign a release giving you permission to use their image.”
Jess nodded. That was easy enough. She had that document on file. “Anything else?”
“Zimmerman-Dartmouth gets credit in each blog post with a link to our website, plus one mention once a week on the social media outlet of your choice.”
Jess cocked her head to the side. “That’s mighty close to free promotion, Mr. Zimmerman.”
A grin pulled up his lips, and he rocked on his toes. “Yup.”
“You want me to do all that to get a few pictures while still paying you?”
“That’s the deal.”
Jess glared at him, but he just smiled blandly back until she gave in. “Fine.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, sweetheart.” He stepped in too close and pushed back a coil of curl that had gotten snagged on her glasses.
Jess hopped back and batted his hand out of the way. “Are we going to have a problem?”
Her heart was racing and she knew her already pale skin was stark white. She hadn’t actually been worried about being alone with this man earlier, but now? How mad would Nell be if Jess fired her friend on the spot?
Jess watched Matthew inhale, and take a step back, raising his hands in the air. “No, ma’am.”
Good. No smart quips. No excuses. No apologies. Only a contractor who thought he could pull some misogynistic bull shit realizing that he could lose this job just that quickly.
Jess turned on her heel and stopped in the doorway that led to the entry and tossed the keys at him. “Do what you need to do. I’ll send you the promotional addendum to our contract later today.”
He caught the keys and said nothing, but she could feel his eyes on her as she went to hide in the kitchen to regroup.
Shit. Goddamn fucking bullshit.
He’d touched her. That shiny, curly black hair had been enticing him since he’d arrived. Matthew hadn’t had time to prepare himself for Jess’s presence. He needed time to remind himself of a few things where she was concerned, but Nell hadn’t warned him. The couple of meetings they’d had and the way Nell talked about Jess nonstop made Matthew feel like he already knew the woman. That along with a little internet stalking had ignited his little candle flame of a crush. And she’d been professional as hell. He’d tried to be, but when he’d driven up and seen her standing on the porch looking pissed, God had he wanted to see if she’d had breakfast yet. Maybe they could discuss the plans more in depth over coffee?
One of the things he wasn’t very good at reminding himself about was that Jess wasn’t going to be into him because one, she was in a relationship, and two, that relationship was with a woman. So he needed to stop acting like an entitled asshole.
When she was out of sight and he could hear the shutter on her camera snapping away in the kitchen, Matthew scrubbed his hands over his face then adjusted his cap. He didn’t blame her for being a little hostile. She didn’t know him from Adam. And really, he had no business touching her. In his head, he knew it, had been yelling at himself that she wouldn’t like it. He’d been watching himself do it as if he were outside his body.
It would not happen again.
This contract was more important than a woman–more important than his embarrassment at his actions or at her blatant rejection.
Matthew recorded the measurements he’d scribbled onto his wrist into his phone, then snapped a few photos. He tried to justify to himself what he’d done and pretend it was no big deal, but all he could hear was his sister telling her four year-old son that he didn’t have to hug anybody he didn’t want to. That it was his body and no one else, grandma, or no, had any right to touch him if he didn’t want to be touched.
Matthew was on the second floor, pretending to check the level of the hallway he already knew was crooked as he tried to formulate an apology that was at once effective and sincere without being pathetic.
Heavy footsteps on the stairs going up to the attic forced every other thought from his mind. He looked down the hall trying to figure out how Jess had gotten past him and closed the door without him hearing her, when Jess rounded the corner from the servant stairwell on the other side of the hall.
She started to ask him a question when he shushed her. She frowned but he pointed overhead as the sound of footsteps sounded again on the stairs. They were heavy, reminding him of his dad coming home late at night, cowboy boots creaking on the old wooden stairs.
“You hear that?” he asked her.
But Jess’s eyes were on the ceiling, a frown wrinkling her brow behind her chunky black glasses. The temptation to caress the skin smooth overwhelmed him.
“Is there someone else here?” she asked in a whisper, sliding across the worn wooden floor to his side without a noise.
He shrugged. “It’s an abandoned house, but we’ve made sure it’s locked up pretty tight every time we’ve been in.”
The footsteps stopped, then a lighter set, like a woman’s quick step. Jess’s frown deepened.
“Oh this is ridiculous,” she said. She wrapped her big black and white sweater tight around her waist like it could shield her and started for the stairs.
Matthew kept himself from grabbing her arm, but only just. “What are you doing?”
“We can’t have people squatting in here when you’re about to tear the building apart.”
And before he could do anything about it, she was tearing up the stairs with her own quick steps, hollering up about this being private property and offering to find the couple a way less shitty place to live. When she reached the top of the stairs, her call abruptly cut off, and Matthew thought he might be sick.
First he’d touched her uninvited. Now he’d let her run into a potentially dangerous situation on her own. If there really was a squatters upstairs, they could have weapons out, ready to defend their space.
Matthew tore up the stairs after her only to come upon an empty apartment, save for the beautiful, confused woman turning in a circle in the middle of it.
“There’s no one here,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Unless they’re hiding under the bed.” Jess pointed at the large brass bed frame on the far wall. It had no mattress and was the only furniture left in the room.
“There’s a closet and a bathroom.” Matthew was already striding toward them, careful not to brush against Jess as he passed her. But both were empty.
“Odd,” he said.
“Has that ever happened to you before?” she asked.
Matthew only shook his head. “You?”
“Maybe it was the squirrels again?”
Matthew nodded. “It must have been,” he said, but in his mind he was telling himself that unless the squirrel was 200 pounds and wore cowboy boots, there was no way in hell squirrels were making that kind of racket.
“We’ll call it squirrels for the day, but you might want to think about a security system.”
Jess gave him an incredulous look. “While there aren’t any walls?”
“Know any mean dogs?”
“I’m more of a cat person.”
Matthew had to hold in a laugh. Of course she was. “Starting Monday, we’ll be here full time. Vagrants shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Vagrants? Not all homeless people are criminals.”
Matthew ground his teeth. “Right. Well, if you’re done. I need to get going.”
Jess checked her watch. God it was hot as hell that she still wore a watch.
“Shit. I’m late,” she said and set off down the stairs, hollering behind her to message Nell if he needed anything else.