Authors: Cassidy Cayman
by Cassidy Cayman
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Tilly Jacobs was going to spend an uneventful month in London helping her nerdy history buff cousin to catalog priceless antiques in a mansion that’s slated to be torn down.
When a Regency era earl mistakenly drags her into his century, she thinks she’s in for the best vacation of her life. All she has to do is enjoy the scenery, which includes the hunky Lord Ashford, until he can get her back.
She doesn’t count on a murderer being after them, or the fact that if the house gets destroyed, so do her chances of ever getting home. Least of all, she doesn’t count on the undeniable attraction she feels to the mysterious and brooding Lord Ashford, or the fact that the longer she stays with him, the less she wants to fight it.
Matilda Jacobs was lost. In a house. Irritated, she leaned over the top of the stairs and looked down. It was an oversized house to be sure, and had several additions that made no sense whatsoever, but still. Getting lost in a house made her feel even worse about her life than she already did.
Her cousin had asked her to get some papers from the second floor, and she suddenly remembered with a grim sense of victory that British people meant the third floor when they said that. It didn’t help that she was already a bit tipsy from the celebratory ‘welcome back to London’ brandy Dex had cracked open while he finished up his work. As soon as she found what she’d been sent after, he’d promised they could close up this creepy old mansion for the night and he’d take her around London.
It was sweet, how he tried to make it seem like she was there to visit him for the first time in two years, and not that she’d just been fired from her job and wanted to run and hide from reality. She couldn’t help but feel that everyone she knew in Santa Balda, California had been waiting for her to finally screw up enough to warrant getting tossed. If there had been a secret betting pool she wouldn’t be surprised.
“I’m on the American second floor,” she said to a dusty suit of armor that was crammed in between ceiling high rows of boxes. “So I need to go up.”
She turned around, expecting the stairway to carry on upwards in a reasonable fashion. Of course, it didn’t. She peered down the dim hall, lit only by a sad emergency exit sign at the far end. The once glorious mansion was supposed to be restored and opened up to tourists, something her cousin Dex had been telling her about in painful detail for the last year. Every time he came across a four hundred year old wax seal or rare candle holder, she got an excited message, usually with pictures. Her phone basically exploded when he first got the job, because the place was so stacked with antique goodness.
When an actress mysteriously went missing, never to be seen again, old stories of a vengeful ghost spread all over the news, and the historical society lost its funding. Now the place was slated to be demolished for a luxury shopping center as soon as all the valuable doodads were properly cataloged and placed in museums across the country. She could see how it pained poor Dex that the house would never be returned to its former glory as he tagged and wrapped things up, placing them in padded boxes while pretending it was the dust that made his eyes well up.
The one good thing about her sorry situation was getting to see Dex again after such a long time. They’d had so much fun together as kids, when she got shipped over to London every summer. She felt a ray of hope and decided to make the best of things, really get her life turned around, and she could be helpful too, keep Dex from sinking into despair when his time here was up and he got sent back to his cruddy office at the university he worked for. Perhaps she’d even strike up a romance with one of the researchers while she was here.
She picked her way around the boxes and shelves of junk, er, historical artifacts and rare antiques, toward the emergency exit. Surely that was the other stairwell.
“Bugger,” she said aloud. It was indeed a stairwell, but only went down. “What’s wrong with this sodding house?”
The first thing she did whenever she got back on British soil was embrace the swear words. Dex always raised his eyes heavenward when she used them wrong, but they were just so much fun. In a couple of days she’d have it out of her system and be fit for society, but until then she would pepper them in at every chance.
She almost poked her eye out on an antler, that led to a staring eye, and she yelped with fright as it glared at her with glassy intensity. Pushing aside a row of clothbound books she saw it was a taxidermied deer head and quickly turned away. There was nothing to do but start opening doors, because she knew for a fact this house had more floors, and she wasn’t going to slink back downstairs and admit she couldn’t find out how to get to them. She wasn’t nearly drunk enough yet for that.
Just as she reached for the porcelain doorknob of the nearest door, she glanced down the hall to shake the creepy feeling of still having eyes on her, and nearly shrieked again. A man stood not five feet away, seeming to take up most of the hallway and all of her courage. He scowled at her, all but drilling a hole through her with his cold, haughty stare.
Bloody hell, but where did he materialize from? Could the place really be haunted? No. As much as she would love confirmation of a ghostly realm, that was just the alcohol talking.
For a second she couldn’t believe what she saw. He was wearing Mr. Darcy pants, filling them out quite nicely, actually. Oh, God, she was staring at his pants. How rude. She dragged her eyes up his broad chest and was equally befuddled by his face. Slightly stubbled jaw, straight aristocratic nose, and serious silver grey eyes under furrowed brows. His dark brown hair was mussed, stray curls sticking up here and there, and he had a flouncy, ruffled scarf of some sort tucked into his plush, wine colored velvet coat, with more ruffles sticking out of his jacket sleeves. And yet, he looked nothing less than painfully, mouth wateringly masculine. She swallowed hard.
She sucked in a breath and stepped out of his way, then her heart slowly settled back to normal. He had to be one of the researchers, dressed as he was in those well fitting breeches and long-tailed coat. Bloody researchers. She’d already seen several of them dressed in various period clothing over the last day, and had a feeling Dex was hiding his own closet full of costumes in an effort to keep her from making fun of him too much.
She didn’t hate the outfit, especially as this particular researcher had a very nice body and everything clung in all the right places. Letting her eyes sweep up from his powerful thighs to his lean waist, his broad shoulders encased in the dark jacket, she gasped to see the scowl still on his face and took a few more steps back.
His frown grew momentarily darker as he gave her his own sweeping once-over, and she tugged at the hem of the slinky club dress she’d changed into in anticipation of going out when Dex finished work. He blinked several times at her before his face softened a little. He shook his head.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, glancing over his shoulder behind him. “But it’s not time yet.” He looked at a pocket watch hanging from his elaborately embroidered waistcoat, swore quietly, and edged past her into the room she’d been about to open.
Tilly made to follow him but the door slammed in her face. For a split second when he lost his murderous glare, she’d thought he was handsome, but his rudeness was without precedence. Not to mention his weirdness. Not time for what?
This had to be the stairway and she gripped the doorknob, feeling an odd sense of hesitation. She thought for a moment she should go downstairs and admit she couldn’t find the papers, and shook her head at her trepidation. What did she need to be afraid of? Certainly not that hot history nerd, no matter how ruthless he’d looked when he first noticed her checking him out. It was probably just the stress all the workers were under to get things packed up before their deadline. It might have been the brandy talking again, but it urged her to follow him.
She recalled Dex’s pep talk when she first got off the plane, all about seizing the moment, opening herself to new possibilities, when one door closes, another one opens, etc, ad infinitum.
It had been ages since she’d gone on a date, or had a conversation with a man she was romantically interested in. Not that she was interested in this researcher, but it would be nice to meet some new people. Exercise her flirt muscles, which were sorely atrophied. Maybe she could get him to smile. Plucking up her courage, she decided to go after him and invite him out with her and Dex. If nothing else, she needed to get to the damn third floor.
When she opened the door, she was surprised to find a room instead of a stairwell. It was empty save for an old wardrobe and chest of drawers. The researcher was nowhere to be seen and she stepped into the room, drawing in a shocked breath at the drop in temperature. A chill washed over her that had nothing to do with the sudden cold, and she called nervously, embarrassed when her voice came out in a mousy tremor.
Marching across the room, she looked behind the wardrobe and turned in a circle, looking for a closet or another doorway. Nothing. The man simply wasn’t in there, and there didn’t seem to be any other way out. She’d never left the hall or even turned away, and even though she’d waffled in her decision to go after him, that hadn’t been more than thirty seconds. She made her way to the chest of drawers and leaned over to see if he hid in the corner or if there were any secret openings. The air grew markedly colder, but the thick curtains that still hung from the windows never wavered. Had she seriously just had an encounter with a ghost? The infamous ghost of Belmary House?
Before she screamed from both excitement and terror, she fled the room, pounding down the emergency exit stairs and not stopping until she made it back to the room where Dex sat hunched over his workspace, writing in a ledger.
When he looked up from his work and raised his eyebrows, she felt stupid. Whatever she thought she’d seen, it most certainly couldn’t have been a ghost. Right?
“Are there still researchers working at this hour?” she asked, pressing her hand to her chest and leaning against the doorframe with what she hoped passed for nonchalance.
Dex frowned and squinted at the grandfather clock in the corner. “I thought it was only us, why?”
“I ran into someone upstairs but lost him, and just wondered is all.”
“Well, that won’t do,” he said. “I was just about to close up. Can’t have anyone locked in overnight, and no one else has the alarm codes to open the doors.” With a hefty sigh, he unfurled his tall, rangy frame from the workbench and cracked his neck and knuckles. “Let’s go check to make sure. Last thing we want is to get a frantic phone call when we’re in our cups.”
She nodded and followed him. “I can’t wait to be in our cups,” she said, her brandy glow chased off by the burst of fear she’d had. “Hey, is this place really haunted?” she asked sheepishly.