A tragic accident – or cleverly disguised murder? Only one woman will be brave enough to find out.
Paralegal, Elizabeth Martin, has two reasons for staying at a mysterious mansion – to help get the property ready to sell, and to investigate the rumors of the ghost who is haunting it. After shockingly finding the rumors to be true, one question stirs in her mind. Had the renowned magician’s death really been a careless accident – or was it a cleverly disguised murder?
The deceased heir to the Powers’ billions, Aaron Powers, is only after one thing. Revenge. He couldn’t use his magician’s skills and illusions to keep his murder at bay, so now he must depend on the strikingly beautiful paralegal’s help. Unfortunately, he can’t stop himself from becoming attached to her – both heart and soul.
Solving a murder is no magician’s trick, but can Elizabeth and Aaron see through the smoke and mirrors to bring the criminal to justice? And can they do it without their growing feelings for each other getting in the way?
Aaron Powers stood on the Rockwell Theatre stage, as a sold-out room of spectators sat and watched him as he prepared his next act. Sweat formed on his forehead and behind his neck. Even his palms were moist. The frantic rhythm of his heartbeat only made things worse.
He silently cursed the doubts scrambling his mind, confusing him. It had been five years since Aaron experienced the jitters during one of his acts. But no longer was he an apprentice when dealing with magic. In fact, last month, Forbes magazine had interviewed him and given him the title of a rising star. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his billionaire grandfather owned three wineries, which helped give him a leg up. The magazine had written that Aaron’s sold-out shows and fame would make him wealthier than his grandfather one day.
Taking a steady breath, Aaron prayed that day would come. But with all the accidents that had been happening to him lately, he worried he’d never get to see that day.
The loud music with the intense beat boomed throughout the theatre, heightening the moment when Aaron would climb in the box for his swords-through-the-box illusion. This trick had never failed before, and because he’d checked all the props for tonight’s show two hours ago, he was sure everything would go smoothly.
And yet… there was still that niggle of doubt in his mind that caused his nerves to jump and his hands to tremble.
His beautiful assistant, the very lovely blonde bombshell, ZoAnn – a woman he’d dated for a while until realizing they’d be better as friends – sashayed in front of the coffin-shaped box, opening the cubby doors to show the audience that there was no way for him to escape, and no extra room once Aaron was inside.
He grinned to himself. What the audience didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Once he was inside, there would be plenty of room for him and the swords.
Once she connected the doors around the box, she stepped in rhythm to the pounding music, slinking her way around stage. When she reached him, she pressed herself up against him and slowly moved around his body, sliding her hands over his chest, his shoulders, back, and finally around to his front again. He grasped her roughly, pulling her closer as if he was going to kiss her, but just as their mouths were a breath apart, he moved her aside and stepped inside the box.
Continuing to stand in the box, he moved his arms as he motioned from one side to the other of his short-lived tomb. He had arranged to have the fan on high at this section in the act, which blew his wavy hair, but especially, the wind lifted his white silky shirt away from his throat, giving the ladies in his audience a glimpse of his muscular chest.
ZoAnn raised one of the swords, blade-side up, showing the audience. Aaron withdrew the silk scarf from around his throat and tossed it toward the scarf. When the cloth touched the blade, the scarf immediately separated, showing the audience how incredibly sharp it was.
Finally, he slid down into the box as ZoAnn finished locking up the doors. The slight tremble was still in his hands as he reached for the lever that widened the side of the box that the audience couldn’t see. He barely heard the clicking noise of the gears over the booming music in the theatre.
The wood beneath him shifted ever-so-slightly… and then stopped. His heart stilled momentarily. His throat tightened, as did his chest. This wasn’t enough room!
He moved the switch again, but the box extension beneath him didn’t widen any further. Gently, he pushed with his legs and hips, trying to get the extension to widen, but it wouldn’t budge.
Panic filled him. The frantic beat of his heart pounded through his ears, blocking out any other sounds. He must make ZoAnn aware of the faulty box extension, and yet – how could they stop the show? His act would be ruined. So would his name.
However, sharp swords slicing through the box would definitely kill him.
“ZoAnn, stop the act,” he shouted, but the music was too loud. Using his fist, he hit the side of the box, but that didn’t accomplish anything. His music was just too loud.
Suddenly, a sword pushed through the flimsy box. Pain shot through his arm from where the blade cut him. Clenching his teeth, he cussed.
Taking in deep breaths, he tried controlling the fear rising inside him. “ZoAnn,” he shouted again, but seconds later, the second sword slid through the box. Pain exploded in his leg. Warm, sticky blood oozed down into his boot.
“Stop the act!” This time when he screamed, he tried rocking the box. He prayed like he never prayed before. Someone just had to hear him.
Suddenly, another blade entered the box, cutting into his stomach. He couldn’t tell which was worse – the fiery pain that made him want to vomit, or the numbness slowly spreading over his body.
“ZoAnn…” he cried out again as tears rolled into his ears. His body told him it was too late, anyway. Slowly, his body weakened as blood continued to gush out of him. An artery had been severed, he just knew it.
Closing his eyes, he pictured his grandfather’s kind and loving face – the face Aaron had grown to love as a father-figure since his own parents died when Aaron was six-years-old. Out of everyone he knew, his grandfather would mourn Aaron’s death the hardest. They’d been so close over the years…
Aaron’s mind filled with childhood memories that quickly meshed into adult memories. He’d had a good life. He’d made some good friends… but obviously, he’d made enemies, too.
As he lay dying, he said one last prayer – that he would not cross over. Being a ghost and haunting those responsible for his soon-to-be death was what he wanted now. That was the best kind of revenge.
Elizabeth Martin’s fingers flew over the keyboard as she finished typing the research notes she’d done on an embezzlement case. Out of all the research she’d completed the past three years working for Taylor, Baker, and Swift Attorneys at Law, this particular embezzlement case had been the easiest. The bank employee hadn’t covered his tracks while stealing money from his company, and the fool bragged about it to his friends. This was an open and shut case. Easy-peasey.
Once finished, she saved it to an electronic folder and closed the program. She pushed away from her desk just far enough to rest her hands in her lap and sigh with relief, smiling. She loved her job, however… a job like this gave her the advantage of getting inspiration for her next story. Not many of her co-workers knew about her love for writing romantic suspense.
Lately, her muse had been a little dry – so much, in fact, that she started spending more time with her boyfriend, Sam Livingston. The smile quickly left her face. Now she knew why writing came first. At least in her novels, she could get away from life’s stress. In her romance stories, the hero adored the heroine and everyone had a happy-ever-after.
She grabbed her bottled water from her desk and drank the remaining liquid. It wasn’t cold any longer, and she needed something to hydrate her before she dozed off at work. She looked in her drawer for some loose change, before heading to the break room. After buying a cold bottle of water from the office’s new machine, she sipped the refreshing liquid.
Two of her co-workers walked inside the break room. She nodded to them but kept drinking. They were in the middle of a conversation, anyway.
“It was like watching a scary movie, I tell ya.” Susan shook her head, her eyes growing wider by the second. “It wasn’t until the assistant pulled out the bloody swords that the woman realized something had gone wrong with the act.”
Tonya opened the refrigerator and pulled out her carrots and celery sticks still in the baggie. “I’d heard rumors that someone was purposely trying to kill him.”
Susan shrugged. “I’m assuming it was investigated, but his death was documented as an accident.”
Elizabeth lowered the water, suddenly caught up in her friends’ conversation. “Who died?”
Susan spun around, her long, auburn hair flying over her shoulder. “This happened three months ago, but it was that famous magician, Aaron Powers.”
Nodding slowly, Elizabeth tapped her finger on the bottle. “I think I’ve heard his name before.”
“His shows were all over – in California, Nevada, and even Arizona.”
Elizabeth stepped closer. “And this man died?”
“Yep. One of his acts went wrong, and his assistant stabbed him to death with swords.”
Elizabeth’s stomach churned. “While on stage?”
“Oh, yes.” Susan nodded vigorously. “I was in the audience. It was surreal. I still can’t believe I watched it happen.”
“How sad.” Elizabeth took another sip of her water.
“You should look it up on the internet. It was all over the news.”
“I think I will.” Elizabeth turned and took slow steps toward the door.
“So who inherits his grandfather’s billions?” Tonya asked.
Elizabeth came to a sudden halt and glanced at the other two ladies. “The man was rich, too?”
“Well, you see…” Susan walked toward Elizabeth. “His grandfather, Jethro Powers, owns three wineries, and Aaron was his oldest grandson. Powers’ billions would have gone to Aaron, but now…” She shrugged. “I guess everything will go to the surviving grandson when the old man kicks the bucket.”
“That definitely makes an interesting tale.” Although it was sad what happened to Aaron Powers’ life, Elizabeth’s mind spun with story ideas. It had been a few weeks since she’d been energized like this about a story. She’d have to do more research and see what more she could find. There was a suspense romance story waiting to be written, and she couldn’t wait to find it.
She walked back to her desk without remembering even doing it. Once her butt hit her seat, she reached for the keyboard and quickly searched the internet for the magician’s name and clicked on the first link she came to.
Aaron Zeke Powers of Surprise, Arizona, died March 10th, while performing on stage at the Rockwell Theatre in front of a large crowd. He was performing the famous, yet dangerous, swords-through-the-box illusion. This trick went wrong and he was stabbed and bled to death. He was the oldest grandson of the renowned winery owner, Jethro Powers. Jethro Powers sits on a large fortune that was to be Aaron’s upon Jethro’s death. Thomas Powers is the next grandson in line to inherit the wineries and fortune.
Elizabeth continued through the article and studied the pictures taken of the thirty-something, handsome magician. Aaron appeared to be very confident. He had a charming smile that made his blue eyes sparkle. And whether it was his costumes or if he was really robust, he was one finely built man. It was sad that something so terrible could happen to such a good-looking man.
She kept searching the internet until she found some videos. As Elizabeth watched some of his acts, she found herself catching her breath quite a few times. The way he looked deeply into his assistant’s eyes made Elizabeth wonder if Aaron had been in love with the blonde woman with the Barbie-doll figure. His magic tricks kept her mind buzzing with questions, but it was his hypnotic smile that kept her glued to the videos. His electrifying eyes contrasted with his dark hair. Now only one question stayed in her mind.
Had his death been an accident or was it murder?
She clicked another link that displayed a magnificent mansion in Surprise, Arizona. As she read the article, this was Aaron’s home before he died. According to what she’d read, the man wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. Aaron’s parents had even died in a car accident when he was only six.
Another paragraph mentioned that visitors to the mansion since Aaron’s death had thought they’d seen Aaron’s ghost. They’d heard doors shutting on floors where nobody entered, and whispers in the ventilation system. Strangely enough, they were giving haunted tours now in the mansion.
“Ah, perfect! You’re doing your research already.”
Elizabeth jumped from her boss’ deep voice, and swung on her chair, facing him. “Todd, I didn’t hear you come in.”
Chuckling, he pointed to the computer. “The horrific story of Aaron Power’s death would enthrall anyone. I don’t blame you for being so caught up in that.”
“So, why do you think I’m doing research?”
“Carey hasn’t told you yet?”
“Told me what?” By her suddenly racing heart, she already had a feeling she knew, but she didn’t want to get too excited until she heard the words.
His grin widened, which made his brown eyes sparkle. He waggled his eyebrows. She always thought her forty-five-year-old boss was a handsome man.
“The elder Mr. Powers, Jethro, hired us to do some checking into these ghost rumors. He wants us to help him get the house ready to sell, and in the process, we are to check out the mansion to see why people say it’s haunted.”
As she pondered his request, she couldn’t stop the laugh bubbling up from her throat. “Are you serious? We’re lawyers, we’re not detectives.”
“True, but Jethro is a longtime friend of the head of this firm. Jethro is also a billionaire, so whatever he wants, he gets, and in this case, Jethro wants Casey to be in charge of the mansion.”
She shrugged. “Okay, so how are we supposed to see if the place is haunted?”
Todd rested his hand on the desk as he leaned toward her. His expression changed to one of mischief.
“I hope you’re not afraid of ghosts…” His leery grin widened. “Because you will be the one helping Jethro get his mansion ready to sell.”
Half of her wanted to shout with joy, knowing that staying at this rich guy’s mansion would give her story idea more fuel. The other half of her wanted to accept the assignment just so she could get to know the famous man who died so tragically. And… she’d never seen a ghost before.
Chuckling, she shook her head. She didn’t believe in ghosts, anyway. But, she had to admit, spending a week or two there might be fun. “How soon do I need to pack?”
* * * *
Elizabeth chuckled to herself. She’d never known the place existed. Of course, because she lived in Los Angeles, there was enough to keep her busy in California so she wouldn’t have to wander to another state.
You’re not in California anymore.
During the five and a half hour drive, she’d seen so much desert land, it made her sick. The lizards even looked like they were dehydrated. But Surprise, Arizona, was quite a – dare she say – surprise? Several palm trees lined the streets, but as she drove by the many adobe-style homes, she realized this was a golfer’s community. She’d counted fifteen golf carts in just a few minutes’ drive. However, her GPS instructed her to keep driving. Apparently, the Power’s mansion was clear across town where the extremely rich people lived.
Thankfully, the town was small enough that it didn’t take her very long before she reached the road leading her toward the mansion. Large, full trees that she didn’t know the name of, kept the property enclosed, as did the rock wall surrounding the property. As she began her journey up the very long driveway, the iron gate was opened and allowed her to go straight up to the mansion.
The three-story sunflower-colored brick mansion had four white stone columns out in front, but it was the several windows that captured her attention. Never had she seen a mansion close up, anyway, but this one seemed so different for some reason. It was as though she looked upon a nineteenth-century estate, instead. But it didn’t matter. She was excited to go inside and get her view of how a billionaire lived.
As she pulled around the front, she noticed a red Ferrari parked in front of the house. Elizabeth turned off her car and opened the door. The man in the Ferrari also stepped out of his vehicle at the same time. This was definitely not the man she thought she’d be meeting today. Instead of an eighty-something-year-old Jethro Powers, a man who wasn’t much older than her headed toward her. He wore a beige tee-shirt stretched across his wide shoulders and chest, and crisp blue jeans on his lean legs, with white athletic sneakers on his feet. His hair was dark brown, and his face resembled the pictures on the internet that she’d seen of Aaron Powers.
He smiled, stopping in front of her. “You must be Elizabeth Martin.”
She nodded and stretched forth her hand to shake his. “I am. And you are definitely not Jethro Powers.”
He chuckled. “No, Jethro is my grandfather. I’m Thomas Powers. My father was Jethro’s youngest son.”
She had read a little about Thomas from the article on the internet. And, she recalled what her co-worker, Susan, had said about him inheriting all of Jethro’s billions once the old man kicked the bucket. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Powers.”
“Call me Thomas. Around here, people call my grandfather Mr. Powers.”
“Okay, I will.”
He motioned toward the house. “Are you ready to go inside?”
Her heartbeat hammered with excitement as she silently repeated in her mind, I can do this! “Of course, I’m ready.”
After taking two steps toward the mansion, Thomas glanced her way. “You’re not afraid of ghosts, are you?”
She laughed. “Thomas, can you honestly tell me that there are ghosts in this place?”
He shook his head. “No, there aren’t ghosts.” He paused. “There is only one ghost, and it’s my cousin, Aaron.”
She tilted her head, studying the good-looking man. “Really? You’ve seen him here?”
“Let me tell you something about this place.” He continued toward the door. “Gramps bought it when my dad and Aaron’s dad were young, and the family lived in it until Gramps wanted something bigger, so he had another mansion built in Scottsdale, and that’s where he lives. When Aaron’s father married, Gramps gave this place to him as a wedding gift. Aaron was born in this house, but when his parents were killed in a car accident, Aaron went to live with Gramps until he was old enough to live in this house by himself.”
Thomas pulled out a key and opened the front door. He motioned for her to enter first. She walked inside the spacious hallway. With all of the curtains closed over the windows, it brought many shadows in the room.
“So why does that information have anything to do with ghosts?” she wondered.
Thomas casually leaned his shoulder against the wall as he clicked on the lights. “Because this place has great memories for Aaron. When he was alive, he felt close to his parents here, too.”
She moved toward Thomas and stopped in front of him, giving him her serious gaze and crossed her arms. “Then what are the odds the ghosts are his parents?”
He nodded slowly and pulled away from the wall. “That’s an excellent point, and…” He patted her arm. “That’s what you’re going to research during your stay. So, as I said before, I hope you’re not afraid of ghosts.”
Elizabeth blinked, adjusting her vision to the spacious entryway. It was obvious that someone cleaned this place on a regular basis. The brass mirrors hanging on the walls, along with the other pictures and ornaments hanging on the walls were polished to perfection. The hardwood floor had a freshly cleaned shine to it. The paneling was dark colors – blue, brown, black, and mauve. Obviously, a man occupied this house for several years. So far, she couldn’t see one flower or girlish item.
The temperature in the house was cool. Their central air was working properly, thank goodness. She’d heard how dry and hot Arizona was during the summer.
“The caretaker,” Thomas said, moving through the entryway toward the grand staircase,” is Nolan. He’ll be off and on throughout your stay.”
“That’s good to know,” she muttered. Perhaps she should pay more attention to Thomas, but she couldn’t help but study each room as they passed.
The first room to the right was a sitting room with fancy, old-fashioned couches and chairs, but a modern-day min-bar. Across the hall looked to be someone’s office since there was a large dark-oak desk and file cabinets. Another room close by could be the family room because the heavily cushioned couches were placed around the largest fireplace she’d ever seen. Hanging on the wall was a theater-screen sized television. As she passed the connecting room, she noticed two pool tables, an air-hockey table, and a ping-pong table.
“Just so you know,” Thomas said as he began his climb up the stairs, “Nolan was Aaron’s best friend. They met in their young teenage years in school, and they bonded like brothers. If there is anything you’ll need to know about Aaron, Nolan will be the man to ask.”
“Oh, good. I’m sure I’ll have many questions.” She glanced up the stairs. “Where are you taking me?”
“To your bedroom. There are six bedrooms on the second floor. I’ve had Nolan prepare one especially for your stay here.”
“That was nice of you, but I could have just slept on the couch. From the ones I glimpsed at, they looked more comfortable than my bed at home.”
He chuckled. “Aaron did like nice things. Of course, growing up as Gramps as his guardian, I’m sure Gramps’ expectation for the getting only best had rubbed off on Aaron.”
The tone in Thomas’ voice shifted slightly and she studied his profile. Had the cousin, and second to inherit Gramps’ billions, been jealous of the golden-child, Aaron? She couldn’t help but suspect that’s what had happened.
“Will I get to meet your grandfather?”
Thomas shrugged. “I don’t know. Gramps has been quite depressed since Aaron’s death.”
“I can imagine.”
We reached the second floor. The hallway was long and wide, with three doors on each side of the house. She could only wonder about the size of each bedroom. From what she could see of some of the pictures hanging on the wall, they were photos taken of him during his shows.
“So, if Aaron wasn’t married and didn’t have children, why would he want to live in such a large house with so many bedrooms? I would think he’d be lonely living in such a place by himself.”
“Aaron wasn’t married to a woman, but he was married to his magic. Most of these rooms were used for his experiments as he mastered them. But he wasn’t alone very often. He held private showings and had gatherings for his closest friends. He kept three of the bedrooms empty for if one of his friends wanted to crash for the night.” Thomas stopped at the first door on the right and rested his hand on the knob, sighing. “I wasn’t close to Aaron as an adult, but from what I’d heard about his life, he had a kind heart. This place was rarely empty.”
He opened the door to the bedroom and motioned for Elizabeth to enter. She walked inside and a gasped stopped in her throat, and she nearly choked. This one room was as large as her whole apartment.
A king-size bed and the wooden frame with four posts sat in the middle of the room, against a wall. From where she stood, she could tell there were mirrors on the ceiling above the bed. The rest of the room was taken up by historic looking furniture; couches, loveseats, heavily cushioned chairs… not to mention the fireplace across the room that looked like a kitchen table that seated ten would fit inside. Two walk-in closets were farther back in the room, and a door that led into an adjoining bathroom. When she walked inside, she gasped loudly. A sunken jetted tub big enough for someone to swim inside, sat near the window. She might emerge herself in this and not come up for at least a whole day.
“Is the room to your liking?” Thomas asked.
She walked back toward him. “Liking? I think the word I’m thinking of goes much deeper than that. In fact, you might have a difficult time getting me to leave this place.”
He laughed. “Well, if you’re afraid of ghosts, then I think after one night, you’ll want to leave.”
She stopped near the window and glanced down at the well-kept, manicured lawns on one side, and the enormous swimming pool and covered Jacuzzi on the other side. Even if Aaron’s ghost did preside here, she would just have to make friends with it. Staying here one week – or however long it took to get the place ready to sell – would be so much more relaxing than any vacation she’d ever taken. And oh… the inspiration for stories that she’d receive here was just the icing on the cake.
She turned and leaned against the window. Thomas’ stare was still on her and she smiled. Was he married? Would he be interested in dating someone like her?
Shaking the thought from her head, she sighed. If she was even thinking of dating other guys, she’d have to get Sam out of her life, first. Thankfully, the love she thought she had for him had disappeared over time.
“So… what do you want me to do first?” she asked.
“For today, you can relax and get to know the house. I want you to wander around and familiarize yourself with the layout. There are many tunnels in this place, and so you’ll need to find those, too.”
Tunnels? He couldn’t be serious… “Why are there tunnels?”
“Are you forgetting what kind of man Aaron was?” Thomas shook his head. “His heart and mind were constantly in his magic.”
She nodded. “Understandable.”
“The only place in this house that you’ll need to stay away from is the basement.”
“Basement?” She blinked as surprise washed over her. “Why does this place have a basement?”
“There are actually two parts to the basement. There is the wine cellar, of course, but the other room is where Aaron had hidden his props. After all, it wouldn’t be smart to have them out for all of his guests to see them.” Thomas chuckled. “But they have been securely locked away and they won’t be brought back out until the auction. So please, don’t try to get down there.”
“Hey, I’m here to do whatever Mr. Powers needs help with, so if you tell me no, then I won’t do it.”
He walked to her and handed her a ring of keys. “These are to the house.” He handed her a business card. “And this is my phone number. Call me if you need anything.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“I expect Nolan will be by shortly to give you more instructions.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.”
“I wish you luck, Elizabeth Martin. You’re going to need it.” He winked, turned, and left the bedroom.
She ran her fingers softly across the keys. Luck? Nah, she didn’t need luck – not when she was in such a grand place such as this.
After a few minutes, she heard him leave the house. Silence became unsettling, and she’d have to bring some kind of noise to the place before her mind played tricks on her.
She hurried back down the stairs and outside to retrieve her luggage, laptop, and briefcase holding all the legal documents Todd had given her to complete the firm’s transaction with Mr. Powers.
Once the trunk of her car was shut and doors were locked, she looked up at the mansion. This time, she studied each window carefully. Was she really by herself now? Or would Aaron’s ghost try to haunt her?
Whatever happened, she prayed she’d have the strength and courage to overcome this obstacle. “Aaron,” she whispered, “if you’re really here, I’m not going to let you chase me away.”
Suddenly, she saw movement in the second-floor window. If she wasn’t mistaken, that was her room. Her heartbeat quickened. Were her eyes playing tricks on her, or did she really see something?
Elizabeth kept her eyes on the window, and seconds later, she witnessed the same movement again. A lump of fear formed in her throat. Apparently… the haunting had started.
* * * *
The kitchen was amazing!
Elizabeth didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen in her small apartment, but if she had something remotely similar to the one in the mansion, she’d definitely consider becoming a cook. Although the cupboards and counters appeared to have an old-fashioned look – staying with the theme of the house so far – she was sure the nineteenth century people would have adored the silver double ovens right next to each other, and the polished island in the middle of the room with many more drawers, and the dishwasher underneath. Of course, she saw two more dishwashers, along with a trash compactor, and other little gadgets that she had no idea what they were. The built-in china hutch on one side wall made her green with envy, and well as the two chandeliers hanging above the island, and the three very large refrigerators.
She could definitely get used to something like this.
The ding of the microwave against the far corner of the long counter, jerked her out of her dreams and she withdrew the cup of hot water. She dipped a tea-bag inside and took the cup and spoon to the twelve-chair table in the dining area located in the next room.
She’d not even been here two hours, and already she was lonely. How could anyone want to live in a place like this without having a family? Thomas mentioned that Aaron had his friends over quite frequently, so perhaps that was why he was never lonely.
The sound of the front door opening and closing made her jump. But when footsteps thudded on the floor, her heartbeat accelerated. She tried to convince herself it wasn’t Aaron’s ghost. Why would he come in through the front door?
On unsteady legs, she rose from the table and walked toward the hallway. A man wearing a short-sleeved, green polo shirt, and khaki shorts, with black flip-flops on his feet, didn’t have his attention on her, but on the mail in his hands and he scanned the envelopes, placing one behind the other. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. His blonde hair was longer than she liked, barely brushing his shoulders, but at least it wasn’t long enough to put up in a man bun.
Finally, he lifted his gaze, and when he noticed her, he stopped and smiled.
“You must be Elizabeth Martin.”
“I am.” She walked toward him.
“I’m Nolan Ricks, the caretaker of the estate.”
She shook hands with him. “And, you were best friends with the deceased.”
His smile disappeared and he nodded. “That, too.”
“Please accept my deepest condolences.”
“Thank you.” He nodded and took a deep breath. “Thomas sent me a text to let me know you are all settled.”
“I am, thank you.” She pointed to the dining room. “I was just having some herb-tea. Would you like some?”
“Herb-tea? I’m sure there is some iced-tea in the fridge.”
“I’m an herbal woman.”
“I don’t need anything now, but let’s go in so you can finish your drink.”
He followed her into the dining room and sat beside her. Nolan was a nice-looking man. Not as handsome as Thomas, and of course, nowhere near as handsome as Aaron’s many pictures that she’d seen since she first heard about him.
She drank the last of her tea and leaned back in her chair, looking at Nolan. “What exactly does Mr. Powers need me to do in order to get the estate ready to be sold?” She glanced toward the window before looking back at him. “From what I’ve seen of the inside, and the outside, the place looks ready to me. So now I think I’m missing a piece of the puzzle – something neither you nor Thomas has told me.”
Nolan’s light brown eyebrow rose slightly. “What do you think that is? Thomas did tell you about Aaron’s ghost, right?”
“He mentioned the ghost.” She drummed her fingers on the table. “But I can’t help but doubt his stories.”
Nolan linked his fingers on the table and leaned forward toward her. “You’re not a ghost believer?”
“No, not entirely.”
“I’m sure within the next twenty-four hours you’ll change your mind.”
Elizabeth couldn’t stop being suspicious of Nolan. And even Thomas. But Nolan was the one who looked as if he knew something more.
“Nolan? Have you personally seen Aaron’s ghost?”
Sighing, his gaze dropped to his hands. He was silent for a few moments. “Although Aaron and I were best friends, I haven’t seen him.” He lifted his gaze to her. “I’ve felt him here. I’ve heard noises in his room when nobody else is in there. And… I’ve smelled him.”
Nolan nodded. “Aaron’s favorite cologne was a fragrance by Giorgio Armani. It’s an unmistakable scent. Whenever I know Aaron’s spirit is nearby, I can smell his cologne.”
Elizabeth honestly didn’t know what to believe. Nolan looked so sincere – so trustworthy, and remarkable enough, he didn’t look crazy. Of course, neither did Thomas, although she felt the cousin had a bad case of jealousy.
“Nolan? Do you think Aaron’s death was an accident as the articles I’ve read have described.”
His mouth tightened and his forehead creased. “I’d bet all the money I have that my best friend was murdered.”
She held her breath. If she had been watching all of this on the movie screen, this would be the part where she’d hear the music – dun, dun, duuuun… Yet, this was not a movie. This was really happening, and she was now involved.
And this would definitely make a great book once it was over.
“Tell me, Nolan. If you were the police investigator for this case, who would you suspect of killing Aaron?”
His face hardened and his brown eyes turned so dark, she thought they were black.
“ZoAnn, his assistant.”
Sucking in a quick breath, Elizabeth knew her work was cut out for her, and she couldn’t wait to start poking her nose into things that weren’t her business. If anyway, maybe she’d be able to solve his murder, which would help him cross over… As long as he was really a ghost, of course.
Elizabeth stood in the kitchen, washing out her porcelain cup and spoon. Nolan was at the fridge, pulling out a cold bottled water.
“I knew from the start,” Nolan said, “that ZoAnn only wanted Aaron because of his grandfather’s money. It was common knowledge around these parts that he was the grandson to inherit more of his grandfather’s billions. Thomas would inherit as well, just not as much.”
Elizabeth grabbed some paper towels to dry her dishes. “So, if it was obvious to you that she was after his billions, why couldn’t he see it?”
“I believe that was part of her game.” Nolan shook his head as he unscrewed the lid before tipping the bottle to his mouth. He took several gulps before moving away from the fridge. “Aaron actually met ZoAnn through Thomas. She was going out with Thomas, but when she showed interest in being Aaron’s assistant, Thomas knew he couldn’t compete with his cousin. ZoAnn wasn’t actually Aaron’s first choice in assistants, but she resembled Gina, and that’s why Aaron hired her.”
Elizabeth placed the cup back in the cupboard and the spoon in the drawer, before waving her hand to stop him. “I’m confused. Why would he want his assistants to look alike?”
Nolan grinned. “I’m giving away a magician’s secret here, so don’t tell anyone.”
“A secret?” Elizabeth moved closer to Nolan as excitement pumped through her. “I love secrets.” Of course, she wouldn’t tell him it was for her book.
“Have you ever seen a magic act where the magician makes his assistant disappear, and within a split second, she’s across the room?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“That’s why he has two assistants that resembled each other. The main assistant stays in front so that the audience can see her all the time. The second assistant that nobody knew about is the one that suddenly appeared somewhere in the back of the room. She’s back far enough that the audience thinks it’s the same woman.” He shrugged. “It’s all an illusion.”
“Okay, that makes sense. So finish telling me about the two women and why Aaron picked ZoAnn.”
“Gina flirted with Aaron and was kissing up to him every time he sauntered by. She’d do anything for his love. Aaron really didn’t want a relationship with someone as clingy as Gina. So when ZoAnn entered his life, she treated him as a friend and didn’t throw herself on him. But I could see how she watched him when he wasn’t looking. I could see the lust – and dollar signs – in her eyes.”
“I’m assuming they dated.” Elizabeth leaned her elbow on the counter.
“They did. He’d even thought about proposing at one point.”
“What stopped him?”
Elizabeth widened her eyes and hiccupped a small laugh. “He stopped it?”
Nolan nodded. “Gramps had known all this time how underhanded ZoAnn was, so Gramps changed his will. His will stated that if Aaron married, his inheritance would not go to his spouse. And upon Aaron’s death, the money would then go to Gramp’s other grandson, Thomas. Gramps made sure that money-hungry women couldn’t get their clutches on his billions.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Let me guess… ZoAnn was the one to break up the relationship after hearing about Gramps’ will?”
Nolan winked. “Actually, it was Aaron. He noticed a change in the way ZoAnn was acting toward him and Gramps. That’s when Aaron finally realized that ZoAnn wasn’t the woman for him. He was not only protecting his heart, but his wallet.” He took another swig of his drink before recapping the lid.
“Okay, so ZoAnn was upset at Mr. Powers’ changing his will, but that doesn’t really explain to me why she’d want Aaron dead.”
“ZoAnn didn’t want to break up with Aaron. Although she’d never get his money if they were married, she still wanted to enjoy the life of a rich man’s wife. Aaron tried to break off their relationship nicely. She was a good assistant, and he didn’t want to lose that. He promised he’d pay her well for being his assistant and that he’d never find anyone else who could replace her.” He finished drinking his water before throwing it in the recycle bin. “Then one day, ZoAnn decided to try and get back together with Aaron, so she stopped by to see him at the house. He was in the Jacuzzi with Gina… and she was in his arms.”
Elizabeth sucked in a quick breath as her mouth formed and O.
“That happened a week before the swords-in-the-box trick killed him.”
“So ZoAnn thought he was replacing her – both with the relationship status and employment.”
“Exactly.” Sighing, he crossed his arms over his chest. A few moments passed and he smiled. “Hey, would you like to see one of Aaron’s favorite rooms in the house?”
Her heartbeat quickened. “I’d love to.”
She followed Nolan out of the kitchen and across the spacious hallway, into the room where she’d seen the pool table earlier. She wasn’t much of a pool player, but she had messed around in gaming bars with her college friends during those earlier years.
Once inside the room, her mouth dropped open in awe. There were more than just pool tables, air hockey, and ping-pong tables. It’d been a while since she’d seen the first video games that had come out in the ‘80’s, and she grinned to think that Aaron would want something like that in his playroom. One of the walls was nothing but one massive-size mirror. There were gold vine-like designs moving throughout the mirror and an occasional gold leaf, making it more interesting. Near the window was a mini-bar.
“Nolan?” she wondered, walking to the bar. “Was Aaron a heavy drinker?”
“No, why do you ask.”
“Because I’ve noticed a lot of liquor bars in this house so far, and I haven’t been through every room, yet.”
Nolan chuckled. “Aaron is just a social wine drinker. He doesn’t consume the heavy stuff, but his friends do. His grandfather just drinks wine since he owns wineries. Aaron’s father used to be a heavy drinker. In fact…” Nolan sighed and frowned. “That’s how Aaron’s father died. He was driving under the influence. That’s why Aaron only drinks wine – and very little of it.”
Elizabeth nodded, liking Aaron a little more with every story. “Wise man.”
“Yes, he was.” Nolan moved to the pool table and picked up the eight ball. “So, do you want to know why this was Aaron’s favorite room?”
“Sure.” She moved on the other side of the pool table.
Nolan’s grin returned. “Even as a boy first learning magic, Aaron loved to play jokes on his friends. As an adult, he improved his craft. Watch…”
Without touching a cue stick, he concentrated on the balls on the table. Suddenly, the black eight ball moved on its own across the table and hit another ball right into the nearest pocket.
Gasping, Elizabeth jumped away from the table, not believing what she saw. Nolan laughed and motioned for her to come and stand by him.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Aaron had it rigged. All he had to do was press this button right here.”
Cautiously, she moved beside Nolan and studied the area underneath the table where his hand was touching.
“Go on,” he urged. “Put your hand right here. You’ll feel a lever. Move it and see what happens.”
She slowly moved her hand to the spot and did as he’d asked. Once again, the black eight ball moved toward another ball and smacked it right into the side pocket. She laughed and stepped back again. “Aaron was the little trickster, wasn’t he?”
Nolan leaned on the table, giving her a lazy grin. “He loved scaring the women because it gave him the chance to take them in his arms and comfort them.”
Elizabeth’s heart flipped as butterflies danced in her belly. Why was Nolan looking at her with dreamy eyes? Had he wanted to comfort her for her momentary freak-out just a second ago? Well… the man wouldn’t be happy when she turned him down. Although, he was easy to talk with, and he was rather good-looking. But, she couldn’t think about getting involved with a man now. Not until she gave Sam his walking papers.
She moistened her suddenly dry throat with a hard swallow. “Was the pool table the only reason this was Aaron’s favorite room?”
“No.” He motioned his head toward the mirrored wall. “Come with me.”
He took her hand without asking, but she decided not to get upset at him yet. After all, Nolan was very entertaining, even if all he was doing was telling her about a dead man’s life.
When they reached the mirror and stopped, he brought her hand up to the glass and pressed her palm against a cluster of leaves near the corner. Beneath her hand, the mirror shifted. Once again, she gasped and jumped back. Slowly, the mirrored wall opened, revealing a dark room.
She threw Nolan a confused look. “Are you kidding me?”
“Not at all. Weren’t you told about the tunnels?”
“Well… yes. Thomas mentioned it.”
“This is one.” His grin widened. “Do you care to take a tour through the tunnel?”
She wasn’t afraid of the dark, but that kind of dark she was terrified of. If she entered, would she find rats or spiders? Not only that, she wasn’t sure she knew Nolan well enough to be alone with him inside a dark room where he expected her to jump into his welcoming arms in order to comfort a frightened woman.
“Thanks for the tempting offer, but I’m going to pass this time.”
He shrugged, pressed another spot on the wall, and the mirror slid close. “Just let me know whenever you want a tour.”
Nolan stared at her as if trying to read her thoughts. She hoped he couldn’t tell what she was thinking right now. Finally, he pulled away from the wall and withdrew his cell phone, checking the time.
“I guess I’ve chatted with you long enough. I have a few things to do before I leave.” He stuffed the phone back in his pocket. “Is there anything I can get you before I go?”
“Nothing I can think of – except your phone number.” His eyebrow shot up as a cocky grin stretched his mouth. Inwardly, she groaned, knowing she gave him the wrong impression. “I need your number just in case I do need something.”
His expression relaxed and he nodded as he pulled out his phone. “What’s your number and I’ll call you.”
She gave him her number and he punched it in his phone, and then called her. When her phone rang, she saved it. “Thanks again.”
“Well, have fun.” He turned toward the door. “Call me any time – day or night. And let’s hope the ghost doesn’t bother you too much.”
“I think I can handle it.”
“Okay. See ya.”
As she watched Nolan leave, she prayed she was right and that she could handle a ghost.
* * * *
This was so much better than a nice hotel.
Elizabeth sighed and relaxed in the surprisingly comfortable Jacuzzi. The warm water splashed over her bikini-clad body, and as the bubbles on the jets rose to the surface, she sank further into the water.
After Nolan had left, she’d wandered inside each room on the first and second floors, taking pictures and sending them to Todd. For some reason, none of the keys Thomas had given her had worked for the third-floor door. It was obvious from the outside of the house that the third level wasn’t a full floor, but she still couldn’t figure out how to get inside.
Todd had called her once he received the pictures, but he didn’t know what exactly she needed to do, either. “Just pretend you’re on vacation for now,” he’d told her. “Enjoy the beautiful, big house while it lasts.”
And relaxing in the Jacuzzi was the first thing on her list to enjoy while it lasts.
She’d previously turned the music on her phone to classic rock. Love songs were her favorite. Smiling, she closed her eyes and enjoyed the gentle massage from the jetted tub. Although a real massage was better, this was the next best thing.
She’d spent a lot of time searching the internet earlier this evening as she ate her dinner that consisted of a grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli and cauliflower – two of her favorite steamed veggies. She mainly searched the internet for one thing – Aaron Powers’ death. A person who’d been in the audience had recorded the disturbing scene, and her mind hadn’t stopped replaying it.
From the video, the assistant – who Elizabeth assumed was ZoAnn – hadn’t realized that anything was wrong until she pulled out the bloody swords from the box that Aaron was in. Shock had registered on the assistant’s face as she stared at the blood for a few unsettling seconds before screaming and dropping the swords. Some people in the crowd had also screamed and four men in the audience had rushed from their seats up on the stage. Security guards ran toward the box and started unhooking the doors. Someone backstage started to close the curtains. That’s where the video had stopped.
Elizabeth couldn’t help but put herself in his situation; inside a box and couldn’t get out, knowing the swords would slice through the box at any second.
She shivered and shook her head, trying not to think of something so tragic… so terrifying. The articles she read all said it was an accident, and yet, Nolan firmly believed Aaron was murdered.
Suddenly, the motor in the Jacuzzi stopped, and she snapped alert. She pushed the button to start it up again, but nothing happened. She looked around, trying to see where it was plugged in. Her gaze stopped on the plug that was now on the cement floor of the gazebo.
The beat of her heart picked up. She listened for any sounds nearby. Someone must have unplugged it, but she couldn’t hear anyone.
She climbed out of the Jacuzzi and picked up her towel to dry her hands before plugging it back in the outlet again. The motor to the Jacuzzi started up again, and she moved back to the tub. As soon as she slid one leg inside, it turned off again. She snapped her gaze toward the outlet. The plug was lying on the ground again… but nobody was around.
Fear pumped through her body, but she couldn’t believe… she didn’t want to believe.
Slowly, she moved out of the tub and picked up her towel again, wrapping it around her body. “Who is there?” She paused and then added, “Because I know someone is there. I don’t scare easily,” she lied, but being a ninny right now wouldn’t do her any good. She must pretend to be tough.
From the other side of the gazebo, she heard the limbs from the bushes shake – and yet, there was no wind. The movement of the bushes transferred from one plant to the other as it grew closer.
She clutched the towel tighter as her heartbeat accelerated. She needed something to use as protection, but what? Running in the opposite direction and screaming was the first thing to cross her mind, but who would hear her cry for help?