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 sword. As soon as the cloth touched the blade, the scarf immediately split in two, showing the audience how incredibly sharp it was.
Finally, he slid down into the box horizontally 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. The music was just too loud.
Suddenly, a sword pushed through the flimsy box. Pain shot through his arm. 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 the side of his leg.
“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 apparently, 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-peasy.
Once finished, she saved it to a 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 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 had grown warm since she had bought it, and she decided she needed something cold to hydrate her. Otherwise, she was in danger of dozing off at work. She looked in her drawer for some loose change, and then headed to the breakroom. After retrieving a fresh, cold bottled water from the office’s new vending machine, she leaned against the counter and sipped the refreshing liquid.
Just then, two of her co-workers walked inside the breakroom. 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 she realized something had gone wrong with the act.”
Tonya opened the refrigerator and pulled out a baggy of carrots and celery sticks. “I’d heard rumors that someone was purposely trying to kill him.”
Susan shrugged. “I’m assuming it was investigated, but his death was reported 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. “It was about three months ago, but it was all over the news. Didn’t you hear? It was Aaron Powers, that famous magician.”
Nodding thoughtfully, 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 he 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. Like I said, 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 back at the other two ladies. “The man was rich, too?”
“Well, you see…” Susan walked toward Elizabeth. “His grandfather, Jethro Powers, owns three wineries. 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 while since she’d been energized like this about a story. She’d have to do more research and see what she could find. Within all of those details was a suspenseful romance story waiting to be written, and she was anxious to find it.
She returned to her desk without even thinking about it as her mind whirled with ideas. As soon as she found herself in front of her computer, she reached for the keyboard and quickly searched the internet for the magician’s name. She clicked on the first link that popped up.
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. The props used were not working correctly and he was stabbed multiple times. He bled to death on the way to the hospital. He was the oldest grandson of the renowned winery owner, Jethro Powers. Well known in the winery communities, Jethro Powers had accumulated a large fortune that was to pass to Aaron upon Jethro’s death, including the wineries. With Aaron’s passing, Thomas Powers, the next grandson in line, is now poised to inherit the fortune.
Elizabeth continued through the article and studied the pictures taken of the handsome magician. Aaron appeared to be in his early thirties and looked very confident. He had a charming smile that made his blue eyes sparkle. She couldn’t tell if it was his costume that made him appear so robust, or if it was just his nature, but either way, he was one finely built man. She found it sad that something so terrible could happen to someone as good-looking as him.
She kept searching the internet and came across some videos of his performances. As Elizabeth watched, she caught 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. While his magic tricks kept her mind buzzing with wonder, his hypnotic smile kept her eyes glued to the screen. His electrifying blue eyes, framed by his dark hair, captivated her imagination, and one question stuck out in her mind.
Had his death really been an accident? Or, could it have been murder?
She clicked another link that displayed a magnificent mansion in Surprise, Arizona. As she read the article, she discovered that this had been Aaron’s home before he died. According to the article, the man had been alone for most of his life. His parents had died in a tragic car crash when he was only six. Aaron had never married and had no children.
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.
“Ah, perfect! You’re doing your research already.”
Elizabeth jumped from her boss’ deep voice. She swung around in her chair and faced him. Heat burst in her cheeks for being caught playing on the internet. “Todd, I didn’t hear you come in.”
Chuckling, he pointed to the computer. “The horrific story of Aaron Powers’ 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 knew for sure.
His grin widened and he waggled his eyebrows. She always thought her forty-five-year-old boss was a handsome man.
“The elder Mr. Powers, Jethro, has hired us to help him get the mansion ready to sell. As part of the process, we are to check into these ghost rumors and see why people are saying the property is 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.”
“While that is true, Jethro is a longtime friend of the head of this firm. Jethro is also a billionaire, which means he has the power to get whatever he wants. In this case, he’s asked for us to oversee the mansion’s legals.”
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’re the one we’re sending to the mansion.”
Part of her wanted to shout with glee. Staying at a rich guy’s mansion was just what she needed to give her newfound story idea more fuel. And yet, the other part of her was intrigued with the mystery of getting to know more about the famous magician who had died so tragically. Plus… she had never seen a ghost.
Chuckling, she shook her head. She didn’t believe in ghosts, anyway, but she had to admit that spending a week or two there did sound like fun. “How soon do I need to pack?”
* * * *
Elizabeth chuckled to herself. She’d never known the place existed. However, being a native to Los Angeles, she had always found enough to keep her busy in California that she had never wandered to other states.
You’re not in California anymore.
The five-and-a-half-hour drive through seemingly endless desert was enough to make anyone sick, and even the lizards she passed looked dehydrated. But Surprise, Arizona, was quite a – dare she say – surprise? Several palm trees lined the streets, shading the fronts of the city’s adobe-style homes. The further she ventured, the more she realized that this was a golfing community. In just the few minutes she’d been there, she’d already counted more than fifteen golf carts on the road. Her GPS continued to lead her through the heart of the city and to the other side, into the richer neighborhoods.
Thankfully, the town was small enough that it didn’t take her very long before she reached the road leading her toward the Powers’ mansion. The property was surrounded by large, full trees she didn’t recognize, as well as an ornate rock wall. As she began her journey up the very long driveway, the iron gate was opened automatically and allowed her to drive straight up to the mansion’s front porch.
Four massive white stone columns jutted out of the sunflower-colored brick, framing three stories of glistening windows. Never had she seen a mansion close up, but this one seemed to have an older style of architecture. It was very nineteenth century, but something seemed different about it. Elizabeth put the thought from her mind. She was more excited to go inside and get a view of how a billionaire lived.
As she pulled around the top of the driveway, she was surprised to see a red Ferrari parked in front of the house. Elizabeth turned off her car and opened the door to step out. A man in the Ferrari also climbed out at the same time. He was definitely not the man she thought she’d be meeting today. Instead of an eighty-something-year-old, the man appeared to be not much older than she was. 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 second son.”
She had read a little about Thomas from the article on the internet. She also recalled that her co-worker, Susan, had said he would inherit 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.”
“I’m glad you arrived when you did. Had you been earlier, you would have had to wait for me. As I got ready to leave my house, I found that someone had slashed my tires.”
“Oh, that’s terrible.”
He gestured toward the Ferrari. “Thankfully, I had another car to drive, despite my travel plans being set back a bit. I’m glad I didn’t keep you waiting.”
“That’s okay. I would have waited.”
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 paused and glanced back at her. “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 hesitated. “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. Gramps had another mansion built in Scottsdale, and that’s where he lives now. The house was then given to Aaron’s father, and Aaron was born here. 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, unlocked the door, and held it open for her. He motioned for her to enter first. She walked inside the spacious hallway; the many curtained windows stifling the bright sunlight, casting shadows of various lengths across 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, crossing her arms and giving him a serious gaze. “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 grasped her shoulders, “that’s why we want you to do some research during your stay.” Grinning, he released her and walked past her. “So, as I said before, I hope you’re not afraid of ghosts.”
Elizabeth blinked, adjusting her vision to the room’s dim lighting. As Thomas walked toward the grand staircase, she noticed the furnishings of the entryway. Brass-framed mirrors hung on the walls along with other pictures and ornaments; all objects sparkled with polished perfection. The wall paneling was dark colored – royal blue and mauve mixed with natural brown and black. While it was obvious that someone cleaned this place on a regular basis, it definitely showed that a man had been living here alone for many years since the décor lacked any sort of flowers or other feminine items.
The temperature in the house was cooler than it should be for being an empty house in Arizona. The central air was definitely working properly.
“Nolan Ricks is the name of the caretaker,” Thomas said, moving through the entryway toward the grand staircase. “He’ll come and go throughout your stay, so don’t be alarmed if you run into him.”
“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 furnished with antique couches, tall-backed chairs, and a modern-looking minibar filled with liquor. Across the hall on the left seemed to hold an office, defined by a large dark-oak desk with a few filing cabinets. The next room looked to be a family room, with heavily cushioned couches placed around the largest fireplace she’d ever seen. Above the mantle hung a theatre-size flat screen television. Another room was connected to the family room, and contained two pool tables, an air-hockey table, a ping-pong table, and another minibar.
“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, of course. There are six bedrooms on the second floor that hardly ever get used, so I asked Nolan to prepare one especially for your stay here.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I would have been happy sleeping on one of the couches. From what I’ve glimpsed so far, I’m sure they are a lot more comfortable than my bed at home.”
He chuckled. “Aaron did like nice things. Of course, growing up with Gramps as his guardian, I’m sure Gramps’ expectation for buying only the best had rubbed off on Aaron.”
The tone in Thomas’ voice shifted slightly when he mentioned Jethro’s and Aaron’s relationship. Had he, as the cousin and second in line to inherit the billions, been jealous of Aaron? With Aaron’s golden-child status, she couldn’t help but suspect.
“Will I get to meet your grandfather?”
Thomas shrugged. “I don’t know. Gramps has been quite depressed since Aaron’s death and hasn’t had many visitors since then.”
“I can imagine.”
After what seemed like hundreds of steps, they reached the second floor. The hallway was long and wide with three doors on each side. She could only wonder about the size of each bedroom. More pictures hung in the hallway, depicting Aaron during many of his different performances.
“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 where he practiced his illusions until he mastered them. However, he made it a point not to be alone very often. He was always hosting private performances and parties for his closest friends. He always made sure to have at least three of the bedrooms ready in case a friend ever needed to stay overnight.”
Thomas stopped at the first door on the left 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 house was rarely empty.”
He opened the door to the bedroom and motioned for Elizabeth to enter. She walked inside and gasped, nearly choking on the air in her throat. This single bedroom was larger than her whole apartment.
A king-size bed with a four-post wooden frame sat in the middle of the adjacent wall. Its comfy cushions reflected in the mirrored ceiling above the bed. The rest of the room was arranged with antique furniture; couches, loveseats, and heavily cushioned armchairs… not to mention the fireplace on the other wall with an opening large enough to fit a ten-person kitchen table. The entrance to two walk-in closets, as well as the adjoining bathroom were nestled along the back wall. When she stepped inside the bathroom, she gasped again; the sound of her wonder echoing on the porcelain tile. Luxuriously fluffy towels hung on the towel rack, and on the opposite side, hung a gigantic mirror lined with more lights than a Christmas tree. A bathtub as big as a hot tub sat near the back window, complete with spa jets, spouts, and knobs. The thought of immersing herself in the wonderful jets of water and not coming out for at least a whole day began to tempt her mind.
“Is the room to your liking?” Thomas asked, smiling.
She walked back toward him. “Liking? The words I’m looking for go much deeper than just liking. In fact, you just might have a very difficult time getting me to leave once my stay is over.”
He laughed. “Well, we’ll see about that. Maybe a night or two of ghostly encounters may change your mind.”
His comment sent a chill down her spine as she pulled back the curtains and gazed over the courtyard below. Despite the crispness of the well-manicured lawn, the enormous swimming pool and the covered Jacuzzi, and the Arizona sunshine, she couldn’t shake the feeling that had come over her. Even if Aaron’s ghost did reside 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. She smiled, happy to find Thomas still staring at her. Was he married? Would he be interested in dating someone like her?
Shaking the thought from her head, she sighed. Before she could even think of dating other men, she’d have to figure out a way to get Sam out of her life, first. While there had been something at the beginning, the love she had thought she’d felt for him had diminished quickly over time. Mostly, due to Sam’s controlling personality.
“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 secret passageways in this place, so you’ll need to familiarize yourself with those as well.”
Was he serious? “Why are there passageways?”
“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. “The storage area has been securely locked and they won’t be brought out until the auction before the house sells, so please don’t try to get into 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 stepped forward and held out a ring of keys. “These are to the house,” he said and then fished around in his pants’ pocket. Holding out a business card, he continued, “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.”
He turned to walk through the bedroom door and paused, looking back at her. “I wish you luck, Elizabeth Martin. You’re going to need it.” He winked, turned, and left the bedroom.
She softly turned the keys over in her hand. Luck? No, she wouldn’t need luck – not when she was in a place as grand as this.
After a few minutes, she heard Thomas open and close the front door. The silence of the house quickly became unsettling, and she resolved to make some sort of noise before her mind started playing 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 gazed up at the mansion. This time, she studied each window carefully. Was she really by herself now? Or would Aaron’s ghost try to frighten her?
Whatever happened, she prayed she’d have the strength and courage to make it through this assignment.
“Aaron,” she whispered, “if you’re really here, I’m not going to let you chase me away.”
Suddenly, she saw movement in one of the second-floor windows. 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.
Nodding, she arched an eyebrow. And so, the haunting begins.
* * * *
The kitchen was amazing!
Elizabeth had never spent a lot of time in her small apartment’s kitchen, but the expansiveness of this particular room was making her reconsider a career in the culinary arts. The cupboards and counters matched the room’s nineteenth-century aesthetic, although she was sure that people from that era would have been amazed by the silver double ovens and the chrome-finished dishwashers that had been installed. The center island in the kitchen had a polished countertop, and the island held many more drawers, in addition to a trash compactor, an extremely large sink, and cabinets filled with other gadgets she couldn’t name. The built-in China hutch on the side wall made her green with envy, as well as the two chandeliers hanging above the island… and the three 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 teabag inside and took the mug and spoon to the adjoining room, a dining area with one ornate, twelve-chair table.
She hadn’t 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 his solution to the house’s solemnity.
The sound of the front door opening and closing made her jump, and her heart rate accelerated as footsteps thudded on the entryway floor. She tried to convince herself it wasn’t Aaron’s ghost. Why would a ghost just walk through the front door?
On unsteady legs, she rose from the table and moved into the hallway. Instead of finding a ghost, she found a man wearing a green short-sleeve polo shirt, khaki shorts, and black flip-flops. He had his attention on the letters in his hands, placing one behind the other as he read their fronts. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. His light brown 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 finished with the mail, he lifted his gaze and walked toward her.
“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 were here and settling in.”
“Actually, I just finished unpacking.” She pointed to the dining room. “I was just having some lemon balm tea. Would you like some?”
“Tea? In this heat? I’m sure there is some iced-tea in the fridge.”
“I’m an herbal woman. Plus, it helps me focus.”
He shrugged. “Whatever is best for you, I guess. I don’t need anything to drink right now, but I’ll sit with you while you finish your tea.”
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 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 remarkably 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 like all 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.
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 green 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 there were any way, maybe she’d be able to uncover more about his death and potentially solve his murder. Maybe if she did that, he would have enough peace to cross over…
If his ghost really was here, of course.
Elizabeth stood in the kitchen, washing out her porcelain cup and spoon. Nolan reached into the fridge and pulled 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 who would inherit more of his grandfather’s billions. Thomas would inherit some as well, just not as much.”
Elizabeth grabbed a dish towel to dry her dishes. “So, if it was obvious to you that she was after his billions, why didn’t he see that?”
“I believe that was part of her game.” Nolan shook his head as he unscrewed the lid and tipped the bottle to his mouth. He took several gulps before moving away from the fridge. “Aaron actually met ZoAnn through Thomas. She had been going out with Thomas, but when she showed interest in being Aaron’s assistant, Thomas knew he couldn’t compete with his cousin, so he broke it off with her. ZoAnn wasn’t actually Aaron’s first choice when it came to his assistants, but she resembled his existing assistant, Gina, so Aaron hired her.”
Elizabeth placed the cup back in the cupboard and the spoon in the drawer, before waving her hand to stop him. “Hold on. I’m confused. Why does it matter if his assistants look alike?”
Nolan grinned. “I’ll tell you, but I’ll be 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 would take mental notes for the story she was formulating, but Nolan would never know.
“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.”
“The only way that trick is possible is with two assistants that look very similar to each other. After the main assistant disappears, she hides in one of the stage props. The second assistant that nobody knows about is the one that suddenly appears whenever she’s needed. It’s all about timing and distance. If she’s far enough away from the audience, they think they are the same woman.” He shrugged. “It’s all a clever illusion.”
“Okay, that makes sense. So, were there any relationship problems between Aaron, Gina, and ZoAnn?”
“Gina flirted with Aaron every chance she got. She’d do anything for his love and attention. However, Aaron really didn’t want a relationship with someone as clingy as Gina. Once ZoAnn entered his life, her treating him as a friend and not throwing herself on him was a refreshing change. It ended up distracting him from what I saw in her when he wasn’t looking. I could see the lustful 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 suspected the whole time that ZoAnn was being underhanded, so he added a clause to his will. The change made it clear that if Aaron married, his spouse wouldn’t have access to his inheritance. Even more, upon Aaron’s death the money would be passed on to Gramps’ other grandson, Thomas. With that one change, Jethro made sure that money-hungry women his grandson would encounter would never get their clutches on his billions.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Let me guess… after ZoAnn found out about the change, she was the one to break off their relationship?”
Nolan winked. “Actually, it was Aaron. He noticed a change in her demeanor. She began acting more indifferent to his grandfather and him. That’s when Aaron finally realized that ZoAnn wasn’t the woman for him, so he broke it off with her. He was not only protecting his heart, but his wallet.” He took another swig of his water before recapping the lid.
“Okay, so ZoAnn was upset at Mr. Powers’ changing his will, but that doesn’t really explain 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 drained the last of his water and tossed the bottle in the kitchen’s recycling 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, her mouth forming a surprised O.
“That happened a week before he died.”
“So ZoAnn assumed he was replacing her, both as an employee and as a girlfriend.”
“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 billiards bars with her friends during her college years and knew enough to get by.
Once inside the room, her mouth dropped open in awe. There were more than just pool tables, air hockey, and ping-pong tables. One entire wall that was on the opposite end of the room was nothing but mirror from ceiling to floor. Strange golden vine-like designs were traced across its surface, and the occasional bit of gold-leaf catching the light from the nearby window, making it sparkle.
She slowly walked over to one of the arcade games and brushed her hands across its faded buttons. It’d been a while since she’d seen arcade games like this. Some of the titles Aaron owned were among the first video games that had come out in the ‘80’s. She grinned, imagining Aaron trying to beat his high score surrounded by a group of his friends. Her gaze shifted to the minibar filled with glass bottles and decanters of various shades of amber liquid.
“Nolan?” she asked, walking to the bar and picking up one of the bottles. “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 was just a social wine drinker. He always preferred wine over the heavy stuff, but he always made sure to have a decent selection for his friends. I’d imagine his preference had something to do with being raised by Gramps and being around the wineries so often. Plus,” Nolan sighed and frowned, “that’s how his parents died. His father had too much to drink one night and tried to drive himself and his wife back to their hotel where they were staying. They didn’t make it. It was one of the reasons Aaron only drank wine – and very little of it, at that.”
Elizabeth nodded. While the story of his parents’ death was sad, she seemed to be liking Aaron a little more with every story she heard. “Wise man.”
“Yes, he was.” Nolan moved to the pool table and placed the eight-ball in the center. “So, would you like to know why this was Aaron’s favorite room?”
Nolan gestured for her to move to the other side of the pool table, and then grinned. “Even as a boy first learning magic, Aaron loved to use his skills to play jokes on his friends. As an adult, he improved his craft. Watch…”
Nolan lowered his eyebrows and focused on the eight-ball. He leaned in closer, making sure not to touch the felted green surface. Suddenly, the black ball twitched. First once, then twice, then it shot across the table toward one of the corner pockets. Then, as if by magic, the eight-ball reversed directions and rolled back to the center of the table, stopping right in the center, perfectly still.
Gasping, Elizabeth jumped away from the table, her hands over her mouth in awe. Nolan laughed and motioned for her to come and stand next to him.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “It’s all an illusion that Aaron designed. He had this table custom made to perform the trick. All you have to do is press this hidden button.”
Cautiously, she moved beside Nolan and studied the area underneath the table where his hand was touching. The intricate scrollwork of the wood seemed to be seamless.
“Go on,” he urged. “Put your hand right here. You’ll feel a slight indentation. Slide it to the right and see what happens.”
She slowly moved her hand to the spot he had indicated and did as he’d directed. Once again, as if by magic, the eight-ball shot across the table and smacked another ball right into the corner 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 especially loved scaring beautiful 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? Despite the fluttering feelings, she knew she’d have to turn him down. Although he was easy to talk with and was rather good-looking, she just couldn’t think about getting involved with someone right now. And to be fair, she needed to give Sam his walking papers, first.
She moistened her suddenly dry throat with a hard swallow. “Was the pool table the only reason this was Aaron’s favorite room?”
“No, there’s more.” He motioned his head toward the mirrored wall. “Come with me.”
He took her hand without asking, and while not completely unexpected, she decided she wouldn’t get upset about it yet. After all, Nolan was quite entertaining, even if the only thing he was doing was telling her about a dead man’s life.
When they reached the mirror, he lifted her hand to the glass and pressed her palm against a cluster of ornate designs near the top corner. The mirror shifted. Once again, she gasped and jumped back. Slowly, a large piece of the mirrored wall pulled itself backward a few inches and then slid to the side, revealing a darkened pathway.
She threw Nolan a confused look. “Are you kidding me?”
“Not at all. Weren’t you told about the passages?”
“Well… yes. Thomas did mention them.”
“This is one of the entrances.” His grin widened. “Care to take a tour through the secrets of the mansion?”
She wasn’t afraid of the dark, but this kind of darkness terrified her. If she entered, she knew she’d find rats or spiders or… lizards, since this was Arizona. Besides her phobias, she wasn’t sure she knew Nolan well enough yet to trust being alone with him inside darkened passageways where she knew he expected her to jump into his welcoming arms for comfort at the first sign of trouble.
“Thanks for the tempting offer, but I’m going to pass this time.”
He shrugged, pressed another spot on the mirror, and the panel slid closed again. “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.
“Oops, I’ve chatted with you longer than I should have. 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’d given him the wrong impression, so she quickly added, “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 text it to 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. With any luck, the ghost won’t bother you too much.”
“I think I can handle it.”
“Okay. See ya.”
As she watched Nolan leave, she prayed she was right. Hopefully, she really could handle a ghost.
* * * *
This is so much better than a nice hotel.
Elizabeth sighed and relaxed in the surprisingly comfortable Jacuzzi. The warm water bubbled over her bikini-clad body, and she sank further into the soothing 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, and 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 you can.”
So, following his advice, relaxing in the Jacuzzi was the first thing on her list to enjoy while she could.
She’d turned the music on her phone to a classic rock playlist; love ballads were her favorite. Smiling, she closed her eyes and relished the gentle massage from the jetted tub.
As she relaxed, she reflected on the other things she had done today. She’d spent a lot of time searching the internet as she ate dinner – a wonderful spread of grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli and cauliflower. She was surprised at how the kitchen seemed to have so many of her favorite foods. She had mainly been searching the internet for anything related to Aaron Powers’ death. One of the pieces of research she’d found was a video from someone who’d been in the audience during Aaron’s last performance. While the video wasn’t very long, the owner had recorded the disturbing scene, and her mind hadn’t been able to stop replaying it.
She pictured the video in her mind again: she saw the assistant, who Elizabeth assumed was ZoAnn, strutting around the box that had several hilts protruding from its top. She reached for the one in the center and pulled it out with flair – and then froze as she saw the crimson blood on the blade. She stared at the blood for a few unsettling seconds, and then screamed as she dropped the sword and slowly backed away from the box. At this point, some people in the crowd had also began screaming and four men from backstage rushed onto the stage, attempting to open the lid to the box. Security guards began running down the aisles attempting to calm the crowd, as someone backstage started to close the curtains. As the curtains were halfway closed, the video ended abruptly.
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. And then, she imagined the pain…
She shivered and shook her head, trying not to think of something so traumatizing. 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 the bubbles ceased bubbling. She snapped alert. She pushed the button on the control panel to start it up again, but nothing happened. She looked around, trying to see where it was plugged in. Her gaze followed the power cord to one of the walls of the gazebo… and stopped on the plug that was now on the cement floor.
Her heartbeat accelerated, and she paused her music, listening for any nearby sounds. Someone must have unplugged it, but she didn’t see any signs of someone being there.
She climbed out of the Jacuzzi, picking up her towel to dry her hands before plugging it into the outlet again. The motor 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 as her mind raced to explain the mysterious unplugging. 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. Her inquiries were met with silence.
From the other side of the gazebo, she heard the limbs from the bushes shake – and yet, there was no wind. She spun around. The movement of the bushes transferred from one plant to the other, slowly moving closer to where she stood.
She clutched the towel tighter as her heartbeat shifted into overdrive. She needed something to use as protection, but she hadn’t even brought her shoes out with her. Running in the opposite direction and screaming was the first thing to cross her mind, but fear paralyzed her as she realized she was all alone. Who would hear her cry for help?
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