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Detective Jake Gilford is skeptical when he hears Joss Wheeler say she believes her newly inherited house is haunted. He's a man of facts and hard evidence, and ghosts aren't on his radar screen. He's also a man, and Joss is a beautiful, if somewhat nutty, woman. Won over by her charms, he's mindful but not concerned about their racial differences. He promises to stay and help her unravel the mystery of the house, or whatever else she has that might need unraveling.
“I think my house is haunted. Either that, or I'm losing my mind.” The petite woman spoke matter-of-factly, a serious expression on her face.
Jake Gilford looked her over carefully, gauging his first impression. She was pretty, her caramel-colored skin slightly darker than his summer tan. Black-as-coal hair, in springy ringlets, touched her shoulders. Her eyes were a shade lighter, chocolate-colored, and definitely piercing as they gazed at him directly. She was a small woman, but shapely. He couldn't help but notice her nicely rounded breasts straining against her thin t-shirt, and the way her hips filled out a tight
pair of faded jeans. Which doesn't mean she's not a freaking nutcase. He smiled politely. “Miss Wheeler?”
“Of course I'm Jocelyn Wheeler,” she snapped, stepping back so he could come inside. “I phoned Chief Taylor about my situation. He assured me he'd send his best detective. I assume that'd be you, Detective…?” She shot him a look, which indicated her skepticism.
He forced another smile, and brushed past her, entering the old house. “Gilford. Jake Gilford. The Chief told me this was a special case. Something about he and your father being old friends—”
“They were. My father died a few months ago, and I'm here to settle his estate—the largest part of which is this house.”
He took in as much as he could of the huge, ornately furnished house. If she stood to inherit everything, she'd become a rich woman. He glanced at her—she fidgeted as she looked around, warily. A rich, nutty woman. “I'm sorry for your loss.”
She shrugged, crossed her arms and rubbed them, as if warding off a chill. “We weren't close.”
“Which explains why your father died a few months ago, and you're just now showing up.” He ran a finger over the porcelain statue of a zebra, which sat on a side table. There was a lot of wild animal paraphernalia. He wondered about the former occupant of the house. Big game hunter-type?
“Actually, I didn't know he was my father until recently. He wrote me before his death.”
Jake arched his eyebrow, surprised. “You never knew him?”
“Nope. It was just Mama and me all those years. She told me bits and pieces when I asked, but never mentioned his name. We were happy, and I never asked too many questions. Imagine my surprise to get his letter.”
“Yeah.” He scratched his stubbled chin. Now he wished he hadn't been running late that morning, or had least taken time to shave. He often sported a three-day beard growth, and liked the way it made him look. But, judging by the way she gazed at him, he wondered if it made him look lazy to this beautiful woman who had a hint of a Southern twang in her voice. “Did he offer any explanation about why he stayed away?”
“Oh, sure.” She dropped into a large, overstuffed, brown leather chair, which dwarfed her small frame. “He said Mama understood, they both thought it was the right thing to do at the time. He'd been traveling through the south when they met, and had their thing. They kept in touch for a while, but when she found out she was pregnant—well, it was a problem. White man, black woman…you know. Some people still had prejudices back then.” She snorted. “Some people still have prejudices now.”
He had to chuckle at that. “No doubt. But in my opinion, it's one of the stupidest excuses I've ever heard. It's hard to believe your father had trouble accepting a half-black daughter. He apparently didn't have a problem sleeping with your mother.”
“People can be stupid.”
“As a cop, I understand that all too well. But I still find it strange.”
She cocked her head, and stared at him. “Why's it so hard to believe?”
Jake shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, finally decided to be honest. “Frankly, you're not too tough to look at, Miss Wheeler.” Her eyes widened, and he felt his face flush, but he continued, “I mean, you were probably a pretty cute baby. It was his loss, not seeing you grow up. Any man should be proud to have a daughter like you.”
She rose from the chair, and had to look up, nearly a foot, to meet his gaze. “I guess twenty-four years ago, he didn't think so. There was something about it being delicate in his line of work, but who knows? That might have been just a load of bull. Whatever the case, it seems when he found out he was dying, he wanted to make contact with me. Mama wasn't thrilled, especially when I told her I wanted to come here and stay in his house for awhile. It took a long time to convince her, and I didn't make it before he passed away.” She turned from him. “I would liked to have met him, but in some ways, this is easier.”
Her shoulders trembled. For an instant, Jake wanted to reach out and comfort her. Political correctness got the best of him and, hanging back, he chose his next words carefully. “There's something strange going on in the house, here?”
With a quick swipe of her forearm over her eyes, she turned back to him. “Oh, yeah. It's more than all the creepy animal statues, too. I hear noises in the night. Not just animals, though there's plenty of growling. I've heard trains, boat horns—all kinds of loud, out of place, sounds.”
“I can see why you'd be on edge.” He hoped his tone was soothing, placating.
“I'm not on edge, Detective Gilford. I'm fucking scared shitless.”
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