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When we added ghosts to Wanted: Ghostbusting Bride, we had no idea what troubles we would encounter. Naively we thought the ghosts would be fun elements to create unexpected obstacles for the hero and heroine, and they would tamely do our creative bidding.
The ghosts had different ideas. Lady Anne wasn’t content to be an ancient family ancestor. She demanded to be the matriarch of the Markham clan deciding the right bride for the hapless Earl. Refusing to be dull or drab, Lady Anne insisted on making her entrance with fireworks, malfunctioning electronic equipment, and a wild chair ride for the heroine. Her decrees tossed Kailyn Baker and Spencer Markham into adventure, danger and love.
Desdemona didn’t want Lady Anne to hog the spotlight. With her love of theatrics, she metamorphosed into the ghostly villain, taunting and harassing our poor hero and heroine at every turn. By possessing several of the Earl’s guests, she tried to chase the heroine away. When all else failed, she threw temper tantrums, lightning bolts, and boulders at the couple to prevent the marriage.
We suspect our ghosts had so much fun in the pages of the book that they are still haunting our computers deleting sentences, changing words, and occasionally floating across the screen. When we ask them politely to leave, they simply send more of their friends to haunt us.
Two warring ghosts drive Spencer Markham to seek a ghostbusting wife. He has one week to convince Kailyn Baker to marry him, but she has a bad attitude, wants nothing to do with marriage, and refuses to believe ghosts exist. Can he convince her to join him in defeating the specters before the ghosts’ violence turns deadly?
Ryne Castle, England
“What in the blazes is happening?” Spencer Markham bellowed as something icy touched his hand. A red blotch the size of a dime erupted on his left ring finger followed by more and more red spots popping out on his hands. His fingers felt like popsicles.
Ryne Castle’s resident ghost was playing one of her nasty pranks on him. “Lady Anne, what do you want?”
Apparently he was supposed to guess what his bloody ancestor expected him to do.
Why today of all days had she pulled this stupid trick? With twenty women waiting in the garden to be entertained, she’d given him ghost pimples. Before he was fit to be seen, he’d have to choke down his housekeeper’s disgusting cure. Rolling down the sleeves of his white dress shirt to cover the blemishes, he charged out of his office.
Thunder rumbled as he raced through the dark hallway on the main floor. Spirals of red and green light circled him as itchy patches bloomed over his face and scalp. When he burst through the kitchen doors, he heaved a sigh of relief. Thank goodness none of the guests had seen his horrid transformation.
His cook and kitchen help screamed when they saw him. Poor Cook acted as if he was a monster and retreated behind her substantial pastry table, snatching a knife in the process. Her assistants fled into the pantry. Only his stalwart housekeeper, Mrs. Chadwick, stood her ground.
He stopped in front of the woman who had been like a second mother to him.
“Lady Anne is torturing me. I hope you have some of the remedy you cooked up for Sebastian.”
The housekeeper bustled into the pantry, scolding the kitchen staff as she went, and returned with a jar filled with murky green sludge. Pouring a glass of the disgusting stuff, she handed it to him.
“Consider this a good sign, luv. The right woman must be in the castle.”
Choking down a swallow of the foul-tasting brew, he frowned. Mrs. Chadwick’s ghastly cure for ghost pimples and her cheery news only depressed him more. Now he’d be chained for life to one of the twenty fortune hunters his aunt had invited to the castle with the hope of finding him a suitable bride.
Why did Lady Anne have it in for him? It wasn’t fair. The role of earl should still be Sebastian’s. Despite his brother’s many years of training to assume the title, their ancestor’s insistence on picking Sebastian’s bride had destroyed him. Not that Spencer blamed Sebastian for his rebellion.
But he missed his brother terribly and wished Sebastian had taken the ghostly garbage in stride instead of wrapping his Aston Martin around a tree in a fit of rage. Now the ghostly craziness plagued him, and he’d promised his aunt he wouldn’t make the same mistake.
Glancing at his housekeeper, he grimaced. “I’ve just checked the guest list. They’re too young. What will I do with a twenty-year-old bride?”
“Now, luv, you’re only thirty-five. That’s not a big age difference. Besides, you want healthy heirs.”
He sighed. The all-important heir and a spare. Everything about being an earl rubbed him the wrong way.
Mrs. Chadwick patted his arm and filled the glass again. “Drink up, luv. It took Sebastian five glasses before the red bumps disappeared.”
Automatically he complied. Maybe he should leave the blisters all over his face. Judging from his staff’s reaction, it would scare the women away. Then he’d be free to return to his architectural firm in London.
Thunder shook the ancient walls again, as if the ghost had read his thoughts.
Apparently he’d stopped drinking the sludge because Mrs. Chadwick pushed the glass toward his mouth. “You don’t want to look like a monster when you meet your bride.”
What did it matter how he looked? These women had no real interest in him. They only wanted his title. Gritting his teeth, he reminded himself he needed a bride to stop the ghost attacks. Loving or even liking the woman he had to marry for duty’s sake wasn’t important.
“Don’t harass me. I’ve agreed to marry whatever pain-in-the-neck satisfies our meddling, vicious, power-hungry ghost.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a green ribbon of light wrapped around his feet. He felt a sharp tug around his ankles before his feet flew out from under him. His butt hit the floor with a smack, and the kitchen staff snickered as the ghostly cure splattered his face.
He scrambled to his feet, muttering, “Lady Anne’s such a vengeful bully, I ought to let the bloody castle fall to ruin.”
“Now luv, you can’t mean that. What would your aunt and sister do?” Mrs. Chadwick handed him a towel. “Besides, you wouldn’t dream of putting Cook, Chadwick and me out on the street with nowhere to go. We’ve served your family all our lives. You’re not as cold-hearted as Sebastian.”
Anger boiled inside him. “I don’t care. I’m tired of Lady Anne tampering with my life.”
The housekeeper patted his arm. “I do believe you’re going to have to change your attitude, luv. Lady Anne simply wants you to be happy.”
“Threats and coercion won’t make me happy.” He glowered at the elderly woman who’d so often fed him cookies while she scolded him for teasing his sister when he was younger. “Neither will an arranged marriage.”
Mrs. Chadwick’s crushed look left him feeling like a brute. The old housekeeper didn’t deserve to be snapped at for Lady Anne’s vile stunts. She was only trying to help. But he couldn’t help it. His ghostly ancestor was making it bloody difficult to keep his word.
After his brother’s death, maybe he shouldn’t have promised both his Aunt Sophie and Mrs. Chadwick that he’d follow the ghost’s dictates. But he had. It was the only way the Ryne estate would continue to support the surrounding community. And he would keep his word.
He flicked the green slime off his shirt, noting that his blisters were now pale pink spots. Tossing the towel on the counter, he stalked from the kitchen. He could no longer put off a confrontation with his ancestor. For the last month, he hadn’t wanted to accept the fact that his brother was dead and it was his responsibility to accept Lady Anne’s choice of bride.
Time for a serious discussion with Lady Anne. Racing up the back stairs to the picture gallery, he stopped in front of the ghost’s portrait. Sebastian had told him it was the best place to summon his ancestor. From the green glow around the painting, he guessed Lady Anne must be lurking nearby.
“Lady Anne, as the Earl of Ryne, I order you to appear.”
A twinkling green orb popped from the portrait, growing until a tiny woman with a ferocious scowl on her delicate features stood before him. The emeralds in her headdress sizzled, reflecting her indignation at the summons.
He glowered right back at his ancestor. “What is wrong with you? Why would you infect me with ghost pimples if the right woman has come to this week’s house party?”
“Thou art slow-witted. I did not cause thy sores. My enemy, Desdemona, seeks to thwart the introduction to your bride.”
His breath caught in his throat. The last thing he needed was a second ghost tormenting him. “Who is Desdemona?”
Lady Anne’s jeweled headdress spit green sparks as her eyes took on an eerie brightness. “The witch who threw me from the parapet because she wanted to take my place.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s not the way the family tells it. The records state you committed suicide by plunging from the parapets right after your eldest son died.”
Lady Anne flitted to the side of the empty gallery. “It was Desdemona’s plot to ensnare my fool husband, Godfrey, and make her bastard son the heir. She told that lie.”
Returning to her portrait, her form appeared to grow larger and brighter. “Worse, the whore tortured my younger son and laid waste to Ryne’s fortune. Since that time Desdemona and I have been at war. When she succeeds, Ryne does not flourish.”
“Whoa.” Spencer rubbed his hands across his eyes. “How do two ghosts carry on a war for five hundred years?”
“Desdemona ruins crops. She brings bad luck to the village merchants. Any time she wins, thy family’s wealth declines.”
“That’s ridiculous! A ghost doesn’t have the power to cause all that misery . . . Does she? How does Desdemona win?”
His ancestor simply pointed to the pink spots on his arms. “The witch prevents the earl from finding true love.”
Unbelievable. He shook his head. “Then why didn’t Grandfather and Father prosper? They refused to indulge in your ghostly melodrama and picked their own wives.”
“Thy forefathers were fools. None of the Earls of Ryne have possessed the skill to pick an honest and loving bride. Desdemona easily fooled them. Thy grandsire and sire married her puppets.”
Spencer swallowed. Perhaps his mother’s bickering and anger hadn’t been her fault. If Desdemona had incited unhappiness in his parents’ marriage, maybe his mother’s constant socializing was her escape from a hopeless situation.
With the toe of his shoe, he kicked a speck of dirt on the floor. “I thought Sebastian played your game. He accepted your choice of wife. His only mistake was to leave his engagement ball angry. Why did he die?”
“This trial is not a game but a test of thy honor.” The green glow around Lady Anne’s form popped and crackled. “Sebastian cheated. He pledged his loyalty to me and promised to accept my choice. But he falsified my signs and presented them to his lover. He failed in his duty to Ryne.”
“So you killed him?”
“Nay. Because of his deceit, I could not save him when he recklessly chose to drink and drive.”
Spencer let out his breath. At least the ghosts hadn’t killed Sebastian. He couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the idea that his brother had cheated, though, since he’d been so determined to rebuild Ryne into a thriving community.
Anger swept through him. Despite all of Sebastian’s grand plans and vow not to make their father’s mistake, he’d done worse. He’d deliberately jeopardized Ryne by going back on his word to impress a wealthy socialite.
The memory of his brother on his deathbed filled Spencer’s mind. Sebastian’s tortured face, pleading whisper, icy grip and dying demand made sense in light of Lady Anne’s revelation. Spencer had thought his brother was delirious when he’d insisted on a promise to follow every one of Lady Anne’s dictates to the letter and not screw up.
Sebastian could have asked for the moon, as Spencer would have willingly promised him anything to ease his suffering enough to allow him to die in peace. But once given, Spencer had to honor his word.
He flicked a dried glob of green goop from his sleeve. His renown as an architect wouldn’t make up for his lack of training to oversee the community of Ryne. He needed more information before he made a deadly mistake.
“Why is love so important?”
“Without love, marriage is nothing but pain and sorrow.” Lady Anne’s fiery gaze bored into him as if testing his mettle.
He didn’t flinch.
Finally she relented. “Only one requirement will assure thy victory. Thou must love thy bride with all thy heart, and she must return that love.”
Spencer stumbled backwards. Preposterous. Markhams weren’t reared to marry for love. Their family focused on strategic alliances, wealth and land. But that hadn’t brought them happiness. His parents had bickered constantly over money, and as a result Sebastian had chosen his fake fiancée for her wealth.
Inhaling deeply, he gazed at his ancestor. He was quite sure a marriage based on love had never entered his brother’s mind. Since neither of them had ever witnessed a loving relationship between husband and wife, could he fall in love, or was he doomed to fail like Sebastian?
“Trust me, and open thine heart. I will help thee.” Lady Anne stretched out her hand, touching his cheek with her cold caress. Instantly the pink spots disappeared.
He had no choice. He was the only male Markham left to save Ryne. “Tell me how we proceed.”
“Desdemona has the strength this time to end my lineage.” The jewels on Lady Anne’s headdress pulsed ominously. “The witch’s evil power—fed by the jealousy of Sebastian’s shunned women—grows by the minute. Soon it will be too powerful to overcome. The longer it takes thee to win thy bride, the stronger Desdemona becomes.”
A sickening sensation tightened his throat. “Who is this super wife you’ve picked for me?”
“Kailyn Baker, descendent of Elizabeth Danforth.”
“Isn’t Elizabeth the woman who fled to America, breaking her engagement with the Tenth Earl?”
“Yea. Thy chosen one’s family will persuade her to accept thine offer. Her sisters and cousin are also plagued by the Ryne curse. Her marriage to thee will revoke that evil as well.”
Spencer gritted his teeth. “Modern women don’t listen to their families. What makes Miss Baker so special, anyway?”
“My choice is the token that restores health to thy neighbors and thy treasure to thee.” His ancestor’s tone grew haughty and cold. “Only Kailyn Baker has the skill and the tools to rid Ryne of mine enemy forever. Thy duty and thy loyalty belong to Ryne.”
At that, the ghost’s image erupted in an awesome display of fireworks. Green starbursts exploded near the ceiling sending sparks floating down on his head.
“The trial has begun. One of two outcomes faces thee—an abundant life if thou fulfill thy duty or death if thou fail to satisfy thy obligation. This is thy test of worthiness as well as thy bride’s.”
Spencer stared after Lady Anne’s fading form. Her dire pronouncement held more permanent consequences than ghost pimples. Love? How could he make someone love him? How could he make himself love a complete stranger? What if he hated her?
He felt defeated before he’d begun.
“My Lord,” his butler, Chadwick, interrupted, “Miss Baker is waiting in your office. She arrived fifteen minutes ago for her interview.”
Blast. What did he do now? The truth simply wouldn’t work. He couldn’t casually walk into his office and cheerfully announce to Kailyn Baker that she had to fight a battle against an evil ghost. And oh, by the way, she was required to fall in love with and marry him. He had until he reached his office down the hall to decide what to do.
Before he opened the door, he took a deep breath. He’d be polite, charming and persuasive. Even though Miss Baker wanted a job with his partner in Dallas, he’d convince her to remain at Ryne.
Kailyn Baker tugged down her short teal skirt and tried not to squirm. Her dream job was just an interview away. Too bad the boss man sitting across from her looked like he’d just bitten into a sour apple.
The manual for success said to look the prospective employer squarely in the eye, but whoever wrote that rule had never met Spencer Markham and his laser-green eyes. She fidgeted, despite her best effort to stay still. Biting her lip, she flexed her foot as her calf muscle cramped.
Why didn’t he say something instead of inspecting every inch of her from head to toe? She’d been a fool to listen to her friend, Crystal. The man in front of her wasn’t the easy-going architect Crystal claimed. He certainly wasn’t impressed by the trendy suit her friend had persuaded her to buy. Her pantsuit—heck, jeans and a sweater—would have done just as well.
He hadn’t bothered to dress to impress. His white shirt was covered with green splotches, and his attitude stunk. It screamed power, control and snootiness. She’d like him much better if he’d engage in a little small talk. His silence was nerve-racking. It was difficult to picture working for such a Grinch.
Kailyn took a deep breath, “May I begin my slide show?”
“Yes. That should give me some time to think.” He slid his chair closer to her.
Time to think? That didn’t sound encouraging. Her unsteady fingers hit the power button, and the computer screen flashed neon green. What the heck? How had she screwed up turning on her laptop? She punched “escape” and tried again.
Nothing but green. Her goofy computer must have jet lag. The foul-up shouldn’t have surprised her, though. Everything else had gone wrong today, starting with the delayed flight from Dallas to London. Then there was the text message the minute she landed, telling her to rent a car. She didn’t even want to think about the stressful drive on the wrong side of the road through the winding lanes to Ryne Castle. Now she faced a silent critic. No wonder she couldn’t type a simple command.
Sweat dripped down her ribcage, making the lace camisole under her snazzy new suit stick to her back. All the positive thinking in the world wasn’t helping her wow Spencer Markham.
He studied her demented laptop. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Ghosts? Her hands dropped from the keyboard into her lap. Nothing in the manual on how to land a dream job talked about ghosts.
She took a deep breath and ran her finger over her computer keys. How did one answer that question and look like a savvy professional?
Easy. She was a scientist. There weren’t any silly spirits floating around. “I’ve never seen any proof that ghosts exist. So no, I don’t believe in them.”
A puff of cold air brushed against her hair, making her shiver. Now she was hallucinating. She glanced out the bramble-covered window. A shadow darkened the centuries-old glass. She closed her eyes for a second. It was just a cloud.
The scowl on Markham’s face said it all. She’d failed his trick question.
Before she could vow she’d been kidding and ghosts were everywhere, her cell phone chirped. “Sorry, I thought I’d turned it off.”
Kailyn snatched the beeping nuisance from her pocket. But when she checked the number, her crazy phone spit out green fire. Stifling a cry, she tossed it toward Markham’s cluttered oak desk and scooted away. The blasted phone bounced once and tumbled to the floor where it sparked and danced like a firecracker, then died.
Crap, crap, crap. This was not what she needed in the middle of an interview. Some weird power glitch lurked in this castle, and it was out to fry her electronics.
“Are you sure you don’t believe in ghosts?” A devilish glint lit Markham’s green eyes, and a sexy dimple creased his cheek.
She wished he’d go back to frowning. His British accent and sexy eyes were making it hard to concentrate, which only annoyed her further. She jumped as her phone popped and crackled again.
“Why are my electronic devices going crazy in this castle?”
“A rather interesting problem.” Markham grinned. “Let’s investigate further. Try your computer again.”
For a minute she simply stared at him. What was going on? Why would a malfunctioning laptop and an electrified cell phone make him happy?
Gingerly she tapped the power button. Her computer blinked to life once more. This time, green script slowly scrolled down the black background.
Kailyn Baker, thou must remain at Ryne Castle.
Squinting, she read the screen again. What a bizarre message. Markham must be toying with her. This had to be a strange test of her engineering skills.
She swung the machine to face Markham and pointed to the words. “Explain this, please.”
Markham stood, a large I’ve-gotcha grin spreading over his face. “I’d say it’s an invitation. You’re required to attend Ryne’s weeklong festival. The activities start this afternoon.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but no words came out. Why would he want her to stay for a week at the castle? This was the most outlandish interview she’d had in her entire life. Finally she managed, “But I have a plane ticket for tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll cancel it. A short chat can’t decide something this important. A week will give us ample time to sort things out and let you get used to the castle.”
Her breath caught in her throat. What in the devil was Markham talking about? She didn’t intend to live in England. His partner, John Martin, had promised her a job in Dallas.
“Good heavens. You sound as if the engineering job is here, not in Dallas.”
“Wouldn’t you like a chance to work with me to renovate Ryne Castle?”
She swallowed. It had never crossed her mind the job would be in England.
“Yes,” she answered after a slight hesitation. It could be interesting, but it would be awfully difficult to move so far away from her friends and family. “I’ve always loved old buildings. I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”
“Then stay for the week’s festival.” He moved closer as if ready to escort her to the festivities. “The activities will give you a flavor of the castle’s history and the roles the earl and countess are expected to play. And give us an opportunity to discuss Ryne’s future and develop our working relationship.”
The intensity of his gaze left Kailyn with the distinct feeling he had other things besides engineering on his mind. He might not object to mixing business with pleasure, but as a woman in a man’s field she had to be very careful about her professional image on the job.
With her looks, she’d never completely leave behind the petite-blonde-desperately-seeking-Mr. Right false impression. Inwardly she sighed. How should she respond to Markham? He was the earl, and this was his home. If she accepted the invitation to his house party, would she give him the wrong idea?
Markham hadn’t done more than give her résumé a cursory glance. He sounded as if he wanted her to stay so he could get to know her on a personal level.
She needed to steer this interview in another direction before his charm clouded her judgment and she had to walk away from an engineering job she desperately wanted, even if it ended up being in England. “We’ve gotten off track. Give me five minutes. I’ll get the printed version of my slide show from the car.”
This plum job was too important for her to throw away. Once Markham gave his okay, she wouldn’t have to work with him. She’d be dealing with contractors. From what she’d read about him, the man was a workaholic. He’d be in London or on projects around the world and she’d never see him. Besides, she could find a flat somewhere close to this community. And if by the end of the week she discovered she couldn’t work with him, she’d return to Dallas.
She stuffed her useless computer and her flashing phone into her case. “Be right back.”
Scooping up her bag, she dashed out the door. One more chance. She straightened her shoulders. Samples of her work would turn this interview around, and the short walk to her car would give her time to shake off the unsettling effects Markham had on her.
Just as she passed the next room, an antique Abbot’s chair swooped out behind her, butting the back of her knees so hard she plopped onto the wooden seat with a loud thud.
“What the—?” What else could go wrong in this freaking castle?
The chair began to twirl. She grabbed an armrest with one hand and clutched the computer bag against her chest with the other.
Walls whirled by with dizzying speed, then just when she thought she’d hurl the wobbly chair shot forward.
The runaway carnival seat turned sharply and crashed through Markham’s office door, stopping so quickly it dumped her like a rag doll at his feet.
The menacing chair spun on one leg, shimmered emerald green, then zoomed out the door, leaving her lightheaded and confused.
When he lifted her off the floor, her head spun faster—and not from her recent encounter with a possessed chair. His spicy scent revved her racing pulse. She squirmed as his arms tightened around her. How had she landed in this funhouse?
He sat her down on the chair behind his desk, long fingers brushing her hair back from her eyes.
“I’m sorry. The ghost is out of control today. Please rest here. I’ll arrange for some refreshments.”
Thankfully the crazy man left her alone. She drummed her fingers on his desk. Nothing about Spencer Markham or this dysfunctional castle made any sense. Why would he rig a chair to make her believe in ghosts?
A green flicker of light flitted across the wall and out the door.
Oh! Now she got it. He planned to renovate the castle and turn it into a haunted mansion and was testing his tricks on her. To get hired, she had to figure out how his phony illusions worked.
6/15/2013 06:16:53 pm
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