His eyes resembled narrow blue flints glowing in the dark room, his face ethereally white as it emerged from the shadows.
"Ghost!" she cried, putting a hand over her mouth to stifle her instinctive scream. Where had he come from? And where was Sean?
"My dark Barbie," he said softly on a cruel chuckle. "Ah Livvy, you'll never know how much that term of affection means to me."
He brought his hand up, and she saw the glint of wickedly curved steel. The blade was saturated with black-red blood. Whose? Oh, Lord! He brought it to his mouth and licked it clean with one long sweep of his tongue.
She screamed. He flew at her. She turned to run, but he grabbed her from the back. One arm clamping around her waist, he put the sharp blade against her throat. He would kill her. This time, he would kill her. What had made her think he would never find out the truth?
His hand slid up under the oversized button-down shirt she wore--Sean's--and encountered nothing beneath. Growling his displeasure, he turned his face into her thick hair, breathing her in deeply enough to make her tremble with horror. His hand stroked her jaw, and he jerked her head around until he could kiss her mouth with his own bloody one. The salty, metallic taste made her want to gag. Breathing harshly, she fought the need to scream until they both drowned in it.
"You know why I had to do it, Livvy?"
He killed Sean. Somehow he found out we were together. We were so careful! And he came here and he killed Sean. Oh no, oh no, oh no.
"Tell me why!" he ordered, yanking her back against him so hard she felt the sharp edge of the blade slice her throat. Not deep. Never deep enough. Because...
"Because I belong to you, Ghost," she whispered as defeated tears rampaged down her cheeks.
"Because you'll never let me go. In life or death, I belong to you and you alone..."
Veronica Spencer woke with a start, her heartbeat and breathing so loud, she couldn't hear anything for a few minutes as she strained to remember what had woken her. Shattering glass?
No, everything was quiet. She swallowed, realizing how dry her mouth was. When she ran her tongue over her lips, she shuddered the memory of tasted blood.
Roni rubbed her hand over her sticky eyes, wishing the nightmares behind them could so easily be wiped away. Lifting her head slightly, she saw the vampirish red glow of the LCD clock. Just after nine-thirty.
She had to go. She couldn't spend the night, no matter how badly she wanted to remain in the loving safety of Billy's muscular arms. Her slightest move away had him tugging her back. "Where do you think you're going, sweetness?" he growled, soft and sexy.
Roni responded instantly to his voice and the tightening of his embrace.
"I have to go, baby," she insisted without any conviction at all.
Though by all standards she was tall and voluptuous, Billy's sheer size of six-foot-four, two hundred and seventy pounds of pure muscle dwarfed her. She felt delicate and treasured whenever she was next to him like this.
He eased her under him. "Where else could you possibly need to be at this time of night, Roni, except right here with your man?"
Instead of protesting, she opened her arms to him. His full lips covered hers. His body was hard and seductive, hers soft and utterly accommodating. She cried out, but he caught the breathy gasps with his mouth. Damian's room was right down the hall...
Roni grasped his face, holding them together as they both stifled the sounds of gratification. At the same time, they murmured, "Love you, baby."
She muffled her giggle. "I have to go, Billy."
She understood his sexual appetite--it was as great as hers. With just a little coaxing, she would give in to him again. But she really needed to go. It wasn't safe. And Billy would never do anything to confuse his teenage son.
"Stay," her lover rumbled again.
"What about Damian, baby? He'll wake up and find me here, and then what?"
Billy nipped at her chin, his eyes bright in the darkness. "He's a bright kid, babe. I think he's already figured out I'm dead-gone on you, woman, and I'll take whatever you give me. I could go all night."
Roni's eyes rolled up in ecstasy at the mere idea of spending the night with this incredible man. But he was kissing her neck now, and tears stung her eyes. The past is a million miles away. Maybe it really is over and done with. But. I can't take that chance. I'm not willing to risk Billy and Damian just because I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I want it all with them. I can't. Oh Lord, I can't. Never, ever can they find out the truth about who I am, what I did, what I had to do to survive.
Cradling his face in her hands, she traced his well-trimmed goatee with her fingers while she kissed him with all the love she had inside her.
"Ah Roni. I love you more than life itself, sweet darlin'. Spend the night. Move in here with us. Hell, just plain marry me and be done with this damn charade."
The annoyance in his voice made tears burn her eyes again. What right do I have to feel hurt? I don't deserve this good man. "Our relationship is a charade to you, baby?" she asked, knowing he didn't mean that.
He sighed, readjusting his weight so he didn't lie so heavily on her. "Not what I meant and you know it. But this back and forth isn't what I want for us. You know it. It's not all I want. How long you gonna make me wait before you put me out of my misery?"
"I'm not playing a game here. I love you. I love Damian. I want to be with you for the rest of my life. But I can't give you more than this right now, Billy."
He rolled off her now, reaching out and tapping the touch lamp on his nightstand. "You've been saying that for four years now, babe. Why can't you give in, give up, a little?"
She hated that her unwilling gaze on him--stretched out and so impossibly male and strong--aroused her all over again. "I have given in. A lot. None of this has been easy for me. I told you that four years ago, before we ever started this thing. You said you could handle it."
"And maybe I could, but I always thought eventually you'd be able to tell me why the hell it's so damn hard for you to be with me. All the way."
Knowing this argument was going nowhere fast, she escaped the tangled sheets and blanket so she could dress. The way his gaze caressed her so hotly--as intense now as it'd been the first time they made love--looked as unwilling as her desire for him had been a moment ago. Sometimes she thought it would be better if she and Billy only had a physical relationship. But she knew he wasn't built that way. When he fell in love, only death could sever it, the way it had for Damian's mother, Monette, the first love of Billy's life. Roni could never forget she was only the second woman he'd ever fallen in love and made love with.
I wasn't always monogamous, but Billy is the love of my life. I no longer believe I can exist whole without him. Why did I have to get involved? But nothing could make her regret it...nothing but the past coming back to haunt her.
Billy sat up, letting the covers fall off his black-coffee colored skin, and watched her dress. "Make me understand, babe. I'm only asking to know where you came from, who your family is, who you are or were. Just for starters. You knew that about me long before we started dating. Can't understand why it's a secret, or even needs to be."
Of course he couldn't understand. She'd never given him any means to do so. "If you don't know who I am by now, then I don't know what we've been doing all this time, baby." She sat on the edge of the bed, back to him because she knew the fact that she always wore a special garter, mid-thigh, with a switchblade inside it bothered him and made him suspicious. Neither of them lived or worked in a dangerous neighborhood.
"Yeah. I kind of wonder about that mystery myself. If this isn't leading to more..."
She looked over her shoulder at him. He grunted, rubbing his hand over the squared-off top of his shaved hairstyle. The annoyed look on his face didn't fit him. William LaPointe was the kindest man she'd ever known in her life. It wasn't like him to be like this. But they'd been fighting about the same thing for so long, worse than ever lately, and she knew he wouldn't accept her inability to answer much longer. Then what would she do? Lose her soul when he dumped her because he had no other way to save his own heart?
"I'm happy," she cried out, wishing she didn't feel so desperate. "Aren't you happy with me?"
"I'm happy, but I want you with me. All the time. All night. I want you to belong to me, Roni. Legally."
The outdated notion should have rubbed her completely the wrong way. She'd been owned before by a man--and he'd kept her in a cage he had the only key in or out of. But with Billy... She wanted to belong to him. Because the chains Billy would put on her were woven with his love. His love would set her free.
"Or what?" she asked softly.
He didn't answer. The expression on his handsome face was one of defeat. She recognized it only too well. He shook his head at her. Obviously, he didn't want to fight any more than she did. But he said nothing.
Feeling stricken by his silence and the thought of losing Billy and Damian, she left the bedroom, shoes in hand to make her passage silent. The kitchen was lit by the stove lamp. She went to her purse on the island.
It wasn't as if Billy asked for much. But his questions didn't have easy answers.
Maybe I should call Mav. But what if I can't handle what he has to say? If nothing's wrong... Can I take the risk? Either way, telling Billy the truth could mean I lose everything. I'm just not ready for that. For the first time in her life, she was truly happy and content. She couldn't start over again.
She unzipped her purse and began the prolonged search of finding her keys in the disorganized, cluttered confines.
When Billy appeared in the doorway, she wasn't surprised to see him. In only unfastened jeans, he really was a mountain of a man, strong enough to take on the world. To take on the horrors of my past? Just looking at him took all the fight out of her. On a sob, she turned away and leaned back against the island countertop.
Just as she expected, he came to her, cradling her face and moving her into the solid comfort of his body. "Love you, sweet baby. I just wanna spend the rest of my life with you. Isn't that what you want, too?"
Blindly, she reached for him, tucking her face into his broad chest, putting her arms around as much of him as she could. "You know I do. But... I can't make you understand." She'd learned it was better not to try.
"You mean you won't even try to make me understand."
"No, I can't. Believe me, baby, I love you more than anything. But my life is complicated."
He tilted her face up to his. "Your past? Is that what you really mean, Roni?"
"Yes." She looked away from him. "I'm not sure I'll ever sort it out. Until I do, I can't make huge life changes like the ones you're asking for."
"Changes you might regret, you mean?"
She gasped, turning back to him. "You're putting words in my mouth. It's not what you think, Billy. I never want you or Damian to get hurt. Because of me."
He gave her a grin that, for an instant, made her feel foolish. "Have you looked at me lately, sweetness? I'm not exactly gonna blow away with the first hard wind. Neither will Damian. I can handle whatever you send my way. Anything and everything." He bracketed his hands around her face again. "Especially where you're concerned, darlin'. There's nothing I wouldn't do to be with you."
Choking on a sob, she grabbed on to him again. "I can't. I can't, Billy. Stop asking me. You're killing me."
She recognized the fight going out of him in the way he held her against him. Still, the tension in his chest was palpable.
"I have to go," she murmured a few minutes later, lifting her head toward his face.
He nodded. As she'd hoped he would, he kissed her--so passionately, she wanted more even after having made love countless times this night. I'm completely safe in his arms, the way I've never been anywhere else. But maybe it's just another illusion.
He let her go when she drew back from his kiss. "I'll see you tomorrow for work. Love you."
When she grabbed her purse, she saw the way he crossed his arms over his chest. Stepping out of the side kitchen door, she realized what a chilly night it was. The porch light came on automatically as she emerged from the cozy, warm house. Billy and Monette's house. Billy and my house, if I just say the magic word.
As she hurried down the path toward her car parked on the curb, pressing the button on the fob to unlock her doors, Roni glanced back at the house in hopes of catching one more glimpse of Billy. But all she saw were the creepy Halloween decorations making the house eerily festive in the porch illumination. She shivered. Halloween always made her jumpy. But it'd always been Damian's favorite holiday. Though he'd stopped dressing up as ninjas, vampires and ghosts and no longer went trick-or-treating, instead participating in the haunted house the high school put on every year, he and his father still decorated their home as elaborately as they had when Damian was young. They even called upon Billy's parents to come for the few hours they were at the haunted house and handle the trick-or-treaters who showed up ritualistically year in and year out knowing where the real fun would be.
Turning back to the street, now outside the light provided by the porch lamp, Roni realized just how dark the night was. The moon and stars were all but blotted out in the heavy black shroud stretched across the breadth of the sky. She could easily believe the forces of darkness had descended on the earth this evening.
It was then she realized that the street shouldn't have been this dark. She peered up at the line of street lamps on either side of the streets. A block away, she saw the new orange fluorescents glowing, but all along Billy and Damian's street, the lamps were dark. Had they burned out at the same time? No way.
A gust of sharply cold air blew against her back, sending her hair flying in all directions. She even stumbled forward a few steps at the force of the wind. All around her, she heard dry leaves running in terror at the breath of darkness blowing through the street.
Roni stopped breathing as a prickling sensation danced at the back of her neck. She wasn't alone. The world around her slumbered in the twilight that evil thrived on. And part of it was here, watching her. She could feel eyes on her back. Clenching her damp hands into fists, she pivoted slowly in a circle. Coming toward her in the shadows, narrow blue flints glowed. Roni licked her lips and imagined that she tasted blood again.
"Ghost?" she whispered, aware suddenly that the wind had died down until there was no sound to be heard. Utter stillness paralyzed the night. He was here. He'd come back to make sure she belonged to him and him alone...
With a cry, Roni turned and ran to her car, grappling with the door handle because of her sweat-slick hands. It came open, throwing her back slightly with the force of her fright. She swallowed, stepped off the curb and let out a scream when her foot came down on something soft. A yowl issued from the thing. Her dazed eyes saw the luminous glow of the eyes, then sharp, white teeth as the stray black cat that roamed Billy's neighborhood, looking for a handout, hissed at her. The feline streaked off into the bushes.
With her heart still thudding painfully, Roni threw her purse across the seats and slid behind the wheel. Quickly, she pulled the door closed behind her. For good measure, she started the car, satisfied at the automatic thump of the door locks engaging. Only then could she attempt to get her racing senses back into proper alignment.
But before she could even draw in a deep breath, her cell phone sounded shrilly, making her jump in her seat. Billy! It's only Billy. Swallowing the lump growing in her throat, she forced a smile that was anything but relieved. She reached across the seat and pulled her heavy purse over to her. Just Billy, calling to tell me he wishes I hadn't left--and elaborating on all the lovely things he would have done to me if only I'd stayed...
The ringing had stopped, though, before she'd even begun digging in her bag for it. She pulled out her leopard-print covered cell phone, pressed a button, and frowned. No missed calls? But...
Roni let out a slow moan of dread, then scrabbled through her purse until she found her other cell phone, the emergency one that only Mav--Detective Zachary Maverick--would call her on.
Hands trembling, she worked the buttons to call up the last message left on the plain, black phone. She found a text message. Feeling vaguely light-headed and nauseated, she put her thumb over the OK button. No... She pressed the button.
Ghost was written across the screen. Terror shattered over her already over-stimulated senses. A hard knock on the window near her head reverberated through the car, and Roni let out a death-wail scream.
* * * *
Billy jumped himself when Roni screamed and reared back, turning to look at him in the window through wide, fearful eyes. But relief flooded her the instant she recognized him. Billy started to chuckle...until he wondered who she'd expected. She closed her fingers around the cell phone in her hand. He instantly realized it wasn't the leopard-print one she usually used. When did she get another one? Did someone call her on this one and upset her?
She punched a button and the car window began to roll down. Her big, beautiful, tawny-colored eyes scolded him. "Billy LaPointe, you scared the crap out of me!"
This time, he had to laugh full-out. "What's got you so spooked, girl?"
She shook her head, sending her soft, red-black spiral curls dancing, and turned to slip the phone into her open purse. "I'm fine," she offered unconvincingly.
"You look like you saw a ghost, babe."
She caught her breath, then, in a gesture Billy recognized because she'd done it before, though not often enough to be normal, she glanced behind her down the street. A moment later, she turned back and looked up the street. Like she's expecting someone to be there. Who?
"All the street lamps are burnt out, Billy, and there's no moon tonight. It's too dark. Anyone would be jumpy."
While he liked to tease her about her scaredy-pants nightlights, he knew she was terrified of being in the dark, especially when she was alone. A childhood fear she'd never outgrown, he figured. But at her words, he straightened and looked up and down the street himself. She was right. The street lamps were all out. When had that happened?
"I'll talk to somebody about it tomorrow." He ducked back to her and held out her jacket. "You forgot this. Chilly tonight."
When she took the offering, he noticed her hands were shaking. Any humor he'd experienced at her spooked response fled in the face of worry. "You sure you're okay, Roni?"
"I'm fine. Just lock your doors when you're back inside. Promise me."
He leaned in and they kissed. He could see the smile on her swollen mouth was forced once they parted. "Not too late to change your mind, sweetness," he said in a low, sultry voice. He let his finger trail down the deep, shadowy hollow between her breasts. In the glow of her dashboard lights, her skin resembled the finest liquid caramel.
"Don't forget to lock up," she murmured.
He kept his sigh to himself and straightened from her window, thrusting his hands in his back pockets. Stepping back, his bare feet rested half on the sidewalk, half in the browning grass covered with dead leaves.
After the production of Halloween was over, he and Damian would have to get out their rakes and have a father-son work day. While Roni's window was rolling back up, Billy thought about those autumn days when he, Monette, and their favorite tyke did the raking as a family. He'd lost his beloved wife to an aneurysm nine years ago. Getting over her had been the hardest thing he'd ever had to do--even harder than letting her go because he had no other choice. But the good Lord had blessed him with another beautiful, exciting woman with a heart of gold. Damian loved Roni as much as Billy did. Sometimes he thought he'd never have what he wanted with her. And I don't even know why the hell not.
She was worried about something tonight. Not their stock arguments either.
Roni's car pulled out, and he watched her roll away from him. The neighborhood stray encircled his legs, purring up a storm. Billy bent down and scooped up the furry creature. "Hey, Witch's Cat, you're supposed to be gettin' ready for your mistress's big Halloween scare. What you doing hanging around here?"
The cat rubbed her silken head under his chin affectionately. Billy chuckled. "Hungry, huh?"
The black feline had been prowling the neighborhood as long as Billy could remember. As a small boy, Damian had wanted to adopt it, but Monette, who'd never liked the idea of having pets, had told him something that made the boy even happier--that the cat belonged to a witch who wouldn't be too happy if they did anything but feed her familiar. As far as Billy knew, the cat was probably the best fed stray in the city. Everyone in the neighborhood pitched in to make sure she always had something in her tummy.
As Billy walked up the path to the side door, he grinned at the decorations he and Damian had put out a week ago. At the center was Spook the Ghost--his son's favorite as a child--hanging in front of the arched, dungeon-like front door. Off to the left side of the path was the little faux graveyard with the dead guy buried on the front lawn, skeletal hand rising menacingly up out of the dirt in front of his R.I.P. gravestone. A broken-open coffin (with a vampire who sat up, reaching for the one courageous enough to look down inside) sat on the other side of the path. Cobwebs; various bloody, severed body parts strewn across the lawn; eerie music on the doorbell; and flicker light strands were just part of the horror in store for this year's brave or foolish trick-or-treaters.
At the thought that soon Damian would be too old for all of this, a lump filled his throat. In a couple years, my boy's gonna be off to college on his basketball scholarship, and I'm gonna be all alone if Roni never accepts my marriage proposal. Sure as heartache, they'd be too old to have children of their own if they didn't start soon.
Billy stepped into the side entrance that opened into the kitchen to find his son half inside the refrigerator. Damian glanced around the door to see him with the feline in his arms.
"Witch's Cat come out for a night cap, too?" Billy's good looking son said on a grin. He came out with the jug of milk, set it on the island, then turned to get a saucer. Making a motion with a glass, Billy nodded, and Damian poured them all milk.
Billy set down the cat near the dish, then went to lock the door as Roni had insisted he do. When the feline had finished, she'd go out the cat door he'd installed.
The rest of the doors had been locked earlier, before they'd gone to bed. Man, he hated that lately the nights always started out so good. He had his best baby-girl with him. And she always ended up breaking him down and walking out on him just when he started feeling some promise of a future between them.
"Roni just leave?" Damian asked when the two of them took their usual seats across from each other at the oval table.
Billy knew his son had been aware that his relationship with Roni was intimate for a long time. He'd talked to him about it without going into too much detail. "Don't get the idea I condone underage sex or the uncommitted variety."
Damian shook his head affectionately at him. "Both lectures have been filed, Dad. I don't want a disease or regrets. I'm cool."
"It's the only way to stay clean and be able to look at yourself in the mirror."
So the boy had heard it a million times. He'd hear it a million more. Everybody learned by repetition.
"I get it, sir."
And Billy didn't have a single doubt about that. Damian was a boy any parent could be proud of. He got good grades, worked hard toward going to college on a basketball scholarship. He didn't get in trouble--at least not often and not seriously. Although Monette hadn't expected either of them to die so young, they'd made promises to each other--they'd level with Damian, do right by him. Billy had. He didn't treat his son like a kid, but he also didn't treat him like an adult. Damian needed to learn boundaries from him. He knew if he was trustworthy, he'd earn privileges and more freedom. Billy had never been more than temporarily disappointed in him either. He leaned over and rubbed the fro, barely an inch off his son's skull.
"How's the haunted house going?" Billy asked.
Damian took a cookie from the plate of butterscotch Roni had baked for them tonight. "Pretty much finished. We'll start testing it tomorrow for the grand opening. It'll be the best ever this year. I don't have to be the lame werewolf roaring and trying to break out of his cage this time."
Damian had wanted to be a creepy zombie monster that moved from room to room in the old house they used for the Haunted Hall every year. He'd spent his own money on the costume that would scare Roni to pieces. She hated the haunted house. She went for love of Billy's son.
The memory of her eyes, wide with fear, out in her car came back to him. That phone he'd never seen before. The sound of her voice when she'd said, "I'm not sure I'll ever sort the past out. Until I do, I can't make huge life changes like the ones you're asking for. I can't. I can't, Billy. Stop asking me. You're killing me."
"If I had my choice, I would have married her long ago."
Across the table, Damian looked up at him in surprise. Then he nodded. "Something bad must have happened to her. You know, before she came to La Crosse."
Billy frowned. She'd never said one way or another whether she grew up in La Crosse or somewhere else. If she had family in the area or anywhere else. She hadn't mentioned any relation. Never talked about schooling before she took the courses needed for her graphic arts position at Lewis Graphic Design. She was a mystery from start to finish. "What makes you think she 'came' here?"
Damian shrugged. "You can tell the way she talks that she's from a big city. She knows about that kind of life."
Like his mother, Damian was especially good at reading between the lines of what was said, even if those words were few. But Billy had sensed the same thing about Roni.
La Crosse was a city in the southwest corner of Wisconsin of just over fifty-thousand people--not large by big city standards, but certainly enough to be described as a fairly bustling economic hub. The city was situated on a sandy prairie nestled between towering bluffs and coulees that ran along the Mississippi River. If Roni was from one of the largest cities in the United States, like Chicago, New York or even Los Angeles, the way his son seemed to think, what had made her even think to come their dinky city that didn't begin to compete with Madison or Milwaukee? Something had happened to her in the past. Something that had locked her up tight, scared her, made her wary of getting involved with anyone.
He thought back to when he first met her. Their friendship had started at work. They both worked in a strip mall called Kaleidoscope Office Building uptown owned by Angela Lewis-Mackenzie. The building contained the two businesses Angela owned, along with Two Brothers Accounting. Though Angela had invested in the accounting and tax preparation business, Billy owned it with his old college buddy Rob Channing.
Billy and Rob met in college and ended up working at the same huge tax preparation firm for three years before they decided to go into business together. They'd been going strong now for over ten years. Earlier that year, they'd gotten a corporate account, and it'd changed the entire face of their business. No longer did they have lean periods interspersed with a few short months of fat. That one account with Rob's father-in-law's corporation had led to a slew of other corporate accounts that filled them out all year round.
Shayna Cavanay served as their secretary/receptionist but she moonlighted at both of Angela's business when necessary. Roni and Dex Everett handled the graphic design done at Lewis Graphics. At Kaleidoscope Office Services, Aimee Cooper and Jolie Everett--Dex's younger sister--made copies, typed, printed and performed basic desktop publishing.
Roni had come to Lewis Graphics eight years ago, and Billy had felt an immediate attraction to her that he'd been convinced for a time wasn't appropriate. He'd only lost Monette the year before. After talking to his parents and Monette's, he'd decided to go ahead. Trying to convince Roni to go out with him in the first place had been no easy task. But he'd fallen for her in no time at all. She'd been the one to keep their relationship at a snail's pace. Amazing that he'd known her for eight years, loved her for half of those years, yet sometimes she seemed like a complete stranger to him. In some way, she'd been hurt, yet she wouldn't talk about it. He was no longer sure she ever would.
"Maybe she just needs a big nudge," Damian said, polishing off a second cookie.
"What do you mean?"
"Jewelry? Women love that stuff. Maybe a diamond engagement ring would tell her you're dead serious."
"You mean she'd faint dead away serious." Billy shook his head. The first time he'd asked Roni to marry him--a bright blue, sunny afternoon only a month after they started dating--she'd reacted in a way that told him offering her a ring with his proposal would be a big, fat waste o' time and money.
Damian seemed to read his expression. "Okay, so maybe she needs that and more. She's crazy about you, Dad. I'd stake my future basketball scholarship on the fact that she'll never let you go. She won't end it if you don't. So maybe she needs a marriage proposal, the ring, and a time limit."
"What are you suggesting?"
Was the boy half asleep? Half insane? No way would Billy take a risk like that. The way she'd walked out of his bedroom tonight, the way she'd done countless times before...hell, it put the fear of God in him every single time. If he didn't go after her, would he lose her? Would she never come back to him? No, he couldn't lose her. And an ultimatum sounded like the fast track to exactly that.
"I don't have your confidence, son. I force her hand, and all I'll end up is empty-handed. I'd rather have something than nothing with this woman."
"Even if it means you stay where the two of you are and have been the past four years indefinitely? Never going forward? An ultimatum will tell her how serious you are about happily-ever-after with her. Maybe it's just what she needs to motivate her to say yes."
Billy couldn't agree. But after his son took himself off to bed, he thought about his words as if he could ever go through with them. Losing Damian's mother had damn near killed him. He'd decided then and there that he never wanted to go through anything like it again. He especially didn't want to be active in losing the woman he loved. He'd had no choice about Monette's death. He had a choice about Roni--to a certain point anyway.
Then he considered what his son suggested: Five years from now--what if he could see into the future five years, ten years, twenty years--and he and Roni's relationship was no different. Sure, Damian would be out of the house. She'd be hard pressed to avoid spending nights with him. But she would avoid it. Past experience had taught Billy that Damian was a convenient excuse for why she wouldn't stay. What if in five years, they still weren't married and were no closer to the commitment he needed from her? What if she remained a mystery to him through and through?
Could he continue on the way he had been, hoping when she gave him no reason to?
No, he couldn't live like this indefinitely. Maybe it would be easier to figure out what the future held now. Even if he wasn't stupid enough to believe it would make the break from Roni any easier, he was young enough to find someone else, someone who wanted to spend her life with him as his wife, someone who wanted children with him. Still, Roni was the only woman he could imagine himself with.
Billy closed his eyes and saw her beneath him, remembered the taste of her kiss as they shared their love physically, soul-deep. She didn't take their relationship any lighter than he did. He'd believed her when she said tonight that she had given in a lot. That none of it had been easy for her. She'd warned him over and over before they ever went out that she couldn't give him much. At the time, everything she did give him seemed like a major miracle. Yet, after awhile, it stopped being enough.
She just loved him so well, he became greedy. He wanted everything instead of something. He couldn't imagine she'd let him go easily. Maybe Damian was right. She just needed to know how dead-serious he was about her. If it came down to a choice between marriage or goodbye, she'd choose marriage because she wouldn't want to lose him. He couldn't be fooling himself about that.
Regardless of whether he felt confident enough to go forward with his son's plan--and how deceptive he'd feel at executing it--Billy knew he had to do it. Something had to change, and maybe life would surprise him and make that change a good one.
* * * *
Roni drove home faster than she normally would have allowed herself to, spooked at every set of headlights that appeared behind her. She tried to convince herself she was letting her imagination run away with her, yet she felt like she was being watched and followed and had been since she left Billy's house.
Unfortunately, the garage for her townhouse was in a whole different area of the property as the building she lived in. Tonight, she felt like she was crossing a state just to get inside. At first, she forced herself to walk normally. But, when a car backfired somewhere down the street, she gave up all pretense and ran as fast as a frightened jackrabbit across the lot to the front door.
Her key out, she gauged her aim in the keyhole out the eyes of the paranoid. Missed. Dammit. Focus. The hairs at the back of her neck were standing on end.
Roni's head swiveled around behind her at the whisper that sounded almost too close for comfort. The night was turning frigid, dark and silent as death. She shivered. Above her, the entry lamp she turned on before she left every morning flickered threatening, then burnt out with a fizzling pop, plunging her into darkness. Alone except for...
Ghost. She remembered the word printed across the cell phone screen. Mav's cell phone. That couldn't be just a coincidence.
Frantic now, Roni turned and shoved her key forward again, this time miraculously getting it in the slot correctly. In nearly one move, she turned the key, shoved the door open and fell inside. Did she imagine the cold rush of air that blew against the back of her neck, like an arm swinging out, the hand extended to grab... and missing at the last instant?
She didn't stop to find out. She slammed the door closed as hard as she could and threw the triple dead bolts Billy teased her relentlessly for having installed. In his mind, she lived in one the classiest neighborhoods in the city. The only crime around here was how much they spent on landscaping every nook and cranny.
Breathing hard, she sagged against the door. But then she remembered all the burned out street lamps on Billy's street. Her own entry lamp had burned out tonight. More coincidence?
She had no way of knowing if any of it had been deliberate. But, if it had, she might not be alone in her home at this moment. After setting her purse and jacket near the tree stand, she bent over and lifted her skirt. She slipped the switchblade out and pressed the button to extend it. Small protection against a ghost-demon. Roni had decided long ago she wouldn't be caught again without the means to defend herself.
Switching on lights as she went, she moved carefully through the main floor rooms of her townhouse. Nothing. She took the moderately steep steps up to the bedroom level, not surprised to find herself panting when she made it to the top and flicked on the hall light. She kept herself in excellent shape and usually didn't so much as become winded from the trek.
Swallowing, she looked around. Did I leave my bedroom door ajar? She couldn't remember. She'd been running late, needed to pick Billy up for work...
A soft slithering, like a shoeless footstep, made her tense. Where had the sound come from? Roni clenched her teeth. She wasn't a stupid little girl anymore. She could handle this. The glint of wickedly curved steel saturated with black-red blood. He licked it clean with one long sweep of his tongue... She whimpered, her chest rising and falling heavily.
No, everything she'd done had been for this moment. For the possibility of living her life without fear. She could do this.
Roni stepped forward, turning slightly and pushing open her bedroom door. She darted back, but nothing happened. She reached for the light switch just off to the right. There. Nothing. Her closet stood open, no out of place legs standing beneath the dozens of outfits hanging inside.
The rest of her search of the house, including the blinding white basement, revealed the same nothing-out-of-the-ordinary state. Even still, when Roni returned to the front door get her purse and brought it into her cozy, brightly lit living room, she realized she didn't feel safe.
She pulled the emergency cell phone out and called up the text message again. No forwarding number. Just the word "Ghost", which, given the impending holiday, wasn't unthinkable as someone's idea of a prank. Unfortunately, that word had horrifying meaning for her.
Kicking off her pumps, she pulled her legs up and hugged them to her chest. Roni glanced at the time on the mantle clock. After ten-thirty. She quickly calculated the time in Seattle. Seven-thirty. Not too late. But then Mav never kept normal hours anyway. She could call him at four in the morning and not get an earful.
Taking a deep breath, she dialed the number she'd memorized.
"Roni? You all right, honey?" his deep, Texas-twanged voice answered. She noted that he still used her new name easily and she'd never quite understood how he'd made the switch so easily when she'd forgotten her own name the first dozen times someone called her by it.
"Mav...what's going on?" she asked fearfully. "I got a message on the phone you sent me. A text message that said 'Ghost'. I don't think it came from you."
"Not hardly. Give me the details."
She gave them, not really believing she had cause for the level of panic she'd gone through tonight.
"Don't get yourself in an uproar, honey. After all, Halloween is comin' up. Could be just a random prank. Someone typing in random numbers."
"All of it?" The broken lights at two separate residences? The feeling she was being watched and followed? Her name whispered insidiously on the wind? Did even the wind obey Luther's commands now? If he really was a ghost, maybe so.
"It ain't hard to get spooked, 'specially in the dark. Besides, you always get spooked easily this time of year."
He knew best how she feared the night, especially the deep, fathomless kind she'd experienced in the last hour that long ago Halloween night.
"I'm gonna look into this. But you feel free to call me if anything else happens. Anything, Roni. I'm always here for you."
The line went dead, and Roni looked around her, feeling like a hunted deer unable to find a thicket dense enough to hide her. If only she'd stayed with Billy, she would feel no fear. When he loved her, held her, no one else could touch her. But his life meant too much to her. If she stayed, she risked both him and Damian. Until the truth was finally dead and buried by some proof, or became resurrected in the flesh or as a ghost, she had to live her life as if the demon in her past was only two steps behind her, waiting for his revenge.