Susannah Darke sat at the Italian restaurant bar and read the text for the umpteenth time that day. It wasn’t unusual for her to get texts from Noah Bellamy, her favorite hookup. It was just that most of them consisted of raunchy invitations to, well, hook up.
She wasn’t opposed to the messages being raunchy either. God only knew she’d sent her share of eggplant emojis to Noah. It was their thing.
They’d met about a year ago at a soul-sucking group dating event. After ingesting a couple of limp spring rolls and some very cheap wine while dodging guys who wanted to regale her with their thoughts on cryptocurrency, she’d spotted Noah across the room. He was handsome and looked bored, and she’d recognized a kindred spirit of sorts in the way he’d clutched his wineglass as if it were a life preserver. Feeling in need of her own lifeline just then, she’d cut through the crowd toward him.
A pleasant conversation had ensued, one in which they’d realized neither of them actually wanted to be there. Susannah had only agreed to attend the event because her sisters had egged her on, saying she worked too much and had no social life. Completely true, of course, but it didn’t dispel her loathing of awkward group events. As for Noah, he’d attended with a friend who didn’t want to be on his own.
She’d gone home with Noah for the first time that night, and they’d discovered they were really good in the sack together. Devastatingly good, in fact. Equally beneficial was the fact that neither of them wanted anything more than that.
As a result, their text conversations tended to be short, succinct and peppered with rude depictions of fruit, vegetables and little devil faces. She got a thrill every time she received one.
But this felt different.
She and Noah didn’t “go out to dinner.” They didn’t “discuss important things.” Heck, sometimes they barely had any conversation at all. They met when they had a particular need, one that involved an hour or two of mindless fornication.
What on earth could he want?
What if, after a year of happily messing up her sheets and ruining her best panties, he was no longer happy with their arrangement? She would hate to lose what they had. It worked so well.
Had he met someone else? It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Noah might fall in love and want to settle down. He was a great catch. Although he’d always made it clear he was on the same page she was, and that he guarded his single status.
Or was it the alternative? For a fleeting moment, Susannah teased herself into thinking Noah might want something more…with her. A tingle shot up her spine. What if Noah Bellamy, her hot hookup buddy, wanted her, all of her?
Would she even want that?
The bartender approached and took her order, returning shortly with a white wine. As he handed it to her, his fingers brushed against hers and he smiled. He was cute, and his attentions weren’t unwelcome, but Noah would be there shortly. Even though Susannah was nowhere near being exclusive with Noah, she wasn’t in the mood to encourage anyone else. She thanked the bartender and concentrated on her phone.
Within minutes, Noah arrived. He stepped into her space, resting a hand on her lower back. Again, not unwelcome at all. “Hey, you.” He leaned over and dropped a kiss on her cheek. Lingering there, he whispered, “Thanks for coming.”
Susannah sucked in a breath. A flutter of delight rippled under her ribs. “Hey. I was surprised to get your message.”
One side of his mouth quirked up. “I know, right? Not a single eggplant emoji in sight.” His gaze dipped to take in her outfit, an intimate acknowledgment of all the sexy times they’d had together. “You look gorgeous, as always.”
“Thank you.” Confused and curious about his invitation, she’d made an effort to look nice, and had changed from her jeans and T-shirt into a slinky black dress that cinched at the waist. She checked out his perfectly tailored navy suit and impeccable dress shoes. Every time she saw him, he seemed to have a new pair. These ones, gray Oxfords, shone as if a butler had spent half a day polishing them. Noah liked fancy shoes even more than she did. His style sense, combined with his short black curls and strong jaw, made for a devastating combination. “You’re looking pretty good yourself.”
“Thanks.” He picked up her wineglass and grabbed her hand. “Come on. I’ve got a table.”
As he led her through the restaurant, several heads turned his way. She understood his allure. It wasn’t even that he was handsome in a high fashion model kind of way. He had what some might consider imperfections. His nose was crooked enough to make one think he liked a bit of mischief. He had some mild scarring on his cheeks—probably old acne scars—and his thick eyebrows tended to give him an air of severity, even anger sometimes.
But Susannah had seen him break into huge smiles, and she knew a cheeky sense of humor hid beneath his intimidating exterior. She’d seen him cursing at the arrival of a shattering orgasm and had witnessed the transformative beauty of that moment. She’d heard him talk about the students at his school with pride and awe, and nothing would ever convince her he was less than stunning.
Uh, Susannah. Remember your boundaries? He’s your fuck buddy, not your soulmate.
Besides, she still didn’t know the reason behind this unusual social call.
If only she’d gathered her thoughts a bit better. If Noah did indeed want to take their relationship to the next level, she would have to let him down gently but firmly. She wasn’t interested in having a partner or a husband, or even a boyfriend. She was happy on her own. At thirty-four, she’d seen enough of the dating scene and its miseries to know it wasn’t for her.
As for the marriage scene…well, she only needed to look at her circle of friends for a stark reminder of how badly that could go.
All Susannah needed was for someone to help her with her sexual needs every so often. If Noah was no longer up for the job, she’d find someone else. Although it would make her sad to lose him.
Really sad, come to think of it.
When they got to the table, a booth tucked into the far corner of the restaurant, he set down her wineglass and they sat across from one another. A server arrived, told them about the specials, and took Noah’s drink order. As soon as the server was gone, Susannah turned to Noah in anticipation. “My curiosity is killing me.”
“That’s what I love about you, Susannah. You hate small talk as much as I do.”
“It’s not that I hate it.” If anyone else were currently sitting across from her, she’d have no problem indulging in some chatter about the weather or what she’d had for lunch that day. But this was Noah, and they usually got straight to the point. “I don’t want you to think I don’t care about how your day went. I guess that’s just never been our style.”
He paused, mysteries swimming in his dark eyes. “I care too. I hope you know that.” He reached for her hand. A hint of a smile tickled his lips again, and her heart swelled in response. “That being said, how was your day?”
“Fine, thanks. I’m about to finish writing a new article for Ontario’s History. It’s about the role of the rebel Canadian Volunteers during the War of 1812, and the impact their traitorous actions had on their communities.”
“I hope so. I was inspired to dig a little deeper when we had that case in Niagara.” Susannah liked the eclectic nature of her work. She was a regular contributor to a couple of historical periodicals on Canadian history, which kept things fresh and exciting. She supplemented that work with some lecturing at centers for adult learning and even at different universities from time to time. “And, of course, things are busy as usual on the DPI front. My sisters and I are getting ready to debrief a couple of clients, and we’re in the midst of scheduling the next ones.”
As much as she loved her writing and teaching work, Darke Paranormal Investigations had become her true passion. Along with her sisters Edwina and Adelaide, Susannah investigated sites that were reputed to be haunted, and the three of them had made a name for themselves on their YouTube channel. Each investigation was the basis for a new episode. Their subscriptions had exploded about a year ago when they’d uploaded the footage from the King Street Bed and Breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Not only had they discovered the source of the paranormal activity, they’d unearthed the remains of an early Canadian military hero. Since then, the Darke sisters had been fielding calls from TV producers and people who wanted to take them to haunted locations around the world, but the sisters weren’t interested in relinquishing control over their investigations. They agreed they wanted to retain the focus on Canadian sites and Canadian history.
“Actually,” said Noah, “DPI is the reason I reached out to you today. Do you think you could squeeze me into your busy schedule? I need your help.”
Icy shivers raced down her spine. Susannah leaned in. Knowing what Noah did for a living, she’d been wondering if this day might come.
Noah was the dean of the Asch Institute of Opera, a prestigious school that coached young singers who were destined for careers in operatic performance. Some of them had already attended the nearby University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, and they went on to do an intensive performance-driven program at the Asch. It had nurtured many young stars, and its list of alumni was impressive.
Susannah had been inside the building before, but not for many years. The place had made an indelible impression on her, and not necessarily in a good way. Even though a part of her never wanted to revisit the Asch Institute, a more significant part of her wanted to investigate it and debunk its stories. Debunking her own experiences there would be even better. “Tell me everything.”
The server returned to the table with Noah’s beer and asked to take their orders. They both realized neither of them had even looked at the menu yet, so they just ordered two of the pasta specials.
Once they were alone again, Susannah pulled a small notebook and a pen out of her bag. “Do you mind if I take notes?”
“I figured you would. Things have been…unsettled at the Asch for a long time now. But lately, I’ve seen it affect my students in a big way.”
“To be clear, you believe the Asch Institute of Opera is haunted?”
“I was a student there. I know it’s haunted, but it feels like it’s escalated. In the past, I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. Now I am.”
“What kind of phenomena are we talking about?”
“Items are thrown around the classrooms, things like chalk and sheet music. Music stands are knocked over when no one is nearby. There are footsteps in empty hallways, disembodied voices, doors slamming, that kind of thing. Worst of all, some students claim they’ve been locked in rooms from the outside.”
“I’ve never seen any, but there are plenty of accounts. People have seen a man in a top hat and cane. Dr. Victor Asch, presumably. There have been lots of shadow figures too. Oh, and there’s one everyone calls the Gray Lady.”
“Right.” Susannah scrawled those details down as quickly as she could. “I’m familiar with the story of Dr. Asch. His wife died on the school property. I understand she fell down the stairs. I always used to hear that he haunted the building, searching for his lost love.”
“Well, if that’s the case, it’s not as romantic as it sounds. It’s become very distracting. I’m worried about one of our students, actually. She’s our star mezzo-soprano. Her name’s Ava Choi. When you look into her eyes lately, she’s just not there. She began the school year with so much promise, and now she seems to be wasting away.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“No. I’ve talked to her several times, to see if she’s having problems in other areas of her life, but she swears she isn’t. She has lots of friends, but I haven’t seen her with them for some time. She spends hours in the basement practice rooms. We can’t seem to pry her away from them. She’s even missed a few classes. I just can’t shake the sensation that something is wrong, and it’s something I can’t see.”
“My sister Edwina would say we should look at the most reasonable conclusion first. Ava could be dealing with stress. She’s chosen a demanding career. Maybe she’s not cut out for the opera.”
Noah shook his head. “You should see her perform. She was born for this. Besides, it doesn’t change the fact that the other students are freaked out too. These aren’t little kids, either. They’re young adults. The conversations in the hallways are wild. All they do is talk about the haunting.”
“It is one of Toronto’s famous urban legends.”
“I get it, and I’m sure every creaky Victorian building has its stories. But this is my old school, and these are my students. I want them to be safe.”
The server returned with two steaming pasta specials. Susannah and Noah tucked in, and he shared a couple of the accounts of students getting locked in the practice rooms, despite the fact that there were no locks on the doors. Because those rooms were located in the basement of the Asch Institute, it had to have been a scary experience for them. Whether or not the phenomenon was truly paranormal, Susannah didn’t like the idea that Noah’s students felt uncomfortable in their place of learning.
She understood that feeling, and all too well. When Susannah had been about ten years old, she’d taken some private piano lessons at the Asch. At the time, it had housed a different music school that offered Saturday lessons for beginners. She’d studied there for about a year, until she’d had her own brush with the paranormal within its walls. The experience had changed her, and in ways that still haunted her.
“What do you think?” Noah twirled a length of fettuccine around his fork. “Does it sound like the kind of case that might interest you and your sisters?”
Susannah didn’t even need to consult with Edwina and Adelaide to know they’d be interested. In fact, ever since she’d spilled the beans about sleeping with Noah, they’d been asking her to finagle an invitation to investigate the Asch Institute.
What she really needed to decide was whether or not she could take on this case. As a kid, she’d tucked her frightening moments at the Asch into a deep pocket of her soul. Even now, she didn’t like thinking about them.
Perhaps it was time to face the beast. If she took the case, there would hardly be a choice. She knew how these things worked. If she started exploring the building, even for someone else, those disturbing memories would resurface whether she wanted them to or not.
Could she turn Noah down? Sure. They had plenty of cases awaiting their attention.
It just didn’t feel right, though. She considered his students, in particular his star mezzo-soprano. It sounded as if Ava had a bright future in opera. She didn’t deserve to lose it because some faded wraiths insisted on clinging to a structure they knew in life.
If anything, Susannah and her sisters were in the best position to help. “I can speak for my sisters. We’ll take the case.”
“Great. How soon can you come?”
“Oh gosh. That bad, huh?”
“Noah, I haven’t done any prep. I mean, I know a bit about the history, but not enough for the purposes of a full-scale investigation. I don’t like going in unarmed.”
“We have a library at the school. I can get you access to whatever you need. Would that help?”
His eager expression caused a wibble-wobble in her stomach. She couldn’t disappoint him. “Tell you what. I’ll book a time for a walk-through so we can get the lay of the land. I just need to check with Edwina. She’s the one with the theater job in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so we have to work around her schedule. In the meantime, I’ll start gathering some information.”
“That would be awesome.”
“Of course.” Susannah’s face heated upon seeing him brighten. “I don’t want to leave you in the lurch. Paranormal activity can be upsetting, even at the best of times.”
“You’re the greatest, Susannah. Thank you.” He glanced down the hallway leading toward the restrooms. “Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”
While Noah visited the restroom, Susannah called her sister Edwina.
Edwina picked up right away. “Hey, Suz.”
“Hey. You won’t believe the case I just snagged for us. Noah wants us to come to the Asch Institute.”
“Get out!” A muffled shriek of excitement accompanied Edwina’s exclamation. “We finally get to dig through the scary place where you took piano lessons as a kid?”
“Wait. Are you okay to go back there?”
“Sure. The place always creeped me out, but this is a paranormal investigator’s dream. It’s an iconic example of old Toronto architecture, and it’s bound to have all sorts of dark corners and secrets.” Another series of shivers assaulted her backbone, but she rolled her shoulders to ease them. If only a good stretch could eliminate the sudden ache in her stomach. “This is a chance to uncover the truth behind the Asch. I’d be foolish not to take it.”
“As long as you’re sure. Wow. I have to tell Addy right away.”
“Addy’s there with you?”
“Yeah. I had some questions about the whole mediumship thing, so she came out to Niagara-on-the-Lake to have dinner with Simon and me.”
“Oh.” The tenderness in her stomach turned into full-on cramps.
“She’s just the only one I can talk to about this stuff. Hang on. I’ll be a sec.”
Stricken by a sudden case of FOMO, Susannah cleared her throat. She knew her sisters wouldn’t purposely try to exclude her. They just had things to talk about, things to which she couldn’t relate.
A couple of important developments had happened during their investigation at the King Street Bed and Breakfast. Firstly, Edwina had fallen in love with Simon, one of the property owners. Secondly, Edwina had learned she was a medium, a gift she shared with their younger sister, Adelaide. Because Adelaide had been talking to dead people all her life, she was able to help Edwina with the strange transition.
Susannah didn’t have any unusual gifts, unless one counted the ability to talk for hours on end about early Canadian social history. Now, after months of conversations to which she couldn’t really contribute, she was feeling left out. Suddenly, after a lifetime of being especially close to her sisters, it seemed she had less in common with them. Twinges of jealousy tore through her whenever one of them brought up their unique bond.
Susannah listened as Edwina shared the news with Adelaide. When Edwina got back on the phone, Susannah didn’t really feel like chatting anymore. “Listen, Noah’s on his way back. Could you just text me your availability for the next few weeks? I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay.” She could almost hear Edwina leering over the phone. “Have fun with Noah.” She made a bunch of kissy noises.
Susannah disconnected the call. See? You’re being silly. It’s not as if they set out to exclude you.
And yet, this wasn’t the first time they’d hung out without her. It had been happening a lot, and despite her best efforts to let it go, the knowledge triggered the worst of her insecurities.
Noah returned and sat down. “Feel like some dessert? They have amazing cannoli here.”
A conversation from Susannah’s childhood suddenly popped into her head. When she and her sisters were little, they’d all had to grapple with Adelaide’s strange talent. Whenever she would communicate with dead people, Susannah and Edwina had had to deal with the comments and the stares. One of their aunts had tried to console them by saying, People just don’t understand that Addy’s special.
Of course, that hadn’t been any consolation at all. And now Edwina was “special” too.
What did that make Susannah?
Don’t be childish.
“Did I lose you,” asked Noah, “or are you just distracted by the idea of those cannoli?”
“Dessert, right.” Feeling untethered after her quick conversation with Edwina and the news that the Asch Institute was still a source of concern, Susannah was consumed by the need to hold on to something.
“Hmm.” She grabbed Noah’s hand and pulled it toward her. Leaning forward on the table, she pressed her breast against his knuckles. “What if I told you I don’t want dessert tonight?”
“Yeah. I just want you.”
Their corner of the restaurant was dimly lit, and no one was looking their way. Noah discreetly brushed his thumbnail across her nipple, over her dress bodice. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “That can be arranged.” He sat back, hailed the server and quickly paid for their meals. He stood and held out his hand. “Your place or mine?”
They both lived downtown, but Susannah’s condo was only a block away. “Mine.”
They exited the restaurant and marched down Bloor Street West. Neither of them said a word as they walked north on Bedford Road, toward Prince Arthur Avenue. They remained silent as they entered Susannah’s condo building. When they got on the elevator, they had to ride up with a couple of other residents, so they didn’t say anything then either.
They arrived on her floor and hurried down the hall to her unit. It was only as she stuck her key into the lock that she noticed the tension in Noah’s jaw and the heat in his eyes.
Good. That was how she liked him. Focused, hard and hot. As they shoved her unit door open, his thick eyebrows became a slash of concentrated desire.
Noah closed and locked the unit door for her, then moved her up against her foyer wall. “You’re a naughty girl, aren’t you?”
In response, Susannah reached under her dress and tugged on her panties. Still in her heels, she slid the silky scrap of fabric down her legs and over her shoes. “I have my moments.”
She was about to toss the panties on the floor, but he took them from her hand. His gaze never leaving hers, he shoved the panties in his suit jacket pocket.
“I happen to like those, you know,” murmured Susannah, even though she didn’t mind him taking them in the slightest.
“You’ll get them back. Eventually.”
“Looks like you’re the one being naughty now.”
“Oh, yeah? My behavior’s about to get much, much worse.” His breath coming hard, Noah dropped to his knees and pushed the bottom half of her dress up toward her waist. With one hand, he urged her thighs apart then slid his fingers between them. “Already wet, huh?” He brought a finger to his mouth and sucked. “Delicious.”
He moved one of her legs over his shoulder, buried his face between her legs and licked.
Susannah closed her eyes and dug her fingers into his thick curls. Yes, this.
She was already out of sorts after hearing about the phenomena at the Asch Institute, and the weird situation with her sisters just amplified it. This was all she needed. A sexual recalibration. When Noah was between her legs, she forgot everything else. He was her perfect distraction.
They would have a lovely fuck, hopefully up against this very wall, and her emotional slate would be wiped clean.
Only, as her orgasm began to build with wave after wave of heady sensation, Susannah remembered her earlier questions. At the start of the evening, she’d wondered if Noah might ask to take their relationship to the next level, but he hadn’t.
He didn’t want her, after all.
When the first noises ripped from her throat, they sounded like her usual cries of ecstasy. But something else propelled them, something unsettling and mysterious.
Something that felt an awful lot like disappointment.