“Isn’t Halloween the best?” Karen grinned at the wrinkled face peering from a warped mirror hanging in the long hallway. Empty eyes gazed back at her. Beside her, Leo pressed closer, his powerful body already invading her personal space—not that she’d ever complain.
The image in the mirror lunged as if to escape the glass. Leo jerked and pushed Karen behind him, almost knocking her over to put himself between her and danger.
“Boo!” With a leer, the face in the mirror vanished.
“I loathe Halloween,” Leo said, his voice strained. He steadied her with strong hands, but his face gleamed an unholy white in the gloom. “You know how much I hate it, and you still drag me to these things.”
“Hearing you squeal is too much fun to resist.”
“You’re sick, Ren.” He scowled but didn’t move away.
The lights flickered, giving the hallway a strobe effect. Leo’s black sweater and jeans turned an oily shade of jet. The red letters on her T-shirt reading Be Very, Very Afraid seemed to bleed. In a different section of the haunted house attraction, distant screams echoed like damaged sirens. Leo grabbed her hand in a death hold.
Her face hurting from a perpetual smile, she leaned into him and settled her free hand on his biceps for extra support. She wasn’t completely heartless, after all, and she’d always take advantage of any reasonable excuse to grope his spectacular body without being obvious. It never failed to amaze her that the biggest, strongest, sexiest man she knew—a man who also happened to be her best friend and was therefore off limits—lost his courage when it came to anything Halloween.
He towed her at a quicker pace down the hallway, as if he could escape if he moved fast enough.
Her smile stretched wider. There was no escape.
A motor roared behind them and filled the corridor with noise. In one nimble move, Leo jumped and spun to face the new threat. For such a big man, he was shockingly quick. As she turned, Leo made a noise somewhere between a shriek and a howl.
A clown bearing a roaring chainsaw barreled toward them, his mouth opened wide. Two rows of sharp teeth gleamed like knives in the strobing lights.
Karen shivered. Awesome.
The thought hadn’t even passed before Leo wrapped an arm around her waist, swept her off her feet and sprinted toward the exit sign at the end of the hall as if an army of hell hounds snapped at his heels. The walls closed in, the corridor narrowing with each of Leo’s pounding steps. Hands reached from the walls and clawed at their clothes as they passed. The clown with the chainsaw kept on coming with a chittering laugh.
The exit turned out to be a locked door. Leo skidded to a stop and pounded with his free hand. When that proved ineffective, he switched to kicking and cursing. Not once did he put her down.
Karen cackled with delight the entire way.
As the demented clown came within reach and lunged, the door opened on a groan. Leo leaped out and slammed the door behind him. A heavy thud followed, and the door shuddered beneath the impact of the clown’s failed pursuit. The chainsaw cut off, leaving them in silence and the crisp air of an early October night.
Leo didn’t set her on the ground until he’d jumped over the back porch stairs, onto the lawn and made it past the crooked fence surrounding the staged haunted house. He leaned against the trunk of an oak tree and closed his eyes, his breath ragged.
“I need a moment,” he gasped.
He cracked an eye to glare. “Give me three.”
“So sad. A grown man scared of ghosties and goblins. The best way to overcome a fear is to face it full on.”
“Or go the mature route and avoid it.” He laid his head back and slumped. “That’s how I roll when it comes to demons and small children demanding candy.”
Laughing, Karen plopped onto the grass and stretched out her legs. She crossed her ankles and jiggled her boots, unable to contain the energy buzz still sliding through her. A bit of a fright—and watching Leo freak—had been exactly what she needed. “That was epic. Even better than the last two years. The clown at the end was a nice touch.”
“Horrifying. All of it.” Leo opened his eyes and inhaled. His broad chest expanded and stretched his black sweater taut in a delicious way that she pretended not to notice.
“You didn’t have to come with me.”
“You’ve had a crappy few weeks. If me being tortured cheers you up, I had to do it.”
The mention of the last few weeks of her life took her adrenaline-high down a notch. Most people believed the source of said crappiness was Ian O’Connor, the out-of-her-league lawyer at Hamilton & Associates where she worked her accounting magic. She’d crush-lusted on him longer than she should have, a physical-only appreciation and shameless flirting that had never reached her heart. Hell, she’d known she didn’t possess the necessary looks or charms to make more than a single blip on Ian’s radar, and his staunch commitment to noncommitment made any interest harmless. He’d been an easy distraction from—
She toyed with a loose thread on her sleeve. It didn’t matter. Now, Ian was engaged to her office friend Gia. And that was when the job situation had gone to Hades on a Harley.
The sting of rejection hadn’t slowed her down. She never wasted a minute of beauty sleep on Ian. Even the twist of betrayal that Gia had hooked up with her current crush was nothing a pint of ice cream couldn’t solve. But the sorry looks she caught too often from her coworkers, as if she hid her heartbreak behind a brave face?
Warmth invaded her cheeks. Those looks made her want to either stab them or slink away. That pity echoed too closely the memories she’d moved to Graywood to escape, when the pain had been brutally real. With the Ian dilemma in her face Monday through Friday, the past returned to bite her…hard.
A flame-red leaf drifted from the canopy above and landed on her shoulder. Leo plucked it free. The leaf crackled as he twirled it between his long fingers, giving her time to process. He always knew what she needed in any given moment, one of the many reasons why she adored him. That adoration remained part of her own personal perdition, a fact he never needed to know. She sucked at romance and enjoyed his company too much to destroy it with a fling.
Fantasies made up for everything she missed.
“You only agreed to come with me tonight because you felt sorry for my pathetic life?” She swiped the leaf from his fingers and tossed it aside. “What’s your excuse for last year?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t remember.” He gave her a narrow look and tucked his hands into his jeans pockets. “Before I knew you well enough to understand you can’t be trusted in certain situations, you recorded me at the same haunted house two years ago—without my knowledge, you terrible person—and threatened to show it to Liam. Handing any one of my brothers that information would have made my life a living hell, but Liam’s the worst, which you also know.” He shook his head, his mouth tight. “Not one of your finer moments, Ren.”
“All a matter of perspective. Manipulation is a virtue.” She gave him a sweet smile. “Come on, Hughes. Admit it. Wasn’t this more fun than your usual Saturday nights, fighting off your brothers with light sabers?”
“Was it more fun than your usual Saturday night at Seven Devils?” he countered. His expression was calm, his voice steady, but his ocean-blue eyes glittered with an emotion she couldn’t read. Maybe it was the remnants of blood-curdling fear.
She shrugged. “Depends on the night.”
Leo looked away and straightened, apparently recovered from his near-death experience. “I need a drink.”
“You’re in luck.” She jumped up and looped her arm through his. “There’s a sports bar right down the block.”
“Do they stream sword fighting?” he asked, hopeful, as if watching men swinging swords at one another was in high demand.
“Is that even a thing?”
He scowled. “What about ax throwing?”
“Unlikely.” She grinned and patted his arm. “But I’ll buy to compensate.”
“Damn straight you’ll buy,” he grumbled, allowing her to guide him onto the sidewalk.
Brisk autumn air had her leaning closer to Leo, and she almost wished she’d brought a jacket. But that would leave her with no excuse to have her arms wrapped around his. Holy hell, the man was built, a toned body from hard years of construction work and combating the other members of the Hughes clan with all manners of weapons…for fun. And people said she was strange.
Maybe that was why they’d hit it off right away, two oddballs who’d given up trying to be normal. She tried not to think about his flexing muscles beneath her arms or how good he smelled, like cedar and perfect man, but it was useless. It was always useless.
Over the last two years, when it came to Leo, she’d become frickin’ fantastic at the game of pretend and resist.
Their slow steps clicked on the pavement, the sidewalk empty of anyone but them. Stars shone in a clear, moonless sky. It was an ideal night for romance. She sighed, and her breath left a fleeting white cloud. If Leo weren’t her best friend, she’d drag him to a stop and kiss him right here beneath the lamppost, the distant shrieks of terrified people in the background. He’d kiss her back, using that luscious mouth of his to set her skin aflame, and—
“I hate it when you sigh like that.” Leo’s soft, husky voice splintered her fantasy. “It means you’re unhappy instead of plotting mischief.” He bored his eyes into her.
She refused to squirm beneath the intensity, the sense that he saw straight through all her trappings and discerned the warp and weave of her soul. If he could read minds, he would have been scandalized by her thoughts long ago. “I’ve decided I need a change.”
“What sort of change?”
“Scenery. I’ve been considering it for a while now, made a pro and con list, looked at my options from every angle. I woke up this morning with a clear answer.”
Leo was always her go-to person who she ran everything by first. Almost everything. But saying this new plan aloud made it real, solid, and if she didn’t follow through, she’d feel like a loser. Karen took a breath and blew it out. “I’m quitting Hamilton & Associates and applying for an accountant job at Cooper Homes. The posting showed up yesterday morning. Even though it doesn’t pay as much as Hamilton, the medical, dental and 401K plans are great.”
The confession released a stab of exhilaration edged with scary. Accountant jobs in Graywood were rare. Her timing had been lucky with Hamilton & Associates. Another opening in her field might not come along for months, which would require a job search in other towns, maybe moving. She didn’t want to leave the home she’d made here—worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, she glanced at Leo—or the friendships she’d forged.
He narrowed his eyes at some point in the distance, looking thoughtful. “If you want to switch to a construction company, work for me. I’ve been thinking about farming out the accounting side of my business, to free up some precious time to do more important things.” He winked. “I’m the worst bookkeeper.”
“No way.” She shook her head. “Working for friends is a bad idea.”
“Not if I’m the friend.” His voice deepened an octave into a blood-warming rumble.
“Absolutely no.” Leo was a great employer, generous and fair, his company always on the business bureaus’ best list. But working for him would send her even deeper into the void with all her forbidden fantasies. Already she had trouble keeping them under control. And mixing business and friendship was almost as dangerous as combining best friends and physical desire. Nothing good ever emerged at the end. She wouldn’t add Leo to her romantic wreckage.
She focused on the pub at the end of the block, the cheerful lights and hint of fried food, ignoring the weight of his steady stare. Changing her mind about this wasn’t happening, not even with the power of Leo’s super-scowl. Working for him would put pressure on their friendship, warp it into something else. Their relationship was far too important. He was too important.
Finally, he exhaled and swiped his fingers through his hair, leaving it rumpled and even more sexy. “Why do you always insist on being stubborn?”
She gave him an impish smile.
“Very well. Be that way. But I’ll tell you this— The only way you’re going to land the job at Cooper Homes is if you know at least a smidge of construction. Cooper expects all the staff, even office workers, to jump in and help out on site if they’re short-handed. Construction crews aren’t always the most reliable employees.”
“That’s not listed on the job announcement.” She frowned up at him. His expression was serious, no sign of trickery, but he’d used his sexy voice on her, given her the scowl. He was up to something shady.
He shrugged. “I know Cooper.”
“You know everyone.” Graywood was a small town, and the Hughes family fingers were dipped in everything good, charitable and green. She’d been in Graywood for a couple of years, not enough to be trusted by the local residents. Even if no one admitted it, unless a soul was born and raised in Graywood, they were considered a permanent outsider.
Some things never changed. The one exception was Leo. Right away, he’d made her feel like she belonged. She couldn’t lose that, not for anything.
Leo stopped and faced her. Karen braced herself. Here it was, his scheme.
“I have a proposal for you.”
“Is it indecent?” Karen shut her mouth fast, heat rising to her neck. Flirting level warning, code red. “Kidding, of course.”
“Actually,” he said, drawing out the word. “The decency level depends on perspective.”
He tugged on his ear lobe, a nervous tell. What—besides Halloween—could rattle the serious, steady, unshakable Leo Hughes?
“You’ve won my full attention.” She poked him playfully in the chest. “Lay it on me.”
One corner of his mouth curled up in a slow, lazy smile, and all hint of nervousness vanished as he met her gaze. That heat in her neck spread to her face. She hoped he assumed it to be the lamplight glow on her skin, not the tingling warmth curling through her veins.
“Remember the Granton estate a few miles out of town?” He didn’t wait for her unnecessary answer. She’d been intrigued by the abandoned property since the moment she’d driven into Graywood job hunting, glimpses of the Gothic mansion and storybook landscape, full of secrets and gloom. “I bought it.”
Karen gasped. “Without telling me?”
“Closed this afternoon. I was waiting for the right moment to share the news.” His eyes gleamed with humor. “Now, back to my proposal.”
“If it has anything to do with Granton, I’m in.” She bounced in her boots, unable to keep still. Her best friend had bought Granton Hall. She couldn’t wait to get inside.
“Always require full disclosure before making any binding agreements, Ren. As it happens, there is some fine print in this particular proposal.”
That sounded ominous. She folded her arms and waited for him to continue.
“First, the background. There’s a locals-only construction competition starting tomorrow. It involves renovating a single room by the end of the month. Whoever wins gets the bid to renovate town hall and a spread in Renovation & Remodel, the magazine every construction company aspires to be in. The publicity for that alone is worth the effort.”
“Since when do you need extra attention or work?” Hughes & Sons Construction had been established by Leo’s great-great-grandfather and passed down through the generations, growing in reputation and building an empire to fund all the Hughes’ family good deeds. Leo had a few days over two years holding the reins. His father had passed right before Ren had met him, and he took the responsibilities of carrying on the family legacy very seriously.
“Since I bought Granton Hall.” He tucked her arm through his again and strolled toward the pub. “The rules are simple. Must be a local company to enter. The owner must personally renovate their chosen room with the assistance of a single volunteer.” He glanced at her. “Since you’re in need of some construction experience and I need a reliable volunteer, it’s a win-win.”
Karen studied his unreadable expression. The opening for the position at Cooper Homes didn’t close until the end of the month, enough of a window to gain some basic skills. Learning construction from Leo in her spare time would be perfect. But something about this proposal had made him nervous. “What’s the catch?”
“I need you at least part-time.”
She ignored how her blood heated at the words ‘I need you’. With all the personal days and vacation hours she’d built up at Hamilton & Associates, she could make it part-time. Escaping the cubicle and coworkers for half a day every day until she had the skills to land the job at Cooper Homes would be a definite bonus. Working only part-time with Leo, she could manage her fantasies, and Granton Hall would be the best distraction.
“No problem.” She paused with him outside the pub entrance. Voices and laughter drifted out with delicious smells. A basket of garlic tots was about to meet its final destiny. “What else?”
“We have until Halloween to renovate one room at Granton Hall and impress the judges. Today was the last day to enter the competition, so the timing was perfect. Not going to lie— It will be a lot of hard labor.”
She studied her stubby fingernails. “Guess I’ll have to miss the manicurist for a month.”
“Ready for the fine print?”
At his low, sultry voice, she lifted her gaze to his, and her breath caught. Behind the confident mask, another emotion flickered, banked and steaming. That heat in her veins rose a few degrees. Controlling her libido for a month was a small price to pay for the dream of walking the antique halls of Granton and learning a few construction skills on the side. I can do this.
“So that any spare minutes may be spent on the project, not wasting drive time, I’d require you to live at the mansion.”
“Seriously, Leo?” For the first time in weeks, the excitement bubbling up erased all the shadows left by rejection reminders and dreams long lost. She fisted his sweater to keep from bouncing up and down like a pogo stick. “When do we start?”
“Not so fast. There’s one last detail to my proposal.”
She released his sweater and smoothed it out, one pat more than necessary of his firm chest. “Whatever it is, I’m in.”
He gave her a lopsided smile, the one he used on only her. “Glad to hear it, but you won’t be living at Granton alone.”
“I won’t?” The words tangled in her dry throat.
“No, Ren, darling.” His eyes deepened to stormy seas, his voice to molten honey. He opened the pub door and motioned her inside. As the heat and chaos surrounded her, he leaned near her ear and whispered, “You’ll be living with me.”