Cades Cove, North Carolina
Chely Austin's eyes fluttered, and then sprang open. A thud echoed from inside the bedroom next to hers. It was a subtle sound, as if a chair had been knocked against the wall and caught just in time to deaden the impact. Her heart fluttered fearfully in her chest.
Someone's in the house.
Or had she imagined the noise? Maybe she was somewhere between awake and asleep where dreams seemed real. Stirring, she awoke further. No other sound echoed in the huge house. Maybe it had been her imagination or part of a dream. Not likely. Houses may creak and groan, but not thump.
Another thud, followed by a muffled oath, caused her to sit up and reach for the bedside lamp. The covers slipped to her waist as light flooded the cavernous room. Cold tendrils of fear snaked around her heart like the icy fingers of a thick fog. The rapid pulse in her ear drowned out further sound. She took a couple of deep breaths to calm her nerves, and then cocked her head to the side to listen.
Minutes ticked by without another sound. She sucked in another mouthful of air, held it and listened some more.
Footsteps scuffed across hardwood floors.
Those icy fingers coiled toward her stomach.
Beyond a doubt, she was no longer alone in the old house. And whoever was there with her was in the next room.
Opening the nightstand drawer, she pulled out the pistol she kept for protection.
"Didn't want to have to use this," she mumbled as she checked the bullets. Curling her fingers around the cold steel, she kept her eye on the door and eased off the bed. Cold air crept across her feet, circled her ankles and crawled up her legs.
It's always cold in this place.
Spooky, her black cat, yawned and stretched on the bed, but settled back into sleep as if he thought his mistress was some kind of a nut to get up at this ungodly hour and wander about a cold, dark house, especially with someone else walking about in it. Nope, Spooky was staying right where it was warm and safe.
"Some guard kitty you are," Chely grumbled, but stroked his fur before she tiptoed to the door. She paused to listen again, her breath shallow, and then twisted the doorknob. With slow, quiet moves, she stepped into the darkened hallway. A nightlight glowed at the other end where the attic stairs rose to the third floor, the last few steps swallowed in darkness. The scant light did little to dispel the shadows of night.
The beam of a flashlight spilled through the open door of the room next to hers. It stretched further, and crawled along the floor until it reached the top of the stairs that led to the first level of the house.
Chely swallowed hard as fear raced through her blood. A chill rose along her skin, sending cold shivers across her body.
Who is that? And what are they doing in my house?
She wished like crazy she'd called Verizon, before now, to hook up her phone. 911 would come in handy right at this moment. Dang my hide for procrastinating yet again.
The intruder emerged on the other end of the flashlight and stepped out into the hall. He swung the flashlight's beam to his left, and then swept it back the other way toward Chely.
Almost strangling on a gulp of air, he took a startled step back. "Damn a'mighty, you scared the hell out of me. Who are you?"
She jerked the gun upward and pointed it in the vicinity of his chest. "Don't move."
The man flinched and dropped the flashlight. It rolled to the top of the stairs and stopped, tottering on the edge. He raised his arms to shoulder level, palms outward as if he were under arrest. "Easy now, lady, I mean you no harm." The red and black-checkered shirt, stretched across his chest, made him appear rustic like the outdoors type. Faded jeans bunched on top of scuffed brown work boots. But that wasn't what mesmerized her. It was his eyes. Johnny Depp eyes. Even in what little light she could see by, she could tell they were dark and mysterious, and smoldered with something undefined, something she wanted to discover.
She shook herself out of distracting thoughts. "What are you doing here?" The gun trembled in her hands and she cursed her show of fear. She didn't want this stranger to see her reluctance to shoot him even if she had no choice. Hellfire and damnation. Rattled to the point of insanity, she steadied the gun and tried to gather her thoughts into more positive things. If she was going to die tonight, she certainly didn't want to go out of this world cussing. It probably wouldn't be a good thing to meet God with the S word catapulting from her lips.
"I could ask you the same thing." He dropped his hands.
"Get those hands back up where I can see them!" Chely waggled the gun, showing as much menace as she could muster. No fear, no fear, no fear. The chant returned some of her courage.
"What are you? Some kind of FBI agent?" he asked.
The flashlight rolled back and forth as if an unseen hand shoved it. Its light cast huge, round, moving shadows on the walls. Chely took her attention from the man and frowned at the flashlight with a hint of uneasiness. Had it moved all by itself, or was she just so scared she had imagined it?
Her grip tightened on the gun until it dug into her flesh as she glanced from the flashlight back to the intruder. "Why are you here? This is my house."
"My house," she confirmed.
The man shook his head and mumbled, "Just my luck."
Chely licked dry lips. She was scared spit-less, but wasn't about to let him know it, not that he couldn't already see it for himself.
Was he a thief? He must not have expected anyone to be here. The house had stood empty until a month ago. After her grandfather's death, she'd gained ownership of it. Tears burned her eyes, but she blinked them away. No matter how much she wished for it, her grandfather couldn't come back from the dead. She was truly alone now and had to make the best of it.
Dust covered most everything, but there were a lot of valuable antiques strung throughout the house. Her grandfather had been an avid collector of old and forgotten things. If the trespasser had been looking for an easy heist, he must be very disappointed indeed to find her here.
"If you leave now, I won't call the police." She hoped he wouldn't call her bluff. There was no phone service in the house yet, but she prayed he wasn't privy to that particular bit of information.
"What?" Was she going to have to shoot him? Oh, glory be, she hoped not!
"I've come to claim what belongs to me."
Oh, now that was rich! A burglar who thought he had a right to his neighbor's big screen TV, so to speak. She flicked the safety off the pistol, and prayed she wouldn't have to fire it. Lord she hadn't prayed this much in a long time, which would probably make the Lord less inclined to bid her any favors.
An old painting slipped down the wall and crashed to the floor, breaking apart in one corner, warping the picture inward.
Chely screamed and her finger jerked against the trigger. The bullet splintered the doorframe next to the intruder's head.
He ducked, covered his head with his arms, and jumped to the side. "Damn! Woman! Are you trying to kill me?"
"Sorry, it was an accident." She held the gun away from her body, not sure what to do with it. "I really don't want to shoot you, but you don't seem to be giving me much of a choice." She gripped the gun again and steadied it in her hands. "Please leave. I don't know who you are, and it's the middle of the night."
"Just put the gun down." He made a lowering motion with his hand. "Like I said before, I'm not here to hurt you."
"Well, at least point it toward the floor." The flashlight rolled back and forth twice then settled down again.
What the hell is wrong with that flashlight? You're cussing again. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she willed her pulse to a smoother rate.
Spooky wandered from the bedroom and curled around her ankles. A loud meow issued from his mouth, then he sat down to lick his paws. After a moment, he ambled over to the intruder and rubbed against the rough material of his faded jeans.
Traitor! Chely glared at the cat, then at the man. "Please leave." Her voice trembled and sounded small. The exact opposite of what she wanted.
The man took a step toward her, holding up his hands when she gripped the gun tighter. "Look, I own this house ... well ... half the property it sits on, and I can prove it. But right now, I'm tired and I need some sleep. Can we talk about this in the morning?"
Is he nuts? She wasn't about to let a stranger sleep anywhere near her. Why, he could be an ax murderer, a strangler or a Jack the Ripper type.
He reached behind him and withdrew something from his back pocket.
"What are you doing?" Chely demanded. Her grip tightened on the gun again, but she kept her finger off the trigger.
"Relax, I'm just getting my cell phone so I can call Joe." He held it out to where she could see it was just a phone.
"Joe Downy, the deputy?" Chely relaxed a little. If he knew Joe, then maybe he was okay.
"Yes, and he'll vouch for me so we can get some sleep while there's still some dark left outside."
"Can't you just leave?"
"No. I didn't drive here and I'm tired." He punched at the phone with one finger, and then lifted it to his ear. A few seconds later, he spoke into the mouthpiece.
He hadn't drove? Where had he come from? And why was he here? It was a small comfort he knew Joe, but then again, he could be lying. Maybe he hadn't punched in a real phone number.
"It's not funny," he said into the mouthpiece. "Would you please let her know I'm not a psycho before she blows off a part of my body I can't function without?" He held the phone out to her. "Joe wants to talk to you."
Chely cautiously took the phone and brought it to her ear. "Joe?"
"Hey, Darlin'." He sounded sleepy, but amused.
"I'm sorry we woke you." Chely sneaked a peek at the handsome intruder. Now he's handsome? He squatted beside Spooky and gently petted the cat's black fur.
"Not a problem. You did the right thing. But no need to worry about him. He's Mae Walker's grandson and a good friend of mine. You're safe with him."
That crazy old woman was the intruder's grandmother? She didn't know if that made her feel better or not. "You're sure?" she said uncertain. Whispers of Mae Walker delving in the black arts had reached Chely's ears more than once or twice over the years.
"Positive. Now go on back to sleep, Darlin' and don't worry about a thing."
"Okay, thanks, Joe." She handed the phone back to the trespasser. "He says I'm safe with you."
He stuffed the phone in his back pocket. "Now that that's settled, I'm going to try and get some sleep." He stepped back into the room he'd appeared from earlier.
Chely stood in the semi-dark hall, undecided about what to do. After a moment, she unglued her bare feet from the cold hardwood and returned to her own room. Okay, fine! If he insisted on staying, she still wasn't taking any chances even if Joe had vouched for--she realized she still didn't know the stranger's name, and kicked herself for not asking when she had the chance.
A quick glance around the room turned up a heavy dresser, which she attempted to drag in front of the door. After straining her muscles until she thought they'd snap, the dresser scrubbed across the floor a couple of inches. Out of breath, she stopped to rest a few seconds, and then pulled it a few more inches, grunting and grimacing with the effort.
The door creaked opened behind her. "Need help?"
Chely clutched her pajama top above her heart as her breath shuddered from her body. "You scared the heck out of me."
"Sorry, thought I heard dragging noises, and came to investigate." He grinned as if he thought she was the most amusing thing he'd ever encountered, which she probably was. She tended to amuse men more often than not.
The longer he stood in the door and remained in her house, the less Chely feared him. A bad guy wouldn't have such a sexy smile and warm brown eyes would he? She wondered how many serial killers had brown eyes. Best not to let my guard down completely. Not all serial killers were twisted, ugly creatures--Ted Bundy came to mind, although she had never really considered him all that attractive. Just not her type, she supposed. But there was definitely nothing twisted or ugly about the man before her.
"I can help you move that in front of the door if you still think you need protection from me," he said.
She tossed him an irritated confused look. "What good is that gonna do me with you on this side of the bedroom door?"
"I figured I could climb out your bedroom window, and crawl along the ledge like Spider Man until I reached the window where I entered the house earlier."
He was Mr. Funny now. She spied an old wooden chair against the wall. "Never mind. I've got a better idea." She shooed him away. "Go back to your room."
He shrugged and disappeared out the door only to pop back in. "By the way, my name is Ty Walker."
"Chely Austin," she replied as if her mouth was on automatic.
As soon as he was gone again, Chely shut the door, grabbed the chair and wedged it under the doorknob. When she realized Spooky hadn't returned to the bedroom, she groaned and stomped her foot. "He'll probably snuggle up to Ty," she said. The cat didn't seem to care that a strange man had broken into the house. Animals tended to be able to spot unsavory characters, and Spooky hadn't even blinked at Ty. It was almost as if the cat knew he belonged here.
Time for bed, Miss Chely, before your thoughts stray even further into the spooky unknown.
Feeling a little safer, she returned to her bed, but sleep eluded her. It was probably best not to go to sleep anyway. What business did Ty Walker have in her house? She wasn't sure she was ready to believe his tale. And why had he snuck in through a window on the second floor? If he owned half the house, why didn't he have a key? But technically he never said he owned half the house, just half the property the house sat on. Joe said he was okay and maybe he was, but it still didn't make sense for him to break into her house, unless he really had thought there would be no one here.
She had to admit she found him attractive in a rough and rugged sort of way. Rolling over, she punched her pillow. Don't even go there. She didn't mix well with the bad boy types. Her heart had got shredded in that blender of love more times than she could count. No way would she do that again, even if the man had eyes to die for and the sexiest beard stubble she'd ever seen.
She shifted positions and willed her eyes to remain open. The more she thought about Ty Walker, the safer he appeared, until she was lulled into peaceful sleep.
The next morning a cross between a screech and a groan awakened Chely. Damn! Damn! Damn! She'd fallen asleep. Not smart! She squinted at the clock and moaned. It was only eight in the morning. Didn't people have respect for those who don't do mornings? What was the world coming to? A little bit of sarcasm flowed in her Austin blood. Her grandfather had been the president of the sarcasm club. God, how she missed him!
She snuggled deeper under the covers, reluctant to leave the bed's warmth to start the day. The only thing that motivated her to move was another ear-splitting screech and the thought she'd get to see Ty again. A quick glance at the chair wedged under the doorknob brought her back to her senses. Oh, for heaven's sake, Chely! What's the matter with you? He could be a con man for all you know. It would serve her no purpose to get all moony-eyed over the man, especially since he was here to steal half her house.
Irritated at the direction she'd allowed her mind to wander, she jerked the covers to one side and slid out of the bed. After pulling on a pair of thick wool socks to fend against the chilly hardwood floors, she walked downstairs and put on some water for a cup of hot cocoa.
Ty was on the back deck beside the kitchen, down on his hands and knees, ripping up rotten boards with a crowbar. A skill-saw--the source of the unholy early morning screech--lay on its side a few feet away beside a pile of rotten boards.
Spooky lay stretched out on the end of the deck, with one eye open, watching Ty in between licking his fur. A ladder leaned against the house below the window Ty had crawled through last night. Of course he would find the only window without a screen on the second floor. In the dark, no less. Just how familiar was he with this place?
Taking a sip of her cocoa, Chely studied him while he was unaware of her presence.
He whistled the tune from the "Andy Griffith Show" as he worked. Faded Levi's molded to his slim hips and strong thighs. A white T-shirt complimented his muscular biceps, and the thick cotton stretched across his broad chest.
When the muscles in his arm contracted as he yanked a nail out of one of the planks, she inhaled sharply at the sudden stab of desire that hit her square in the stomach. Unfortunately, she inhaled cocoa instead of air, and it flew down her windpipe. She coughed as she strangled on the hot liquid.
"Morning, Sleepy-head," he said with a grin. "You do know you're supposed to drink that instead of breathe it, don't you?"
"Gee, you're so smart." She smirked and spluttered out a couple of more coughs.
Ty laughed and returned to prying up boards.
"What are you doing?" she asked around another cough.
"Ripping up boards."
"I can see that, but why?"
"I plan on replacing this deck."
"That's very kind of you to do that for someone you don't even know." A smug smile rose to her lips before she took a slow sip from the mug. What would he have to say to that?
"Glad you think I'm such a nice guy, but I have to confess it's more of a selfish reason."
"Oh?" Was he going to throw that nonsense about owning half the property her house was built on her way again?
"My grandmother owns this part of the property," he said.
"I thought you said you owned it."
"I do, but not yet."
Chely shifted her weight. "Okay, I'll bite. What makes you think you, or whoever, owns half of it?"
"The property line runs right smack down the middle of this over-built, drafty old house."
"That's impossible. My grandfather built this house. He left it to me fair and square in his will."
"Well, your grandfather built half his house on my grandmother's property, which I plan on buying from her. Grandma doesn't need all of this land. The money will let her live out the remainder of her life in comfort."
Chely leaned against the house with a sudden urge to roll her eyes. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Nobody is stupid enough to build a house on two different pieces of property, are they?"
"I didn't say your grandfather was stupid. He just made a mistake. It happens all of the time."
"My grandfather didn't make mistakes." Her throat clogged up, causing the words to leap out on a sob. Of course he did. No one was perfect. What was wrong with her?
Ty glanced up at the sound of her tears and stared at her for a few seconds, tenderness flowing from his brown eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean any disrespect."
Chely nodded and cleared her throat, resisting the urge to wipe her eyes, and giving away the fact she had truly been on the verge of an all out whopping big crying jag--one of many since her grandfather's death.
"When did he pass away?" Ty asked.
"How did you..."
"My grandmother mentioned it." He ducked his head and pried at another nail.
"He ... um ... died about a month ago." Chely swallowed hard. She needed to get a rein on her emotions. She was made of stronger stuff than this, and she didn't want Ty Walker to think any different. He had another thing coming if he thought she was just going to let him waltz in here and take away half of her home.
She hugged the warm mug close to her chest. "If she owns half the property like you say, why did you sneak in last night?"
"You ... uh ... own the side that has the door. I didn't have a key. I had a devil of a time finding a way in. All the first floor windows were locked. Second floor windows usually aren't, but then I had to find one without a screen."
"Why didn't you just break a first floor window, unlock it and crawl inside? Probably safer than climbing up a shaky ladder in the middle of the night."
"What? Are you crazy? That's illegal." A grin tugged at his mouth.
"You could've knocked," she said softly.
"I didn't know anyone lived here."
"So, you're not familiar with this place?" she asked.
Ty glanced around. "I'm not sure."
What did he mean by that? When he didn't elaborate, Chely returned her attention to the question of ownership.
"I assume you have legal documents to back up what you've told me." He'd have to have something to back up his claim, or that meant he was a few wattage short of a full light.
Ty glanced up at her again. "Sort of."
"Sort of? What's that supposed to mean?"
"The only thing I have is a hand drawn map my grandmother stuffed in a drawer somewhere years ago."
Chely caught a laugh before it spilled all the way from her mouth. "That's all you've got?"
"Well, yeah--that and the deed to the property. Half of which runs down the middle of this house."
Why did he keep repeating himself? Did he think she was deaf?
"There's supposed to be a maple tree that lines up with the middle of the house, but I don't see it." He turned in a half circle until he was looking toward the edge of the backyard.
"You're crazy if you think I'm buying any of this nonsense you've been spouting since last night." Chely drained the rest of her cocoa. "A mistake has been made. On your part."
Ty stood and moved toward her, and her stupid heart put up an excited racket as he drew closer. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe our grandparents planned all of this. My Grandma always harped on me finding a beautiful woman and settling down." He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the liquid brown mustache from her upper lip.
"That sounds even more ridiculous." She tried to ignore the rapid beat of her pulse at his words and his touch. But when he gazed into her eyes, her heart ceased to function. It took her several seconds to remember how to breathe, and then things didn't work right, instead her breath came out in ragged jerks.
"Let's go inside and look at your grandfather's map of the property lines." He opened the screen door and allowed her to go ahead of him. "You do have a copy, don't you?" he asked.
"Of course I do." She stalked over to a drawer next to the sink and yanked it open. The map was jammed in the back under a yellowed pile of papers. After tugging it loose, she brought it to the table and spread it out. To her dismay it was hand drawn, too. Is that legal? Knowing her luck, it wasn't.
Ty glanced over it. The longer he studied it the more he scowled.
"What's wrong?" she asked with a smug smile. "Discover you don't own half the property after all?"
"No--I just can't figure out what the hell this means." He pointed at some writing on the makeshift blue print. "Follow along the fence down to the hollow log." He tossed the map on the table with a look of disgust. "It's the same nonsense on my grandmother's map."
"That's how the older generation used to mark property lines."
"What happens if the fence is pulled up, and a bear pushes the hollow log, and it rolls down a hill and stops several feet from where the property line is supposed to be?"
Gee, he's awfully pessimistic. "I never said it was accurate." She closed her eyes and sighed. That was the wrong thing to admit to this man. It only made his case stronger. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and she knew her slipup hadn't gone unnoticed.
"Want some coffee?" she asked to distract him.
"Would love some." He rolled up the map and leaned back in his chair. "Maybe we should walk the property lines this morning." He gazed at her with those dark eyes, eyes that belonged in a bedroom where he could make sweet love to her with his hard, masculine body.
Chely spun around to put her back to him. Her face burned as if she had been out in the hot sun all day without sunscreen protection. What was the matter with her anyway? He's a stranger, you idiot.
She fumbled with the glass coffeepot and dropped it in the sink. Wincing, she silently cursed, as she looked the glass over for cracks. Thank goodness it didn't break. She changed the filter in the coffeemaker and poured water in the top. With that done, she had no other choice, but to turn and face Ty again. At least she'd got her emotions under control. The last thing she needed or wanted was for him to know how attracted she was to him. He was here to disrupt her peaceful existence, for heaven's sake! This had been her grandfather's house; the property of a man who raised her when no one else wanted her, least of all her mother. There was no way she'd give up the house without a fight.
"If you're gonna look at me like that," he said slowly. "I'd feel better if you put that coffeepot down."
As the first drips of coffee plopped and sizzled onto the hot plate, Chely quickly shoved the pot into place.
"Well?" Ty asked.
"Well, what?" The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee filled the air. She loved that smell even though she preferred hot cocoa. Coffee tasted terribly bitter to smell so good. Just like Ty was terribly good-looking, which could mean he was nothing more than an ugly snake waiting for the opportune moment to strike, and then bang, she'd be dead. Remember, Joe said he was okay. Let's not get melodramatic here. She had known Joe since she was a teenager, and he wouldn't put her in danger.
"Do you want to go look at the property lines with me or not?"
Chely bit her lip and looked around the kitchen. She really needed to get started on the cleaning, but the warm air and the cheerful song of a bird beckoned her outside even if the sky was overcast. Excuses, excuses. What the heck. Why not? "Sure," she answered, not at all sure she should be spending more time with this man. She was starting to like him, and she didn't want to like him. Not one little bit.
Ty let his chair drop back down on all four legs. "Let's go." He stood and headed for the door.
Thunder grumbled overhead, and Chely glanced toward the window. "Sounds like rain."
"A little rain never hurt anybody." Ty said without breaking his stride.