"So, what are we looking for?" Deeply male, holding a wealth of interest, the Spanish-accented question was voiced near her ear.
Ducked down in her vantage point beside the tall spire of a hundred-plus year old tombstone, concentrating on setting the focus of the night vision camera, Jemma couldn't quite smother a startled yelp.
Evasive movement was reflexive. Gravel grated beneath her soles as she whirled on her heels. The narrow beam of the flashlight gripped tight in her hand jerked around with her. Her mind collected jumbled images as the tube of light swept over ornate carvings on tall marble and granite above ground tombs, shadowy winged statuary, their rapidly shifting shadows rendering them suddenly macabre creatures, and the lacy fall of long grey beards of Spanish moss that clung to mist-shrouded, gnarl-limbed ancient oaks in the old New Orleans cemetery.
Off balance, she sat down. Hard.
Her light settled on the rather dark Spanish features of a young man--twenty-seven or twenty-eight by her mental calculations--in period costume.
Amused features, she thought sourly as a brief white-toothed grin split his face at her over-large eyes and ignominious position. How had he snuck up on her when the entire area surrounding them was filled with white quartz chips? He crouched at her level on expensively booted feet, dark tight-fitting breeches tucked into their richly gleaming knee-high leather.
He stood with a lithe movement, towering over her as she pressed her free hand to her thumping heart.
Loosely fitting and long-sleeved, his white shirt was tailored to replicate the real thing. Slashed down the front, laces pulled through stitched eyes, it exposed a wide, hard chest to advantage. A belt of wide leather snugged around a trim waist, supporting the tooled and silver-inlaid scabbard for a beautifully wrought basket-handle rapier. Heavy ruffled lace cuffs draped the long fingers of hands set to slim hips, but it could hardly be called effeminate on this man. He carried an aura of danger and total confidence. Realizing she gaped, Jemma tore her eyes away.
Unable to shake the frisson of awareness that swept her, Jemma frowned. Some people took their Halloween costumes far too seriously. She made the snide judgment as what could be a large ruby winked from the heavy knot of gold adorning his pinky finger on the gentlemanly hand he extended. Stubborn to a fault she ignored it.
Embarrassed, she scrambled awkwardly to her feet. Shaken, taking her time dusting off to recover her composure, her glance darted to the ornate silver discs decorating the side seam of the trousers. They gleamed like real silver, as did the silver threads embroidered in an intricate and beautiful design.
Irritation touched her as she studied him. No one else was supposed to be in the cemetery tonight. The groundskeeper had assured her of that as he pulled the tall, arched wrought iron gates closed on her and her pile of equipment at dusk, using an antique skeleton key to lock them.
"What are you doing here?" Consternation made her demand more brusque than polite.
He cocked a slim ebony brow. His dark eyes, wistful beneath thick lashes, settled on the locked arches of the gate. "I cannot leave." Sadness touched his features as his gaze followed the line of the ten-foot, spike-topped, heavy wrought iron fence.
Unsure, Jemma shifted her weight from foot to foot. He was all dressed up. Probably regretting missing his party about now. He'd probably have won every prize there was, too, she allowed; he couldn't have picked anything better to showcase his natural appearance. He wore the clothing as if born to it.
But his answer, low and simple, was what made her feel unnecessarily rude. Jemma felt her face heat. She dropped her head so the blunt edges of her shoulder-length hair swung forward to hide her reaction, but not before she'd noted his striking profile. Long black hair swept back into a tail at the base of his neck. The style highlighted high cheekbones and hawkish features. She'd already felt the force of his black eyes with thick-fringed lashes, devastating in their regard. She'd experienced a curious sense of relief when they moved from her.
She cleared her throat. "Look," she peeked up, tone gentler, "you startled me. I'm supposed to be the only one in here tonight." Suffering an urge to explain in case he was a tourist who'd wandered off from one of the Haunted History tours, she gestured to the surrounding area. "This cemetery is always closed at dark. I only got permission to be here because it's an assignment for my job at the newspaper."
A slight frown creased her smooth forehead. Lifting her face she met his eyes, admitting, "Well, I get the job if I get the best picture. Three of us are out this Halloween night, and whoever captures the best photo will get the position."
"So, there are others locked into cemeteries tonight?" he inquired.
Unable to sustain his direct stare Jemma's gaze dropped, remembering the blatant partiality shown to the two men competing with her. Irritated anew, she softly stubbed the toe of her worn tennis shoe into the granite base of a tombstone, her answer a little sullen despite her best efforts.
"No. One is covering the main Halloween Parade with all the Hollywood celebrities, and the other is at the Vampire's Ball." She ground her teeth, eyes narrowed. Her orders? Get a photo of a ghost. She had gotten cemetery duty, the others openly snickering as they left to attend their assignments.
A ghost. Yeah, right.
But she refused to let them make her give up. She knew little of paranormal investigations, but resolutely set up her cameras in what looked like strategic places anyway.
"Is this...employment so importante then?" He seemed genuinely interested. And unless he could scale a ten-foot wrought iron fence they were stuck together for the duration of the night. Reluctant to be rude again, Jemma relented.
"If I want to eat and have a place to lay my head, it is," she answered. "My savings are almost gone. So yes, I'd say it's very important."
"Hmmmm." Emulating her movements he tapped the toe of his boot in rhythm alongside her grubby shoe. The disparity between the two had her putting both feet together on the ground. "And all this," he waved a graceful hand over her bags and stacked tripods, "is to capture a ghost?"
She took a protective half-step in front of it in case he tried to touch anything. Her photographic equipment was her life, each piece purchased with long hours of hard work and lovingly maintained. He took no offense, just waited for her answer.
"In theory," she finally said. Her dejection audible, he smiled.