If You Dare (Entangled Flaunt), page 1
If You Dare
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Lemmon. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.
Edited by Liz Pelletier
Cover design by Liz Pelletier
Ebook ISBN 978-1-62266-421-4
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition November 2013
Table of Contents
About the Author
For Niki. The sister I never had, but got to choose.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Lily McIntire pulled into the crumbling driveway of 102 Willow Street in Fantom, Ohio. Dust settled around her car, revealing the decaying building looming in front of her, its slats weather-beaten, front door padlocked, and porch stairs splintering. She chewed on her lip and reconsidered leaving the sanctuary of her car.
“Probably just full of spiders.” Her voice came out paper thin and not infused with the courage she so desperately needed. She wrinkled her nose. Lily hated spiders, and any number of creepy-crawly things, but spiders sounded better than what was allegedly lurking around inside Willow Mansion. Spiders, in this case, were preferable.
She wasn’t about to admit she was scared half out of her wits just being here, let alone staying overnight inside. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to give Marcus Black the satisfaction of winning the stupidest bet on earth.
She pushed her car door open and stepped into the mild autumn air. The leaves had changed from green to burnished gold a few weeks ago. Some of them still stubbornly clung to their hosts, but the majority lay strewn in the overgrown grass and clogging the warped gutters overhead.
Other than a few obvious building code violations, the house didn’t appear too oppressive in the streaming sunlight. And under the wide, bowing maples dappled with late September sunshine, Willow Mansion was almost…well…charming. A pleasant breeze kicked Lily’s hair and stuck a few stray strawberry-blond tendrils to her lip gloss. She tugged them away and smiled at the relic before her with newfound appreciation. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe all the rumors about the mansion had been wildly exaggerated.
A creak overhead drew her attention to the upstairs windows. An ancient shutter shifted on its hinges, let out a grating whine, and fell from its precarious perch. She leaped to the right, squeaking as the shutter crashed to the ground and sent a spray of pebbles onto her shoes. Heart hammering against her ribs, Lily reconsidered going inside. Spiders or ghosts were the least of her worries. Having a ceiling collapse in on her, on the other hand…
“Get me through this.” She addressed The Man Upstairs through clenched teeth. “And I’ll never drink tequila again.”
After work on Wednesday, Lily had allowed herself to be talked into a celebratory shot-and-beer night by her (mostly) well-meaning coworkers. The London project had taken them nearly three months of late nights and working on weekends to complete, but their team prevailed as the little-foursome-that-could.
Reginald London Superstores, the first to open in June of next year, would be built based on Cameron Design’s drawings and specifications. The account would bring in more profit than Lily’s best friend, Joanie Cameron, had seen since she and her husband, Clive, launched their firm. Lily was beyond proud of her friends, who deserved every good thing that came their way.
That asshat Marcus Black, however…
He may be part of the talent who helped knock this one out of the park, but it didn’t mean Lily had to like him. Just thinking of him raised her hackles. His know-it-all attitude, his cocky, better-than-you half smile, the train of swooning blondes he paraded at the annual Retail Space Design dinner every year. This year, Marcus would be accepting the coveted Designer of the Year award, much to Lily’s chagrin. If the award were judged on personality, she was sure he’d have lost to someone far more pedigreed.
Unfortunately, even though Marcus was a turd of the highest class, he was damn talented. One particularly late night, she and Marcus had hovered over several designs and a few containers of kung pao chicken, and she’d watched in awe as he slid his pencil over a fresh sheet of paper, sketching the design that would be the one London preferred over all of the others.
Watching that undeniably masculine hand dusted in dark hair move across the paper was like watching a painter capture a sunset with amazing accuracy. She’d leaned over him, captivated, while his aftershave tingled her senses and his deep voice penetrated her shell. The rare moment of amicable peace between them made her wonder if she’d misjudged him initially.
She needed to believe that Marcus, with his serial dating history and smarmy brand of charm, was no different than the other talented, good-looking jerks she’d dated in the past. She wasn’t willing to repeat the mistakes she’d made with a certain degenerate man-whore or two in the past. Never again.
She was being mean, she knew it, but Lily also needed the rage to get her inside the house. Even if it was misdirected. She made a wide arc around the downed shutter and opened her trunk.
Crowbar in hand, she approached the door, testing the tool’s weight. She’d never broken into a building before. Actually, the only lock-breaking experience she had was when she’d busted the little silver one on her older sister’s diary.
She took one last glance around the grounds to ensure she was alone, shoved the crowbar into the rusted U of the padlock, and gave it a sharp pull. The lock popped open and thudded onto the warped wooden porch.
“Ha!” An unexpected sense of accomplishment surged through her. “See?” She bent to retrieve the lock, tossed it into the air, and caught it in her palm. “I’m not uptight.”
Which was exactly what she’d been trying to prove Wednesday night when she went to the bar to celebrate the London contract. She’d managed to ignore Marcus’s jabs at her power suit, had gracefully accepted his challenge to a game of pool, and even proved she could hang out in a dive by shedding her fitted blazer and tossing it over a torn leather stool. But after two tequila shots, followed by two or three bottles of beer—she couldn’t remember—Lily had not only been baited into this lamebrain bet, she’d insisted on it.
Halfway back to her car, her phone buzzed from the pocket of her jeans. She knew who it was without looking. Sure enough, a text message from Mr. Wonderful read, there yet fraidy cat?
Ignore him, a mature, self-reliant voice asserted.
After debating for two seconds, she keyed in the word jerkwad and sent the text.
She’d never been good at listening to reason. Obviously, she thought, angling her head up to the second story, where filthy windows clouded with dust and decay seemed to transform into yawning faces with soulless eyes. Lily reminded herself that the human brain often put together ran
She closed her eyes and reopened them. Nothing but dirty glass and yellowed lace curtains. A shudder snaked up her spine anyway.
Lily spun on the heel of one sneaker, went to her trunk again, and dragged out a giant tote filled with bedding, a shiny new Coleman lantern, and a few hundred dollars’ worth of supplies from the local sporting goods store. She hauled her booty up the short staircase to the door and kicked it open.
She’d bet Marcus would laugh his tight butt off if he saw her lugging all this crap in to stay one night. And hadn’t she argued that fact adamantly on Wednesday?
“I’m not as girlie as you think, you know,” she’d insisted, a hand propped on her hip.
Marcus, who had been racking the pool balls at the other end of the table, paused to grunt at her statement before moving the eight ball to the center position and rolling the triangle into place.
That smug sound never failed to raise her ire. Chapping her ass seemed to be a talent Marcus Black had mastered. She’d mentally searched for the memory of one thing she’d done in her life that might make her seem less of a fuddy-duddy. The moment she’d thought of one, she flashed him a smile. “When I was in the eighth grade, my friend Valerie and I hiked up to Willow Mansion.”
He’d spared her a dry glance, wholly unimpressed.
“On Halloween,” she’d lied. “Night,” she added with panache.
Removing the triangle from the carefully arranged balls, Marcus flipped it end over end in a smooth, annoyingly graceful motion. Like she had in the past, she’d admired his strong hands. Capable of precision and artistry, but manly and rough enough to make her wonder what they’d feel like on the soft skin at the back of her neck. She’d had to blink out of that little alcohol-induced fantasy. Not entirely her fault. The man really was too attractive for his own good. That natural bad-boy swagger, the defined sinew of his forearms, and his voice, low and gravelly with a hint of humor, as showcased when he spoke next.
“Yeah, right. You wouldn’t last an hour in that place.” He’d raised one dark eyebrow and added, “What did you do, run up, touch the front door, then run giggling down the driveway?”
She’d given him an exaggerated eye roll and hoped it was convincing. The scene he’d described was exactly what her friend Val had done. Lily hadn’t been as brave. She’d stood a good fifty feet away from the house, her fair skin baking under the bright noonday sun while shouting at Valerie to hurry up before they got caught.
Predictably, embarrassment had heated her cheeks, likely highlighting the scattered freckles dotting her nose. Which she hated. “I’ll bet you I could.” Her voice had been smaller than she would’ve liked, but she forced herself to meet Marcus’s eyes. Sort of. Her gaze had trickled down to the dimple indenting his left cheek. She’d stared at it a beat too long, wondering idly how a man with whitened teeth and supple lips could still look rugged and manly.
“All night?” he’d asked.
His innuendo-loaded, two-word question sent her blood pumping extra fast through her veins and made her briefly entertain a mini-fantasy about what he would be like in bed. It wouldn’t surprise her in the least if he took his time there. He did everywhere else. Like when he sketched. She’d noticed the way he savored each and every line. Which got her thinking about his hands again...
It took her a full five seconds to recall what they’d been talking about. Dragging her eyes from his face, she’d chalked the end of her cue stick. “Yes. All night.”
“Okay, you’re on.” He slid around behind her, his body heat enveloping her, his warm breath fanning her hair and causing her nape to tingle. “Hundred bucks.”
Lily moved away from him, palming her throat to catch her breath. The scratch of his voice, his very presence was throwing her majorly off-kilter. She had to regain her focus, get her feet under her again. With a new sense of purpose, she’d leaned over the racked balls. Infusing her own voice with confidence, she said, “Come on, Marcus. We just made thousands of bucks on the London account. I think a bet like this one calls for higher stakes.” She cracked the cue ball into the center of the arranged balls. Lame. Her shot had done little more than roll the colorful orbs a few inches from their original resting places.
Behind her again, he’d grasped her hips with wide, warm hands, she assumed to move her to the side. But before he did, he squeezed his fingers into her skirt, just enough to dance along the line of “inappropriate.” Only it didn’t feel inappropriate. She felt like backing into his crotch and pressing her back into his chest. And then maybe rubbing against him a little. Right when she may have done just that, he moved to her left, robbing her of his heat and attention, and positioned himself over the cue ball.
“Fine.” He paused over the table and shot her a look laced with dark promises. “A thousand.”
She cleared her throat and adjusted her skirt as if she could wipe away the twin heated imprints of his hands on her body, or the look in his eyes that made her wonder for a split second if she wouldn’t regret sleeping with him. Even if it only lasted one night. He leaned over the table and she took a moment to appreciate the way his jeans outlined his perfect butt, the way the snug cotton tee molded over one muscular shoulder as he drew back the pool cue. His shot smacked into the balls and scattered them across the table. He sank a solid in one corner and another in the side pocket.
But of course.
“You have big ones.” A smile tilted on his stubbled face. Lily had to shake her head, mainly to get her brain back online. Note to self: Tequila makes you attracted to unworthy men.
They’d been discussing something before she’d lost time ogling him…oh, right, the bet. If not money, what? Then she’d landed on it—dug an idea out of the part of her brain not marinating in Jose Cuervo. “Hawaii.”
His aim slipped, sending the white ball into the corner pocket. He straightened, his smile vanishing as if dry-erased from his face. “I won that trip fair and square.”
Joanie and Clive had intended the trip as a second honeymoon, until Clive learned he’d be at a work-related conference during the first weekend in December. The Camerons put their trip on the line as a reward to the designer who could finish the most accounts in two months. Lily and Marcus were neck and neck the entire contest…until Marcus won by one account.
“I needed a shed behind my house,” he’d argued.
“And you needed Clive to design it?”
His grin returned. “If it were a walk-in closet, I would’ve consulted you.”
“What’s the matter?” she teased, baiting him. “Too scared to put Hawaii on the line?”
She half expected him to remind her of the reason behind the last-minute shed design. That Lily may have kind of, sort of signed an account he’d laid the initial groundwork on. Instead of bringing up the stolen account, Marcus’s jaw ticked in challenge. She’d tamped down the smile dying to produce itself on her face. Simply say the word “scared” to the man and he’d break his neck trying to prove he wasn’t.
“You’d have to stay the entire night,” he finally said.
Ha! She had him. “Done.”
“This Friday. The thirteenth.”
After she left the bar on Wednesday night, Lily had headed home. When her head hit the pillow, she’d congratulated herself for being so cunning. So smooth. She’d just made sure to claim the trip that should’ve been hers in the first place in twelve short hours.
But her mental rounds of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” came to an abrupt halt at the threshold of Willow Mansion. She could see boarded-up windows on the other side of the murky living room, and half of the treacherous staircase was missing every other railing leading to the second floor. She took one final bre
The pungent aroma of waterlogged floorboards hit her first. Light eked its way through knots in the board-covered windows, showing no more than the gloomy outline of a leaf-strewn floor and a decaying fireplace. Dust particles hung in the air in the filtered sunshine, tickling her nostrils.
No, at the moment, Lily didn’t feel the least bit smart or congratulatory. What she felt was creeped out.
Something skittered up the patterned wallpaper to her right. She didn’t turn her head. Her peripheral vision made out enough of the long, shining body and waving antennae to know who she’d be bunking with tonight.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t thought to put Raid on her shopping list.
She gulped down her disgust and tossed her supplies onto the center of the living room floor. The massive space would make for a workable ground zero. She could blow up the air mattress and surround herself with the comforts of home. It probably wouldn’t even feel like an allegedly haunted mansion by the time she got set up.
She kicked a downed spindle from the railing, and it rolled and hit the baseboard at the edge of the staircase with an echoing thud. One last thought about the shadow-faces peering down at her from upstairs, and it was decided: downstairs would have to do. No way was she going anywhere near the second story.
Lily ventured to the doorway to her left and poked her head inside. The wide kitchen was big enough for several servants, well-lit thanks to a few large, still-intact windows on that side of the house. But the warped linoleum, bones of dead mice or rats, and door-less cabinets encrusted with cobwebs kept the room from being mistaken for cozy.
She turned back to the living room. Funny, it was charming by comparison.
A loud bang made her jump and a pathetic little “Meep!” exit her lips. The front door hung open, leaves kicking across the entryway. She blew out a breath of relief. It was only the wind. Likely a sister gust to the one that had dropped a shutter very near her head earlier.