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The Haunting

The Haunting by Hope Tarr
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Caroline Street—formerly Main Street Fredericksburg, Virginia Present Day

"GODDAMNED, FUCKING PIECE of crap."

Like a cyclone riding the wave of an ill wind, the shouted cursing spiraled from the main floor upward to the attic rafters. Startled, American history professor Maggie Holliday knocked her head against the low-hanging eave, sending dust, cobwebs and dried lavender raining down like confetti on the just-discovered diary in her hands.

Blowing on the tooled leather, she got a whiff of the soothing scent of lavender. For whatever reason, the fragrance held the power to sweep her away to a kinder, gentler frame of mind. All her life, she'd been crazy about anything with lavender in it, from shampoos and perfumes to soaps and sachets. When her Realtor had first brought her up into the attic of the 1850s Victorian, the aroma had wrapped itself about her like welcoming arms. She'd taken it as a sign that the house and she were meant to be.

Finding the diary struck her as similarly symbolic. When she'd come up to nail a loose window shutter in place in preparation for the storm headed their way, she'd never expected to unearth a one-hundred-forty-five-year-old treasure from behind a plank of rotted wallboard. Whether the book had fallen through the proverbial cracks or been placed there purposely was as much a mystery as who had pinned lavender to the eave and why. However it had come to be there, it had survived the past century-plus in amazing shape, the cover barely cracked, the pages yellowed ever so slightly about the curled edges. So far she'd only had the chance to peek at the main page on which Diary of Isabel Marie Earnshaw, Fredericksburg, Virginia was penned in neat, elegant script. Presumably the diarist was an early, perhaps even original occupant of the house she'd just bought, a lovely circa 1850 Victorian in the heart of the Fredericksburg Historic District. Tingling with anticipation, she could hardly wait to take the diary downstairs, find a quiet place and start reading.

Footfalls stomping up the attic stairs confirmed that such guilty pleasures would have to keep until later. Knowing how bad her boyfriend was with books—her treasured first edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin had never been the same since he'd touched it—she laid the diary on the built-in shelving, making a mental note to retrieve it later.

The attic door opened, and Richard poked his ash-blond head inside. "There you are."

He crossed the threshold, letting the old door slam behind him. Dressed in a pristine white polo shirt and khaki pants, he looked more ready for a day of golfing than moving, but then he'd done a lot more directing from the sidelines than hands-on helping.

"What are you doing up here, anyway? didn't you hear me calling you?"

What am I, a doggie dropout from obedience school? Rather than confront him and ruin her first day in her new home with fighting, she summoned her calm, sane voice and answered, " We're supposed to have a storm later, and I wanted to make sure that window was shut properly."

Damn, I did it again. This was her house, not to mention her life. She shouldn't have to explain herself like a guilty teenager caught smoking a reefer in her room. And yet whenever she was with Richard, she found herself doing just that, justifying her every action as if to showcase how normal she was.

Fix one thing at a time, Maggie. With a life as messed up as yours, there are plenty of broken parts to work on before you tackle getting out of your current romantic relationship.

Not that she'd experienced much romancing lately. Richard tended to pout whenever he didn't feel as though he was getting adequate TLC. And over the past two whirlwind weeks he hadn't received much from her. Defending her doctoral dissertation, snagging an assistant professorship in the history department at the University of Mary Washington and purchasing her first house hadn't left her much spare time for stroking Richard's tender ego—or anything else of his.

He crossed the dusty floor toward her, mud and wet grass caking the sides of his deck shoes. Thinking of the beautifully refinished downstairs hardwood floors he'd just traipsed through, she swallowed a sigh. Richard might be a nationally renowned psychiatrist with a thriving Washington, D.C., practice and several federally funded research studies to his credit, but at times like this, he was such a guy—a guy who couldn't be bothered to wipe his feet on the doormat she'd made sure to lay out.

Following her gaze down to his feet, he frowned. "Damn, I just bought these shoes and now, look at them—ruined." He knocked the rubber sole of first one and then the other shoe against the wall, splintering off a hunk of paneling—and a little piece of Maggie's heart.

"Richard, please stop that." Horrified, she stooped to survey the damage. "These boards are more than a hundred years old."

Looking down at her, he shrugged. "From what I can tell, a few rotted boards are the least of your worries. The way those movers were banging around earlier, you're lucky the place is still standing given the condition it's in. Those floors downstairs are riddled with wormholes."

Straightening, Maggie pocketed the broken piece, feeling as beaten up emotionally as her poor wall was physically. "This house was built in 1850 or thereabout. It survived the Civil War and more owner moves than we'll ever know. Those hand-hewn timbers in the basement alone were probably harvested from an even older structure. They're solid as Sheet-rock. As for the wormholes, they're part of the period charm."

Richard snorted. "Yeah, right. From what I can tell from walking around that mosquito-infested jungle you call a garden, period charm translates to warped wood and broken slates."

He paused to scratch the insect welts peppering his forearms. Ordinarily she'd offer to go downstairs and dig an antihistamine out of her purse, but she wasn't feeling particularly nice right now.

"Look, Richard, I know the yard is overgrown and I'm going to get to work on that along with managing the mosquito problem. The couple who sold me the house must be in their seventies. The husband is a master gardener, but he hasn't been able to keep the yard up the way he used to. It's going to take me some time, but once I get out there and start weeding and trimming and edging, it's going to be a lovely spot."

A lovely spot she envisioned sharing with a special someone over candlelit dinners on the backyard patio and glasses of mint iced tea on the front porch swing—a special someone, not Richard. Trying to move with his so-called help had been hell on earth, but at least it had cinched her decision. She was going to have to break up with him. It was no longer a matter of if but of when. Before she could find her Mr. Right, she'd have to knuckle down and get rid of Mr. Terribly Wrong.

He shook his head, a condescending mannerism that was getting really old—like the expiration date on their so-called relationship. "Time you won't have once school starts up in the fall. In the meantime, you still have to finish the revisions on your dissertation. Face it, there are only twenty-four hours in a day."

She drew a deep breath, feeling as if she were arming for battle. Even if it was only a battle of wills, these skirmishes always left her feeling drained yet hostile—a combustive emotional mix that was the psychological equivalent of a Molotov cocktail.

"I don't start teaching until the fall, which is months away. Once I do, I'll save a good three hours a day by not commuting."

He rolled his pale blue eyes at her. "You could have had your pick of history departments in any university in the country. You didn't have to settle for an assistant professor-ship at a Podunk college like Mary Washington or take on a four thousand square foot money pit in a backwater like Fredericksburg."

If he'd deliberately set out to blunt her bliss, he couldn't have done a better job. Hearing the words Podunk, money pit and backwater in the same sentence was the ultimate put-down, meant to make her doubt herself—again.

Determined not to let him get away with it this time—their doctor-patient relationship was all in the past—Maggie lifted her chin and ticked off the list of attributes she'd mentally rehearsed since she'd closed on the house the week before. "Fredericksburg isn't a backwater, it's a culturally vibrant city filled with artists and musicians and yes, history, our nation's history. Mary Washington offered me a tenure-track professorship. The institution has university status now, one of its English faculty recently won a Pulitzer for her poetry and the American history program has the reputation of being one of the best in the country. As for this house, it passed the termite inspection with flying colors and the home inspection with just a few minor repairs flagged, so I'd hardly call it a money pit. In fact, historic properties typically appreciate more quickly than new ones, so actually this house is a pretty solid investment."

Richard raked a hand through his precision-cut hair. Unlike her unruly waist-length copper-brown locks, his fell back into perfect place the instant he drew his hand away. "There's no need to be defensive. I'm just concerned you haven't thought through the move."

She waved a hand in the air, sick to death of being saddled with a psychological label like defensive every time they had a difference of opinion. "Please, Richard, spare me the psychoanalysis. I know it's what you do for a living, but in case you forgot, I'm not your client anymore. You cured me, remember?"

Bull's-eye. She was either cured or she was crazy, but he couldn't have it both ways. For someone who liked to think of himself as Generation X's answer to Sigmund Freud, her barb would have hit smack-dab in the heart of his professional ego.

Tone hurt, he said, " I'm just concerned you're acting on impulse. To make so many major changes only a year out from losing both your parents and only sibling, do you really think it's wise? You can't escape your grief by running away, you know. you're going to have to confront your survivor's guilt sooner or later whether you live in D.C. or Fredericksburg."

Maggie felt tears prick her eyes. Her family's death in a plane crash the year before was her Achilles" heel. As her former therapist, Richard of all people knew how deeply the tragedy had affected her. Just when she told herself she was getting over it, getting strong, he made a point of picking at the scabbed wound.

"I don't have survivor's guilt," she snapped, aware she sounded a little shrill. "Well, at least not anymore. I realize it's not my fault Mom and Dad and Trisha decided to switch flights."

It had been Christmastime, and she'd been in the thick of drafting her dissertation. To make her life easier, they'd decided to spend the holiday with her in D.C. rather than having her come to them as she had in previous years. The direct flight out of Tampa had promised to put them into Reagan National Airport several hours early, in plenty of time to spend Christmas Eve together as a family—only they'd never landed.

He cocked his head to the side and regarded her, all traces of hurt obliterated by his self-satisfied smile. "Are you sure about that?"

Was she sure? One thing she was sure of was that life was unpredictable. There were no guarantees—all the more reason to stop brooding over the past, fretting over the future and start living in the present. Moving to a historic house in the heart of a small town, a real community where she could live and work and get involved in cultural events and civic affairs, had been her dream for a very long time now.

The irony was that it had taken losing what she loved best, her family, to make it happen. Trisha's death left Maggie as her parents" sole heir. The estate wasn't a fortune by any means, but it was enough to enable her to buy the four-bedroom old house outright, something she couldn't have done on her salary.

"The only things I'm expecting to escape by moving here are gridlock traffic and subdivision housing." Taking off her glasses, she kneaded the headache throbbing behind her eyes.

"Richard, please, give me a break. I've just been handed the keys to my first home, which also happens to be my absolute dream house, and I'd like to enjoy the moment, maybe even go for broke and enjoy the whole day. Can't you just be happy for me?, Can't you just walk out of my life without my having to tell you to get lost?

"Of course I'm happy for you, baby." Expression softening, he slipped his arms about her waist, and she braced herself not to pull away. Drawing her against him, he dropped his voice and pressed his mouth against her ear. "By the way, have you gotten around to opening my housewarming gift yet?"

At the mention of his gift, it was all Maggie could do not to shove both hands against his chest. When earlier he'd presented her with the long, slender box, she'd envisioned a bracelet or maybe a nice fountain pen engraved with her name and new degree. Instead the contents had turned out to be a dildo. The hot-pink, battery-operated, penis-shaped sex toy featured a G-spot locator and clitoral stimulator—the Cadillac of do-ityourselfers.Along with the vibrator, he'd written her a prescription for Prozac. She'd dropped both in the bottom drawer of her night table as soon as the movers had set it in place.

It was bad enough being thirty years old and frigid—make that orgasmically challenged—without getting cheesy sex toys as reminder gifts. As much as she enjoyed the preliminaries of lovemaking, once the main event got rocking and rolling, she just couldn't seem to let go. Sexual dysfunction wasn't what had sent her to seek psychiatric help—Richard's help—but in the course of their intensive weekly sessions, the topic had come up with a host of other stress-related symptoms—nightmares, insomnia, hives and a sudden digestive intolerance to wheat. And yet after only five weekly sessions, he'd declared her cured, dismissed her as his patient and screwed her on his office couch. That was six months ago, and she wasn't any closer to cured than she'd been when she'd first walked into his office, although thankfully the hives had subsided and she could once again pack pasta with the best of them. Looking back with a clearer mind and wide-open eyes, she saw how grossly he'd taken advantage of her vulnerability. That realization packaged with his persistent me-first attitude made it hard for her to feel loving toward him, let alone lustful. Not only couldn't she climax but she couldn't get wet with him, either. you'd think a smart guy like Richard would take the hint.

Harlequin; April 2007
244 pages; ISBN 9781426800023
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Haunting
Author: Hope Tarr
 
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ISBNs
1426800029
9780373793211
9781426800023