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Relative Strangers

Relative Strangers by Kathy Lynn Emerson
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Waycross Springs, Maine boasts a grand old hotel, Sinclair House, where a ghost appears to Corrie Ballantyne. Adrienne is an ancestor of handsome Lucas Sinclair, who owns the hotel, and she seems to push Lucas and Corrie together. Is this just ghostly matchmaking, or does Adrienne have a more urgent agenda this Christmastime?

Contemporary Romance by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Belgrave House; November 1997
130 pages; ISBN 9780553445848
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Relative Strangers
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson

"Shopping for a Christmas present, Corrie?" Rachel gave her friend a nudge and a saucy wink.

Caught staring at the good-looking stranger, Cor­rie Ballantyne sent Rachel a rueful glance. "Dream on."

"He's a dream boat, all right. Tall. Dark. Hand­some." Rachel began to hum "Some Enchanted Eve­ning" under her breath.

In spite of her best intentions, Corrie's gaze slid back across the room crowded with hotel guests and townspeople. She wasn't looking for a vacation ro­mance. On the other hand, there seemed to be no harm in fantasizing a bit.

This particular man could provoke lustful thoughts in a nearsighted octogenarian. That thick, wavy black hair was just meant to be mussed. His narrow face featured high cheekbones, a long, straight nose, and a strong jaw. In combination with height and a superb physique, those assets produced the perfect image of a handsome, mysterious, slightly dangerous heart­breaker.

The outfit he wore reinforced the image. He was in costume, decked out in all the sartorial splendor of a proper gentleman of the late 1880s. The entire staff of the Sinclair House was in nineteenth-century attire, since the evening's entertainment at the hotel was billed as "an old-fashioned Christmas Eve," but he alone managed to project the illusion of a Gothic hero.

The Currier & Ives setting was nice, but to Cor­rie's mind this dash of Victorian melodrama added just the right touch. She continued to stare, envisioning him as an English aristocrat with some deep, dark se­cret sorrow. She was quite pleased with that interpre­tation until he bent down to speak to a man in a wheelchair.

He smiled then, a real dazzler that revealed an un­expected dimple in his formidable chin. The image of brooding misanthrope vanished. Only a gorgeous specimen of the male of the species remained.

"Glad I suggested we come here?" Rachel asked.

"Here" was an opulent hotel left over from the nineteenth century. One of the few summer resorts to survive that bygone era, in part by winterizing one section of the hotel, it was now exclusive, expensive, and unique, catering to those who were fed up with nothing but fast food and generic motels. There weren't even any television sets in the bedrooms. In­stead, guests had to leave their spacious, handsomely appointed chambers and seek out the variety of live entertainment offered in parlors, private dining halls, ballrooms, and lounges. In this aptly named Fireside Room, fragrant applewood burned in a huge granite fireplace, its pungent aroma blending with the scent of pine needles.

Corrie shifted her attention to Rachel, though she remained aware of the man across the room. "This place makes me remember the stories my grand­mother used to tell my brothers and me when we were kids. All about the big hotels in the Catskills, and about my great-grandmother Daisy."

"Was she the one who was scrubbing pots and pans in the hotel kitchen, wearing her fingers to the bone, when your great-grandfather came along, possibly on a big white horse, to rescue her?"

"That's the one. She married him and scrubbed his pots and pans instead." Corrie knew she sounded cyni­cal, but the role of the woman in marriage had been a sore point with her since her own mother's death just after Christmas the year before.

Her subsequent estrangement from her father and brothers was the reason she was here in Maine for the holidays, rather than back home in New York State. No way would she take on the traditional woman's role with her family, not after her mother had sacri­ficed her health by catering to the menfolk.

Corrie Ballantyne had no intention of letting his­tory repeat itself.

Deciding it was time to focus on something else, since there was no sense in dwelling on a past she couldn't change, Corrie searched the crowd for Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome. He would make a fine di­version.

Just as she spotted him, he looked up, staring right at her with a mixture of interest and what seemed to be irritation. After a long, breathless moment, he broke eye contact.

"Well," Corrie murmured. "That was odd." And strangely erotic.

She was relieved when a touch on her forearm and a pleasantly modulated female voice distracted her from her increasingly unrealistic thoughts about the stranger.

"We're all going to sing Christmas carols soon. I hope you'll join us." The woman who'd checked them into the hotel earlier that day had a hostess's smile firmly fixed on her plain, winter-pale face. "I'm Joyce Sinclair," she added.

"Sinclair, you say?" Rachel pounced on the sur­name. "Does that mean you own this place?"

"The family does." Joyce absently patted one of the elaborate twists into which her brown hair, liber­ally streaked with white strands, had been styled.

She was, Corrie speculated, one of those women who always looked years younger than they really were. Not a bit of makeup aided that youthful appear­ance, either. The lack of any lent a certain authenticity to her turn-of-the-century costume, an elaborate gown of deep wine-red with flounces and furbelows galore.

"Eggnog and song are our Christmas traditions here at the Sinclair House," Joyce continued, proffering songbooks. "We'd be pleased if you'd join in the singing."

"You wouldn't be pleased if you ever heard me sing," Corrie warned her, but she accepted the brightly covered booklet.

"She might be persuaded," Rachel said, "if you were to introduce her to that good-looking devil over there."

"Rachel!" Corrie tried to sound disapproving but had to fight back a laugh.

Some things never changed, she thought. Rachel had reveled in being outrageous in high school. More than a dozen years later, she was just as flamboyant, just as likely to say whatever popped into her mind, and just as unconcerned about what others might think.

"That's my son, Lucas," Joyce said.

"Is he married?" Rachel asked.

''Not at the moment."

A speculative gleam lit Rachel's eyes as she glanced, rather pointedly, at Corrie. Joyce caught the look and responded with a conspiratorial smile.

"Oh, no, you don't," Corrie said.

She'd have had more luck stopping a wrecking ball in midswing. Joyce bulldozed a path through the crowd, towing both Corrie and Rachel along in her wake, and neatly intercepted her son on his way to the window alcove that housed a grand piano.

"Lucas, dear," she trilled. "I want you to meet Ra­chel Diamond." Then, with what amounted to a flour­ish, she added, "And this is Corrie Ballantyne."

"Good evening, ladies."

His deep voice was compatible with the brooding hero of Corrie's imagination. She expected to find her­self meeting dark, fathomless eyes to match, but in­stead they were hazel, a particularly appealing shade highlighted with flecks of green.

Joyce's painfully obvious attempt to play match­maker was followed by her hasty retreat. "Time to dispense good cheer and songbooks to the other guests," she declared.

A moment of awkward silence followed her depar­ture. Corrie said nothing, disconcerted by a whiff of bay rum. He'd really gotten into this turn-of-the-century thing.

Curious about him, her earlier interest deepening now that she was in his presence, she held herself stiffly so as not to betray any hint of what she was feeling. A mature woman approaching her thirtieth birthday should not have the urge to swoon when pre­sented to a handsome stranger. Not in this day and age.

"Great costume," Rachel said, daring to run one fingertip over the velvet trim on Lucas Sinclair's la­pels.

His professional innkeeper's expression never wa­vered. "You make quite a splash yourself, Ms. Dia­mond." His tone of voice was suave, and as rich and warm as a chocolate soufflé

To Corrie, he said nothing. She felt a twinge of disappointment, forgetting for a moment that she did not want to attract his attention, but she wasn't sur­prised by the snub. Next to Rachel she often became invisible.

Bright colors had been Rachel's trademark even when she and Corrie were teenagers. Tonight Rachel's dinner dress was brilliant orange with a matching rib­bon worked into her dark brown hair. Corrie was in dove-gray, a full-length cocktail dress chosen precisely because it conveyed a low-key anonymity. She could just imagine what the dashing Mr. Sinclair saw when he looked at her, if he noticed her at all—a woman of average weight, average height, average build, and av­erage coloring with plain brown hair and ordinary blue eyes.

Perhaps it was time for a change, Corrie thought. After all, she was there on vacation. The problem with that plan was that her entire wardrobe had been cho­sen to fit her professional image. As a publicist, her job was to make sure her clients were in the spotlight. She stayed behind the scenes, going to great lengths to blend into the background rather than stand out. The only outrageous garment she owned was the hot-pink ski parka Rachel had just given her as an early Christ­mas present.

Then she sensed Lucas Sinclair's intense gaze set­tling on her. She had to fight an urge to fidget, and she felt a sudden empathy with animals in a zoo. When he spoke to her, his words were innocuous, a question about which of the costumes worn by the staff she liked best, but she avoided meeting his eyes when she answered.

"My favorite is the brown-and-cream number." She gestured vaguely toward the fireplace, where she'd last seen the woman wearing that particularly elabo­rate dress.

When Lucas turned to look, Corrie did the same. There was no sign now of the wearer of the gown. Her gaze was drawn back to his patrician profile. For a moment he seemed puzzled, then he responded with a deep, rumbling chuckle.

"You must have spotted Adrienne," he said. "Would you like to be introduced to her?"

* * * *

Still smiling, Lucas navigated a path through the milling crowd, until he and Corrie stood before the fireplace. There he indicated the enormous gilt-framed oil painting hanging over the mantel, a full-length portrait of a woman. Her gown was pale brown and trimmed with bows, its cream-colored panels em­broidered in figures of red, yellow, and green.

"Ms. Ballantyne," he said, careful to keep the mixed emotions he was feeling out of his voice, "may I present Adrienne Sinclair."

He watched Corrie Ballantyne as she studied the portrait, trying to figure out what it was that drew him to her in such a disconcertingly powerful way. There was chemistry between them. No mistake about that. He'd known it from the moment he looked up and found this elegant woman staring at him from the op­posite side of the Fireside Room. He'd quickly averted his gaze, but it had already been too late.

The intensity of that jolt of instant attraction had both surprised and dismayed him, for unpleasant memories had rushed in behind it, rapidly transform­ing his reaction to profound annoyance, most of it directed at himself. His aversion to what he'd experi­enced wasn't Corrie's fault. She didn't know that there had been another time in his life when he'd felt this same kind of immediate, powerful sexual pull toward a complete stranger. She didn't know that in the first instance, he had made the disastrous mistake of mar­rying the object of his desire.

As he'd worked the holiday crowd, studiously avoiding Corrie, he'd been unable to resist sending swift, seemingly casual glances her way. What he'd seen had reassured him. She looked nothing like Dina, his ex-wife. Corrie had shiny medium-length hair, light brown in color. Though her conservative gown concealed her figure, he had the impression of a slen­der build and shapely legs. It remained to be seen if Corrie resembled Dina in other, less obvious ways.

No, it didn't, he told himself firmly. He was only standing this close to her now because his mother, up to her old matchmaking tricks, had pushed them to­gether.

There was no reason he had to get to know Corrie Ballantyne better. In fact, if he had any sense, he'd avoid her completely during the rest of her stay at the Sinclair House.

Her friend, he noticed, had stopped to chat with another guest but was still managing to keep an eye on them. Another matchmaker. Resentment simmered just under the surface. Lucas did not like being manipulated, especially by women. That he'd already been attracted to Corrie before these two busybodies got into the act only made him more determined to resist her. He would treat Corrie the same way he would any other patron of the hotel.

Aware he'd been silent too long and that Corrie was slanting him a quizzical look, he launched into the patter he usually gave to people viewing this portrait. "Adrienne Sinclair was my great-great-grandmother, married to the first Lucas Sinclair. She and her hus­band expanded what until then had been only a small country inn. Within ten years, with the help of over three hundred employees, the place was a completely self-contained grand hotel with rooms for four hun­dred and fifty guests. Together Lucas and Adrienne made the Sinclair House a world-renowned resort. A hundred years ago you couldn't have walked through our lobby without spotting some famous per­son or other. Financiers, lumber barons, politicians, princes—they all came to the Sinclair House to be pampered. And to drink the healing waters of Sinclair Spring. The only thing that really compares nowadays is the luxury you find on a cruise ship."

"Amazing how she's re-created the gown in such detail," Corrie murmured. "Even the bustle and the accessories."

She was staring at the portrait with rapt interest. Frowning, Lucas looked at the painted gloves, the slip­pers with the ornate buckles, the fan. Then he studied Corrie's face again. He was obviously missing something. Her comment had been a complete non se­quitur. "What do you mean by 're-create'?" he asked.

"Well, it says here"—she pointed to a small brass plate set into the bottom of the picture frame—"that Adrienne was born in 1847 and died in 1897. So obvi­ously she's not the one wearing this dress tonight."

"No one is wearing this dress tonight."

"Someone is," Corrie insisted. "Or one very like it. I saw her standing right here not twenty minutes ago."

"I don't believe so, Ms. Ballantyne. A trick of the light, perhaps? You saw the portrait and thought Adri­enne was a real woman?"

He could see in eyes the color of the first forget-me-nots of spring that she was annoyed by his com­ment. Her reaction intrigued him. Perhaps, he thought, she wasn't any more enthusiastic about being the subject of a matchmaking experiment than he was. And yet she was not indifferent to him. In the instant before she blinked and looked away, he caught the reflection of his own desire in her beautiful eyes.

She'd be there only a short while and then gone again, he reminded himself. He'd always made it a policy not to indulge in flings, and he'd long since vowed never to marry again.

Lucas Sinclair had no intention of letting history repeat itself.

"I know what I saw," Corrie said.

"There is no one here tonight portraying Adri­enne," he told her, sure of his facts. "I would know. I arrange for all the costume rentals."

"Are you positive you've seen every single person at the party? There's quite a crowd."

Lucas's genial veneer slipped a little. He felt off balance, oddly uncertain in Corrie's presence. Most uncharacteristically, he spoke his first thought aloud. "Just how much of my mother's famous rum-laced eggnog did you drink before you saw this woman?"

As soon as the words were out, he knew the remark had been both rude and uncalled for. Even if it was the correct explanation, Corrie would be fully justified in taking offense. Instead, although her eyes narrowed, she remained calm, and what she said showed remark­able insight.

"I suppose you think if you irritate me, it will dis­courage me from being interested in you. There's no need. Let's not beat around the bush. We both caught that look your mother and my friend Rachel ex­changed when we were introduced."

"They meant well. Still, I—"

Corrie waved off his attempt to apologize. "They may have romantic ideas, Mr. Sinclair, but I do not. I am not in the market for a husband or a love affair." She hesitated, as if uncertain she wanted to go on, then blurted out the rest of what was on her mind. "Just because you're reasonably good-looking and obviously wealthy, you needn't think that every plain little woman in the world will automatically fall at your feet!"

Plain little woman?

Startled to hear her speak of herself in those terms, Lucas forgot that he'd been looking for an excuse to put some distance between them. Suddenly he wanted to pursue this conversation.

A commotion at the entrance to the Fireside Room prevented him. Once he saw what was happening and recognized their unexpected and unwelcome guest, he had no choice but to abandon Corrie and resume his duties as manager of the hotel.

"Excuse me," he muttered, and left Corrie's side with more abruptness than was polite.

He was still peripherally aware of her, staring after him in confusion as he walked away. He was also cog­nizant of other guests at the party, and smiled pleasantly at one and all as he wove his way through the crowd toward the door. But the focus of his attention was an obsequious little man in a black suit, a man who was raising Joyce Sinclair's hand to his lying lips and kissing it in a mockery of that gallant gesture of re­spect.

With speed and efficiency, Lucas intervened, slip­ping an arm around his mother's shoulders and easing her away from the oily grip of Stanley Kelvin. "I'm surprised you had the nerve to show up here, Kelvin," he said.

What Lucas wanted to do was pick the rat up by the scruff of his neck and hurl him into the nearest snowbank, but the hotel didn't need any more bad publicity, and Kelvin was just the sort who'd jump at the chance to file a lawsuit. Lucas contented himself with a threatening glower.

"This is an open house," Kelvin said with a smirk. "You invited the whole town of Waycross Springs. That means I'm welcome too."

"Everyone is welcome," Joyce said before Lucas could deny Kelvin entry. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Stanley, I must go check on Hugh. I'm afraid I've been neglecting him." With a speaking glance at her son, she hurried off. Hugh, Lucas's father, was confined to a wheelchair, but he had a clear view of all the goings-on. If he'd witnessed Kelvin slobbering a kiss on his wife's hand, he'd be upset. That had probably been Kelvin's intention.

"How is old Hugh?" the intruder asked.

Controlling the urge to throw a punch that would erase that supercilious smile, Lucas kept his voice level. "My father is recovering." No thanks to you, he added silently. "Why are you really here, Kelvin?"

The bitterness in the other man's voice took Lucas aback. "I can't afford to pass up free food, Sinclair." With that he pushed past his reluctant host and headed for the buffet table.

* * * *

"Trouble in paradise?" Rachel asked as she joined Corrie at the hearth. "I thought you'd have tall, dark, and handsome eating out of your hand by now."

"I'd rather he use a plate."

"Oops. He didn't like being set up, huh?"

"You could say that. Neither did I."

"Darn," Rachel grumbled. "I'd have sworn I saw sparks between the two of you."

Corrie said nothing. She didn't want to encourage her friend, yet she couldn't deny to herself that some­thing had been simmering between them, a powerful attraction that defied reasonable explanation. She couldn't imagine why she should be drawn to Lucas Sinclair, not when he had that superior, know-it-all attitude. She hated that in a man.

A stir in the crowd signaled that Lucas was making his way to the Steinway situated in one of the room's many window alcoves. The singing was about to begin.

"Come on, Corrie," Rachel said. "If I have the chutzpah to sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve, you can belt out a few lyrics too."

"Rachel, don't you remember? I sound like a dying frog when I sing."

"Oh." Rachel's stricken expression told Corrie that her old friend was indeed recalling some past occasion when she'd heard Corrie's attempts to sing. "Well, you can move your lips, can't you? Just mouth the words."

Rachel began to flip through the songbook, perus­ing the lyrics and keeping up a steady flow of irrever­ent wisecracks, until a red-vested waiter appeared at her elbow and offered refills of rum-laced eggnog. Corrie waved him away. She'd been drinking hers plain and after Lucas's nasty remark, she wasn't about to start imbibing the hard stuff.

The first familiar notes of "Deck the Halls" sounded from the alcove. Singing started hesitantly, but soon picked up both energy and volume as Lucas Sinclair's deep, rich baritone took the lead.

Corrie stuck to her resolve not to sing. She also made a concerted effort to dismiss Lucas Sinclair from her mind. As the singing continued, she thought she was succeeding.

The Fireside Room combined the ambiance of a bygone era with the atmosphere of a holiday party held in a private home. It had been decorated with all the traditional trappings of a typical New England Christmas—wreaths, boughs, pinecones, and the in­evitable tree. The other guests were so friendly that Corrie soon felt as if many of them were old acquain­tances. She was ensconced on one of the comfortable couches near the fireplace, exchanging gingerbread recipes with a schoolteacher from Topeka, when she once again caught sight of the woman wearing Adri­enne Sinclair's gown.

The costumed figure stood alone, partly in shadow, at the opposite side of the large room. Corrie consid­ered going over to the piano and tapping Lucas on the shoulder. He couldn't miss the woman if he looked up from his music. But she was comfortable where she was. Let Lucas think what he wanted, she decided. It didn't matter to her.

She watched the Adrienne-clone until the song ended, thinking that the woman's costume made the others look like cheap fancy dress. Even at this dis­tance, Corrie could see that the gown was incredibly detailed, and that it appeared to be exactly like the one in the portrait.

A chorus of cheers and heartfelt applause heralded a change in pianists. Corrie joined in the applause and watched as Joyce replaced Lucas at the keyboard. After he began to circulate, still singing, Corrie glanced back at the spot where she'd last seen Adrienne's gown. She blinked in confusion, for in the minute that her atten­tion had been elsewhere, the mysterious woman seemed to have vanished into thin air.

* * * *

The Sinclair House's resident ghost sighed deeply, a sound no one but Corrie Ballantyne could even hope to hear. Adrienne knew she needed to conserve energy. She'd have to content herself with watching the rest of what went on in the Fireside Room from a dematerialized state. Remaining solid sapped too much of her strength.

Still, it had been enough. Corrie had seen her. Twice. For the first time in fifty years, someone had come to the Sinclair House who could not only sense Adrienne's presence but also perceive her as she had been, a corporeal being, as real as anyone else in the room.

Quiet elation filled her. She now had the opportunity to set things right. If she succeeded, she would finally be al­lowed to rejoin her husband, her Lucas, in the hereafter. They'd been separated for such a long time, over a hundred years.

Thinking of Lucas made Adrienne wonder if Corrie's sensitivity to the paranormal, already strong, would increase if she became intimate with a Sinclair male. Without any interference from Adrienne, Corrie had already caught the attention of Adrienne's great-great-grandson, the second Lucas Sinclair. About time the boy showed an interest in someone, Adrienne thought. And Corrie wasn't indifferent to him, either. She resolved then and there to do everything in her power to bring the two of them together. Kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

Adrienne was smiling as she settled in to watch the romance unfold.