Sins of the Past meet Present Company
It's an old-fashioned Christmas at the Nelson's. Duncan has invited several of his friends in Crocker to stay in the newly refurbished Nelson Hall. He's feeling more himself now that he has Scarlett and Lissie around to keep him company, and he plans to make Christmas as much like the ones the family celebrated in its heyday as possible.
But when things go awry and the guests inside the Hall become trapped, there might be more than plum pudding on the menu. Old misdeeds are coming back to haunt them. And murder just might become the main course.
As the last soft, throaty notes drifted across the space, embedding themselves in Pratt’s brain and leaving it fuzzy and unfocused, he tried to remember how much he didn’t like the overly confident singer whose smoldering gaze seemed primed to turn all the women in the place, including Anna, into melted puddles of goo.
But as much as he wanted to hate the guy, Pratt had to admit he was a phenomenal talent. His rendition of Hallelujah rivaled even Pratt’s favorite acapella group. A feat he hadn’t thought possible. There was a moment of stunned silence as Arnout’s husky voice eased into silence. Then the room exploded into hearty applause. Beside him, Anna surged to her feet and, to his eternal shock, put two fingers between her lips and blew a whistle a sailor would be proud of. All around them, party goers jumped to their feet and applauded. The applause lasted a good three minutes and would have gone on longer if Arnout himself hadn’t very humbly asked them to stop.
Pratt hadn’t thought he could dislike the man more.
The realization made him laugh, shaking his head. It had been a while since he’d been so jealous of another man. He could admit when he was being petty. Arnout hadn’t done anything at all to earn Pratt’s ire. Except maybe put a few stars in Anna’s beautiful blue eyes. For that alone Pratt thought he could happily throttle the man.
“Isn’t he amazing?” Denise asked Anna.
“Phenomenal,” Anna said. She turned to smile at Pratt, clearly expecting him to share in her enthrallment. He managed a tight smile and a nod. “He’s good.”
“Good!?” Glynus said, clearly outraged. “He’s so far beyond good it’s ridiculous.”
Throwing Pratt a grimace over his girlfriend’s head, Bill said, “Yeah, ridiculous.”
“You guys are just jealous,” Anna said, nudging him with her elbow.
“I am. I admit it. The guy’s just too good to be true,” he reluctantly admitted.
Duncan walked to the front of the room and shook Arnout’s hand. “Thank you for that,” he told the other man. “I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m totally in the Christmas spirit now.”
Rabid applause met his statement and went on for another two minutes. Pratt wondered if anyone would notice if he left the room.
Anna whistled again, followed by several other whistles around the room.
A group of fans surrounded the singer and Pratt realized he had an out. “I should go get our bags out of the car.”
Anna nodded. “Would you like some help?”
He was sorely tempted. At least he’d have her all to himself for a moment. But he wasn’t about to tear her away from the warmth of the house. “It’s really snowing out there. You stay in here and keep warm.”
The smile she gave him almost took the sting out of having her making goo-eyes at the singer. “I’ll get us some coffee and see if there’s any more of that cake. You want some?”
He laughed. “Sure. But you know Pierce is gonna find out you had four pieces. He’ll probably quiz everybody.”
She wrinkled her pert little nose. “He will, won’t he? Little devil.”
Pratt couldn’t resist dropping a kiss on said nose. “He will.”
“I’ll just tell everybody it’s for you.”
“You do that. Hopefully I’ll get a bite of it?”
“Maybe one bite.”
Shaking his head, he strode out of the parlor and across the large entry way. The tree in front of the leaded glass windows sparkled with gold light, the candles strapped to its branches having been refreshed during the concert. Pratt had to admit, Duncan had done an amazing job of creating a historical likeness. The pictures he’d seen of Nelson Hall from the early 1800s were startlingly similar.
A haunting moan drifted to him from the area just behind the staircase. He turned toward the sound and blinked when he saw a beautiful woman leaning against the balustrade there, her silver gown a stunning mimicry of the same historical records Pratt had just been comparing to Duncan’s handiwork.
She wore a deep red sash around her unnaturally slim waist and her golden curls fell across a pale cheek as she dropped her head, one slender arm wrapped around her middle.
“I know someone who’ll be very jealous of your gown,” he told the woman.
Her head shot up, her wide, gray-blue gaze filled with surprise. “Please, she told him in a husky whisper…”
Pratt’s smile died. The woman was clearly upset. “Are you ill?”
She seemed to swoon a bit, her body sliding along the glossy mahogany of the stairway banister.
Pratt hurried forward as she turned boneless. Her eyes rolling back in her head, she sagged downward. That was when he noticed that the entire front of her gown was covered in a glistening red stain.
It wasn’t a sash. She was bleeding. Profusely.
He hurried forward, yelling for help as he ran in her direction. “Somebody call 911!”
Footsteps pounded into the entry hall behind him. Pratt barely took note of them. He was dropping to his knees beside the woman, his gaze locked on the seeping hole in her side. There was so much blood.
And the woman lying on the floor was growing paler by the moment.
Her slender form blipped as he reached for her and Pratt stilled. She wasn’t getting paler…she was becoming more transparent.
A shrill scream lanced through the quiet space and the corpse at the bottom of the stairs disappeared on an icy whisper of air.
Footsteps danced lightly toward him just as another scream sounded. Pratt looked up and saw a round, shocked face peering through the uprights in the banister.
He knew that face.
Before he could consider what it meant, a worried voice called out. “Are you hurt?”
He turned to find Anna running toward him, her pretty face filled with worry.
A horrendous creaking sound made her stop and glance upward. The massive crystal chandelier wrenched away from the ceiling and canted downward, the crystals dancing manically.
Pratt’s heart stopped. He jumped to his feet. “Anna, run!”
The chandelier screamed again, another bolt giving way as it pulled farther away from the ceiling.
Too late. She wouldn’t get out of the way in time.
He screamed her name and took off running. She was staring up at the chandelier as if she couldn’t quite believe it was going to fall. Slowly, as Pratt yelled her name again, she looked at him, her eyes widening as she realized…
The last bolt holding the massive chandelier to the ceiling gave way with a heart-stopping shriek and Pratt’s gaze caught on hers as he hurtled in her direction.
He flung himself into the air but he knew even as his feet left the ground that he would be too late.
She was going to be killed.
And there was nothing he could do to stop it.
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