“There must be some mistake.” Kate Carmichael shot out of her chair and planted her palms on the lawyer’s desk. “I know Nana left a will. She gave her house to me.”
“As I just explained, Miss Carmichael, if Zelma St. John had a will, it has yet to surface.” Stan Bennett’s expression didn’t deviate from his bland mask. “She didn’t file it with me.”
Kate dug her fingernails into her palms, her stomach twisting into knots. This couldn’t be happening. “But she promised I’d be taken care of. She knew how much I love that house.”
“I’m sorry. Without a will, all of Mrs. St. John’s possessions go to her only living relative, Adam St. John.” The lawyer motioned toward the man sitting in the chair beside Kate’s vacated one.
Adam St. John. He hadn’t changed much from the young man she remembered, other than the gray at his temples.
He met her gaze. “You knew this would happen, Kate.”
“But it’s not fair. I love the house. You don’t.”
He gave her a smile that didn’t begin to reach his eyes. “But I’m the only blood family Nana had. Just because she was soft-hearted enough to keep you after your father deserted you doesn’t—”
“My father didn’t desert me,” Kate cut him off, tightening her fists. She didn’t...wouldn’t believe that. “He’s dead.”
“Whatever.” The quick twist of Adam’s lips showed he didn’t care one way or the other. “For years, you’ve mooched off the old lady. I think you’ve had far more than you deserve.”
Kate bit her lip. His words held an element of truth. Dad had asked Nana to watch her for a month, maybe two. Only, the two months had turned into twelve years. “But at least I cared about her. I was the one who took care of her when she got sick. I was the one who held her hand when she died.” Tears pooled in her eyes, and Kate blinked them back. She couldn’t afford to display any weakness in front of him. “Where were you?”
“I had business.”
“And that was more important than Nana?” Trust Adam to put economics ahead of his grandmother. In the past, he’d enjoyed visiting her, but since his father had died three years ago, he’d only come to see Nana once. Making money was more important, especially since he’d married Cordelia.
“You’d been saying she was dying for the last two years. How was I to know she really would kick the bucket this time?” Adam brushed a piece of lint from his tailored suit coat, avoiding Kate’s angry glare.
“You couldn’t come say good-bye, but you can find time to take over her house?” Her voice rose as her pent-up emotions spilled over. “Ever since I’ve known you, all you cared about was money. I can see you haven’t changed.”
“Look who’s talking.” Adam scowled at her. “As far as the law is concerned you’re nothing but a freeloader.” He speared the lawyer with a glance. “Isn’t that right?”
“I’m afraid in this case, Mr. St. John has all the rights, Miss Carmichael.” Bennett’s expression softened enough to appear apologetic. “Without a valid will, you’re entitled to nothing.”
“I see.” Though anger vibrated through her body, Kate carefully straightened and slid her purse strap onto her shoulder. “Then I guess I need to find it.”
“If it even exists.” Adam’s final taunt followed her out the door, but it only added to Kate’s determination.
She stalked down the sidewalk, momentarily glad she’d decided to walk the mile to the lawyer’s office. She needed the physical exertion to ease her rising frustration.
Nana wouldn’t have told her she’d be taken care of if it wasn’t so. Since the disappearance of Kate’s father, the elderly woman had been the only person Kate had dared to trust...and love. And, as always, everyone Kate cared about left her.
Her mother had passed away when Kate was eleven, following a two-year battle with cancer. Though Kate understood her mom had escaped the suffering and gone to a better place, she never could grasp the unfairness of it all. Mom had been a good person, always giving, ready to help others, smiling bravely to the end.
After her mother’s death, Kate had drawn even closer to her father. He’d always had time for her, and she’d never doubted his love. Until he left her.
The medical bills had bankrupted him. Always convinced that the Carmichaels were blessed with faerie sight, Philip insisted he knew how to find some of the Fae creatures’ gold. With it, he could pay all the bills and provide for Kate. He’d left her with Nana, a close friend of his deceased parents, and ventured off on his quest. Kate never saw him again.
At that time, Kate had firmly believed his tales of magic. She’d had no doubts he would do as he said. But she’d matured since then.
Arriving at Nana’s large Victorian house, she paused outside, her chest tight. Framed against a backdrop of tall elm and maple trees and the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the house resonated with dependability, security, and comfort. The house had been the one thing Kate thought would always be there.
And now Adam intended to take even this. With his connections, power, and money, what chance did she have of winning? Nana’s promise that Kate would be taken care of meant nothing to anyone but Kate.
Approaching the wide front porch, trimmed with gingerbread and broad slats, Kate breathed in the serenity of the place, the air filled with the scents of spring—blooming daffodils, new grass, and budding trees. It gave her a sense of renewal, of life, of hope.
She loved this place. It was home, the only place she’d ever lived longer than a few years.
And dammit, she wasn’t going to lose it. The will had to be here someplace.
Striding through the front door, Kate tossed her purse onto the heavy oak bureau in the hallway and paused. Where would Nana have put it?
She started with the sunroom, a small alcove off Nana’s bedroom, where the elderly woman had spent most of her time the last couple of years. A thorough search of the desk and shelves revealed nothing, as did a larger sweep of the bedroom itself.
Blast. Where was it? Nana hadn’t walked much in the past year, only from her bedroom to the main room downstairs. If the will wasn’t here, it had to be downstairs.
Kate hesitated at the wooden sliding doors that led into the living room. Of all the rooms in the house, this was her favorite. Large, multi-paned windows admitted brilliant sunshine, creating rainbows on the textured-papered walls as the light danced off the stained glass in the doors. Heavy wood furniture, most of it dating back to Nana’s mother, dominated the room. Though well-worn and not always the most comfortable, the furnishings suited the decor. Kate had spent much of her time here, surrounded by history and books.
Where to start? She searched the crevices of the furniture to no avail. Kate eyed the bookshelves built into the walls on either side of the wide stone fireplace. Nana had always loved to read.
Kate resorted to removing books to check behind them, even flicking through the pages of some of Nana’s favorites.
While she did find a long-lost recipe card tucked inside one novel, she didn’t locate the will.
Desperate, she dragged a padded bench over to check the top shelves. Nana never could have gotten up here herself, but Kate had to check everywhere. Wherever she didn’t look was where the will would be.
Jean, the housekeeper, hadn’t cleaned up here for a while. Kate ran her hand over the shelf and sneezed as a thick layer of dust filled the air.
Still nothing. Damn.
With a sigh, Kate propped her elbow on the shelf. Now where?
Her change in position brought her face-to-face with the portrait. Ah, him. The handsome one. Involuntarily, Kate smiled. How could she not when looking at that face?
The portrait had hung in this spot over the fireplace since long before Kate’s arrival. Nana’s mother had brought it with her from England when she and her husband came to the United States as newlyweds following the first World War. Both Nana and Kate had spent many hours musing over the man’s identity and staring at him for the pure pleasure of it.
They didn’t make men like that anymore.
And that was assuming he’d once been real. His black hair, cut just above his collar, curled about his head, framing a face that was too perfect to be true—high cheekbones, a sleek aristocratic nose, dark eyebrows above chocolate brown eyes that held a glint of deviltry, and perfect lips, the bottom one sensuously full, the top finely arched.
His was a mouth made for kissing. And this man without a name, who existed only in this old portrait, had spoiled all other men for her. As a teen, Kate had been totally infatuated with him. No ordinary boy could compare.
She’d spent hours talking to the portrait, spilling her secrets, heartaches and desires where she knew they’d be safe. The man in the portrait had become her confidante, her friend, her unrequited love....
Kate sighed and reached out to trace the outline of his face. Even now, when she was long past childish dreams, she still held a fondness for him. For a mere picture, he appeared amazingly alive, his cheeks glowing with good health, his eyes twinkling with mischief, his lips curved with the hint of a smile. The artist had skillfully captured this handsome young man’s vitality.
“I don’t suppose you know where Nana hid her will.” As the words left her mouth, she gasped.
Of course. Nana knew of Kate’s love for the portrait. She must’ve put the will somewhere nearby.
With renewed eagerness, Kate ran her fingers along the edges of the engraved frame.
“I need that will.” She spoke to the handsome face out of habit. “Or I’ll lose this house.” She pulled the heavy painting away from the wall and peeked behind it. Was it stuck to the back? No. She scowled. The will had to be here. There was nowhere else it could be.
Before she could replace the portrait, a strange glimmer on the back caught her eye. Squinting, she leaned closer, almost losing her balance to examine it. Words were scrawled against the back of the canvas. How unusual.
Teetering on one foot, she made out the erratic scrawl. “Ro...Rob...Robin. Good...Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow. What does that mean?”
“Actually, it’s my name.”
As the deep voice, shaded with a definite English accent, spoke behind her, Kate whirled around. The bench teetered, knocking her off-balance, and she plummeted toward the floor with a cry. Strong arms caught her in mid-air, wrapping beneath her knees and shoulders to cradle her close to a very solid chest.
Her heart hammered so hard, speech was momentarily impossible. Kate glanced up at the man and lost any remaining breath. It was him—the man in the portrait. He was gorgeous, definitely too handsome to be true, with a sensuous smile on his lips that matched his dancing dark brown eyes—eyes that looked at her with more than a little interest.
He couldn’t be real. She had to be dreaming. Men didn’t look at her that way. And they didn’t hold her as if she was a lightweight either.
Realizing he still held her nestled against his powerful body, she forced words through her closed throat. “I...I...you can put me down now.”
“If I must.” He set her slowly on her feet, a twinkle in his eyes.
As her feet touched the carpet, Kate stumbled backward, unable to stop staring at this extraordinary man. His clothes looked odd, as if he’d stepped from an old movie. His pants clung to his muscular thighs, stopping at the knee where they met high stockings. His coat was long and trimmed with ornate buttons, his shirt silky with lace ruffles falling from the neck. He should’ve looked silly, but instead he looked...wonderful.
Kate shook her head. What was wrong with her? “Who are you?” she demanded finally. “Where did you come from?” How had he managed to get inside the house?
With a courtly bow, he took her hand, then pressed his lips against the back of it in a kiss so warm Kate felt certain it had left an imprint. “My name, sweet Kate, is Robin Goodfellow, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for setting me free. I’d begun to fear I would be trapped in that portrait forever.”
Portrait? Kate blinked, studying him. The resemblance was unbelievable, but he couldn’t be... She glanced over her shoulder at the painting, then did a double-take, the blood draining from her head, leaving her dizzy. The painting did appear to have lost some of its vitality. This was insane.
She faced the stranger again. His smile greeted her confused gaze. He looked exactly like the man in the portrait, down to the clothing he wore. “I must be dreaming.”
That had to be it. After years of fantasizing over this man, she’d fallen asleep and brought him to life in her dreams—not the first time she’d done so. But she didn’t feel like she was asleep, and the warmth of his lips still lingered on her hand.
Kate extended her trembling fingers until she touched his jacket. It felt real, the material smooth, the buttons hard and cold, the man beneath it solid and warm.
“You can’t be real.” She spoke aloud, half-hoping to convince herself.
“Ah, but I am.” He caught her elbow in his hand, his grip firm, reassuring. “You’ve gone quite pale. Come, sit down.”
The whirling in her brain made her agree. Better to sit now than pass out at his feet. She sank onto the couch and he dropped to one knee before her, his expression solemn for the first time.
“I should go while I can, but I do owe you an explanation, Kate. Since you set me free, it’s the least I can do.”
“How do you know my name?”
He grinned, bathing her in warmth. “How could I not know you, sweet Kate? I saw you grow from a young girl to the beautiful woman you are today.” His voice took on a seductive huskiness as he said, “You confided in me often enough that I know you very well.”
Her pulse leapt into a rumba. She’d have to be a rock to be immune to that voice. “But I...I talked to the portrait.” Confused, she glanced from his too real profile to the painting, then back...twice.
“Aye, and I was trapped within it for the past two hundred years.”
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