Jewels of the Past by Kerri Carpenter

After all of the heartache she’d been through in the last six months, Molly thought she could handle anything. Unfortunately, nothing prepared her to walk into the attic and find herself staring into the dark barrel of a gun.

The fact that the gun was being held by the man she just realized she loved didn’t help matters.

“Chance, what are you doing?” Her heart began to race.

“Don’t move.” His grip on the gun tightened.

Her mind raced to figure out what the hell was happening. Only a short time earlier, they’d shared the most amazing moment of her life. Chance told her he loved her.

She looked up now and saw the anger in his eyes.

Had it all been some kind of trap? After all, she’d only known him for a short time.

Her breath rasped out in uneven bursts as she wondered what a bullet ripping through her body would feel like. Surely not as bad as the sensation of her heart shattering into a million pieces. If only she’d never been sent to this house in the first place….

 

Two weeks earlier…

 

Molly Martin felt the full force of her punishment as she brought her car to a stop in front of the old mansion. She’d been exiled to this remote house by her boss and mentor.

Things could be worse. The interior design firm where she worked had been hired to restore and renovate this historic estate in a rural part of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Molly would be staying here for the next month as the main designer and point-of-contact. Since it once belonged to the Carnegie family, she supposed it was good enough for her too.

As she got out of the car, a movement caught her eye. She looked up to the third floor window. The curtain seemed to shift and she breathed a sigh of relief. Her boss mentioned that someone would be there to greet her.

Even if she was unhappy about being banished from her city life in Pittsburgh, Molly had to admit the house was gorgeous. A large Victorian set on acres of lush land, the Carnegie family’s old summer house was infamous with historians, architects and designers alike.

Besides, she’d deserved to be sent away.

At least the exterior seemed to be in good working order. Admiring the intricate carvings of the banister on the large wrap-around porch, she had the distinct feeling she was being watched. Dismissing it, she pushed open the front door.

A strong musty aroma greeted her as dust bunnies formed an army around her. Number one priority became airing out the place. She walked toward a large sitting room but not before taking in the high ceilings of the foyer and the beautiful stain-glass window on the front door. She thought she spotted solid hard-wood floors but she would need to clean out the place to be sure.

In the sitting room, she lifted the windows up after a couple hard tries. She wondered how long they’d been shut. Molly knew the house had sat empty for decades after one of the Carnegie sisters shocked high society by abruptly ending her engagement. Even after her grandmother had bought her a priceless ruby necklace as an early wedding gift.

Poor baby. Molly rolled her eyes as she continued to wonder through room after room filled with sheet-covered furniture. She couldn’t wait to start uncovering it.

Suddenly, a scent caught her off-guard. Wind Song perfume. At the recognition, her stomach clenched and she felt the familiar lump in her throat. Her grandmother used to wear that perfume. As it always did, the thought of her Granny’s recent passing overwhelmed her as the powdery smell continued to assault her senses.

Unable to ignore it, she followed the scent through the house until she reached the kitchen. Another thing that reminded her of Granny, the kitchen. How many wrongs had been righted with homemade buns and buttered noodles.

A rattling noise sounded from a tall pantry door. Molly worried her lip. Please don’t be a rat. 

She grabbed the first thing she could find for defense, a large skillet. Then she took a deep breath, closed one eye and yanked the pantry door open.

Before she could whack any rodents, she let out a scream as a large man tumbled out and fell on top of her.

#

Chance Sullivan still didn’t understand how he’d ended up locked in the damn pantry. He’d heard a noise and went off to investigate. Next thing he knew, he somehow got stuck.

Trying to regain his wits, he looked down at the person who had broken his fall. His breath whooshed out of his lungs as he stared down into the most beautiful blue eyes he’d ever seen. Large and rimmed with thick dark lashes, they stood out in her pale face as thick brown hair surrounded her like a halo.

He shifted, taking his body weight off of her, noticing the cast iron skillet a moment too late. Next thing he knew a pain burst on the side of his head and he fell forward into darkness.

#

“Son of a bitch,” Chance ground out, reaching for his head. He felt the knot and swore again. “Did you just hit me with a frying pan?”

“Yes, and I’ll do it again if you give me any problems. I called 911 as well.”

Chance looked up and saw that she was sitting at the table, legs delicately crossed, as she continued to clutch the pan in one hand and her cell phone in another. Even though her expression emanated fear and distrust, her hand was steady and she didn’t break eye contact.

Impressive.

“The police are on their way?” He raised an eyebrow which only hurt.

“Actually, they asked if I could identify you. I looked in your wallet and saw you’re from Sullivan Security.”

Chance made it into a sitting position. “So you realized I’m here to protect you.” He ran a hand through his black hair.

She finally put the pan down on the table. “Some job you’re doing. What kind of security expert gets himself locked in a pantry?” Her chin tilted upward in a dare.

“I did not get myself locked in a pantry.” He stood but at her stoic stare relented. “Okay, I got locked in the pantry but I’m not sure how.” He tested the pantry door and the lock seemed fine. “Anyway, I’m out now. Quite an arm on you. I’m Chance Sullivan, your bodyguard for the next month. Which must make you Margaret Martin.”

“Call me Molly.”

“You weren’t supposed to arrive until tomorrow, Molly.” He said it with a disdainful look at her weapon of choice.

“Change of plans,” she spit back. “Are you going to stay here in this house? With me?”

“Apparently. I’m supposed to keep you and the property safe.”

Chance noticed that she had a perfectly shaped mouth with full pink lips. She opened it to speak but her words were drowned out by a loud sound on the next floor.

“What was that?” She stood, pushing the chair back abruptly.

“Sounds like a door slammed. That’s weird,” he thought aloud.

“Maybe it’s whoever is on the third floor.”

This chick was going to make him crazy. “No one is on the third floor and as far as I know no one’s been up there in years.”

“But I thought I saw someone when I arrived. You?”

He shook his head but banked the knowledge. He’d do a sweep of the entire place later. “Come on.”

Reluctantly she followed him. While she toured the house, peeking into rooms and sighing over prissy-looking furniture he kept an eye out for any kind of break-in or disturbance.

As they finished looking through the third floor, he pointed out the attic door to her. “Seems like everything’s fine. That noise was probably just the house settling or a squirrel in the attic.”

She bit her lip, again drawing his attention there. “If you say so.”

“Hey, you have to trust me. We’re going to be here together for the next month.” He meant to touch her arm in a show of trust. He didn’t expect the jolt of awareness that shot straight to his gut. Looking in her now wide blue eyes, he could tell she’d felt it too.

She coughed delicately, stepping away. “It’s been a long day.”

Chance nodded but could tell there was more going on with her than exhaustion. He decided to let it go for now. “You must be excited to work on this place.” He imagined this house with all the cluttered furniture, paintings and knickknacks would be an interior designer’s wet dream.

She smiled. “It’s going to be a lot of work to go through everything but there is so much history here. I’m so happy the historical society was able to save this house. Once they start doing tours, I think a lot of people will enjoy it.”

“That’ll be better than the tomb it is now.”

They continued down one floor and he stopped beside the door at the end of the hallway.

“Your suite, my lady.” He grinned when she rolled her eyes at his sarcasm. “I’m right down the hall.” He pointed to his own room.

He had to admit he wanted to know more about her and not just because she was a total knockout. There was a sadness in her eyes and he didn’t suspect she was the perpetually depressed type.

Not that he didn’t understand. Hadn’t he been through some dark times himself? His last job left him raw. He’d promised to protect and serve a family and of course that hadn’t turned out as he’d planned. The family forgave him but he didn’t forgive himself.

Chance said goodnight to Molly and went to his own room, his past weighing heavily on him. Sure, they’d found the kidnapper in the end and their son was fine. But Chance would never let himself forget those long twenty-four hours when he thought the kid was gone forever.

He’d made a promise to himself then and there that he would never fail another client again.

#

Molly couldn’t sleep. Not surprising since she was in a new house with all kinds of new noises. Quietly slipping out of her room, she walked down the stairs and out onto the porch. Looking up, she took in the full moon and a sky full of stars.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” Chance asked from one of the rocking chairs, startling her.

Placing a hand over her now rapidly-beating heart, she forced a small smile. “Something like that.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Being punished.”

He cocked his head to the side. Obviously he meant on the porch and not at the Carnegie estate in the country. But for some reason, Molly felt like opening up.

“I had some bad things happen in my personal life. I couldn’t really handle the stress and I broke down, had a couple of freak-outs. Next thing I knew, people were either pulling away or treating me differently. Like they would catch the bad news bug if they got too close.”

She looked down. “My boss must have really had it with me so he sent me here, away from everything. Not that I don’t love the idea of restoring this place to its former glory but it’s…”

“Lonely?” he guessed.

She nodded her head.

“Mind if I ask what happened in your personal life?”

“I had a couple of family deaths in the last six months. Two of my aunts passed away and then my grandmother died. That was the hardest one.”

“You lost three family members and people pulled away from you?” he asked in a disgusted voice.

“Pretty much.” She walked to the railing and looked out at the lawn, trying to envision what it once looked like. “I understand, you know.”

“What’s that?”

“I get why people pull away. They don’t know what to say or how to react. The ironic thing is that I really didn’t want to talk about it.”

“What did you want?”

“I just wanted to go get coffee or catch a movie. Anything to get my mind off of my problems.” Uncomfortable, she started playing with her hair, twisting it around her finger. “Some days are better than others.”

Molly felt raw and vulnerable, and yet, saying all of this out loud felt surprisingly easy. She glanced up at him, hoping her confession didn’t push him away as well. But she found him watching her intently.

As if he was having some kind of internal war, she saw him nod his head and walk to her.

Without saying a word, he took her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers.

She would have gasped except the moment they connected a jolt of electricity surged through her. So instead of pushing him away, she wound her arms around his neck and lost herself in the sweet kiss as the moon shone brightly above them and the stars twinkled their approval.

#

Chance tossed and turned all night. He could not believe he’d kissed Molly. His client. The person he was supposed to protect.

But the moment his lips had met hers, he’d felt a connection he couldn’t explain. Feeling guilty over it seemed futile when he knew he desperately wanted to do it again.

He went in search of her now but pulled up short when he walked into the living room and saw the entire room filled wall-to-wall with furniture and décor.

“I think a furniture store exploded in here. Or, you’re auditioning to be on an episode of Hoarders.”

“I’m creatively stifled,” she explained, gesturing around the room. “There’s so much great stuff in this house.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Chance truly didn’t get how this design business worked.

She sat atop a fancy-looking table and sighed. “I’m just feeling overwhelmed. I became a designer because of my grandmother.”

Ah, it started to make sense to him now.

“When I was little I used to stay at her house and I would put tissues everywhere; on the lamps, on the tables.”

He took his own seat on a really uncomfortable couch. “Why?”

“I was decorating. Granny told me years later that she would find tissues for days after I left. I also wrote on her gold satin throw pillows in black crayon.”

“My grandmother would have tanned my hide if I did something like that.”

She smiled and his stomach tingled. “I guess she should have. But Granny said she was proud of my creativity and declared me a designer. I never questioned it.” Running a frustrated hand through her hair she looked at him with pained eyes. “Now, my work is suffering. I’ve never had blocks like this. The ideas always flowed before.”

So her grandmother’s death had really done a number on her. Besides the usual grief people experience with loss, Molly’s job, her passion, was tied in with her grandmother.

He walked over, framing her beautiful face with his hands. “Maybe you just need some time. Have you taken any for yourself?” She shook her head and bit her lip. Not knowing what else to do, he kissed her tenderly. Just like the night before, he experienced a striking punch to the gut. Their chemistry was undeniable.

When he pulled away, she smiled shyly. In an effort to lighten the mood, he helped her catalog the different pieces. It was actually kind of interesting. What he would have called a stuffy couch, she referred to as a classic divan.

As they worked their way around the room, she became more at ease with him.

“So I’m told there’s some kind of lost ruby necklace associated with this house.”

Her eyes sparkled at the mention. “It belonged to one of the Carnegie daughters; a gift from her grandmother. I haven’t come across it yet but I wouldn’t think we’d find it down here. My money would be on the third floor.”

As soon as the words left her lips, a loud crash sounded outside, right under the north window.

“Probably just a raccoon. I’ll go check around the house.” Despite his relaxed words, Chance reached for his gun as he left to explore.

When he returned twenty minutes later, he gave the all clear. “Like I said, probably just an animal. The woods are pretty thick around here.”

Molly stood in the corner of the room studying a statue which was an imitation of the David. “Hey, it’s naked David,” he said making her chuckle.

But as her laughter faded, a worried expression crossed her face. “There’s so much to go through here.” She ran a hand through her dark hair. “It’s overwhelming.”

On the spot, he made a decision. He was going to help her relax while they were here. “How about if I continue helping you all day? But tonight, we leave this joint and catch a movie.”

He knew she liked the idea when her eyes lit up. “That would be great.”

With that, he had a date and she would have some much needed fun. As he picked up a notebook to continue writing down items he could have sworn he smelled a powdery perfume.

#

The next two weeks passed by in a happy blur. The designing aspect of her job was still a work in progress but Molly knew she was at least getting organized. And living with Chance was better than she could have imagined.

They took long walks around the property. Unlike most men she dated, he really seemed to listen to her. He shared how he got into the security business and she saw the pride on his face when he talked about opening his own firm in Pittsburgh.

Even though they hadn’t discussed it, she really hoped they would continue seeing each other when this month was over. Not only had he become a good friend but the kisses they shared every night threatened to break down the walls her tragic recent past had erected.

Molly stood in the kitchen and ran a hand through her hair. She couldn’t believe she’d fallen so hard for someone in such a short time. “Too quick to fall in love?” she asked out loud to no one in particular. But as soon as she said the words, she smelled the Wind Song scent that so often accompanied her in the house.

Without warning, the smell dissipated and she heard a door slam angrily. She whirled around but a movement in the guest house across the lawn stopped her. Someone was out there.

Chance had hinted at the idea of a picnic earlier. Assuming it was him, she straightened her top, fluffed her hair and headed outside.

But as soon as she reached the door, she felt a shove from behind. A scream left her lips as she slammed into the door. Vaguely she saw the outline of a man scurrying away.

She heard Chance running toward her.

“What the hell happened?”

“I don’t know. I thought you were out here and I came to join you. Next thing I know someone is pushing me.”

He cursed. “Where is he now?”

She didn’t know but she still went through every detail with Chance over and over. As she repeated the details she saw his face become a stern mask while his posture took on a more rigid stance than she was used to.

“This is my fault,” he said so quietly under his breath that she almost missed it.

She reached a hand out to him but he shuttered and backed away. With sadness, she saw the wall go up as he shut her out.

#

Stupid idiot.

Chance berated himself for the millionth time. Because he had feelings for Molly, he’d lost sight of his job, his goal, and in turn she could have been hurt. If he hadn’t been so busy getting a damn picnic together, he would have been with her.

“Chance, talk to me,” she said in a small voice. The sound of it undid him.

He realized that it wasn’t just the idea of failing at another job that was getting to him. When he looked at this extraordinary woman, his entire being changed. In such a short time, she’d come to mean everything to him.

“You could have been injured.”

“But I’m fine. Why are you reacting like a crazy person?”

“Why? Why? Because I love you,” he shouted.

She stumbled backward but he grabbed her arms and pulled her to him, crushing his mouth to hers in a desperate embrace.

“I think I’ve loved you since I fell out of the pantry door and landed on you two weeks ago.”

“Oh Chance.”

Just then the unmistakable sound of a gunshot sounded from the house. Agitated birds flew from the tree where they were standing and Chance’s heart leapt into his throat.

“Stay here and call 911.” He started toward the house, pulling his own gun. “And don’t come inside this house, Molly. I mean it.”

He didn’t look back to see if she agreed.

#

Like hell she was staying outside.

The man was an idiot. He just professed his love for her and then runs off in the direction of a gunshot. No way would she let him handle this alone.

Molly ran across the lawn and through the kitchen door. Before she went up the back stairs, she dialed 911 and set the phone receiver on the counter. At the top of the stairs, she listened for noise but the house was eerily silent. She wanted to call out to him but a creak above her head stopped her. She quietly made her way to the third floor.

She looked into the first two rooms but they were empty. Finally, she pushed the attic door open, walked up the steps and her breath caught in her throat.

After all of the heartache she’d been through in the last six months, Molly thought she could handle anything. Unfortunately, nothing prepared her to walk into the attic and find herself staring into the dark barrel of a gun.

The fact that the gun was being held by the man she just realized she loved didn’t help matters.

“Chance, what are you doing?” Her heart began beating rapidly.

“Don’t move.” His grip on the gun tightened.

Her mind raced to figure out what the hell was happening. Only a short time earlier, they’d shared the most amazing moment of her life. Chance told her he loved her.

She looked up now and saw the anger in his eyes.

Had it all been some kind of trap? After all, she’d only known him for a short time.

Her breath rasped out in uneven bursts as she wondered what a bullet ripping through her body would feel like. Surely not as bad as the sensation of her heart shattering into a million pieces. If only she’d never come to this house in the first place….

“Molly, get down.”

“What?”

“Get down now,” he whispered urgently.

Before she could react, the door behind her burst open again and a tall man ran up the steps and thrust a gun at her as well. Her head bounced between the two of them, unsure what she should do next.

“Drop it,” Chance ground out, his hand steady on the gun that was now pointed at the intruder.

“Give me the rubies or I’ll shoot her.” The man had a raspy voice that held a tinge of fear.

Molly realized quickly he was referring to the legendary Carnegie ruby necklace. Unfortunately, she’d yet to come across it in the last two weeks. “We don’t have the rubies. They’ve been lost for years,” she said, her voice shaky.

“Liar!” he yelled as his gun hand shook.

Chance’s voice remained calm. “She’s not lying. We haven’t found them. Now, how about you put that gun down and we talk about this.”

Without warning or reason, the attic door slammed shut and Molly jumped. But it only took that millisecond for Chance to react. He threw himself at the man and both tumbled down the steps. A gun went off and Molly’s heart slammed into her throat. “Chance!” she screamed.

She ran down the stairs and saw that Chance had the man pinned down as both guns lay to their side. “I’m fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “His gun went off but it just took out a chunk of the wall.”

Molly felt the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Chance, I love you too.” She watched his eyes light up as the man he continued to hold the down let out a grunt.

In the distance, the police sirens wailed their arrival.

#

Later that night, Molly and Chance walked the police detective and Molly’s boss, Gasper, through the scene once again. Chance retraced their steps before they all walked back into the third floor hallway.

Apparently the apprehended man was a well-known jewelry burglar. The police had been looking for him for years. When Molly’s firm announced they were working on the Carnegie estate, interest in the lost ruby necklace surfaced.

Chance escorted the police down the hall but Molly stayed with her boss.

“You didn’t have to come all the way out here,” she said.

“Are you kidding? My best employee is held at gunpoint. Of course I needed to come here.”

“Best employee?”

“I’m just happy you’re okay. Are you sure you want to stay here and finish the job? I really miss you in the office.”

“You do?” she couldn’t keep the shock out of her voice.

He turned a surprised face toward her so she quickly continued. “I thought you sent me here because I’ve been having some problems coping. I thought maybe you wanted me out of your hair.”

“Oh, my dear. Nothing could be further from the truth. You’ve had such a rough time lately. I thought that by sending you out here it would help you. This house is so remote and I thought the quiet would be good for you.”

Molly breathed a sigh of relief. It felt like she’d been holding it in for months.

He gently took hold of her hand. “You’ve had to deal with some tragic events. But even without them, everyone is allowed to stumble and fall from time-to-time.” He smiled kindly at her, his eyes twinkling. “I look forward to having you back in the office.”

“But I’m still having trouble designing. It just doesn’t come as easily as it used to.”

“Don’t force it.” He patted her hand. “I have no doubt that you are talented and that talent will return to you. I want you to enjoy this job. Now, I’m going to have another word with the detective before he leaves.”

Gasper walked toward the stairs as Chance came back. He gathered her in his arms and she held tight.

“I think you took ten years off my life tonight.” He leaned down and kissed her.

“At least everything is back to normal.”

Chance ran a hand up and down her back in an assuring gesture. “There are a couple of unanswered questions. The kid basically owned up to most of the strange noises we heard over the last two weeks but not all. Why would he lie about some of them?”

“That’s odd,” she agreed.

He looked over her shoulder and cocked his head. “What’s that?”

Molly turned and saw a handkerchief on the floor at the end of the hallway. Together, they walked toward it. As Chance leaned down to grab it, Molly glanced in the corner room.

Her mouth fell open.

“Chance,” she whispered, walking over the threshold.

Every piece of furniture in the room was covered with tissues. She walked into the middle and turned in a circle. She’d been in this very room the day before, cataloging the belongings. It had definitely been tissue-less then.

“Why in the hell would he put tissues in here?” Chance asked from behind her. “Weird.”

“He didn’t do this.” A smile blossomed even as tears formed in her eyes.

“Then who did?” Chance asked. “Are you going to tell me that you came up here and decorated like you used to do in your Granny’s…”

She nodded her head as Chance’s eyes widened. “Look,” he pointed behind her at a small sofa.

Walking to it, her pulse went into overdrive as she picked up a gold satin pillow. Standing out in dark black crayon was one word.

MOLLY

“Oh my God!” She turned to Chance and saw that his face held the same bewilderment as she felt.

She ran her hand over the silky fabric of the pillow until her fingers felt something sharp. Turning it over, she gasped.

“What?” Chance was at her side.

Molly unzipped the thick pillowcase and reached inside. When she pulled her hand back out, it was dripping in bright red stones. She had found the lost ruby necklace.

“Holy crap,” Chance exclaimed. “Is that what I think it is?”

“This is unbelievable.”

Chance ran his hand over the glittering rubies. “We need to give this to the police detective.”

“But maybe we shouldn’t mention the satin pillow and tissues.”

They both laughed as they clasped hands. Molly took a last look at the reminders of her childhood. For the first time in months, the memories made her happy instead of sad and she knew she’d never truly be alone.

As they walked out of the room hand-in-hand Molly smiled as the distinctive scent of Wind Song wafted over her. She knew without a doubt that she would be able to design again.

 

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