Callie Wilford peered past the wrought-iron bars into the boarded-up window of the old hacienda-style hotel. She saw nothing but darkness.
Stepping back, she checked the time on her cell phone, then looked down the sun-beaten gravel driveway to the road that ran through the tiny southern Arizona town of Cassady Springs. Where was the town manager, a Mr.—Callie looked at the name on the wrinkled paper in her hand—Bob Collier? She had already waited fifteen minutes for him, walking once around the cat’s-claw-covered structure to pass the time.
Although it was over one hundred years old, the building looked mostly sound. In a few places the plaster had crumbled, exposing the adobe brick beneath, and to Callie it appeared as though a forgotten past was peeking out at the present.
She impatiently wiggled the large, ornate doorknob one more time, then looked at the paper again, took out her cell phone, and dialed the number below the name. Busy.
“Howdy, ma’am.” She heard a voice behind her and spun to look into the face of a tall, twenty-something man, impeccably dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, western shirt, and boot-cut pants. He was one of the most striking men she had ever seen.
Could this rugged young man be the town manager?
“Bob Collier?” Callie asked, catching her breath and putting the phone back into her purse. When the young man smiled, her heart accelerated.
“No, I’m not Collier, but he’s on his way. He got a call from a niece in distress. She’s having man trouble.” He let out a short laugh. “I was curious about the new owner of the hotel, so I dropped by.” His teeth were white and perfectly straight.
Callie tried not to stare. “Hi. I’m Callie Wilford.” It seemed only proper to offer to shake his hand.
“Just call me James,” he said, but didn’t take her hand. “I assume you are the grandniece of Carl Wilford.”
“Yes.” She lifted her ignored hand and pretended to return a strand of hair to its place behind her ear. Feeling her cheeks glow with embarrassment, she forced herself to look up at the wide balcony of the inn. “His only living heir,” she added quietly, then hoped James hadn’t heard her.
“Are you planning to stay a while in Cassady Springs?”
“Yes.” Callie tightened the stretchy band that held her long, dark hair into a ponytail. Self-conscious, she suspected that she looked as much the old-maid schoolteacher as she felt, dressed in jeans and a plain, lime green t-shirt. I would’ve dressed better, she assured herself, if I’d known I'd meet Mr. Perfect. “I’ve taught school for five years, and I’m ready for a change,” she explained.
“I decided to come down here to live, you know, for a new start. My mother inherited this place years ago but was never well enough to come.”
“Good luck making it livable,” James said. “You’ll need more than luck now that scorpions and termites have moved into those adobe walls. Just the other day I saw a tarantula traipsing across the patio.”
Callie smiled, though the thought made her cringe. “Do you come here often?” she asked.
“I’ve taken an interest in the place.” James turned as if to leave, then faced her again. “So, Callie, where have you been living?”
He looked relieved. “Then the wildlife won’t surprise you.”
“Well, I . . .”
“I assume you’re Mormon,” James continued, “as was Mr. Wilford. My family is too.”
She raised an eyebrow. “But not you?”
He thought a moment, then smiled wryly. “I am, in a way. Baptized.” He looked toward the road. “I hear Collier coming, so I’ll be moving on.” James tipped his felt hat. “Nice meeting you.”
“Nice to meet you too. Come again—soon.”
Darn! Callie thought. I probably sounded too eager. As good looking as he is, women probably throw themselves at him.
When James stepped off the end of the porch and disappeared around the side of the building, Callie sighed. Guys only break hearts, so don’t even think about liking him, advised the little voice in her head. “Well, it won’t hurt to notice how attractive he is,” she mumbled, glancing to the end of the porch where she had last seen him.
Just then an old, green pick-up truck rattled around the circular gravel drive and stopped before the front porch of the hotel. A middle-aged gentleman, dressed in a worn suit and narrow tie, climbed from the truck. He slammed the door, and the truck shook as if it would fall apart.
“Hello,” he called as he puffed his way toward Callie. Long strands of faded red hair had been combed over the top of his head to hide his obvious balding, and they fluttered in the breeze. “I’m sorry I’m so late. My niece Elizabeth called just as I was leaving and—”
Mr. Collier was a short man with a busy walk and a nononsense air about him. He pulled a large skeleton key from his suit pocket as he finished his apology and squinted at its dangling tag. “This is the one,” he declared, then inserted the key into the lock and looked at Callie. His nose twitched as he looked at her more closely. “I was expecting someone older. I assume you are Miss Wilford.”
Callie nodded, and as Mr. Collier turned the key, her knees felt weak and her heart thumped. “I’ve looked forward to seeing this place all my life,” she croaked, surprised at her own emotion.
“I’ve always wanted to take a look inside too,” Mr. Collier said, pushing on the door. Callie stepped closer.
“This grand old hacienda has stood empty too long,” he commented as the door opened wide and finally stopped with a thud against the wall. They both stood peering into the darkness for a moment. Particles of loose dust filtered through the sunlight that illuminated the silt-covered Spanish-tile floor. “Yep, empty for well over fifty years—ever since 1955 when the mines around these parts started closing down. Other businesses failed, and everybody moved out except the ranchers. That’s when your uncle boarded up this place and went to Utah to retire. He’s long dead, I figure.”
“He died when I was ten,” Callie answered, still staring into the dark lobby. “He lived to be a hundred, though.”
Collier whistled. “Just goes to show you.” He glanced cautiously over his shoulder, then almost whispered, “Did he tell you stories about this place?”
“Stories? No. He had dementia by the time I met him, but the one time we visited him he found his memory long enough to remind my mother to take care of his hotel. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she’d never come to look at it.”
“I see you brought a flashlight.” Mr. Collier motioned toward the one Callie had left by her purse near the door. “Sorry I didn’t get the electricity turned on. The power company said a worker would be here Friday to do that.”
“But today is only Wednesday!” Callie protested, thinking that three days without electricity wouldn’t be pleasant. She picked up her purse, slid the strap over her shoulder, and turned on the flashlight.
Despite the fact that it was late summer, a cold gust of musty air rushed past them, causing Callie to shudder. She noticed Mr. Collier’s eyes widen as he took a step backward. “Anything wrong?” she asked.
Callie brushed it off and peered inside again, then took a deep breath and stepped through the doorway. On the other side of the room, a light glowed, but when Callie looked more closely, she realized it wasn’t a light but rather the reflection of the open door in a dusty mirror behind a saloon-style bar. Above it hung a chandelier. “It’s beautiful!” she gasped as her eyes cut to the right where the darkness dispersed enough to reveal an ornate grand staircase.
“Wow!” Callie took a few steps into the room. “Even covered in cobwebs, this place is gorgeous.”
Mr. Collier followed her inside and looked around. “Yes, and to think that Wilford just boarded it up and left the key at the office.” He stepped back into the sunlight. “The whole thing has been a mystery, but I figure he didn’t want to spend money renovating the place.”
“Why didn’t he just sell it?”
Mr. Collier coughed on the dust in the air.
“Well,” Callie said finally, “maybe for me it is a good thing he didn’t sell. I’ve dreamed of opening my own bed and breakfast. This looks like the perfect place for it.”
“This house has been neglected for so long that it might not be worth the money to restore it,” Mr. Collier said.
“No, no. I think it has been boarded up long enough. It is time to bring it to life again.”
“I admire your courage, Miss Wilford. Something needs to be done with the house and about . . .”
Callie waited for him to finish but he didn’t. “About what?”
“No, no, never mind. Didn’t mean a thing by that.” Collier chuckled nervously and handed Callie the keys. “It’s all yours. I’d walk through it with you, but my niece is pretty upset. The young man she thought she was going to marry just jilted her and she needs a shoulder to cry on. She’s waiting for me to call back and solve her problem.” He gave a short laugh. “That poor girl. Since her parents are away on one of those Mormon missions, I’m supposed to look after her.”
The way he had said “one of those” led Callie to believe the man himself was not a member of the LDS Church, but she didn’t ask. Instead she said, “I’ll be fine,” and held up the oversized flashlight as evidence.
He smiled. “You’re a brave young woman, Miss Wilford.” He took a few steps away. “I think I need to warn you. There is— well, I don’t believe it for a moment, but they say there is a ghost in there. You know how people embellish perfectly explainable happenings.”
“Ghost?” Callie laughed. “I think I can handle a ghost.”
He hesitated. “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Good day, Miss Wilford.” With that, Mr. Collier turned and headed back toward his truck.
Callie left the door open and took another step inside the inn as the truck’s motor rumbled and the vehicle rattled toward the main road. “Ghosts. Humph!” she muttered. Then a chill ran through her and goose bumps rose on her arms. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said loudly to muster her courage. Malicious haunters in old mansions? Nonsense! “There’s no such thing as a ghost,” she declared firmly.
If the ghost heard her, it didn’t answer.
The only footprints in the dust on the floor were hers and Mr. Collier’s. How strange, she thought, that no one had touched this place in fifty years, not even vandals. Perhaps she should be grateful that people thought it was haunted.
Despite herself, Callie felt her hand tremble as she directed the beam from the flashlight around the room. She tightened her grip on the torch. Everything was perfectly still except the sunlit specks of dust drifting through the air. Small, round tables and bentwood chairs had been pushed against the wall near the bar, with red tablecloths still covering the tables. Clearly, Callie surmised, this had been a café or saloon. She shined the beam across the room. Between the bar and the staircase was a reception desk, and on the wall behind it were cubbyholes. In each hole was a dust-covered lump. Keys, probably.
Callie moved the beam of light toward the staircase. The steps were carpeted in turquoise, and balusters of ornate brass held handrails that appeared to be rich, smooth wood under the thick layer of dust.
At first glance, she thought she saw someone standing on the landing. Her heart took a leap and she directed the beam toward the top of the stairs, but she saw no one. You’re all alone, she assured herself, breathing deeply. No ghosts here. As she took a step toward the stairway, another cold chill went through her, but she ignored it and crossed the floor to the banister. She ran her hand along it and got a handful of dust, so she shook most of the fine powder off and wiped the rest on her jeans.
Just then, Callie felt something rush past her, and the chandelier above her began swaying slightly. Cold fear ran through her, and she turned and headed toward the door with the feeling that something was at her heels. She burst through the door into the sunlight, and then turned to see nothing behind her but the silent old inn. She walked quickly to her car and stood beside it for a few minutes, waiting for her heart to stop pounding.
Chicken! Callie scolded herself. She took several deep breaths to calm her nerves, and then opened the trunk of her Prius. She glanced over her shoulder before pulling out a box of cleansers, a bag of rags, and another bag filled with an assortment of paper goods. “Courage,” she repeated under her breath while taking the boxes to the entrance of the inn and placing them just inside the door. The chandelier still swayed, but she saw no one.
Callie returned to the car and after rummaging in the trunk again, she took out a crowbar. Even though she didn’t believe in ghosts, she would keep the thing nearby at all times.
Friday was still two days away, and if she was going to get any work done on the inn before then, she’d better get started while the sun was shining. She would start by removing the boards from the large window by the front door. First, she cautiously pulled away the clinging vines. Then she pushed the crowbar through the wrought iron, and was surprised at how easily she could pry the old, splintered plywood from the window frame.
She dropped a board on the porch, then shrieked when a large scorpion scurried out from under it. Jumping away from the poisonous insect, she felt as if her skin were crawling. Ghosts and bugs! Was James right? Just how many more surprises hid in the crevices of this old place?
At last Callie went back inside, this time keeping her eyes alert for scorpions—and nearly transparent figures. She took a cloth from the bag and looked up the stairs, then reminded herself that she didn’t believe in ghosts. And even if they did exist, she had never seen one, and she didn’t plan to!
With the crowbar and rag in one hand and the flashlight in the other, Callie shined the beam toward the top step and listened. Dead quiet. She put the rag on the handrail and took the first step, then the second. Each step squeaked under her foot, but she fixed her eye at the top of the curving staircase and kept climbing. At the top she shined the beam down the dark hallway. No ghosts there either.
One, two, three . . . . She counted seven doors, one of which stood open, letting in a steady beam of light at the end of the hall.
Callie caught her breath, then whirled toward the voice and saw the silhouette of a man standing in the front doorway. She stared several seconds until she recognized him. Overcome with relief, Callie sank onto the landing to catch her breath. James came to the stairs—looking even more handsome than he had earlier—and pushed his hat farther back, revealing a full head of dark hair.
He smiled as if laughing at her. “Having fun exploring?”
She felt her cheeks burn. “I guess I let my imagination get the best of me. Mr. Collier said there were stories of ghosts haunting this place.”
He put one foot on the first stair and looked up at her. “Did he tell you any of those stories?” “No, but he did say that he doesn’t believe them either. I guess any building that stands empty for decades is apt to gather a few ghost stories in its dust.”
“They’re all true,” James said. “Every one of them.” Despite his words, his deep laugh calmed Callie’s nerves.
“You’re probably the one who’s spreading the stories,” she chided.
James nodded toward the crowbar in her hand. “Are you planning to clobber a ghost with that?” She lifted it. “It’s better than nothing.”
“A crowbar is no defense against a spirit.”
Callie held tight to it anyway.
He stepped on the next stair. “Do you want me to walk through the upstairs with you? There is safety in numbers.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “Are you trustworthy? How do I know you’re not a serial killer or something?”
James chuckled. “Do I look like a killer? I’m just a nosy neighbor.” At her doubtful look he added, “I promise to stay several feet away from you if it will make you feel better.”
Callie stood and brushed the dirt from her jeans. “All right.”
He was technically a stranger, yet for some reason, she felt she could trust him, but she would keep that information to herself.
“You go first,” James said. “I’m right behind you.”
Aiming the flashlight down the hallway, Callie went to the first door and turned the knob, hoping James didn’t notice that her hand trembled. The door creaked as it swung open, and enough light filtered through the boarded-up French doors on the other side to reveal an empty room with peeling yellow wallpaper.
“This room is big enough for my entire collection of furniture.”
She thought of adding that her longtime friend, Adam, would come in a few days, bringing her furniture and kitchen supplies in a rental truck, but she didn’t. After all, she didn’t want James to think she was taken.
She walked across the wood floor to the French doors, then tucked the flashlight under her arm so she could turn the knob. It was locked.
“Funny. French doors in a Spanish hacienda,” James commented from the doorway. Even in the dim light, his eyes twinkled.
Callie looked away, feeling her heart flutter, and wondered if what she felt with this stranger was love at first sight. She had never been in love and had never allowed even a crush to flourish. Her warning voice said,Don’t you start thinking you can trust him!
She wiped the dust from her hand onto the rag. “It will take some work to get rid of all this honest-to-goodness American dust.” Then she stepped past James into the hallway, went to the next door, and pushed it open. Like the first room, this room had boarded-up French doors that led to a balcony, and a bare bed stood in the center of the room.
“Beautiful!” Callie walked over to touch the brass headboard. “This is probably worth a pretty penny.” Her fingers were now covered with dust, so she wiped them on her jeans. “I’ll probably be covered with this stuff by the end of the day.”
“From dust to dust,” James quipped.
She turned to look at him. “What do you mean by that?” He only shrugged, so she let it go and left the room. “Why do you think treasure hunters haven’t robbed this place?” she asked as James followed her into the hallway.
“The ghost has done his job well,” James answered matterof-factly.
“Uh-huh. If there were such a thing,” Callie said with a half smile. “But there isn’t, so there’s got to be a logical explanation.”
She opened the door to the last bedroom that faced the front of the house. In the dim light, she saw a large wardrobe standing against the far wall. She aimed the beam of light toward the piece.
“It’s been waiting for you,” James said lightly.
Callie leaned the crowbar against the wall and opened the mahogany chest’s double doors. “To think it’s been here all these years.” She ran her hand over the inlay work and brass knobs. She turned to find James right behind her. Her stomach leapt into her chest and she slowly turned her gaze toward the crowbar.
Seemingly unaware of her flustered state, James pointed out, “You still have three more rooms to explore.”
“Oh, are you in a hurry?” Callie laughed nervously, trying to keep her composure as she retrieved the crowbar. “Because if you are, I could finish looking around alone. I’ll be fine.” She gripped the bar in front of her with both hands.
“I’ve got a few more minutes,” he said with a big smile.
Her knees went weak. How could she be so infatuated with a man she’d just met—a stranger that she should be afraid of? Once he left, she decided, she’d be able to think this through logically. But that didn’t necessarily mean she wanted him to go.
James led the way out of the room. Callie followed with the crowbar. The door across the hallway stood partially open, and James stood back as she pushed it open wider. Here the window shade had fallen and lay in a dusty heap on the floor next to a bare bed frame identical to the first. The wallpaper was streaked with water stains.
James walked over to examine the damaged ceiling. “Looks like you’ve got a leak in the roof.”
“Yeah,” Callie sighed, “and just the thought of pulling down all this peeling wallpaper wears me out.” She went to the window and looked out. “There’s a nice view of the cliffs from here.”
Keeping his distance, James looked out the window. “There is, and you have a great view of my family’s homestead.”
“Really?” She looked again and noticed the green fields. “How long has your family lived in this area?”
“About a hundred and twenty years.”
Callie turned from the window as he led the way out of the room.
“We’re still ranching and still not getting rich,” he said. “The soil is poor and full of rocks, and the wind exhausts even the cattle.”
She stopped, crossed her arms, and scrutinized his fine cowboy clothes. “You don’t look poor to me.”
James chuckled and stepped aside to allow her to open the next door. “And now behind door number 5,” he said in a deep, rich voice.
“Hey, you’re good. Maybe you could moonlight as an announcer.” She wanted to add, You’re good looking enough to be in movies, too, but decided against it.
In this room, a chest of drawers stood in the corner. Callie put down the crowbar and tried to open the window shade, but when she pulled on it gently, it fell. She gasped, jumped aside, and turned her back on the billowing dust as the shade crashed to the floor.
“Old as the days.” James stepped out of the dust’s path. “What do you plan to do with this old place anyway?”
Callie coughed and waved away the flying particles. “I’m going to live here.” It had come across with forced confidence, and before she had turned her attention to the dresser, she caught the amusement that danced in James’s eyes.
As she opened the top drawer, Callie held her breath, waiting for James to oppose the idea, but he said only, “This piece has seen better days. It’s ready for the fireplace.”
The drawer collapsed in her hand and fell to the floor. Holding only the front panel, she asked, “Oh? How can you tell?” She dropped the piece to the floor with the rest and brushed her palms together.
“Making this place livable will take a lot of work. Are you up to it?”
“I think so,” Callie said. For a brief moment, his dark blue eyes seemed to look right through her. She felt uncomfortable under his gaze and feigned another cough. “Let’s get away from this dust.”
He held out his hand toward the door. “Lead the way.”
“You are such a gentleman. It’s always ladies first.”
“My mama taught me well.”
She went to the next door, turned the knob, and pushed the door open. The room was furnished with a bed and mattress, a dresser, and a smaller wardrobe. The window was dressed with white lace curtains and a drawn shade.
“Another closet. And to think I own such beautiful antiques!” She went to the window. “Do I dare open the shade?”
James cocked his head to one side. “Try it.”
Callie carefully tugged on the shade, which recoiled easily but then fell, brackets and all, to the floor. A puff of dust rose from the heap, and Callie turned away and coughed, then stepped to the door to get a breath. “I’ll have to buy shades next time I’m in Phoenix.”
“Or order them on the Internet. We get UPS delivery here.”
Callie’s jaw dropped. “Really? Way out here?”
“We may be far from civilization, but it figured out a way to find us anyway.” He chuckled. “You can use the Internet at the courthouse until you get your own service.”
“Great. With these gas prices I should order everything I need to fix up this place.”
James raised an eyebrow. “I take it you struck it rich teaching school.”
“No. Well, yes. My Uncle Carl had no children and left everything to my mother. But she died, so naturally I inherited it.”
“Sorry you lost your mother.”
“Thank you,” Callie said, suddenly melancholy. “She’s been gone two years. I—I hardly knew my dad.”
“He died too?” James’s voice had taken on a serious tone.
Her throat tightened, but she finally said, “No. He abandoned us.” As Callie walked out of the room ahead of James, she wondered why this stranger could bring out feelings she had stuffed away long ago. He solemnly followed her into the hall, and the little voice in Callie’s head practically shouted, Don’t tell him too much. You’re setting yourself up to get hurt. So, she laughed and said lightly, “I guess that now makes me a bona fide orphan.”
“Yes. I think Uncle Carl felt responsible for the way his brother’s only son, my father, had treated her. Uncle Carl also left a sizable bank account. What’s left of it will pay to fix up this house.”
“How lucky. But is this rundown place worth it?”
“Why not? It looks sturdy enough.”
They had come full circle and stood again at the top of the stairs. Hanging crooked on the last door was a hand-painted sign that read BATH. Callie opened the door and it squeaked. “I suspect oiling hinges will be one of the easier jobs.”
The bath had a toilet, a sink, and a fancy, footed tub. “Guests will have to share this bathroom, I guess” Callie said, shining her beam of light around the room.
“Isn’t that the way it works with older bed-and-breakfast establishments?” James asked. “And this one is older.” Without thinking, she stepped up to the sink and turned on the faucet. No water. “I can imagine what the pipes are like after all these years.”
James smiled. “Hope for the best.”
After leading him back into the hall, Callie paused at the top of the stairs. “Thank you for going with me through the rooms. I felt much better knowing that I didn’t have to meet the ghosts all by myself. I already met one of those scorpions you told me about.”
Callie started down the stairs and James followed. “Believe me, you’ll find them everywhere—hiding under the carpet, in the crevices, around corners.”
“Just like the ghosts?”
He picked up his hat. “That’s a given.” James led her out the front door, then turned to face her. “If ever there was a ghost, it’s the one who lives here. Too many people have seen him to dispute it.”
“Him?” Callie stopped in her tracks. “It’s only one?”
“That’s what the stories claim. Do you need me to stick around and defend you from him?”
Though she liked the idea, a fuzzy memory flashed in her mind. It was the last time she saw her father waving from an open door. She had loved him dearly, as every toddler loves her father. She had lifted her tiny hand to wave, but he hadn’t seen and had promptly closed the door behind him. It was years before she gave up hope that the door would open and her father would be standing there.
Pushing aside the memory, Callie kept her composure and lifted her chin. “No, I’ll be fine. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Ghosts are real to those who fear them,” James said, placing his hat on his head.
“I have plenty to do to keep my mind off ghosts. I’ve got to call the phone company for service and get the water running and . . .”
“I’ll be by tomorrow to see how you’re doing.” James looked past the front yard to the few buildings that made up the town.
“You’ll be fine here, but since you don’t have running water yet, or electricity, you might find that staying in the motel will be more comfortable than this dust box.”
Callie looked at the buildings across the street. There weren’t many, but the sight of a long building with uniform windows and a sign that read MOTEL was a big relief.
“I left my horse grazing down by the gully.” James grinned, then tipped his hat. “By the way, you left your crowbar upstairs.”
Callie laughed. “You’re right.”
“Good day, ma’am. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He never looked back as he stepped off the porch and headed around the side of the house.