Wild thoughts careened through Ellie's head as she tumbled forward. Hadn't Scarlett fallen down the stairs in Gone With the Wind? Shouldn't her life pass before her eyes? Why, oh why had she accepted the invitation? Yes, it was a great chance to wear her new Louboutins and meet a single man, but any other party had to be safer.
The house. That's why she'd come here. She had to see inside the house. Dumb idea. Didn't curiosity kill the cat?
At least her screams drowned out the other shrieks.
Ouch! Her behind bounced off a step, and she was surprised it didn't hurt. The steps must have a lot of padding under the carpet. Her fingers grazed the bannister, but her momentum carried her past before she could grab hold.
"Help-ee-elp-ee-elp!" Her shriek bounced with each step and came to an abrupt stop along with the rest of her when she struck a very solid, very warm and very much living object.
"Didn't I tell you to stay where you were?" JT pulled her to her feet. "You could have gotten hurt."
"I'm not hurt," she protested. Bruised ego, perhaps, but she'd slid more than fell. Her borrowed shoes hadn't even come off!
"Thank goodness you're all right." His arms pulled her so close that she could feel the frantic rhythm of his heart. He pressed his warm cheek to hers, the mask clearly discarded. "I would never have forgiven myself if anything happened to you, Ellie."
Now her heartrate accelerated. The way he clutched her and the ragged emotion that cracked his voice wiped away her irrational fear of noises in the dark and replaced it with the very real fear of what might have happened--and what was about to happen.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I shouldn't have moved."
"No, no, the fault is mine." If anything he held her closer. "Please understand, that's how Tracye lost her husband. He fell on a construction worksite, and he wasn't wearing his safety harness."
No wonder JT's sister didn't like the massive house with its sweeping staircase. It must remind her of her loss. "Then Mandy is...?"
"Their daughter. I tried to be a father to her, but she refused to listen to me."
Now her heart broke for him. "Most teenaged girls rebel, whether with their mom, their dad, or their uncle." That must have been the shoe-throwing phase. "But she turned out well. You said she's in the Peace Corps."
"In the Philippines. She is back in the States now, though, and was supposed to arrive home tonight, but her flight got grounded by the bad weather. Tracye's been upset ever since she got Mandy's call. When I heard Sis crying, I was afraid she'd gotten more bad news." He paused. "But that's no excuse. I should never have left you alone in the dark in a strange house. Can you ever forgive me?"
Ellie recalled the tenderness of his touch when he wiped her feet dry and placed the ruby slipper on her foot. With all that was going on in his family, he had gone to extraordinary lengths to help a woman he did not know. "Of course I do."
He breathed a sigh of relief. "I promise not to leave your side the rest of the evening." His chocolatey rich vow wound around her heart as securely as his arm cradled her waist.
"Now that's a promise I'll hold you to."
A rumble of excitement started deep within and exploded when his expressive lips brushed against hers in the suddenly quiet darkness. Ellie wobbled on the unfamiliar shoes before he swept her off her feet and into his arms like Rhett Butler had done with Scarlett.
At that moment the lights flickered on, revealing they were just one step from the bottom of the staircase where...oh dear. A smattering of goblins, aka guests, gathered around Tracye, Mina and a couple of cats. One goblin hooted, then the rest joined in. That was the eerie shrieking she'd heard earlier, only now it sounded a lot more playful. How could she have been so silly?
Though heat suffused her cheeks, JT grinned widely and carried her down the remaining step.
Then he looked her in the eyes. "Your wish is my command, my scarlet-shoed princess. Just close your eyes, click your heels together three times, and whisper your heart's desire."
On a night like tonight, Ellie could believe anything possible. She closed her eyes and tapped her heels.
Click, click, click.
"There's no one like--"
JT's lips quieted her with a kiss that sent every fear scurrying into next year. The goblin hoots turned to cheers, but she could only think how wrong she'd been to doubt him. The kiss ended sweet as candy corn, with the promise of more. She opened her eyes to a smile that outshone the brightest lightning bolt.
"There's no one like you," they said in unison.