If You Dare

By: Jessica Lemmon

For Niki. The sister I never had, but got to choose.





Chapter One

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Lily McIntire pulled into the crumbling driveway of 102 Willow Street in Fantom, Ohio. Dust settled around her car, revealing the decaying building looming in front of her, its slats weather-beaten, front door padlocked, and porch stairs splintering. She chewed on her lip and reconsidered leaving the sanctuary of her car.

“Probably just full of spiders.” Her voice came out paper thin and not infused with the courage she so desperately needed. She wrinkled her nose. Lily hated spiders, and any number of creepy-crawly things, but spiders sounded better than what was allegedly lurking around inside Willow Mansion. Spiders, in this case, were preferable.

She wasn’t about to admit she was scared half out of her wits just being here, let alone staying overnight inside. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to give Marcus Black the satisfaction of winning the stupidest bet on earth.

She pushed her car door open and stepped into the mild autumn air. The leaves had changed from green to burnished gold a few weeks ago. Some of them still stubbornly clung to their hosts, but the majority lay strewn in the overgrown grass and clogging the warped gutters overhead.

Lovely.

Other than a few obvious building code violations, the house didn’t appear too oppressive in the streaming sunlight. And under the wide, bowing maples dappled with late September sunshine, Willow Mansion was almost…well…charming. A pleasant breeze kicked Lily’s hair and stuck a few stray strawberry-blond tendrils to her lip gloss. She tugged them away and smiled at the relic before her with newfound appreciation. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe all the rumors about the mansion had been wildly exaggerated.

A creak overhead drew her attention to the upstairs windows. An ancient shutter shifted on its hinges, let out a grating whine, and fell from its precarious perch. She leaped to the right, squeaking as the shutter crashed to the ground and sent a spray of pebbles onto her shoes. Heart hammering against her ribs, Lily reconsidered going inside. Spiders or ghosts were the least of her worries. Having a ceiling collapse in on her, on the other hand…

“Get me through this.” She addressed The Man Upstairs through clenched teeth. “And I’ll never drink tequila again.”

After work on Wednesday, Lily had allowed herself to be talked into a celebratory shot-and-beer night by her (mostly) well-meaning coworkers. The London project had taken them nearly three months of late nights and working on weekends to complete, but their team prevailed as the little-foursome-that-could.

Reginald London Superstores, the first to open in June of next year, would be built based on Cameron Design’s drawings and specifications. The account would bring in more profit than Lily’s best friend, Joanie Cameron, had seen since she and her husband, Clive, launched their firm. Lily was beyond proud of her friends, who deserved every good thing that came their way.

That asshat Marcus Black, however…

He may be part of the talent who helped knock this one out of the park, but it didn’t mean Lily had to like him. Just thinking of him raised her hackles. His know-it-all attitude, his cocky, better-than-you half smile, the train of swooning blondes he paraded at the annual Retail Space Design dinner every year. This year, Marcus would be accepting the coveted Designer of the Year award, much to Lily’s chagrin. If the award were judged on personality, she was sure he’d have lost to someone far more pedigreed.

Unfortunately, even though Marcus was a turd of the highest class, he was damn talented. One particularly late night, she and Marcus had hovered over several designs and a few containers of kung pao chicken, and she’d watched in awe as he slid his pencil over a fresh sheet of paper, sketching the design that would be the one London preferred over all of the others.

Watching that undeniably masculine hand dusted in dark hair move across the paper was like watching a painter capture a sunset with amazing accuracy. She’d leaned over him, captivated, while his aftershave tingled her senses and his deep voice penetrated her shell. The rare moment of amicable peace between them made her wonder if she’d misjudged him initially.

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