“I know.” His smile wobbled a little as he brushed a strand of blondish-brown hair out of her face.

“We could’ve hired someone else to step in while your mother—”

“No, you couldn’t have.” She laughed at the mere thought of that. “I know how weird the de Vincents are. I know how protective you two are of them. I know how to keep my mouth shut and not see what I’m not supposed to. And you two don’t have to worry about someone new not keeping their mouth shut and not seeing what they’re not supposed to.”

Her dad arched a brow. “A lot of things have changed, honey.”

She snorted as she took in the white marble countertops with gray veining. Mom had filled her in on some of those changes during one of her chemo treatments. After all, what else did they have to talk about while she was being pumped full of poison that would hopefully kill only the cancer cells building in her lung?

Things in the de Vincent mansion that had changed.

For starters, the patriarch of the family, one Lawrence de Vincent, had hung himself a few months back. An act that had shocked her because she figured that man would’ve outlived a nuclear bomb. And Lucian de Vincent apparently had a live-in girlfriend and they were about to move into their own place. That was even more insane, the idea of Lucian settling down.

The Lucian she remembered put the play in player. He’d been an incorrigible flirt, leaving a string of broken hearts across the state of Louisiana and beyond.

She hadn’t met his girlfriend yet since they were away on some kind of trip; the rich rarely seemed to have much of a schedule. She just hoped whoever his girlfriend was, she was nice and nothing like Devlin’s fiancée.

Nikki might not have been around the de Vincents in four years, but she remembered Sabrina Harrington and her brother Parker.

Sabrina had just begun seeing Devlin the year before Nikki had left for college and that had been a year’s worth of snide comments and rather impressive disdainful looks. Nikki could deal with Sabrina, though. If she was the same woman as she was before, she could be as mean as a cornered rattlesnake, but Nikki normally didn’t even register on her scale of people to pay attention to.

Parker, though?

Nikki suppressed a shudder, not wanting to worry her father who was watching her like a hawk.

Parker had often stared at her the way she’d wanted Gabe to look at her, especially when she had grown brave enough to move from a one-piece bathing suit to a two-piece.

And Parker . . . he had done more than look.

She drew in a deep breath. She wasn’t going to think about Parker. He wasn’t worth a single thought.

What happened to Lawrence and Lucian’s new romance weren’t the only things her mom had told her. She filled Nikki in on the whole sister-reappearing-and-then-disappearing-again thing. Something that she knew the general public had no idea had even happened. She didn’t know the details around it, but Nikki knew that in typical de Vincent fashion, it had to be the most drama-llama-est thing possible.

And she also knew better than to ask questions about it.

Her father stepped back. “The boys are all out.”

Thank God and baby Jesus.

“Devlin should be back this evening for dinner. He likes dinner to be ready at six. I believe Ms. Harrington will be joining him.”

Well, thanking God and baby Jesus lasted all of five seconds. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes and make a gagging sound. “Okay.”

“Gabriel is still in Baton Rouge, or at least, that’s the last I heard,” her father continued, ticking off the brothers’ schedules while she wondered what Gabe was doing in Baton Rouge. Not that she cared. She totally didn’t care whatsoever, but she wondered if it had anything to do with his woodworking business.

The man was talented with his hands.

Really talented.

Her cheeks flushed as an unwanted memory of how his calloused palms felt pierced her straight through the chest. Nope. Not going there. Absolutely not.

There were examples of Gabe’s skill all around the house—the furniture, chair rails, and trim, even in the kitchen. All of the woodwork was designed and created by Gabe. As a little girl, she’d been fascinated with the idea of picking up a piece of wood and turning it into something that was truly a work of art. That fascination had turned into quite the hobby for Nikki.

It had started one long, fall afternoon when she was ten and she’d found Gabe outside, whittling away on a piece of wood. Out of boredom, she’d asked him to show her how he did it. Instead of shooing her off, Gabe had given her small scraps of wood and showed her how to use a chisel.

She’d gotten pretty good at it, but she hadn’t picked up a chisel in over four years.

Nikki refocused on what her dad was telling her.

“We’re a little understaffed right now,” her dad continued. “So there’s a lot of dusting in your near future. Devlin is very much like his father.”

Great.

That was not a compliment in her book.

“Is it the ghosts?” she half joked. “Scaring off the staff?”

Her father shot her a look, but she knew damn well that her parents believed this house was haunted. Hell, they wouldn’t even come here at night unless it was a dire emergency. None of the staff would and everyone in town knew the legends about the land the de Vincent mansion sat on. And who hadn’t heard about the de Vincent curse more than a time or two?

Being in this house as much as she had been in the past, she had seen some weird things and heard some stuff that couldn’t be explained. Plus she grew up within minutes of New Orleans. She was a believer, but unlike her friend Rosie, whom she met in college, she wasn’t obsessed with all things paranormal. Nikki operated on the whole if-you-don’t-acknowledge-ghosts-they-can’t-bother-you theory and so far it had worked wonderfully.

Then again, Nikki had only come here at night once in her life, and that had not turned out well at all. So maybe ignoring ghosts didn’t work, because she liked to think she was possessed by one of the ghosts that supposedly wandered the halls, and that was what provoked her to do what she’d done that night.

Nikki was well aware of how the house was run because she’d spent most of her summer vacations in the house watching her mom, so she got to work pretty quickly once her father left her.

First thing first was tracking down what staff they did have at the house. Understaffed her butt! The only staff they had left was her dad; the landscaper who was constantly mowing grass, it seemed, or re-mulching; the de Vincent driver; and Mrs. Kneely, an older woman who’d done the laundry services since Nikki was a little girl.

Beverly Kneely actually owed her own laundry business and only came to the house three times a week to take care of the linens and clothing.

According to Bev, whom she found in the large mudroom at the back of the house, packing up clothing that needed to be dry-cleaned, over the last couple of months, nearly everyone had quit.

“So, let me get this straight.” Nikki smoothed back a few strands that had escaped the knot she’d pulled her hair up in. “The waiters are gone, as are the maids?”

Bev’s buxom chest heaved as she nodded. “It’s just been your parents for the last three months. I think all that work was wearing poor Livie down.”

Anger flashed through Nikki. Hadn’t the de Vincents noticed how thin and tired her mom had been getting? How quickly she got out of breath? “Why didn’t the de Vincents hire someone to help?”

“Your father tried, but no one around here wants to come close to this place, not after what happened.”

She frowned. “You’re talking about Lawrence? What he did?”

Bev tied up the bags. “Not like that wasn’t bad enough, but that wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back around here.”

Nikki had no idea what she was talking about. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ve been updated on all the crazy. What else happened?”

Looking around the room, Bev arched her brows as she headed toward the side door. “Walls got ears. You know that. You want to know what’s been going on here, you ask your father or one of the boys.”

Her lips pursed. She was so not asking the boys.

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