If You Dare

By: Jessica Lemmon

“When you succumb to white hot terror and run screaming into the hills”—he’d tugged his brown bomber jacket over impossibly wide shoulders she’d tried really, really hard not to admire—“what do I get?”

“What, my terror and abject humiliation aren’t enough?”

“Satisfying, but no.”

She’d pressed her lips together to keep from smiling and asked, “What did you have in mind?”

He didn’t hesitate. “The annual RSD dinner.”

That was it? “I go to that every year.”

“As my date,” he’d clarified.

She doubted she’d successfully hidden her shock. Marcus had shown up to the last three Retail Space Design dinners with a different blonde du jour. His date’s duties included: laughing at his jokes, holding champagne flutes between perfectly manicured fingers, and worshipping his every footstep.

She’d pictured herself in that role and snorted.

He’d sent a long, slow gaze up and down her body and she’d sworn she felt his gaze like a sizzling brand on her body. “Do you own any outfits that don’t make you look like a man-eater?”

Self-consciously, she’d fingered the two buttons holding her Calvin Klein blazer closed. “I like this suit.”

He’d taken a deliberate step closer. “I didn’t say I didn’t like the suit.” That suggestive murmur, and the way he brushed her fingers aside to touch a button on her jacket drew her in. She’d found herself staring his mouth, evaluating the shape of his lips, and calculating how far she’d have to lift on her toes to press her lips to his.

Coming to her senses, albeit a bit late, she’d jerked her hand away instead. Marcus had backed off, his eyes shuttering, his smug grin locking back into place. “When I win, wear a cocktail dress.”

But it wasn’t his opinion of her wardrobe that made her jaw drop. She’d been trying to figure out why he would ask her to be his date to the dinner he likely already had a date to. He had to be messing with her. She’d shot down his advances before. Maybe this was him taunting her. Trying to put the one thing on the line that would make her balk.

Which meant he thought she had a good chance of winning.

She’d tossed her head, given him her most confident smile, and said, “You’re on. But I’m sorry to say you’ll have to call Rent-A-Bimbo again this year, Black. This is one bet I’m winning.”

Not that her proclamation stopped him from trying to psyche her out. The next morning, while she’d suffered the mother of all hangovers, Marcus swung into her office, holding onto the doorframe with one hand and gripping a crowbar in the other. “Hope the cops don’t catch you. B&Es include fines and jail time.”

If she’d been 100 percent, she would have Googled his claim to see if it were true. Instead, she’d held out a hand and accepted the length of iron.

The day after that, she’d been sipping her second cup of coffee when the e-mail icon at the bottom of her computer screen flickered.

Lil, thought you might like to know who you’re up against tonight. Happy Friday the 13th! M.

She’d opened the attachment, then wished she hadn’t. A scanned newspaper article, so old the edges of the periodical were torn and faded, boasted the header: WOMAN FALLS TO HER DEATH, POLICE SAY SUICIDE. Lily had read through the article about Essie Mae Epson and her leap from the second-story window. The report mentioned Essie’s surviving husband, but no other family members. The article was tame compared to the rich urban legend that surrounded the place. The rumors of Essie’s suicide being a murder at her husband’s hands, the phantom voices on the property, a woman in white, and the general feeling of unease…

But that’s all they were, Lily reminded herself. Rumors. Outside of Willow Mansion, the world seemed utterly normal.

She listened to the birds chirp, the leaves rustle in the breeze, and the distant sound of cars on the highway. Standing in the warm sunlight, amidst the air infused with the fragrances of fall, the mansion appeared more abandoned than eerie.

Yes, the “Legend of Essie Mae” still looped her brain like a stock car in a race, but she found herself wondering if a woman named Essie had ever actually lived there. She had no proof the article about Essie’s suicide wasn’t Photoshopped by one of Marcus’s buddies. That sounded like him, she thought suddenly. He was the consummate prankster.

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