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Midnight Moon

Once Upon a Time - Book 2

Cobblestone Press LLC

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Word Count: 42,000
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Jacqueline Beaumont disappeared ages ago, cursed into a lonely existence of moonlit shadows and eternal heartache. Her only sanctuary has been her dilapidated ancestral home, but a new owner threatens to change that.

Thomas Princeton returns home to renovate the Beaumont plantation, its halls haunted by a mysterious beauty and its lands claimed by a precocious, black-haired beast.

He must collar the beast and gain the beauty's trust to win her heart and find true love, but the beauty and the beast share a secret, and she’s determined to run him off…if only he weren’t so incredibly sexy.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

The Everland Gazette

Traps set to catch thieving beast lurking near the old Beaumont Plantation.

New owner begins renovations on haunted eyesore.

Jacqueline’s claws dug into the dirt as she came to a stop in the shadows of the overgrown forest that surrounded and encroached on her childhood home. A growl tore from her throat as she padded back and forth along an invisible line, her fierce gaze turned toward the dilapidated back porch of the once stately mansion.

What the hell is he doing? She’d never seen the man before. He had no right to be in her bedroom!

She settled on her haunches and eyed the interloper through the French doors that framed her view of the room she’d claimed as hers over a half-century ago.

There was little she could do as the immortal beast she’d been cursed to be. Hers was a never-ending nightmare of a solitary existence—a lone wolf by day, forced to scavenge for its survival around the perimeter of an extravagant, sheltered life she’d once enjoyed—a forlorn waif by night, obligated to hide from all she’d loved until one by one they passed on and she’d become the stuff of legend. As if she were a ghost.

Sadness engulfed her tired body as she watched the stranger ransack her room. She should burst into the house, snarling and howling, and scare the shit out of the man until he ran screaming from the place, but that would only bring more trouble down around her already precarious situation. Hadn’t she avoided enough pitfalls lately? The damn trappers and vandals were getting more dangerous all the time.

After the death of her parents several years earlier, her existence had gone from bad to worse. By day, she’d had to avoid hunters and trappers, and she’d spent many nights scaring off the curious and stupid from the only home she’d ever known. Most were kids who were susceptible to persuasion and easily frightened by things that went bump in the night.

The tall man in her room today was no child, and he didn’t look the type to be easily frightened. He wore a dark, short-sleeved shirt, and faded blue jeans that hugged his tight ass and strong thighs as he climbed up a stepladder to change several bulbs in the room’s chandelier. He hopped down with lithe agility after he finished his task and flipped the switch.

He appeared young, though not too young, and strong. Very strong, she corrected as his biceps flexed when he hefted a big box of items plus the stepladder and hauled both of them out of the room.

In addition to the chandelier that illuminated the room for him while he worked, he’d already removed the dark drapes that had covered the French doors, so additional daylight streamed in.

That had been what first captured her attention when she arrived at the edge of the tree line. Her paws slapped the ground as she began to pace once more with pent-up frustration. He was ruining everything!

The rocker her father had used while holding her in his lap and reading her bedtime stories was no longer hidden beneath white cloth. In fact, all of the furniture had been unveiled. Only the wall mirror and her portrait remained covered for now, but she was certain their dust covers would wind up on a growing pile that lay on the floor in one corner; he’d yet to pick that up and carry it from the room. He’d already stripped her bedding, too, replacing it with a set of onyx-colored linens and forest-green duvet.

He’d also boxed up every piece of bric-a-brac that her mother had left untouched after Jacqueline vanished into her cursed world. All of the souvenirs of her youth, and her only connection to the life she’d once had. The sting of that thought almost made her howl with sorrow, the pain and loneliness as raw today as it had been decades ago.

She wondered why the stranger focused his efforts on her room, and what did that mean for the rest of her childhood home? Had he already stripped the other rooms, too? She wasn’t opposed to fixing up the place; it was obvious that it needed a little tender loving care—something she longed to do but couldn’t. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t furious over his presence in the house…in her room.

After her parents had closed off the room in despair over her perceived death, she’d at least been able to have a safe haven in which to rest by night before the curse and sunrise forced her back into the woods.

But now some strange man was destroying all of that!

She glanced at the orange orb hanging low in the sky. The sun would slip below the horizon soon. She had to be inside when that happened, but how could she with him there?

How the hell had he opened the bedroom door, anyway? Knowing her parents would never return to the room that held so many sad memories, she’d reinforced the door’s lock herself years ago by barricading it with furniture while they were away one night. And she’d used several scarves to reinforce the deadbolt on the French doors, too.

She’d always made her entrance into the room via the secret crawlspace in the closet that she’d discovered as a child. The old home was littered with secret passageways, but he couldn’t know of them, could he?

No! Not my— She growled again. The thieving asshole would pay for ever daring to enter her sanctuary.

She watched him dump a dresser drawer full of clothes onto the bed and seethed with impudent fury as he went through her most personal articles of clothing.

Her tail swished as she paced an ever-lengthening loop of helplessness. What was she supposed to wear each sunset after her change if he ridded the house of her wardrobe?

Something caught her leg, causing her to stumble and face-plant into the ground. She struggled and gave a firm yank as she tried to regain her four-legged stance, but one of her paws was trapped. She looked and saw it for the first time, just off the path. A snare, unlike the metal-toothed claw traps they’d peppered the property with before, this one was harder to spot and undeniably less painful, but just as effective. The thin rope held her back right leg in its firm grip. When she tugged against it, the attempt to pull free only tightened the snare.

In a panic, she faced the setting sun and let loose a howl of remorse over her own stupidity.

It’s all his fault! Her distraction over the strange man in her domain could be her ultimate downfall.

* * * * *

Thomas Princeton glanced about the room he’d chosen to become his new master suite. Although the old mansion boasted three traditional bedrooms upstairs, including one with an attached bath, the mysterious downstairs room with its French doors and wide patio outside had attracted him. He already envisioned plans to renovate the study and half-bath next door into part of a more suitable ground-floor master suite.

The antique four-poster bed had been a nice bonus he discovered, so it would remain, along with its matching dresser and armoire. It sure beat having to sleep on the floor upstairs as he’d originally planned before picking the lock to this dusty time capsule.

He couldn’t understand why the previous owners had barricaded this room apart from the rest of the house, but he decided not to waste time trying to solve the puzzle. Now that he owned the place and had broken into the hidden room to find a treasure trove of antique furnishings, he had more important things to do, like cleaning it out so he could get one good night’s sleep before the real work began tomorrow.

Hauling a box of children’s books and toys out of the room, he grumbled about the other tasks and familial obligations that had delayed much of his work on his new home. He’d hoped to work all day on the house, but news first thing this morning from his real estate agent had resulted in a slight change of plans, and then his father had summoned him to the Princeton Estate. He’d gone, thinking the old man had something important to impart, but instead found himself the unexpected guest of an informal luncheon, during which he’d had to meet and ward off at least three young ladies vying for his attentions. Thank God his brother, Maxwell, had been there with his own fiancée, or he might’ve never made it out of there without a noose around his neck.

But he had, and now he only had enough time to prepare the one room for him to get some sleep. Tomorrow, he’d begin the real renovations.

He grabbed a stepladder and box of new bulbs he’d picked up on the way home and headed back to his bedroom. Climbing up to reach the chandelier, he debated on whether to replace it with something a bit more modern, and masculine.

He liked some of the furniture since he had an interest in antiques, and he didn’t want to destroy the rich history of the plantation home’s architecture, but the fixture was a bit too prissy for his tastes.

Fortunately, the kitchen was in pretty good shape. With the new granite countertops professionally installed that day, the space just needed a fresh coat of paint and some new appliances; the latter of which were scheduled to arrive tomorrow afternoon. He’d started painting that morning, but with all the interruptions of the day, he’d failed to finish his task, so he’d have to wrap up that project first thing tomorrow.

Next on his agenda—repairing the porches and knocking out some interior walls. Updated bathrooms were a must, too, but those upstairs could wait.

Still, he liked the Old World feel of the home, so he’d have to figure out how to strike a happy balance between the luxurious convenience he wanted and the antiquated ambiance the plantation home deserved. Maybe he’d invest in a claw-footed tub after all, along with the modern shower stall he had in mind.

Hopping down, he flicked on the light switch and smiled. At least the electrical wiring was still sound. He gathered up another big box of things to remove from the room, including the stepladder, and added to the pile of boxes near the front door. What he decided not to keep, he’d donate to local charities.

He returned with his suitcase and opened a dresser drawer.

What the hell? Inside were layers of neatly folded panties and bras. He paused.

So, the room had belonged to a young woman. He’d wondered about that briefly with all the childish figurines he’d cleared away earlier. The jewelry box with spinning ballerina had made him smile before he thought of possible reasons why all of the items had been abandoned to time and dust, locked away and apparently forgotten until he’d barged his way into the room.

He frowned at the puzzle of the barricade he’d encountered once he’d picked the old lock on the door. And why were only some parts of the room dusty, the furniture covered, while other areas seemed habitable, such as the bed and this dresser? Nothing made sense in this house.

Shaking his head, he dumped the drawer’s contents on the bed and lifted a pair of skimpy lace panties up between two fingers. These didn’t belong to a small child. He grabbed a matching bra, searched for a tag, and read the size. 34-C. Definitely not a little girl.

Why the hell had someone locked all of this away from the rest of the house?

Somebody had broken a window in the living room near the front door, and the door’s original lock was busted. Several rooms had been looted while the home sat abandoned and falling into ruin for a decade. But rampant rumors of the house being haunted had kept many vandals away—along with prospective buyers. A few of the rooms still had some furnishings intact. Larger pieces mostly. Items difficult to haul off or pawn. The room in which he now stood was the only one to remain completely untouched.

But why?

He’d have to do some more research on the family that had once owned the place. His realtor had said it was an elderly couple who died without heirs, but that didn’t exactly jibe with a drawer full of skimpy lingerie.

An ominous howl from outside made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and he dropped the underwear onto the bed as he headed for the French doors. He turned the deadbolt and twisted the doorknob.

What the hell? The handles were tied together with several silk scarves so knotted he’d have to cut them away. When he’d removed the drapes earlier, he’d seen the scarves but thought they were simply draped over the handles, but now…

This was getting stranger and stranger.

Another howl. He looked through the panes of glass and caught movement near the tree line. The mournful sound was that of a wolf.

“Damn it.” He ran from the room and around to another door that opened onto the back of the property.

By the time he made it outside and halfway across the overgrown, weed-infested yard, the sounds had stopped, but he discovered their source soon enough. A wolf with a gorgeous coat of black fur was trapped in a snare. It was so caught up in trying to gnaw its way free, the animal didn’t notice him at first, so he drew nearer. The wolf twisted and rolled on its back, trying to get free, and he saw the beast was female, not that that made her any safer for him. She was huge, and probably dangerous.

He hissed another curse at having missed one of the traps his realtor warned him about.

The she-wolf whirled around to face him and snarled, her bared fangs making her point quite effectively if her warning sound hadn’t worked, which it had. It definitely had.

Thomas froze with one hand raised toward her, palm out. “It’s okay. I mean you no harm.” He almost rolled his eyes at his choice of words. She wasn’t an alien; she was a wild animal.

Her growl grew louder, her eyes a brilliant, angry blue. Wait a minute. Wolves didn’t have eyes like that. She couldn’t be pure wolf. Must have some Siberian husky in her to have eyes that color, but right now, she was all pissed off primal beast.

“Okay, I know you don’t believe me. After all, you stumbled across that little trap there on my property, but I swear to you, I didn’t set it. I must be losing my mind,” he muttered to himself when he realized he was trying to reason with a wolf.

She stopped snarling long enough to cock her head at him as if she agreed with his assessment.

He chuckled and stared at her a minute, marveling at the intensity of her eyes. “Damn, you sure are a beauty, aren’t you?” The black animal stared back at him, sighed, and sat somewhat awkwardly with its hind leg still caught. “Okay. Look, just stay right there.” It cocked its head again, and he laughed. “I know, stupid thing to say.”

The wolf barked, squirmed, then yelped. She bent around to lick at her trapped paw.

He dared a step closer, but she turned back to face him and bared her sharp teeth in a silent warning. “Okay. Okay, I’ll be right back and get you free. If you won’t let me closer to you, I’ll just have to come up with a way to do this from a distance.”

Thomas sprinted around the house to an old tool shed he’d checked out before on one of his inspection visits to the property. The inside was covered in cobwebs and sparsely stocked with antiquated farming tools, but there were a couple of things left in it that might prove useful in this situation. From it, he retrieved a rusty, short handled hatchet and an old, long handled ax.

As he returned to the tree line, he debated the logic of releasing a wild wolf within striking distance, but he hated to see any animal suffer, which was why he chewed out his own realtor when informed of the traps the authorities had laid around his property prior to the closing. As soon as he’d heard the news, he’d made their removal his first priority, and he thought he’d found all of them.

The wolf had seemed the lesser of two threats, and he didn’t give a damn about all the complaints filed against the animal that had been spotted in the woods and blamed for numerous wrongs over the years. The wolf had as much a right to be there as did his neighbors who liked to hike or camp in the public forest. The fact that the wolf seemed to hover near the plantation property didn’t bother him either, but he damn sure didn’t like the idea of living amid a minefield of traps that could hurt him as much as they could catch a wolf. Besides, there had been zero reports of the wolf harming any human or pet. He saw no reason why the animal couldn’t roam the acres and acres of forest beyond the plantation.

“Okay,” he said, drawing near to the trapped animal.

She whimpered, spotted him, and then set up a low, deep-chested growl. He wasted no time. With a toss of the short hatchet, he aimed for the rope that stretched from the wolf’s hind leg, but the beast leaped aside, causing him to miss his mark.

“Damn it. Be still. I’m trying to set you free, not hurt you, but I could use a little help here.”

The animal yelped and whimpered again after its sudden movement caused the snare to pull taut once more.

Thomas had to get very close to the animal, close enough for it to easily attack him, to use the long-handled ax. He kept a wary eye on her as he inched closer. She snarled, but didn’t move. When he was within reach, he reared back and swung the ax at the rope. This time, it worked. The blade sliced the thin nylon rope and buried itself in the ground.

The wolf scampered several feet away, the remnants of the snare still dangling from her leg. Despite a slight limp, she seemed okay, and at least she was free. He hoped the rope would eventually work loose so no more harm was done.

Now that the wild animal was free, though, he jerked the ax from the soft soil and held it up for self-protection, just in case. However, the beast seemed to realize his intent was more to help than harm. Its sapphire gaze turned toward him, then in the direction of the sun slipping behind the evergreens to the west, and then back at him.

With that one final glance, it bolted for darker depths of the forest beyond his property. With one last sigh and a muttered, “You’re welcome,” he gathered his tools and returned to his home.

Minutes later, he was inside the bedroom with the wolf all but forgotten as he finished his preparations on the room for the night. Stuffing the feminine undergarments back into the dresser drawer, he set it back into the dresser, opting to unpack his own clothes the next day. It wasn’t that late yet, but he couldn’t wait to crawl between his new sheets and pass out. First, though, one more chore. He would grab the last of the canvas sheets that blanketed half the room and haul the pile out to be laundered later. Then he was going to collapse in the big bed for some much-needed Z’s.

Maybe, he decided, he could reuse some of the dust covers as drop cloths in the kitchen tomorrow.

He reached up to remove a white cloth over an object hanging on the wall and unearthed a mirror, the frame a perfect match to the dark wood furniture in the room. From another wall, he grabbed the last of the coverings and unveiled a portrait that made him pause. He’d expected a still life or landscape in watercolors, something pretty to go with the prissy chandelier and feminine bric-a-brac, but not a portrait. The hand-painted oil was not a Rembrandt, Van Gogh, or some other long-lost treasure from a master like Leonardo da Vinci, but it was a fine piece nonetheless. And the artist’s subject staring out from the canvas fascinated him.

Dressed in an elegant gown that was almost sensual in its virtuous design, she stood before a fireplace he recognized as one in the very house he now owned. Rich black hair cascaded in waves over the young woman’s porcelain shoulders, her face turning slightly away—or slightly toward him—forever caught in that moment, leaving the viewer to wonder. But her brilliant blue eyes and her smile were bright, lifelike, and engaging. They weren’t the ambiguous mystery of the Mona Lisa, but they did hold secrets he longed to discover.

Who was she?

Was this a painting of the former owner when the old lady was in her prime?

“Lucky old man,” he said softly, thinking the husband fortunate to have found a wife of such innocent, untarnished beauty.

He stared at her a long moment, but a yawn prompted him into motion once more. He left the picture where it hung, finished his final chore, and prepared for bed in the bigger upstairs bathroom. Exhausted, with damp hair and tiny droplets of water on his back and shoulders, he checked the doors, cut out the lights, and crawled between the cool Egyptian cotton sheets.

The light from the rising full moon filtered through the French doors, offering dim illumination of the portrait as he drifted off to sleep.

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