Hearts Unloched by Claire Gem

Hearts Unloched by Claire Gem

Hearts Unloched

by Claire Gem

Erato Publishing

Ebook ISBN: B01DN099U0

[ Paranormal Romantic Suspense, MF ]

A psychic interior designer reluctantly agrees to renovate a sexy investor’s abandoned hotel on Loch Sheldrake, a lake rumored to have once been the mob’s body dumping ground.

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Chapter One

Redman’s Resort – Loch Sheldrake, N.Y.

Oct. 21, 1964

A full Hunter’s moon is hangin’ high over the Loch, lightin’ up the hotel parking lot like the one at the big Chevy dealership in Monticello. Raymond and me are gettin’ ready to shut down. On a Wednesday night this late in the season, we pack it in early—usually by eleven. Gene stays on in the lobby until around midnight just in case any late-night check-ins show up, or some straggler rolls in, stumblin’ back from the clubhouse at the racetrack.

I’m in charge of the key cabinet. The valet lot is full of shiny steel and chrome. All the latest models from the sweet silver ’62 Corvette to the brand new yellow Malibu. Ray’s itchin’ for the Malibu, but it’s my turn to choose. I pluck the key off peg number forty-two, turn up my collar against the bitin’ fall breeze, and head for the back lot.

I find Ray up against the side of the building in the shadows, his usual spot, the red tip of his cigarette bobbin’ like a boat’s nav marker.

“So? We doin’ the Chevelle?” he asks.

I pull out my own pack of Marlboros and light up before answerin’. “Nope.” I blow the word out in a puffy white stream. “Gonna roll with the ’Vette.”

“Damn you, Jimmy,” he mutters, then drops his smoke and crushes it out with the pointy toe of his shoe. But he doesn’t say nothin’ more.

I’m head valet—Ray’s and Gene’s boss man. And sure, we’re breakin’ the rules by takin’ these rich folks’ rides out for a spin in the wee hours. Sometimes we even take two of the hottest ones and drag the quarter mile we got marked out on the straightaway goin’ toward Liberty.

But most times, we just test-drive ’em. See what they got. See what it feels like.

We all grew up in Sullivan County—farm boys. This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to sittin’ behind a set of wheels with its own pink slip. And without rust on the bumpers or cow shit on the floorboards.

We’re just gettin’ ready to make our move when a flash of headlights stops us dead.

Damn, another late night straggler. Now we’ll have to wait ’til Gene pulls their luggage and grabs their keys.

But the car doesn’t even pause at the lobby doors. It purrs right on by, snuggin’ into the end spot beyond the area cordoned off for valet. A sweet ride, the ’64 Mustang is a fastback, and the growl of its 289 vibrates in my chest before meltin’ away. The taillights—three vertical rectangles of fiery color on each of her hips—glow a shade brighter right before they go black.

With the place lit up like midday under that big moon, we get a clear shot at the couple climbin’ out. I remember them from earlier. They checked in around two this afternoon, all snuggles and giggles. I heard the Mister tell the bellhop, Honeymoon Suite, 103.

City folk. He was a big man in a black suit to match his blacker hair, puffin’ on a Cuban I knew damn well was illegal. The thing’s still clamped between his teeth now as he gets out and makes his way around to open her door.

She’s choice—Elizabeth Taylor style—and built like a brick shit house. Without her coat earlier, I’d gotten a good look at her nicely rounded ass. Now she’s wrapped in pale fur from her chin to her toes. The way it shimmers in the moonlight, gotta be silver fox. Like the ones me and Raymond trap up on the ridge. Their pelts bring prime cash.

Cigar no sooner slams the door when he snatches the blunt out of his teeth and drops it. Then he grabs her, clutchin’ that sweet ass in both of his big hands, clear through the fur. They stand there, makin’ out, ’til I’m pretty sure they’re gonna go all the way right there against the car.

I look down, drummin’ my fingers impatiently on the block wall behind me. Raymond pinches the bridge of his nose and mutters, “Geez-Us. They got a room, don’t they?”

Then another set of headlights flashes, crawlin’ down the row of cars until it shines right on the pair, like they’re top bill on Broadway. Spewin’ gravel, the black Caddy spins out and stops dead, right beside them.

What comes next happens so damn fast, I’m not sure I remember it right. To this day, I’m still thinkin’—and prayin’—it was all a bad dream.


Opening Day, Montlake Raceway & Casino, Liberty, N.Y.

Fifty Years Later

Kate Bardach snugged the collar of her amber, Burberry raincoat tighter around her neck and dipped into the side pocket, lifting out her compact binoculars. Excitement balled in her chest like a tightly wound bee’s nest, since the next few minutes annually set the tone of her entire year. Seconds later, the buzzer sounded, and the announcer’s voice echoed in the empty grandstands—And they’re off.

Kate knew this opening day, on a weekday, a few days before Passover, she’d likely be alone in the stands. The first of April, no less. April Fools’ Day. But although it may be an unlucky day for some, she felt sure she had a talisman. Her three-year-old filly was something special.

She didn’t bother lifting the glasses to her eyes until the group rounded the last turn. She knew her horse—a steady, patient runner. The filly was happy to lurk in the leading third of the pack until the last stretch. Then she’d make her move.

The big gray usually stood out like a silver beacon in a sea of sorrels and bays. But today, drizzling rain had turned the track into a sea of muck. The group seemed to float over the course, hovering in a misty brown cloud like Pig Pen on Peanuts. Kate squinted through her glasses and leapt to her feet when the pink-and-white silks bearing the number three pulled ahead of the pack.

“Go, baby, go, go, go!” Kate jumped up and down. As they barreled down the final stretch, she yanked the eyepiece free and pressed her face close to the glass. “Dammit,” she growled, her voice echoing in the empty grandstand as her breath puffed out in the cold air, fogging her view. She raced down to the far end of her box, center stage over the action.

Easily, the big, dapple-gray thoroughbred named April’s Here pulled away from the pack in the last hundred yards, splashing across the finish line three lengths ahead of the second-place horse. Kate shrieked and clapped like a little girl.

This is going to be my year. My year. Finally.

Adrenalin sent warmth coursing through her as she flopped back into her seat and, retrieving her binoculars, dropped them into her Coach bag. Then she slipped out her phone. Thumbs flying over the keyboard, she swore again as spellcheck, along with her trembling fingers, repeatedly distorted her message to her father. We won morphed into sheep, then erwin. Exhilaration overcame her frustration on the second try, and she laughed out loud.

“Congratulations, pretty woman. I guess we both bet on the right horse today.”

Kate shrieked and spun around toward the deep voice coming not only from behind, but above her. She’d had no idea she wasn’t the only one in the stands. How could she possibly have missed this guy?

He appeared taller than he probably was, standing on the level above her which gave him a nine-inch advantage. Broad and imposing under a voluminous, black trench coat, he looked like an old-time mobster with his dark hair and oddly hued, light eyes. And those eyes were studying her with an expression Kate couldn’t quite decipher.

Interest? Curiosity? Or downright hunger?

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, his voice as deep and dark as the rest of him. He leaned over the steel bars defining the boxes as reserved and extended a gloved hand. “I’m Marco Lareci. How much did you have on the number three horse?”

Kate swallowed her initial shock, blinked, and gathered herself back to center. This man, with his shaggy, black hair and three-day-old stubble, could be a street bum in a stolen raincoat. A twenty-first century Jack the Ripper. Or, just another racing enthusiast up from the city for opening day. But no denying one fact: he was hot. And his smile had chased whatever chill remained from every cell of Kate’s body.

In some parts more so than others.

“Mr. Lareci. Charmed,” she said, and laid her own leather-gloved hand into his. “Kate Bardach. But make no mistake, sir. I didn’t merely bet on the number three. I own the mare.”

His surprise rocked him back ever so slightly, his stubbled chin lifting. “Ah, and how lucky can a man get? Marco, please. May I call you Kate?”

Assessing him through narrowed eyes, Kate considered. One thing was for sure—she didn’t like this vantage point, him standing so far above her. Not a position she was used to in her life. She grabbed her purse off the adjacent seat and stepped out of the box.

Hell, even wearing her four-inch, Steve Madden boots, he still towered over her by half a head. Kate cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, tossing her long hair back with one gloved hand. The damp chill crept in around her collar and sent a shudder through her.

“You can call me Kate, but only if we reconvene in the Underground. It’s freaking freezing in here.”


Montlake’s Underground Bar, a usually dark and smoky private lounge off the west end of the casino, was as abandoned as the grandstands had been. Marco knew the main bar, Trackside, would still be closed this early in the season. But thank God the Underground was open. When he arrived few hours earlier, he hadn’t eaten anything since he left Manhattan. He’d grabbed a really fine Reuben sandwich and Devil’s Path IPA there when he’d rolled into town two hours ago to meet Joshua Lieberman. The realtor who’d been handling his purchase of the defunct Redman’s Resort.

He held open the heavy glass door—bulletproof Plexiglass, by the looks of it—and Kate pranced through like she owned the whole place, instead of just the mare whose win he’d won two bills on. Her hair fell in ebony waves down her back, nearly reaching her wasp-like waist.

Yeah, he thought. She was all tan and black with the coat and the hair. Add to that the confidence—an almost haughty air—and the slightly nasal ring to her velvet voice. She really did bring to mind a wasp.

Might want to watch my step around this one.

The lady wasn’t the booth type. Heading straight for the bar, she hung her huge, leather bag on the hook underneath and climbed onto the barstool before he’d even had a chance to help her. Neither had said a word as they’d made their way down the escalator to the subterranean space under Montlake’s recently refurbished grandstand.

“Hello, Zach. I’ll have my usual. And make it a double. I’m celebrating today,” she said to the barkeep, who’d paused from polishing glassware when they came in.

“All right, Ms. Bardach. Hey,” he said as he pointed one thumb over his shoulder at the monitor. He gave her a high-five. “Nice going. This the three-year-old gray?”

“Yup,” Kate nodded slowly, the corner of her mouth turning up. “She was well worth waiting for.”

The bartender was a mature man with a salt-and-pepper crewcut and the face of a man too smooth and pretty to be anything but gay. After ignoring Marco’s existence for the first sixty seconds of their arrival, he now turned to greet him with a nod as he flipped coasters down on the bar.

“And for you, Mr. Lareci? Another IPA?”

Marco caught the slight turn of his companion’s head and lifted eyebrow in his peripheral view.

“No, I’ll take a Dewar’s on the rocks this time. Thanks.”

When Zach turned to do his job, Kate shifted in her padded stool and leaned her chin on her hand. “So, this isn’t your first pony ride at the Underground? No pun intended.”

What was it about this woman that shot him straight in the groin? Gorgeous, no doubt. Her vivid, blue eyes rimmed with jet lashes were set at a slight angle to a Patrician nose, her pale skin the color of buttermilk. But her haughtiness, her regal air, was an attitude he usually found irritating and off-putting, no matter how hot the woman was. No, there was something about the way she used those eyes . . . studying him . . . hypnotizing him. . . .

The bartender broke the spell, delivering drinks: a martini for her and his iced glass of Dewar’s. Shaking his head slightly, Marco lifted the glass and took two long swallows before answering.

“No, not my first pony ride, as you put it,” he said, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice. “But you’re right. I’m not a regular here. I am, however, a new property lord in the area.”

Kate’s eyes widened, sparked with interest. “Lord, huh? So, I’m guessing it’s more than a run-down bungalow you snapped up?”

Marco slid her a sidelong glance. This bitch took snobbery to a whole new level. He should have figured. The fancy clothes, the prime spot box seat. She can’t be from up here. Must be from the city. Like me.

He leaned back in his chair, resting both elbows on the padded arms. “I bought the old Redman place. I’m assuming you’re familiar?”

The little huff she blew out registered shock, along with something else. Excitement?

“Redman’s Resort? I know it well. It sits about a half-mile down the road from my lake house.” Her smile evaporated like early morning fog, and furrows appeared between her dark, arched eyebrows. “Tell me you’re not knocking it down.”

Hmm. The lady likes old architecture. Must have a little bit of class going for her.

He shook his head. “No way. That place, from what I’ve read, is a sort of icon in this part of the county. The poshest playground in the area fifty years ago. Even for the Hollywood crowd.”

Kate spun her stool toward the bar and lifted her martini to her lips, a toothpick-speared olive bumping seductively against a shapely upper lip. Marco would like to be running his tongue along that lip right now. He licked his own instead and shifted in his seat.

She sipped, set the glass back on its circular landing pad, and blotted her lips with the cocktail napkin. The white square came away with a perfect, bright-coral, imprinted kiss.

“Once upon a time,” she began, speaking to the olive in her drink, “this whole area was a tourists’ paradise.” A touch of nostalgia laced her voice with softness.

Ah, so the lady does have a heart after all. Let’s test it a bit.

“The Borscht Belt. Isn’t that what they called it?”

Her eyes flashed toward him, her gaze sweeping him up and down. “Yes, they did. Of course, with a name like Lareci, I don’t suppose your bubbe and poppy brought their grandkids up to this area.”

Marco barked out a laugh, shaking his head. “My grandparents were lucky they could afford their old two-family in Boro Park—”

“So tell me,” Kate cut in, “what are your plans for Redman’s? It’s in pretty bad shape. But I guess you already know that.”

It was his turn to swivel away and hunker down over his glass. “This area, I believe, is getting ready for another boomtown swing,” he said quietly. He’d been trying to keep this hunch pretty low-key until now. But he signed the papers with Josh this morning. He’d staked his claim.

“Get that from your crystal ball, Merlin?”

Softer side? What had he been thinking?

He fixed her with an icy glare. “I happen to be one of Fortune 500’s top-rated investment specialists, Princess. My crystal ball has a pretty impressive track record of hitting the mark, dead on.”

She pursed her lips. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Lareci. I had no idea whom I was dealing with.”

Facetious, indignant, infuriating. He should down the rest of his drink and hit the road. The two-hour trip would easily stretch to three in this shitty weather. Who did this bitch think she was, anyway?

Stupido! Where was his brain? Why was he letting her call the shots here?

“And who am I dealing with? I’m guessing your lake house is only a weekend haunt,” he said.

“That would be correct, Boss. I live on the Upper West Side. But I work downtown. Ever heard of Bardach & Associates?”

Her cynicism prickled his skin, but he still couldn’t help his body’s reaction to her. Not even the parts that usually reacted to a woman this sexy. Someplace higher. Like, deep in his gut.

And the way she was looking at him whispered again of a softer side, but how?

His mind clicked into research mode, virtually thumbing through the lists of companies on the Exchange. The list scrolled through his head endlessly in his sleep most every night. Filled his days with tension, on a constant hunt for the next big ticket to lay a client’s chips on.

Slowly, he shook his head, causing her to cross her arms and clip that pouty lower lip between perfect, dazzling teeth. “Well, if you haven’t heard of us yet, you might want to watch us. BDA on the Exchange. We’re only eight years young, but we’ve been pretty steady for the past three.”

“And what kind of commodities is BDA into?”

“Interior design. Residential, commercial, you name it. We’ve done some of Trump’s playpens, updated the Legacy Suites at the Plaza last year. We’re just finishing up a period renovation and refurnishing of the Morris-Jamel Mansion.”

Marco froze, the tumbler halfway to his lips.

Lady Luck, you’re definitely on my team today.

“So, interior design,” he repeated, dumbly.

She laughed, a warm throaty sound that caused a tightening in his lower belly. “Yes, interior design. And you’ve bought a 1960s vintage hotel you’re looking to renovate into a . . . what? Five-star hotel?” She lifted the martini and sipped again, this time darting her tongue out to toy with the toothpick spearing the olive.

Yes, these slacks are definitely snugging up in the crotch.

“What a serendipitous coincidence,” she said. All traces of snip and snipe had disappeared, melting into warm, buttery liquid. He could almost taste the salt of the olive on her tongue.

She leaned toward him, and it was then he realized what it was about her that intrigued him so. Set his blood to simmer. Made him yearn to get closer, even through the rain of arrows her sharp arrogance spewed with every word.

It was the way she blinked. The thick, black lashes over those sleepy, slanted, blue eyes struggled to complete each and every movement. He’d never seen anything quite like it.

In a sexy, almost calculating way, the lady blinked in slow motion. The effect made her seem as though she were coming down off a mind-blowing orgasm. Or, perhaps, was on the prowl, actively trolling for the lucky partner for her next.

Mesmerized, Marco decided quickly he had to get to know this woman better. Study her more closely. So he asked, “I don’t suppose you have a few moments to take a look at the property on your way back to your lake house?”


Forty-five minutes later, Kate followed Marco’s black Infiniti along the winding drive, leading to what used to be Redman’s Resort. She, of course, had insisted on taking her own car. After all, she was staying less than a mile away from the abandoned hotel. Right on the shores of Loch Sheldrake.

Although it had been standing empty for almost twenty years, it was obvious someone had been taking care of the property, a detail Kate had noticed the dozens of times she’d driven past the entryway. The new spring grass lining the road had recently been trimmed, and coach lamps glowed along its length.

But time had taken its toll on the Redman. Lingering—but badly battered from years of Catskill winters—the white paint on the craftsman-style exterior slivered free from the siding in long, curling sheets. A few of the dark-green shutters from the upper floor windows were missing. But all the glass, miraculously, remained intact.

Bright splashes of color, incongruous against the sad structure, drew Kate’s gaze to two mounds of pink azaleas gracing the tops of the concrete planters flanking the front doors.

“Looks like you’ve started sprucing the place up already,” she remarked, tipping her chin toward them as she stepped out of her pearl-white Porsche. They had parked, she behind him, underneath the portico sheltering the hotel’s entrance.

Marco paused at his rear bumper, shrugging to adjust his trench coat. “Not me. There’s been something or other planted in those things ever since I first looked at the place last December.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “It was little pine trees then. For Christmas, I guess.”

Kate arched an eyebrow. “And what makes you think they weren’t Hanukkah bushes?”

A wry smile curved his lips. “Excellent point. I truly don’t have any idea.” He fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out a set of keys bearing a large cardboard tag. “Just got possession of these this morning.”

The frame surrounding the glass in the massive front doors, once painted a regal red, was faded and nearly bare to the oak base in spots. Still, their grand size and lavish, though tarnished, brass trim spoke of the elegance the place once held. Marco fitted the key into the lock and pulled open one side.

“After you, milady.”

The building’s musty sigh hit Kate’s senses as she stepped over the threshold, causing a shiver to skitter across her shoulder blades. In the gloom, she was hesitant to venture any farther. The icy dampness of the day hung even heavier inside.

Marco whisked around her and made his way to the wall adjacent to the door, exposing a cleverly disguised switch panel masked within the dark paneling. Within seconds, the lobby blinked to life like a vintage scene in a period museum.

Suddenly, it was 1964. Laid bare to its bones.

Patterned carpet in an oversized diamond design, deep red and gold, contrasted sharply with the floor-to-ceiling, dark oak paneling. The lobby had been stripped bare of furniture, who knew how long ago. The only embellishment remaining in the center of the space leading up to a paneled registration desk was a gold and crystal chandelier.

But the space screamed elegance. Opulence, even. Square, stuccoed pillars dotted the open space like white-barked Sequoias, sturdy and solid and fully intending to maintain their own ground. On one side, two massive, curved staircases rose away from the ground floor to meet on the second level. They formed a heart-shaped frame around the archway leading into what must have once been a grand ballroom. Some of the gilt paint still clung to the railings, adding a golden glow to the worn but massive.

“Oh, this is magnificent,” Kate breathed. “Truly magnificent. Funny, I’ve driven by here every weekend for years and never realized how well this place has held up.” She turned toward Marco, almost unable to contain her excitement. “Most of these old hotels are in shambles, as I’m sure you know. This is . . . simply amazing.”

Marco’s beaming smile revealed perfect, brilliant, white teeth through the dark, casual stubble on his face. An errant lock of wavy black hair had fallen onto his brow. His eyes were rimmed with the kind of thick, dark lashes women have to work so hard for. Now they glowed, not ordinary hazel, but nearly green, flecked with gold. The intensity of his gaze caused her blood pressure to spike.

Mercy, he’s an attractive man. Not my usual type, but still . . . .

“So, you think it has potential? I want to make it the masterpiece it once was, but modernized. Contemporary. Sleek.”

Ouch, no. She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “No. No, you can’t alter this too much. You’ll spoil it. Like putting a coat of hot pink paint on a classic car.”

“Ah,” he said, “so you know classic cars as well?”

Kate shook her head. “Not much. My mother always had a thing for the old Mustangs. But no, I’ve never really had any interest.”

The ringing in her ears commenced at that very moment, almost the second after the words left her lips. Kate silently groaned. She drew her shoulders up toward her ears and twisted her neck.

Not again. Not now. I want this job. I can do this.

“So, what are you thinking? Surely, we can modernize this to appeal to the 21st-century tourist and still bow a nod to the original design. You can do this, no?”

But Kate could hardly hear him now, his words nearly meaningless through a buzzing static she recognized with ominous trepidation. Familiar, though dreaded. She knew well what was coming. It would be only moments before her throat closed up with spasms even her emergency asthma inhaler couldn’t quell.

There was nothing here Kate hadn’t been exposed to in dozens of other potential job sites. And yes, it was cold in here, even colder than outside. But it didn’t explain why the hairs prickled her arms under her raincoat, and a lead blanket of sadness washed over her like a drowning wave. Oppressive. Suffocating.

There was suffering here. Perhaps an imprint of past pain, or the anguish of something more coherent. Whatever it was made Kate’s chest clutch against pain so intense, she found it hard to breathe.

Old pain of massive intensity, even masked under mold, and mildew, and dust. The anguish was fresh, as raw as it had ever been. From the day of its inception.

“Hey, you all right?”

Kate blinked back into the moment as Marco approached her, concern furrowing his brow.

“Yeah, fine. Sorry. Must be the stale air in here,” she stammered, struggling to draw in breaths behind ribs that felt crushed, as if bound within a straightjacket. Bruised, even broken. She struggled to put on her business face and flashed him a smile she was certain didn’t reach her eyes.

“It’s magnificent,” she repeated, hanging on to the word like a life raft in a storm-tossed sea.

After studying her for a moment, Marco asked, “So, what do you think? Can we turn this place into a five-star hotel? Maybe add a nightclub downstairs? The basement’s unfinished, but—”

“No,” she snapped back. “No, I can’t take on this project. I’m sorry.” She turned and took three long strides to put her back over the threshold, back outside into the deepening early twilight.

Marco was right on her heels. “Why not?” Irritation poisoned the words. “It’s structurally sound. I had a building inspector check out all the bearing walls, the foundation. He says the wiring needs to be upgraded, but basically, all she needs is a face-lift.”

All she needs is to come up for air.

Those words shot through Kate’s brain with such intensity, she winced. And then she heard the scream. A panicked, agonizing voice only she could hear.

Her heart began to race as the pain in her chest localized, escalated. As though she’d been shot or knifed. Afraid to look down for fear she’d see a dark patch spreading on the cloth of her raincoat, she started toward her car. But she was moving too fast. Stumbling on a loose stone, Kate nearly hit the ground as she toppled off one of her boots’ spiked heels.

Marco caught her, his hand closing around her upper arm. He was behind her then, close—so close she could smell whatever signature scent he wore. It made her dizzy, weak. The raindrops transformed to sparkles, and for a moment, she feared she would faint.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong, Kate? Are you ill?” His words rumbled into her ear as his other arm encircled her waist from behind. The compassion she heard in his low, murmured tone broke through her already-compromised armor. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears, but they spilled over anyway.

Before she had time to form another coherent thought, she found herself wrapped in this stranger’s arms, sobbing into the lapel of his trench coat.

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