She watched in the rearview mirror as the car pulled to a stop behind her. With the glare from the headlights, she couldn't make out the driver inside. The car engine and lights turned off. The driver side door opened.
No one came out. Some movement nearby caught her attention. The small herd of deer was scattering into the woods.
When she heard the car door slam shut, she glanced once again at the rearview mirror. Still no one there. Strange.
She grabbed her cell phone from where she'd left it on the console. Alastair needed to get back here quick.
A knock on her window made her jump, and the cell phone tumbled into her lap.
"Sorry!" A blond woman stood by her car window. "Didn't mean to startle you."
Elsa caught her breath. Where had this lady come from so quickly?
"I'm Shanna Draganesti, but please call me Shanna." She grinned. "I'm so glad you're here! I'm a big fan!"
"Thank you." Elsa grabbed her handbag from the backseat floor, slipped her cell phone inside, then opened the door slowly while Shanna moved out of the way. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Elsa Bjornberg."
"Oh, I know." Shanna's eyes widened as Elsa climbed out of the car. "Wow. You must be over six foot."
Elsa gritted her teeth and shut the door. Yes, I'm freakishly large. I'm so tall I occasionally suffer from altitude sickness. "I'm six foot two."
Shanna's eyes lit up. "You're perfect!"
Huh? That wasn't the usual response. Elsa hitched her handbag onto her shoulder. "Thanks. By the way, Alastair is here, too. He's taking a look around. He's very excited about renovating your house. I am, too. We think it has enormous potential."
"Oh." Shanna's smile looked strained. "That's nice."
Another odd reaction. Owners were usually bouncing with joy at this point. Elsa motioned toward the house. "Can we take a look inside?"
"Of course." Shanna glanced at her watch, then down the driveway.
"Hello," Alastair called out as he approached. "You must be Mrs. Draganesti?"
Shanna spun around to greet him. "Oh, my. It's Big Al." She shook his hand. "I'm a big fan of your show. Please call me Shanna."
"Delighted to meet you, Shanna." Alastair turned off his flashlight. "I just finished a quick exterior inspection, and I must say I absolutely adore this house. I can't wait to start work on it!"
Shanna gave him a weak smile. "Well, you might change your mind once you see the inside." She dug in her handbag and removed a set of old keys.
Alastair gave Elsa a questioning look, and she shrugged. The owner seemed to be having second thoughts about them working on her house.
Shanna climbed the steps to the front porch. "I'm afraid the inside is a disaster. The electricity and plumbing don't work, and I think there are some birds living in the attic."
"Those are fairly common problems with an old house," Elsa assured her. "We're accustomed to completely redoing the wiring and plumbing."
"And Oskar loves trapping birds," Alastair added with a smile.
"I see." Shanna unlocked the door, and it creaked open. "I have some extra flashlights here." She reached inside a basket by the door and handed one to Elsa, then took another for herself.
Alastair clicked his on and gasped. "Good Lord, Ellie, look at the staircase! It's magnificent."
"Wow." She moved forward, running her flashlight beam up the elegant curve of the staircase.
"Look at that!" Alastair aimed his flashlight straight up at the cupola. "Stunning, absolutely stunning."
"And this is a gatehouse?" Elsa turned to Shanna. "There must be a really spectacular main house somewhere near by."
Shanna winced. "Well, yes. There's a mansion about three miles down the road. But it's a very private school, and under no circumstances can its existence be made public."
That amount of secrecy seemed a bit odd. Elsa exchanged a look with Alastair. "There would be no need to ever mention the school on our show."
"But it would be interesting to see the mansion," Alastair murmured.
"No!" Shanna shook her head. "No one can be allowed anywhere near it. It has . . . troubled children. Juvenile delinquents. It wouldn't be safe for you to go there."
Very strange. Elsa exchanged another look with Alastair.
"We'll be fine, Shanna," he insisted. "We can post security guards here at night to watch over the supplies. We always do that when we work in metropolitan areas."
Shanna glanced at her watch and bit her lip. "I hope you didn't have any trouble finding the place. This is such a remote location. I'm afraid it could be terribly hard for you to get your supplies here."
Was the owner just nervous, or was she trying to back out? Elsa took a deep breath and smiled. "Please don't let that concern you. We don't think the location will be a problem. It will be a nice change for our show."
"I see." Instead of looking relieved, the owner looked more agitated.
"I sense you're having second thoughts," Elsa said gently. "That's a fairly common reaction once people realize that their house will actually be featured on our show. There are privacy and financial concerns."
Shanna sighed. "There is a problem. I didn't think about it when I first contacted you. I was just so excited about you coming here. But when I discussed it with my husband and his . . . colleagues, they pointed out some serious security and privacy issues I'd forgotten to consider."
"We would do our best to comply with your needs," Elsa assured her.
"I appreciate that," Shanna said. "My husband and I work far away during the day, and we would never be able to do any interviews for your show. Our names would have to remain private, and we would have to use someone else to represent us."
"We've done that before," Alastair said. "To be perfectly honest, the focus of the show is the house, not the owner. As long as your representative can meet with us during the day and doesn't mind doing an occasional interview, then we're fine with that."
"Well, I'm not sure if he'll agree to it." Shanna glanced at her watch once again. "He was supposed to be here by now."
"If he agrees to represent you, will you let us do the house?" Alastair asked. "We can cover the cost of the renovation up to the amount of fifty thousand, and we won't go over that without consulting you."
"And we stand by all our work," Elsa added. "We have to. Everything we do is thoroughly documented on the show."
"And we'll put it all in writing, of course," Alastair said. "We'll turn this house back into the masterpiece it deserves to be."
Shanna heaved a sigh. "It's so tempting. Believe me, I really want you to do it. I just haven't convinced - " Her eyes widened. "I hear a car coming."
She must have awfully good hearing, for Elsa didn't hear anything.
Shanna smiled at her. "Howard's coming. He doesn't know you're here, so he's going to be totally taken by surprise. He's a huge fan!" She dropped her flashlight in the basket by the door and hurried outside.
Alastair sidled up close to Elsa. "Are you getting strange vibes?"
She snorted. "Tell me about it." She'd been getting them since they'd entered the forest.
"Something odd about the owner," Alastair whispered. "But I really want to do this house. If the rep seems like a decent chap, I say we go for it."
Elsa nodded. "I agree." The house was very tempting, but the strange vibes were tempting, too. It was as if she'd caught a glimpse of a puzzle she was anxious to solve.
She finally heard the sound of a car engine. "Let's go." She returned her flashlight to the basket and peered outside.
Alastair turned his flashlight off and joined Elsa by the front door.
"Howard!" Shanna called out. "Thank you for coming."
"Is there a problem?" a masculine voice responded. "Toni told me to come here right away."
Elsa swallowed hard. Whoever this Howard was, he had a sexy voice. Deep and powerful enough to make her insides quiver. She inched out onto the dark porch.
Shanna ran forward to meet the newcomer, who had parked an SUV down the driveway in a dark area beneath the trees. "We're thinking of renovating this house. You won't believe who's here!"