Stepping into Murphy's Corner Inn and Tavern was like stepping back in time. McKenna Murphy dropped her case down at the foot of the sweeping, curved staircase that led to the Inn's second floor. The hardwood gleamed, lending an opulent air to the open lobby.
“Impressive,” Josh whispered.
McKenna followed his eyes to the ceiling. The original chandelier hung from a heavy chain. Candlelight reflected off hundreds of crystals, lending a warm glow to the lobby. “I heard that someone climbs a ladder twice a day to keep the candles lit.”
“You have good sources.” Aidan Campbell, the Inn’s owner, walked toward Josh with his hand extended. “I'm Aidan.”
“Josh,” he said. “And of course, you know McKenna.”
He nodded , but he didn't offer his hand. “We went to school together.”
“I didn't think you remembered me.” In a town where the line between the haves and the have-nots were strictly drawn, Aidan Campbell had definitely fallen in with the haves. Thick black hair and green eyes left girls sighing as he passed in the halls. Captain of the football team, homecoming king, an old, respected family—from where McKenna had stood, Aidan's life couldn't have been more perfect if a Hollywood screenwriter had created it. The entire town had been shocked when he left Murphy’s Corner for the big city.
“Everyone remembers you.” True enough, McKenna thought. No one forgets the class freak. She was, after all, Alice McKenna's great-great-granddaughter and that came with certain gifts, and it wasn't just her flame red hair. Every woman in her family had the same bright hair along with unexplained talents, and for McKenna, her talent was a particular affinity with spirits. But to be fair to Aidan, he likely remembered her for more than her gifts. He was one of the few who never made fun of her or egged her house on Halloween. There had been times during her junior year when she caught him staring at her. For a while, she had walked around with a bubble of hope in her chest, but when he never made his move, she thought she had misunderstood his apparent interest. He was just staring at the latest town witch.
“McKenna, sweetheart!” Perry Murphy, one of the legitimate Murphys—the Murphys with the money—came sweeping down the stairs, his arms outstretched. “I'm so glad you came, and so is Aidan.”
McKenna cast a quick glance at Aidan. He didn't look happy, but that was no surprise. He had a reputation for being a straight-shooter, solid and grounded. In Aidan's world, everything was logical—everything had a rational explanation. But there was nothing rational about unseen hands shoving guests out of their beds.
The Inn had been a Murphy's Corner legend long before McKenna had been born. Tales of ghosts, unexplained lights and loud noises were commonplace, but most people dismissed them as myths designed to scare kids from exploring the derelict old building. McKenna knew better. From her earliest memories, she sensed evil emanating from its battered facade. She had breathed a sigh of relief when the city council had voted to tear the old building down before it collapsed in on itself. But it wasn't to be. The Murphy's Corner Historical Society called in the media, and before anyone could mount an objection, Perry Murphy had bought the property and offered Aidan Campbell part ownership if he could come in and work his magic.
Perry was one of the “Money Murphys,” a direct, legitimate descendant of Albert Murphy, the Scotsman who had platted the small town and applied for incorporation exactly ten years from the day he first set foot on American soil. McKenna was a Murphy, but in name only. Her grandfather had been the product of an illicit affair between Alice McKenna and Isaac Murphy. Alice McKenna wasn't the first woman to bear a Murphy out of wedlock, but she was the only one who didn't “go on vacation” for nine months and return without a child.
The older Murphys never forgave the McKennas for sullying the family name. But Perry was younger, just three years older than McKenna's twenty-five, and he had always been kind to the “Other Murphys.” So it was Perry's money and Aidan Campbell's skill that had saved Murphy's Corner Inn and Tavern, and it was Perry who had called McKenna.
“But keep it quiet,” Perry had instructed. “Aidan doesn't want anyone to know what's going on.” McKenna decided not to mention that the Inn was already the subject of intense speculation at The Coffee Brewery.
“I'm glad to be able to help,” McKenna said. “It's been hard to find the time. I've been busy lately.” Busy was an understatement. Murphy's Corner seemed to have more than its share of unexplained happenings—Josh said it was all of the skeletons buried in the closets.
As the weather turned colder, it seemed like spirits became more active. McKenna and her crew were the ones people called if they heard a bump in the night. Some of her investigations turned up leaking pipes or tree branches that needed to be trimmed back from the roof line, but others turned up evidence of great-grandmothers hanging around the house long after they had gone to their grave. She didn't charge for her services—ghosts didn't always pick the wealthy to haunt—so she still had a day job as the owner of The Book Shelf across the town square from the Inn. It made for a busy life.
“At first it was the usual stuff that you get in old buildings in town. You know—flickering lights, slamming doors, but it's gotten worse since we opened. Dark shadows float down the hall.” Perry thrust his hand through his hair, heedless of his usual careful style. “We hear voices in empty rooms. Guests have been pushed out of bed. One woman said that something in the mirror reached out and grabbed her by the throat. I saw the bruising myself. I had to offer her a refund! All of the guests are leaving and we've already gone through three night desk clerks. We have to do something.”
“The first thing we'll do is conduct an investigation. We need to see if there is a rational explanation for the happenings. Most of the things we investigate have normal, rational explanations. If we find anything”—McKenna almost said when, she was certain she would find evidence of a genuine haunting…”we will analyze our findings and go from there.”
Aidan rolled his eyes. “Give me a break,” he muttered under his breath.
McKenna ignored him. Whether he believed or not wasn't her concern. “The candles are going to have to be extinguished,” she said. “We'll be setting up video equipment and the shadows will throw off any images that we capture.”
“It sounds like you're planning on capturing something.” Aidan crossed his arms and pierced McKenna with a hard look. “How can you be so sure?”
He made an appealing picture, with his long legs spread wide apart and his wide shoulders set in challenge. A faint spiral of regret went through McKenna. Even if he weren't so dead set against her and everything she was, she could never be with someone that was involved in an investigation. I need to get laid, McKenna thought. It had been a long time since she had met someone who turned her head. Murphy's Corner wasn't exactly crawling with eligible bachelors. Aidan would do nicely, but he was out of reach.
“I'm not sure,” McKenna said. “But this isn't some joke to me. I want to be able to account for every light, every shadow and every sound on our tape. That way, I'll know that whatever we find is legitimate.”
Julie, one of McKenna’s investigators, came through the front door carrying a box full of equipment. “I have everything,” Julie said. “Just tell me where you want us to set up.”
“Why did you come through the front door?” Aidan snapped. “So much for keeping this low-key. We might as well hang a sign that says 'haunted' out front.”
Julie looked stung. She was new to investigations and had yet to encounter anyone hostile. As the owner of the Coffee Brewery, she was used to a certain level of courtesy from other business owners in town. “No one knows why we're here. We didn't tell anyone.” Josh shuffled his feet and turned red. Julie caught his look and bit her lip. “At least, I didn't tell anyone.”
McKenna bit back a laugh at the guilty look that crossed Josh's face. Josh Donaldson had worked for McKenna since he graduated from high school—a grand total of a year and a half ago. His family had moved to Murphy's Corner when he was fifteen, so he was considered an outsider in the small, close-knit town. He was also a natural witch, a fact he had tried to hide from everyone, but he couldn't hide it from McKenna. He loved investigations and took great delight in finding proof of ghosts. “It means that I'm not crazy,” he had told her once.
“It doesn't matter if you told anyone or not,” Aidan said. “Everyone in town knows what all of you do. If they see you coming in the front door, they will know what's going on. Perry and I have put too much into this to have it ruined.”
“It doesn't matter, Aidan,” McKenna said. “Everyone in town knows strange things have been going on. This isn't going to hurt your business. If anything, it will help because it looks like you're doing something to remedy the problem.”
“But I don't want it to look like I have a problem at all, and I expect all of you to spread the word that there isn't anything funny going on.”
* * * *
Aidan locked himself in his office and fell heavily into the burgundy leather chair. His office, the one place that he decorated without any thought for historical accuracy or guest comfort. The cream colored walls were a stark contrast to the emerald and gold spread through the rest of the hotel, but it gave the office an illusion of light and space. Framed pictures of the houses he had helped restore dotted the walls, displayed the way a doctor would show off their medical school diploma. His sleek, dark cherry desk was heavy and lent an air of permanence to the small room. The solid craftsmanship would last a hundred years. When he and Perry lugged it into the office and dropped it with a resounding thud on the hard wood floor, it felt like the sealing of a promise. He had restored many buildings, but this was the first one that was his and he planned on staying. The office was his sanctuary and the one place that was off-limits to McKenna and her crew.
Her crew. Some crew, Aidan snorted. Some kid that looked fresh out of high school and a glorified barista, both held in thrall by the town's flame-haired witch. If there was something unexplainable lurking in his hotel, he didn't exactly believe that McKenna Murphy would be the one to get rid of it. She was a tiny slip of a thing, but her blue eyes glowed in a face that was as pale as the ghosts she chased. Aidan rubbed his hands over his face and tried to get her face out of his mind. When Perry suggested calling in McKenna to investigate the strange happenings, Aidan was adamant. He wouldn't have McKenna Murphy poking through his inn. Perry thought it was because Aidan was a skeptic. He didn't have a clue that Aidan nursed a secret crush on McKenna all through high school. But Perry put his foot down and overruled Aidan.
Aidan was shocked when McKenna walked into the Inn for the first time. She didn't even come up to his shoulder. He had known her his entire life, and in his memories, she was tall and stronger than the small woman who had taken over his lobby. She seemed to fill the halls in high school. He had kept his distance from her, even as he found himself watching her in study hall, spending more time studying the curve of her bottom lip than he ever spent studying his books. But in truth, she had scared the hell out of him, so he had stuck to cheerleaders and prom queens and left the town witch to her own devices.
Through the door, he could hear her voice as she explained each piece of equipment to Perry. Anger rose up inside him. Perry was the reason she was in the hotel at all. Yes, there were some unexplained happenings, but there had to be a rational explanation for every one of them. Aidan chalked up the stories to overactive imaginations. Hell, he and his friends had scared each other by sneaking into the old abandoned inn every Halloween. The building had a reputation. It was perfectly explainable that people would attribute every strange noise to a spirit.
But Perry wouldn't hear any of it. He was convinced that the building harbored ghosts. In the years since Aidan had left Murphy's Corner for Dallas, he had forgotten how superstitious the town residents could be. Perry had insisted that they call McKenna.
“Look, if you're right and there is a rational explanation for all of this, then McKenna will tell us, and if she finds something odd, then she can help us get rid of it,” Perry had said. “You know that whole family of hers messes around with this stuff. I know you don't agree, but I put up the money for this whole enterprise, and I'm not keen on losing my investment.” That was classic Perry, throwing his money and the Murphy name around. Aidan had been glad to have Perry's deep pockets, but sometimes he felt like he had sold his soul to the devil.
But Perry had a point, Aidan thought as he opened a spreadsheet on the computer. Bookings were way down since the opening weeks when they had been full, and then McKenna had insisted on a hotel empty of guests while she and her team conducted their investigation, so there was a wasted night with no income. It had galled Aidan to call and cancel reservations and recommend other hotels in nearby Abbotsville. There were historic hotels in Abbotsville, but none that had been so lovingly restored as the Inn.
Running the Inn was proving to be a bigger job than he anticipated. When he set foot in the building, he could feel the muscles in his shoulders tighten and his mood sour. Sometimes he had such a negative reaction to the Inn that he felt like a weight was pressing against his chest, preventing him from drawing a full breath.
It hadn't always been that way. When Perry first called him about restoring the Inn, he had been ecstatic. It was a great old building, full of character and history, and it would be his. After all of the restorations and work, he would finally have something of his own. Aidan's jubilation quickly turned to concern, then despair, as contractor after contractor quit during construction. When the Inn opened, they were booked solid, but guests were tumbling down stairs and being choked in their bathrooms. They checked out in the middle of the night, canceling the rest of their stays. Soon, reservations had dropped off. All of his hard work was going down the drain, and Perry's investment was in jeopardy. As distasteful as having ghost hunters in his hotel was, he knew that Perry was right. Something had to be done before the Inn went under.
As Aidan sat in his office and pretended to look at the computer screen, he could hear thumps and footsteps as McKenna, Josh and Julie roamed around his hotel. The sounds were as frightening to him as any of the unexplained noises he had heard since he first set foot in the hotel. He wanted to investigate for himself, see what they were doing to his hotel. From where he sat, it sounded like they were tearing it apart, board by board. How long did it take to sweep through the hotel, take a few pictures and film the back staircase where so many of the guests had strange experiences?
He was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic, but he didn't want to give the impression that he was the least bit interested in the proceedings. It was best not to encourage any of them. He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on his desk, hoping to catch at least a little bit of rest. He had barely closed his eyes when he heard a loud thump followed by McKenna's scream.
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