It had been three days since Gram’s death, and Alaina had never felt so alone, or so tired. The apparitions hadn’t stopped their assault since Gram passed and were torturing her even now as she lay in her bed, alone in the big Victorian. She hadn’t slept more than a few minutes in the last three days.
The paranormal wasn’t new to her, or scary. She and Gram had lived with the ghosts of this house for decades. But since Gram crossed over, the spirits had literally come out of the woodwork, and they weren’t all that friendly.
Weight settled against her legs, the pins-and-needles sensation more frightening than painful. Alaina didn’t dare move. She didn’t know which one touched her this time. It didn’t matter.
Red eyes glowed, inches from her face. Oh God.
She tried to roll to the side, but a wave-like pressure settled on her chest. She struggled to take a breath, her heart pounding as the red-eyed shape hovered above her. Alaina clenched her jaw, swearing under her breath. She was so tired of the constant fear.
“Get away from me,” she screamed, swiping at it with her fists.
The figure backed away, turning malevolent eyes on her before disappearing through a closed closet door. She sat up and studied the room, blinking as her eyes adjusted. Deep shadows, darker and more solid than regular shadows, clung to the corners and recessed places. Something crouched on her dresser. It studied her, but not with the malice of the red-eyed one, as it slowly swayed. Alaina picked up one of the crocheted pillows from the end of the bed and threw it toward the dresser. The gargoyle-like shadow dissipated.
Turning on the light, she scanned the room again, satisfied there didn’t appear to be anything else lurking in the corners. She pulled the covers over her head and closed her eyes, seeking precious oblivion. Noises from the closet filtered through her sleepy haze. Scratching, tapping, sniffing—stuff she’d heard constantly lately. She tried to ignore it, but the sounds moved through the walls, increasing in volume and filling her with dread. Clenching the blankets in her fists, she let out a frustrated scream.
She threw the comforter back with more force than necessary. The blaring light hadn’t deterred them. Neither had her scream. There were more now than before, though maybe it only seemed that way because the deceptiveness of darkness was gone. She walked to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her, and avoided looking in the mirror. The bloody face she’d seen earlier was still too fresh in her mind—the gaping head wound, the mouth contorted into a soundless scream. She kept her eyes on the floor, not missing the growing pool of dark liquid on the tile near the tub. It dripped from the ceiling, but she dared not look to see what, or who, it came from.
Alaina had no idea why the house had suddenly turned so scary. She’d lived here almost her whole life and had never encountered anything except for a few residual hauntings and the occasional unexplained event. She’d seen shadow people for a time after her parents died, but they’d never made her feel the way she did right now.
She didn’t know what to do. Okay, so she did, but she didn’t want to turn to him. Isaac Harrison was a jerk, despite the awesomeness of his physical beauty. She didn’t care about his fantastic reputation as a paranormal investigator. He’d humiliated her, and she didn’t think she could ever face him.
Despite her mortification over what had happened between them, she trusted Isaac more than the other paranormal investigating operations. His skills were genuine and logical. His knowledge of the paranormal world was vast, though she highly doubted he was actually psychic. Regardless of what had, or hadn’t, happened between them, he’d been a good friend to her grandmother, and that had to count for something. Gram had started helping Isaac on cases a few years ago, acting as a consultant and covering the phones on occasion.
As much as Alaina hated to admit it, she needed help. She was exhausted, terrified, and more than a little ticked off. Whatever was going on in this house was beyond her knowledge and comfort level. Alaina cautiously made her way back to bed and tucked her feet into the blankets, shivering from the cold air swirling around her as she counted the hours until she had to swallow her pride and call Isaac.
Alaina opened the nightstand drawer and pulled out the journal where she’d been recording every event since Gram’s passing. The ring Gram had given her rolled in the drawer. Alaina’s hand closed around it as tears dripped onto the blankets. Gram’s excitement at placing the ring on her finger had helped Alaina get over being awakened at one minute past midnight on her twenty-seventh birthday.
“Honey, wake up for a minute.” Gram sat next to her on the bed and turned on the light on the nightstand. She had a huge smile on her face.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, instantly coming awake.
“Thanks, but why now?” Alaina tried to see the clock.
“I can’t wait until morning to give you your present.” Gram reached for her right hand and slipped something on her finger. “This year is a very special year for you.”
“Twenty-seven is not special.” She looked at the silver band on her finger. “That’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“Promise me you’ll wear it always. Never take it off, Alaina.” Gram held her hands tight. “This is your legacy. You must protect it. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Alaina said, a little unsettled by the fervency of Gram’s tone.
“Go back to sleep now. I’ll tell you all about this ring, why your birthday is special, and our family legacy at your dinner tonight. Don’t be late. I know how involved you can get at the shop.” Gram kissed her forehead, her usual light mood back in place.
“Lavender’s isn’t going to make any money if I’m not involved.” Alaina squeezed Gram’s hand. “I promise I’ll be home by five.”
Instead, Gram had peacefully passed in her sleep during the night.
The smooth metal brought a measure of comfort, though the unnatural warmth of the band against her skin disturbed her. She slipped the ring on her finger, guilt filling her at not wearing it as Gram had made her promise. A flash of light illuminated the room, followed by a guttural growl, and then a hiss. Alaina closed her eyes for a second before looking to where the brightness had come from. The corner was empty.
The ring warmed again, raising her heart rate as the shapes morphed into substance and advanced toward her. The silver band sucked away all her energy, filling her with an unnatural tingle. Wrenching it from her finger, she tossed it back into the drawer as the shadows faded with a harsh moan. Tears filled her eyes. She’d dealt with so much the last three days. Gram had been taken from her so suddenly. It wasn’t fair. Her death made no sense. She needed help.
* * * *
Isaac had only been home fifteen minutes when Alaina’s call came in. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why she’d call him, of all people. He was a fool. But as much as he wanted to apologize and explain himself, he made no move to answer her call. Last night’s case had drained him emotionally, physically, and psychically.
He faltered. If she was calling, it had to be important.
She’d been stuck in his head since that night six months ago, and he hated it. She was beautiful, and something about her spoke to his soul. It scared the crap out of him. It had then, and it still did.
He finally answered on the last ring before the call went to his twenty-four-hour answering service.
“Isaac, I need to talk to you.” She sounded tired and scared—which dug at his guilt.
“What’s wrong?” With anyone else, he’d know by now, but Alaina was always hard to read. She’d always been blocked to him—which probably explained some of his fear and a lot of his intrigue.
“I think…” She sighed heavily. “I think there’s something going on here that might interest you. It’s scaring the hell out of me.”
The resignation and grief in her voice tore at him. Her grandmother had been dead less than a week. Hell, he missed Alona, too. Her death had been a huge shock.
“Tell me what’s been happening.”
Alaina didn’t speak for what seemed like a full minute. When she finally did, her tale of shadow people lurking in her bedroom definitely captured his interest—even if memories surfaced to turn his stomach with dread. He’d expected her to tell him about the residual hauntings in the old house. Not shadows, misty beings, and red-eyed things.
“I need to get the crew and equipment together. We should be there by six tonight.” He half-expected to get to the house and find she’d exaggerated her story, but he’d still do the job as he would for anyone in need of his services.
“We haven’t talked about how much this will cost me yet.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m doing this as a favor to Alona. See you at six.” He hung up before she had a chance to argue.
* * * *
He pulled into the driveway of the old Victorian with fifteen minutes to spare after an unsuccessful attempt at sleep. He’d managed maybe three hours—broken up into what seemed like fifteen-minute increments. He’d be okay for the investigation, providing he hadn’t been called for the pipe-smoking man in the front room. Alaina waited on the front porch, her arms crossed over her spectacular chest. She didn’t smile when he got out, but the look of relief was almost as good. Isaac ignored the stab of guilt in his gut and turned away to concentrate on the equipment and not her long dark hair, or the way snug jeans fit her slim hips, or the bridge he’d burned.
“Hey,” he said, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. “This is Mick. He’s in charge of equipment and setup. The guy with his head in the back of the truck is Dave. I’ll need you to show us the places you’ve had experiences.” He kept his tone formal and polite to try to hide his nervousness.
Her emotions were hidden, as usual. Maybe that was what had, and kept, him intrigued. She was the only person he’d ever met he couldn’t absorb emotions from. He should be running for the hills again, not wondering how her brain worked and thinking about getting naked and sweaty with her when he’d already screwed things up.
Alaina let out a grim laugh and spread her arms wide. “The better question is where haven’t I? Everywhere—either out of the corner of my eye or full on. They follow me no matter where I go, even to the bathroom. They wake me every single time I fall asleep.” She took a deep breath. Able to read her or not, it was obvious she was at the end of her rope.
“Listen, go check into a hotel. You look like you’re ready to drop. I know the house well enough. I promise my crew can be trusted. They’re all bonded and have signed non-disclosure contracts.” He didn’t know if she’d go for it. “I have the documentation in the truck if you’ll wait.”
She studied him for a few seconds, and then nodded. “I’ve never said you aren’t trustworthy. I’ll grab a bag and get out of your hair.”
Twenty minutes later, Isaac watched her pull out of the drive, unease gnawing the muscles of his neck, despite how excited he was to finally investigate the grand Victorian. He hadn’t expected Alaina to look so drawn and tired. Maybe she hadn’t exaggerated. He glanced around the large foyer, groaning at the amount of figurines and reflective surfaces. It would be hard to run the infrared cameras and not get false readings.
An hour later, he surveyed the electrical cords running through the hall to the computer that would record any events in the rooms when they weren’t actively investigating. Setting up the equipment had gone better than expected, even with the antiques and knickknacks. Nothing had been broken. Yet. A sense of wrongness filled every pore as he called for lights out.
* * * *
Alaina dropped her bag on the floor and locked the hotel room door. The bed called, inviting her. She crossed the room, hoping she’d somehow evaded the shadows she was sure followed her. Twice, she’d checked her rearview mirror and thought she’d seen something in the backseat. The malevolent sense she’d had since returning to the house after Gram’s funeral wasn’t there, so she figured she didn’t have much to worry about. A few benign entities weren’t a problem. She probably wouldn’t even notice them.
She stretched out on the bed without bothering to take off her shoes, Isaac’s concern and focused, professional smile filling her thoughts. She’d been so grateful to see him she almost forgot her humiliation. Forgetting what had happened six months ago was easy, especially if she were in the same room with him. He was a beautiful man, from his silky brown hair and seductive brown eyes to the way his well-muscled chest tapered into a trim waist.
Thinking about him wasn’t going to help her sleep. Focusing on what had happened that night in her greenhouse wouldn’t either.
Gram had decided to play matchmaker. She’d invited Isaac to dinner, telling Alaina she really wanted her to meet the man behind the paranormal investigating firm she’d been consulting with. Alaina hadn’t thought much of it, though she was glad to finally put a face with the name Gram constantly talked about. From the second she’d seen him, she was completely attracted to him. He was nice, funny, and interesting. They’d gotten along well during dinner. So well, Gram had suggested Alaina take him on a tour of her greenhouse. What a mistake that turned out to be.
She and Isaac had laughed and talked and had stayed in the greenhouse for a very long time. Alaina was sure he was feeling the same thing she was which was why she’d gone out of her comfort zone and made a move on him. He’d totally rejected her, leaving without a word. She hadn’t spoken to him since, and she’d refused to tell Gram what had happened. Her humiliation hadn’t lessened a bit since he’d walked away. She still felt like a fool.
She flung her arm over her head, angry at the direction her thoughts had taken.
Cold fingers gripped her wrist and yanked.
* * * *
Isaac propped himself on Alaina’s bed, a video recorder in one hand and a small tape recorder in the other, her scent surrounding him in a subtle cloud. Remembering she had every reason to hate him didn’t help to squelch his sudden, rising need. Right now, all he could think about was burying his head in her pillows and letting the rest of the world pass him by. His reasons for walking out on her hadn’t changed. So why couldn’t he stop thinking about her? Fatigue had to be catching up with him.
“You okay, boss?” Mick asked.
Isaac hadn’t meant for the sigh to be audible. Usually noises they made were marked so when they reviewed the evidence they didn’t think they’d caught an electronic voice phenomenon or disembodied voice, when they hadn’t.
“Fine. Sorry. Too tired.” He shook off the essence of Alaina—or at least tried.
The temperature in the room remained constant and no sense of the paranormal came to him. Isaac knew she would have never called him for noises created by the old house, or the residual hauntings. Alaina would have been absolutely sure there was something going on, and it would have taken everything she had to pick up the phone. He was missing something.
He got up and walked the second floor. Mick said nothing as Isaac checked every closet and even under the bed as he ran through the usual spiel of questions in the hopes they’d get an otherworldly response. After covering all the floors of the rambling old Victorian, he returned to their base of operations in Alona’s study.
There was nothing unusual in this house beyond the spirits he’d seen in the past. The older pipe-smoking man. The young woman who travelled between the landing and the front door as if waiting for a visitor. The young boy who hid behind furniture or sat in the tree in the backyard. And a fluffy, white cat. None of those entities had appeared tonight, which was odd considering Isaac had seen the old man and the cat on more than one occasion without his equipment.
He probably should have asked Alaina for a little more detail before shooing her off to the hotel, but in truth, he’d wanted to catch some footage of the elusive, lingering echoes, even if that was all the old house had to offer.
“Let’s call it a night.” He replaced his walkie-talkie onto his belt and flipped on the light switch in the hall.
Dawn flickered on the horizon as he and his crew wound cables and disconnected cameras. Disappointment settled over him, along with the sense that something wasn’t right. Or maybe it was simply worry about how well Alaina was going to take the news nothing had appeared in the house tonight. Alaina pulled in, bathing the back of the van in light. Isaac didn’t know what he expected, but the tired, washed-out woman who got out of the car wasn’t it.
“You didn’t sleep.”
“Nightmares.” She looked away.
He didn’t believe her, but why would she lie?
“How’d it go?” she asked, leaning against the side of one of the SUVs.
“We have to review the evidence.” He didn’t look at her as he opened the door and hung the extension cord on the rack.
“I think I’m entitled to a little more than that.” She covered a yawn with her hand, the sarcasm lessened by her fatigue.
He sighed and glanced at her. “We’ll have to see what the video and audio give up.”
“Which means nothing happened that you noticed.”
He nodded. “Exactly. I don’t know what to tell you. I know you wouldn’t have called me for the fun of it, but not a damn thing happened to any of us.”
Isaac didn’t know what he expected her to say. She opened her mouth, but apparently changed her mind and nodded. “Well, thanks for trying. I guess I’ll try to figure this mess out myself.” No anger, sarcasm, or attitude. Only a tired acquiescence that stabbed at his heart.
“Let us go over what we recorded before you get discouraged. I never said I didn’t believe you. I only said we didn’t have any personal experiences. Who knows what will show up in the evidence?”
She nodded, but said nothing.
“I’ll be in touch within the next few days. Don’t be afraid to call me if something does start happening. Seriously. I’m only a few minutes away.” He used the same speech after each case, but saying the comforting words to Alaina was different.
She wouldn’t call him. No matter what. He knew how much pride it had cost her to contact him this time.
* * * *
Alaina watched Isaac and his crew pull out with a sigh. Closing the front door, she turned, ready to go to bed and at least try to get some of the sleep she hadn’t been able to last night. A dark figure darted from the closet and through the wall to Gram’s formal living room.
Crap. She didn’t know why she’d dared to hope they’d really be gone. Of course, she already knew why nothing had happened here last night. All of them had followed her to the hotel. Rubbing her wrist, she went to the kitchen to get some ice, trying not to think too hard about what had grabbed her. She wanted to believe she’d dreamed it and the crowd of shadows standing at the end of the bed. The whole scene had lasted less than a second, but the bruising, sore spot on her wrist made the memory linger. She’d spent the rest of the night in the hotel coffee shop surfing the Net for information about what could be going on and trying to convince herself she was imagining things. Why hadn’t she told Isaac?
This was her problem. Apparently. And she’d deal with it. Somehow. A cold blast of air stopped her at the top of the stairs, raising the hair on the back of her neck. She glanced around, checking the walls for the hideous face she’d seen yesterday. The face there now was evil, threatening, and made her blood turn cold. Loud moaning filled the hall as she walked by, but nothing appeared. She kept walking, hoping the sound would go away if she ignored it.
She should have known better.
A wall of flames erupted in front of her. No heat touched her as a blackened hand shot out from the fire, reaching for her throat. Alaina stepped back, swallowing the scream no one would hear, and caught herself before she tumbled backward down the stairs. Dark laughter replaced the moan, echoing off the walls.
She almost called Isaac as the noise faded but couldn’t bring herself to actually dial his number even though he seemed to want to believe her. Hell, maybe it was her imagination. She needed sleep—and lots of it. The thickness of the air in her bedroom made her choke. Dark mist swirled around her head and feet. The gargoyle-like figure on the dresser was back. She didn’t get the same feeling of malevolence from it but knew it wouldn’t be too long until the red-eyed one appeared. It seemed to follow her everywhere.
Slamming the door, she grabbed the throw pillows and tossed them at the unwelcome visitors. “Get out. Get out. Get out,” she screamed as they disappeared.
She opened her dresser drawer and yanked out a clean pair of underwear. An old tea box tumbled to the floor. The memory hit—Gram had given her this to help protect her, and she’d forgotten—she must be more exhausted than she realized. She gathered the wooden box with her clothes, picked up her cell phone, and went to the bathroom. She dropped to her knees after slamming and locking the door, spreading a thick line of the salt and herb mixture from the box across the bottom of the door.
Alaina had no idea if it would really do anything, but she felt stupid for not at least trying it before she’d called Isaac the first time. Gram told her it kept out all kinds of bad stuff when she first started teaching her about paranormal things. She’d given her a new supply of the stuff every New Year’s, taking the old in exchange. Alaina always figured it was one of the old lady’s quirks—like the knickknack collecting and the country line dancing.
Gram spent countless hours teaching Alaina about things not many people believed in but were still afraid of. She said she didn’t ever want Alaina to be caught unawares if spirits ever showed up. That obviously hadn’t worked. Alaina was completely thrown off-balance. Now she wondered if Gram knew they eventually would. Alaina rested her head on the door. A slight sense of safety swept over her for the first time since Gram’s death. She closed her eyes, drifting, until loud bangs vibrated against her head from the other side.
Apparently, whatever was out there couldn’t get in. Good. Now if she only had a pair of earplugs. She started the water, stripped down, and stepped under the hot spray, needing a shower almost as much as sleep. Her body relaxed—until thoughts of Isaac seeped in to make her tense in a different way. She still didn’t want to think about him, or want to like him. Well, except for the way he looked in jeans and a tight T-shirt. She tried to push the sexual thoughts out of her head and remember that he wasn’t interested in her. There was no way she should be thinking about what it would be like to be naked against him. Except, despite his rejection, she was.
The thoughts didn’t last long as howling came from her bedroom, accompanied by heavy thuds against the bathroom door. Maybe she was numb or too tired to care anymore. She blocked out the sounds as she washed, staying under the spray until the old hot water heater in the basement coughed out the last vestiges of warmth. The noise continued as she dried and then dressed.
The thought of going back through the room twisted her stomach into knots. Her courage had lasted through her shower, but now, it seemed, she was out of any and all bravery. Alaina glanced at her cell phone on the vanity and sighed. She had no choice but to call Isaac. She couldn’t handle this alone. Despite all her bravado and her humiliation over their past, she needed Isaac.
He answered on the first ring, his voice a mix of confusion and dread. “What’s wrong?”
Alaina leaned against the sink, panic stealing her breath as the noises outside her safe haven increased. “I don’t…”
“What’s going on?”
Realizing she’d probably woken him, guilt began to seep through her. “I can’t…they’re…I…” She tried to get something coherent to come out, but the sputtering was all she managed.
“I’ll be right there. Don’t hang up.”
Finally, she found her voice and her sense. “I’m trapped in my bathroom.”
“You’re safe though, right?”
“Yeah. I think. Scared.” She hated to admit that, but it was the truth. The fear she’d experienced previously was nothing compared to what was outside her door.
“I’m going to put you on hold for a few minutes while I get my team together, okay? Don’t hang up.” The phone beeped, and silence filled her ear before she had a chance to answer him.
Alaina swore the door was going to splinter. What sounded like metal raked against the wood, along with a low, feral growl that reminded her of a really pissed off—and maybe rabid—dog. She laughed, a hysterical sound that bounced off the ceramic tiles and mocked her. What was taking Isaac so long?
Before the thought finished, Isaac clicked back over. “Alaina? You hanging in?” The concern in his voice frightened her more than the chaos outside the door.
“I’m okay,” she lied. She was anything but okay.
“I’m on my way. The crew is going to meet me there. Luckily, we didn’t have time to unload the trucks from last night.”
“The front door is locked.” Nausea rose at the thought of having to leave the bathroom to let him in.
“I know where Alona keeps the key. You didn’t move it, did you?” An engine started. Her relief didn’t last as the sound of shattering glass filled the room.
“No. I forgot about the spare.” She’d have moved it had she remembered.
Trying her hardest to ignore the racket, she brushed her teeth and combed her hair. She glanced in the mirror, realizing she looked like total hell. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, and her skin had a sickly, white hue. Why on earth she cared what Isaac would think when he looked at her was way beyond her—or so she told herself.
“Alaina. I’m here. Let me in.” Isaac’s voice finally sounded from the other side of the door.
She unlocked and opened the bathroom door, staring into wild, concerned eyes. He reached for her, and against her better judgment, she went into his arms. Keeping her emotions under control was a fight, especially with the comfort he offered. Knowing she wasn’t alone was what finally undid her. She was so tired of fighting this all by herself.
“Are you okay?” he asked into her hair when she managed to regain her composure.
“Yeah. Sick of this whole thing. I have no idea what they want.”
“I’m sorry. I should have realized they were attached to you. What happened last night?”
She pulled back, holding out her arm to show him her wrist.
He grimaced, touching the dark bruise tenderly. “This is not good.”