Please allow me to introduce Miss Amelia Gray, aka The Graveyard Queen. She’s a taphophile, a blogger and a cemetery restorer who sees ghosts. Hungry ghosts. Greedy, grasping, ravenous ghosts. In order to protect herself from these netherworld parasites, Amelia has always followed her father rules.
BUT…a haunted police detective has entered her world and his ghosts have tried to make contact. Another has coerced her into a deadly (!) alliance and she’s just discovered a whole new realm of nasty specters called the Others. Oh, and a deranged taphophile is using gravestone symbolism to target victims.
And it’s not even Tuesday yet.
You, too, can enter Amelia’s misty world via The Graveyard Queen Series—The Restorer (May 2011), The Kingdom (November 2011) and The Prophet (May 2012)—available wherever MIRA Books are sold.
For more mysterious goings-on, please arrange a viewing at www.thegraveyardqueen.com and/or www.amandastevens.com.
Ree Hutchins was dozing at the old woman’s bedside, a dog-eared copy of The Call of the Wild open on her lap, when Violet Tisdale passed away.
Exhausted from her hectic schedule, Ree had fallen asleep reading from the leather-bound edition Miss Violet always kept on her nightstand. Ree often wondered how many times the old woman had heard Buck’s story during her confinement at the Milton H. Farrante Psychiatric Hospital. She was well into her eighties and had been institutionalized for as long as anyone could remember. Other than her clothing and toiletries, the book was the only personal item in her quarters, although the inscription in the front read: To my daughter, Ilsa, on the occasion of her tenth birthday. June 3, 1915.
No doubt the tattered volume was a hand-me-down from some former staff member or another patient perhaps, because no one could remember the last time Miss Violet had a visitor.
Ree shivered awake as a chill seeped into the room. The fluorescent reading lamp over her shoulder flickered and she would later remember that the clock on the nightstand had stopped precisely at 8:30. Twilight had fallen, which meant she’d been asleep for close to an hour. Miss Violet lay propped against her pillows, eyes open but unseeing, lips parted but forever silent. She hadn’t been gone long. Her wrist was still warm where Ree felt for a pulse.
Closing the book, Ree set it aside and rose to summon a nurse. Trudy McIntyre came at once with a stethoscope and mirror, and after a cursory examination, left to notify the proper authorities. Ree didn’t know what else to do so she followed her out.
“What about next of kin?”
Trudy was an efficient woman with a careworn face and weary eyes. She’d been at the hospital for a very long time. “There is no next of kin that I know of. I expect Dr. Farrante will handle the arrangements himself. He always does in cases like this.”
At the mere mention of his name, Ree’s heart fluttered. Dr. Nicholas Farrante was out of her league and much too old for any serious romantic notions, but that didn’t stop her and every other female student in the Emerson University psych department from hanging on his every word. Not that Ree wouldn’t have found “Experimental Psychology and Human Aging” fascinating regardless of the professor, but Dr. Farrante brought so much to the classroom beyond his charm and charisma. The niche his family had carved in the field of developmental psychology was astounding, going all the way back to his grandfather, Dr. Milton H. Farrante, who had been a student of Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern psychology.
Milton had opened the facility in the early 1900s and for nearly a century, it had remained one of the preeminent private psychiatric hospitals in the country. Ree was lucky to have been accepted as a volunteer because even the unpaid positions were quickly snapped up, usually by other grad students whose families had a lot more clout than hers.
Following Trudy to her desk, Ree battled an inexplicable urge to glance over her shoulder. “Can we at least check the files? There must be someone out there who would want to know about Miss Violet.”
Trudy looked up with a heavy sigh. “Honey, I’ve been here for over twenty-five years, and in all that time, not a single, solitary soul has ever paid that old woman a visit. I’m sure her family’s all gone by now. Or else they just don’t care. Anyway, it’s out of my hands. As I said, Dr. Farrante will handle the arrangements. He’s always taken good care of Miss Violet.”
Ree couldn’t argue with that. Miss Violet’s private suite—bedroom, bath and sitting area—was located in the south wing of the hospital, a quiet, sunny area with peaceful garden views. Ree could imagine Miss Violet sitting there year after year, watching the seasons pass by. Waiting for spring. Waiting for the violets outside her window to bloom.
Trudy picked up a thick packet from her desk and handed it to Ree. “Here. If you want to make yourself useful, take this up to Dr. Farrante’s office. I’m sure he’s gone for the night so just leave it on his assistant’s desk.”
Ree glanced back down the hallway. “What about Miss Violet?”
“What about her?”
“It just seems so sad, leaving her all alone like that.”
Trudy’s face softened and she gave Ree’s arm a motherly pat. “You’ve done all you can for her. More than anyone else has bothered in years. Now it’s time to let her go.”
She was right, of course, and Ree honestly didn’t know why the death had hit her so hard. She’d only been working there a couple of months and at Miss Violet’s age, her passing wasn’t unexpected. Given her circumstances, some would call it a blessing. She was free now.
But Ree couldn’t shake the lingering pall as she climbed the stairs to Dr. Farrante’s second-floor office. The swish of her sneakers sounded like whispers and she found herself turning yet again to check the hallway behind her.
The outer office door was open and she took a quick peek inside before entering. The spacious suite was much as she would have imagined—subdued and tasteful, from the soft brown leather furniture to the thick Oriental rugs on the teak floors. She walked across the room and placed the package squarely in the center of the desk so the assistant would see it first thing when she arrived the next morning.
It wasn’t until Ree turned to leave that she realized the set of double doors leading into Dr. Farrante’s office was also open, though only a crack. The sound of his voice stopped her cold and she paused, not meaning to eavesdrop so much as she wanted to savor the timbre of that rich baritone.
Then she heard a second voice and as the conversation continued and Dr. Farrante’s anger became apparent, she was too afraid to move, too worried that the telltale squeak of a loose floorboard might give her presence away.
“…shouldn’t have come here!”
“Oh, trust me, Nicholas, what I have to tell you warranted a special trip. Besides, I thought I’d look in on Violet while I’m here. My father’s recent passing has made me realize she won’t be around for much longer. I hope you’ve finished your latest treatise.”
A warning tingled down Ree’s spine. What did this man have to do with Miss Violet?
“Your concern for her is touching,” Dr. Farrante said sarcastically.
“As is yours. The Farrantes have always taken such good care of my aunt.”
Aunt? So she did have a living relative. Why had this man not come to see her before?
“She’s lived a long and, I believe, contented life here,” Dr. Farrante said.
“Whatever you have to tell yourself to sleep at night.”
“And just what do you tell yourself, Jared? You or your father could have taken her out of here at any time. Made a place for her in the family home.”
“You never would have allowed that.”
“But you never even tried. So let’s not kid ourselves. The arrangement suited everyone involved.”
“The arrangement is why I’m here,” the man said. “I assume you’ve heard about the plans for Oak Grove Cemetery.”
Dr. Farrante’s voice sharpened. “What plans?”
“Camille Ashby wants to have the cemetery restored. She has her sights set on the National Register in time for Emerson University’s bicentennial. Of course, she’ll have to get approval from the committee. You can’t so much as paint a front porch in this town without their say-so. But you know Camille. She has a lot of influence in those circles and she won’t give up without a fight.”
“When do they put it to a vote?”
“Soon, I would imagine. Camille’s already submitted the name of a restorer, a woman named Amelia Gray. If her credentials check out and her bid is reasonable, there’s no reason the committee won’t approve her.”
Still frozen in place, Ree frowned. Amelia Gray. Where had she heard that name before?
“I don’t like this,” Dr. Farrante muttered. “A restoration could draw media interest. Some nosy reporter might decide to find out why Oak Grove was abandoned in the first place. That kind of attention could be disastrous.”
“For you, perhaps. But I’ve decided to look at it as an opportunity.”
“An opportunity? Are you mad?”
“You’re the expert in that regard, but I’ve often thought madness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” Amusement crept into the man’s voice. “Take you, for instance. You’ve devoted your whole life to the workings of the mind and yet you clearly dwell in an alternate reality. You’re so inwardly focused, so entrenched in your own world here that you’ve failed to grasp how the dynamics of our relationship have changed since my father’s death.”
“I don’t care what our families did two generations ago. I’m not the slightest bit interested in preservation, be it the Tisdale name, Oak Grove Cemetery or that dirty little secret we share. As long as the old man was alive, I was willing to honor his wishes. But he’s gone now and I find myself in the unfortunate position of owing a great deal of money to some very unsavory people.”
“How is that my concern?” Dr. Farrante snapped.
“Because you are interested in preserving secrets. If the truth about my aunt ever came to light, the great Farrante legacy would crumble like a house of cards. They’d close this place down, retract all those awards, expunge your grandfather’s name from the history books. Think of the kind of attention that would attract. You’d be shunned by your peers and maybe even imprisoned.”
“So this is a shakedown.” Beneath all that velvety smoothness, Ree heard something in Dr. Farrante’s tone that rocked her to the core.
“Such a crass term from someone of your stature.”
“Half a million should do nicely.” The man paused. “For starters.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“Not for you. I’ll wager you still have every penny of your inheritance.”
“I certainly haven’t squandered it away on gambling as you apparently have yours, but the upkeep of this hospital is astronomical. Not to mention my research. I’m not a rich man.”
“I’m sure you can manage to scrape together half a mil. Because if you don’t…” He trailed off on a warning note. “You said it yourself. The restoration of Oak Grove Cemetery is likely to titillate the media. A name or two dropped in the right ear and you can kiss your reputation good-bye.”
A pause. “You’re bluffing. Even with your father gone, you wouldn’t dare betray the Order.”
“As secret societies go, the Order of the Coffin and the Claw has pretty well been neutered,” the man mocked. “The members are hardly the power brokers they once were. So maybe I’ll just take my chances.”
“Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought.”
“And you’re a megalomaniac with an Achilles heel. Just like your father and grandfather before you, Nicholas, your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. If her name were to be made public—”
“Your aunt is an old woman. Don’t drag her into your pathetic scheme.”
The man laughed. “I’m not talking about Violet. I’m talking about her mother. Even from her grave, Ilsa Tisdale still has the power to destroy you…and you well know it.”
As he said her name, an icy hand fell on Ree’s shoulder.
Ree turned with a shudder, certain that someone must have come into the room without her knowing. She’d been caught red-handed eavesdropping on a personal conversation and for a terrifying moment, her heart actually stopped.
But the office behind her was empty.
She felt a rush of relief even as she shivered in a sudden draft. Perhaps the air-conditioning had come on and she was standing in front of a vent. That would explain the gooseflesh that popped along her arms and at the back of her neck.
Ignoring the chill, Ree told herself to get out of that office before she really was caught. But she remained frozen to the spot, petrified that she’d make some involuntary noise and alert Dr. Farrante and his companion. What she’d overheard was blackmail pure and simple—if blackmail could ever be pure or simple. The whole conversation had left her shaken and she knew that she would revisit it later, dissecting every disturbing nuance. But what could be done about it? As ugly as it was, the situation had nothing to do with her.
Still, she couldn’t dismiss a dark foreboding, and she knew the threats and innuendoes she’d heard in that office would forever change her perception of Nicholas Farrante. But…time enough later to dwell on her fallen hero. Right now she had to get out of there.
She turned to leave, then remembered the package she’d placed on the assistant’s desk. If Dr. Farrante spotted it tonight, he’d know that someone had been there. A quick word with Trudy McIntyre would reveal Ree’s name, and she had a sinking feeling that academic censure and immediate dismissal from the hospital might be the least of her troubles.
Easing back to the desk, she lifted the envelope and paused. The rumblings from the inner office reassured her that she hadn’t been made. She crept across the room, her footsteps blessedly silent on the plush rug, and was just slipping into the hallway when she heard the doors slide open behind her and the voices grew louder.
Ree cast about frantically for a means of escape. She’d never reach the stairs in time and there was no place to hide. Whirling, she stepped back up to the door as if she’d only just arrived and halted in feigned surprise as a man came rushing out of Dr. Farrante’s office.
He looked to be in his midforties—tall, wiry and with the kind of everyman appearance that would allow him to go unnoticed in a crowd. But Ree was good with faces, a trait she’d inherited from her P.I. father. She automatically implanted his features in her memory—the weak jawline and chin, the puffiness around his eyes that suggested a propensity for drink. As their gazes met, it hit her rather forcefully that she was staring straight into the eyes of a blackmailer.
His gaze flicked over her, assessing and dismissing, before he crossed the room and brushed past her. Ree would have glanced after him, but her attention was caught by Dr. Farrante. He stood in the doorway of his office, rage contorting his distinguished features.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Ree…Hutchins.” She hoped he hadn’t noticed her nervous hesitation. She drew a breath, trying to regain her composure. “One of the nurses asked me to leave this on your assistant’s desk.” She held up the package.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“I just got here. I’m sorry to bother you. I thought you’d already left for the evening.”
He took in her scrubs. “You’re an employee of this hospital, I gather?” His subsiding fury was replaced by a kind of cold calculation that made Ree even more nervous.
“I’m a volunteer. I’m also in one of your classes at Emerson.”
“So that’s where I’ve seen you.” As he slowly came into the room, Ree fought the urge to retreat. Why had she never noticed before the almost serpentine grace of his walk?
“Your lecture last week on human emotion and cognition was…it was brilliant,” she stammered.
“I’ll assume you weren’t the one snoring from the back row then.”
Was that amusement she heard in his voice? At one time, Ree would have been charmed by his self-effacement, but now she had to suppress a shudder.
She drew another quick breath and smiled. “Never. I always look forward to your class.”
“How long have you volunteered here?” he asked. “And why have I not seen you around before tonight?”
“I’ve only been here two months and I’m assigned mostly to the south wing.”
Maybe it was her imagination, but Ree thought his attention quickened. His appraisal, however, remained subtle. “Then you must know one of my favorite patients. Violet Tisdale.”
Not her imagination, Ree decided. Mentioning Miss Violet out of all the patients in the south wing couldn’t be a coincidence. Which meant he must suspect she’d overheard at least a portion of that incriminating argument. Now he was testing her, observing her response to the name.
She forced a wistful tone to her voice. “Miss Violet was also one of my favorites.”
An elegant brow shot up. “Was?”
Now it was Ree’s turn to gauge his reaction. “Oh…you haven’t heard? Miss Violet passed away a little while ago.”
No more than a flicker of emotion crossed his handsome countenance. “No, I hadn’t heard.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. It wasn’t my place—”
“Was she alone?”
Before tonight, Ree wouldn’t have given his query a second thought, but now the question seemed fraught with subtext.
“No. As a matter of fact, I was with her when she died.”
“Did she say anything?”
Fraught with subtext. “She went quietly in her sleep.”
“That’s that then,” he murmured and Ree could have sworn she heard genuine regret in his voice.
But what she saw in his eyes chilled her to the bone.
A strange disquiet followed Ree down the stairs and through the maze of soft green corridors. In the sections where security was more stringent, the patients had already been confined to their rooms for the night and the hallways were eerily silent.
As Ree hurried back to the south wing, she reminded herself yet again that nothing she’d overheard was her concern. Best to just put the whole sordid mess out of her mind. Dr. Farrante had an almost godlike standing in the field of developmental psychology. The last thing Ree needed was an enemy so powerful he could quash her career before it even started.
But she was nothing if not Jack Hutchins’s daughter. He was one of the best private detectives ever licensed by the state of South Carolina and there was a time not so long ago when Ree had wanted more than anything to follow in his footsteps. She’d dreamed of the two of them starting their own agency, but that was before he’d fallen for one of his clients and left her mother heartbroken. Before he’d quit his old firm and moved to Atlanta to pursue his new life.
Even after the divorce, Ree had privately nursed those same aspirations, but then she’d come to realize that teaming up with her father would seem like yet another betrayal to her mother. So she’d enrolled at Emerson University as a psych major and here she was at twenty-four, in hot pursuit of her master’s.
Still, it was hard to suppress her natural tendencies. She had an innate curiosity and a flair for detective work. That overheard conversation was like a dangling carrot and Ree found herself anticipating some alone time so that she could sort through the puzzle pieces—Miss Violet…Ilsa Tisdale…Oak Grove Cemetery…a secret society called the Order of the Coffin and the Claw.
Strange that out of all the curiosities she’d overheard, Ree’s thoughts kept returning to one name. Amelia Gray. So familiar and yet so hazy. A memory that floated just out of her grasp.
And then as she pushed through the double doors into the south wing, she finally had it. She’d gone to school in Trinity—a small town north of Charleston—with a girl by that name. That Amelia Gray had been a few grades ahead of her so they hadn’t known each other well. But now that Ree had tapped into her memory, an image of a quiet, pretty blonde formed in her head. And with it came other recollections. Something about a graveyard…
Yes, that was it. Amelia’s father had been a caretaker and they’d lived in a white house near Rosehill Cemetery.
When Ree was little, her grandmother had loved old graveyards. Rosehill was one of her favorite destinations and sometimes after church on Sunday, she and Ree would take a picnic lunch out there and eat in the shade of the two-hundred-year-old oaks that ringed the grounds. On those lazy summer afternoons with the sun shimmering on the statues and headstones and the air redolent with the climbing roses that spilled over the fences and down through the trees, the cemetery had seemed like a place of enchantment.
On one particular afternoon, Ree had skipped away while her grandmother dozed in the shade. The old section of the cemetery was normally closed to the public, but the gate was open that day. Always intrepid and not a little curious, she’d slipped inside and wandered along stone paths that meandered through a primordial forest of cool, lush ferns and thick gray-green curtains of Spanish moss. In that gothic fairyland, amidst an audience of stone angels, Ree had stumbled upon Amelia Gray holding court.
She was dressed in some flowing garment that looked fashioned from an old silk dress. The gossamer fabric fluttered like fairy wings when she moved, and atop her golden head, she wore a crown of rosebuds and clover. She must have been about ten at the time and to Ree’s seven-year-old sensibilities, the most mystical creature she’d ever encountered.
Ree had made an inadvertent sound—a surprised, little gasp—but Amelia wasn’t startled. Moments ticked by before she slowly turned, her gaze seeking Ree’s. Her eyes were very clear, Ree remembered. She’d thought them blue at first, but as the girl came toward her, she realized they were gray. Or were they green?
“Where did you come from?” Amelia had asked in a feather-soft voice.
Finding herself unaccustomedly tongue-tied, Ree pointed toward the gate.
Amelia bit her lip. “I must have forgotten to shut it. I’d better go lock it before Papa finds out. Come on. I’ll walk you back.”
But Ree held her ground, her curious gaze taking in all the stone angels. She’d never seen so many. It was like a silent, weeping army.
“They’re magic,” Amelia said. Her eyes took on a dreamy, faraway look. “Sometimes just before dusk, when the light hits them just right, they come to life.”
Ree finally found her voice, and much to her chagrin, her practical side emerged. “There’s no such thing as magic.”
“Of course there is. There’s magic all around us. You just can’t see it.”
“Sometimes.” Amelia’s smile disappeared and she glanced away. “But I’m safe here.”
She waved an arm, encompassing the crumbling angels and the surrounding cemetery. “Because these are my guardians,” she said. “And this is my kingdom….”
The memory faded as Ree rounded a corner and almost skidded into Trudy McIntyre. She was escorting Alice Canton, a young woman with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies, back to her room. Alice was pale and fragile with an emaciated body and wide, tragic eyes.
She stopped dead in her tracks to gape at Ree as they passed in the hallway.
“Come along, Alice,” Trudy coaxed. “Let’s get you settled in for the night.”
But Alice refused to budge even when Trudy urged her forward. “Who’s she?”
“That’s Ree,” Trudy said. “Don’t you remember? She brought you a new book last week.”
“Not her,” Alice insisted. “The other one.”
And then Ree noticed that she was looking—not directly at her—but at a point just beyond her shoulder.
A chill shot through Ree as she resisted the urge to glance back.
“There’s no one else here,” Trudy said. “Just us three girls.”
Ree smiled reassuringly and took a step forward so that Alice could see her better in the dimmed lighting. Alice flinched away, bunching her shoulders and drawing her fists up to her face as if trying to protect herself. Or hide herself. “Don’t look at her,” she whispered.
Trudy patted her arm as Alice peered over her fists. “Can you see her?” Her voice rose in agitation. “Why can’t you see her? Why can’t you see any of them? They’re everywhere!”
There’s magic all around us. You just can’t see it.
Ree shivered again though she tried to put on a good face for Alice.
“This one’s angry,” Alice warned. “She scares me.”
“You’ll be safe in your room,” Trudy soothed as she took Alice firmly by the arm and pulled her down the hall.
Alice went reluctantly, muttering under her breath, “That poor girl. That poor, poor girl…”
Ree had the discomforting notion that Alice was talking about her.
Abruptly, she turned and made her way up to the front desk. A couple of orderlies milled about in the lobby, but other than a quick nod, they paid Ree little attention. She didn’t know how long Trudy would be busy with Alice, but she was tempted to slip behind the desk and access the computer. If she could locate Violet’s file, she might be able to figure out why Dr. Farrante felt so threatened. What kind of power could Ilsa Tisdale—long dead, no doubt—still have over the living?
Wisely, Ree tempered the impulse. Not only was the blackmail scheme none of her business, but also hacking into patient records could earn her jail time. She pacified herself by returning to Miss Violet’s suite. Not to snoop, she told herself firmly, but to pay her final respects.
No one had been in yet to collect the body, and as Ree stood at Miss Violet’s bedside, the strangest feeling came over her. The old woman looked peaceful in repose, but Ree found no comfort in the viewing. She wasn’t squeamish about death and she didn’t believe in ghosts. But as she gazed down at the corpse, she felt the chill of something unnatural in that room.
Which was crazy. She was just letting her imagination get the better of her.
Ree tried to shake off the sensation as she picked up the book from the nightstand where she’d left it earlier. Flipping the cover open, she ran her thumb over the inscription. And the hair at the back of her neck lifted.
She wouldn’t look behind her. She wouldn’t. No one was there. She was alone in the room with a dead woman and the dead couldn’t hurt her. Nor could they come back. There was no such thing as ghosts. No such thing as magic of any kind. A stone angel couldn’t come to life and neither could a corpse.
An icy draft blew down her neck and unable to resist, Ree half turned. From her periphery, she caught a slight movement in the farthest corner of the room. Heart pounding, she watched it for the longest moment before she realized that what she’d spotted was nothing more than the shadow of a tree branch moving outside the window.
Faint with relief, she put a hand on the bed to steady herself. What a strange, strange night.
Her nerves were shot. That was the only logical explanation. The stress of finishing her master’s thesis coupled with her work at the hospital and her mounting student loans had taken a toll. Now Miss Violet’s death. The blackmail scheme. Dr. Farrante’s secret. A woman named Ilsa Tisdale who apparently had the power to destroy lives even from her grave. It all sounded so melodramatic and sensational, and Ree told herself she’d be laughing at her overreaction come morning.
But she wasn’t laughing now. As she replaced the book on the nightstand, something cold brushed against her hand. She gasped and jerked back.
“Go home, Ree.” She spoke the command aloud, hoping the sound of her voice would chase away that unnamed fear.
Forget about the blackmail. Forget about Miss Violet. None of this is your concern. Just…go home.
She might have done exactly that if not for the swoosh of the outer door. Reacting purely on instinct, Ree tiptoed to the bathroom and slipped inside just as Dr. Farrante stepped into the bedroom. And for the second time that night, she found herself eavesdropping on the formidable psychiatrist.
He went immediately to Miss Violet’s bedside and stood gazing down at her. The light was lowered in her room, but Ree could see his face clearly. She still thought him the most handsome, charismatic man she’d ever met, but now there was something aberrant about his too-perfect features. Something cold-blooded about the way he clasped his hands behind his back and observed the remains so passively.
And suddenly one of the blackmailer’s taunts came rushing back to her. The Farrantes have always taken such good care of my aunt.
As she watched the psychiatrist with the body, she became more and more convinced that some atrocity had been committed and a cover-up perpetuated for generations. Something terrible had happened to Ilsa Tisdale. Ree was certain of it.
And she wondered if, after all this time, a clue might still be buried in Oak Grove Cemetery.
It was misting when Ree left the hospital a little while later. She hurried across the damp parking lot to her car, turning only once to glance back at the stately white columns and gleaming façade. She’d always thought the historic building a fitting symbol of all that three generations of Farrantes had accomplished in the field of developmental psychology. Now she saw only darkness and secrets.
Shivering in the wet gloom, she climbed into her car and started the engine. Once she left the parking lot, the security lights faded and a canopy of live oaks shrouded the sky. It was a very dark night.
At the entrance, she flashed her badge and waited for the gates to slide open. Then waving to the guard, she drove through and eased into the flow of traffic on the busy thoroughfare. Exiting the secluded grounds was a little like crossing over into another dimension. The hospital was located inside the city, but it seemed so isolated behind those walls, a world unto itself, and never more so than tonight.
A few blocks east, Ree entered the Emerson University campus, a lovely and only slightly less insular world than the one she’d just left behind. Despite the mist, she rolled down the window and let the lush scent of a Charleston evening flow through her car. There was nothing more southern—or more intoxicating—than the mingled fragrances of jasmine, magnolia and sea. The heady perfume tugged at her senses like a memory. Like the eerie melody that drifted through the stereo speakers.
What was that song? It seemed so familiar and yet so strange. So…haunting.
Ree hummed along even though she was certain she’d never heard the tune before. The dreamy notes were almost hypnotic and with no clear destination, she found herself at the back of the campus where the grounds were edged by a thick forest. Somewhere hidden inside the woods was Oak Grove Cemetery.
She had a vague sense of where the graveyard was located. A drunken trip to the creepy necropolis was almost a rite of passage at Emerson, and during her freshman year, she’d been game for almost anything.
Looking back now, Ree could see her reckless behavior was a manifestation of her parents’ divorce. Luckily, the thrill of her sudden independence and the need to act out had waned in time and now she dwelled almost exclusively at the other end of the spectrum, unable to recall the last time she’d gone out with friends, let alone on a date.
Ree made the turn onto Cemetery Road, but she had no intention of exploring an abandoned graveyard alone at night. There was curious and there was stupid. Mostly, she just wanted to satisfy herself that she could find it again.
As the woods pressed in from either side, she leaned forward, peering anxiously through the misty darkness. Spotting a break in the trees off to her left, she pulled to the side of the road and let the engine idle while she surveyed her surroundings. Yes, this was the place. She could just make out the primitive trail that led to the entrance. It was too dark to see the gates, but Ree remembered from her previous excursion that they were kept chained. Not that a padlock was much of a deterrent. All one had to do was shimmy up a live oak and drop down on the other side.
Someone might be in there right now, she thought with a shiver. A homeless person, perhaps. Or a serial killer looking to dump a body…
What was that?
For a moment, Ree could have sworn she saw something in the swirling haze of her headlights.
It was nothing. Just a shadow. Or a darting animal perhaps…
It was nothing.
Putting the car in gear, she eased forward. If anything had been lurking in the mist, it was gone now.
She laughed nervously. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. No such thing as magic.”
And as she muttered the words aloud, another memory from that day at Rosehill Cemetery came back to her.
“That girl is a strange one,” her grandmother had said ominously when Ree told her about Amelia. “She has the kind of eyes that can see right down into your soul. My cousin Lula had them, too. She was born with a caul, you know.”
“It’s like a veil of skin. When they remove it, the baby is sometimes left with second sight.”
“It means they can see things we can’t, child.”
“You mean like magic?”
“Magic? I guess you could call it that.…”
Ree shook off the memory and glanced around. While she sat there reminiscing, her windows had frosted and a preternatural chill crept into the car. The hair at her nape prickled and it took her a moment to work up enough courage to glance in her backseat.
No one was there, of course, and she laughed at herself again.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
But she had to say it twice more before the conviction returned to her voice.
Hayden Priest checked the reading on the electromagnetic field detector and frowned. No fluctuation whatsoever. This was his second night in Oak Grove Cemetery and he’d yet to pick up so much as a flicker despite assurances by one of his colleagues at the Charleston Institute for Parapsychology Studies that the abandoned graveyard was a hot spot for paranormal activity. The area around the Bedford Mausoleum—the oldest monument in Oak Grove—was supposedly known for its orbs. But Hayden had seen nothing. Maybe it was time to pack up and head to another cemetery.
Truth be told, his belief in the unknown was running on fumes these days. For the past nine years—since his sixteenth birthday—Hayden had dabbled in ghost hunting. The closest he’d come to a supernatural finding was an indistinguishable sound that might have been a growl captured on his digital voice recorder in a rural Kansas graveyard dubbed one of the seven lost gateways of hell. Puny evidence for all his effort, but Dr. Rupert Shaw, the institute founder, resident guru and man behind the curtain, had a favorite saying: the field of parapsychology was not for the faint of heart or the impatient.
Few disturbances ever panned out. Out of the dozens of cases the institute investigated every year, only a handful remained without logical or scientific explanation. But it was the handful that kept the investigators motivated.
Or maybe by now it was just habit, Hayden thought. At any rate, he’d always found the lone cemetery vigils far more therapeutic than the group therapy sessions his parents had dragged him to after his brother’s suicide. Hayden hadn’t needed a psychiatrist—then or now—because he already knew he wasn’t to blame for Jacob’s death. His brother had been sick for a really long time. Early childhood schizophrenia was a rare thing, but Jacob had been diagnosed at eight. Even with medication, the voices and visions had steadily gotten worse until one day one of those voices had told him to hang himself from his closet door.
For years, solace had eluded Hayden. All through high school and college, he’d been tormented, not so much from guilt, but with questions that no one could answer—not his parents, not his psychologist, not even his priest. Finally, the cold spots and electrical fluctuations in Jacob’s bedroom had led him to seek answers from unconventional sources. And nearly ten years later, he was still searching. But to what end, Hayden had no idea.
Out on the road, he heard a car approach. Kids probably. Or maybe another ghost hunter. His heart gave an odd thump as he listened and waited. He could feel something in the mist. It was like…an echo. A memory. Some sort of strange vibration. A shiver raced up his spine and his pulse quickened. The night grew unbearably still, as if waiting for the dead to rise. Then after a moment, the car drove on and Hayden went back to his lonely vigil.
As soon as Ree got back to her tiny apartment that night, she put on a pot of coffee and sat down at her desk to work on her thesis—a focus on personality development in old age. But her mind kept returning to the strange events of the evening. Finally she gave in to that incessant tug and scoured the internet for information about the Tisdales—a prominent Charleston family whose roots could be traced to the city’s founding—the Order of the Coffin and the Claw, a secret society that dated back to the mid-1800s—Oak Grove Cemetery, abandoned in the early half of the last century—and finally Amelia Gray.
Following a link to Amelia’s business website, Ree clicked through the portfolio of before and after cemetery images and then scanned Amelia’s bio. Her credentials were certainly impressive. Undergraduate degree in Anthropology from the University of South Carolina. Master’s in Archeology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Two years with the State Archeologist’s Office in Columbia before starting her own restoration business. And she was only twenty-seven. Comparatively speaking, Ree felt like a slacker.
Carrying her laptop to the sofa, she curled up to peruse Amelia’s blog. The wordplay title, Digging Graves, amused her, as did the posted news articles that referred to Amelia as The Graveyard Queen. The whimsical moniker took Ree straight back to that Sunday afternoon in Rosehill Cemetery.
On impulse, Ree dashed off an email:
My name is Ree Hutchins. You may not remember me. We went to school together in Trinity. I’d like to ask you some questions regarding Oak Grove Cemetery in Charleston. Would it be possible for us to meet?
To her surprise, Amelia responded in a matter of minutes:
Can you come by my place tomorrow at ten?
Ree jotted down the address and phone number, and tucked the note in her bag so she wouldn’t forget. Then she went back to reading the Digging Graves archives. She had no idea how long she’d been engrossed in the entries when she became aware of a chill. The air-conditioning must have cycled on. The outside windows were frosted and a fusty odor hung in the air, which Ree attributed to the moldy vents.
As she got up to adjust the thermostat, she heard the faint strains of a song. She thought at first the plaintive melody was coming through the paper-thin walls of her apartment. Then she realized it was the same tune she’d heard earlier.
Intrigued, she followed the sound into her bedroom. The numbers on the clock radio were flashing, an indication that the power had gone off. Ree had been working on her laptop so she might not have noticed a flicker. When the electricity came back on, the surge probably triggered the radio. Nothing spooky about that.
But the song…it was like being lost in a memory, Ree thought dreamily. She closed her eyes and let the music pour over her, into her, and then the haunting quality began to creep her out a bit so she snapped off the radio and the sensation faded.
After a quick shower, she crawled into bed, but sleep was a long time coming. Even in exhaustion, she couldn’t shut down. Too many disturbing things had happened to her that evening, not the least of which was Miss Violet’s passing.
When she finally drifted off, she had the oddest dream. She was in Oak Grove Cemetery. It was her…but it wasn’t her. And instead of the trashed-out graveyard of present day, the necropolis was lush and well tended, though no less unsettling.…
She wore her favorite frock, an icy-blue sheath shot through with silver threads that caught the moonlight as she moved through the maze of headstones and monuments. Her grandmother had brought the dress back from Paris, a gift for her seventeenth birthday. Father had not been happy. He thought the cut risqué and forbade her to wear it so she’d hidden it away in her closet along with her other illicit treasures. If anyone ever discovered that naughty cache…
She shivered deliciously, the fecund scent of ivy and damp earth enveloping her as she paused in front of a gothic-style crypt, the spires and crosses eerily silhouetted against the night sky. Where was he? They’d agreed to meet at the Bedford Mausoleum, but what if he’d changed his mind? What if he’d decided that she was too young and taboo for someone with his aspirations?
She tried to shake off a nascent unease as she climbed the steps and peered through the leaded glass. Moonlight slanted in from an opposite window, but she could see little beyond a glistening patchwork of cobwebs.
Turning, she scanned the cemetery. The deep shadows cast by the oak trees highlighted the ghostly glow of the marble statues. The unseeing eyes watched her as she ran down the steps and searched among them.
Suddenly, she could hear music from the nearby party and a wave of relief washed her. They were playing her song and that could only be his doing. He was here after all, sending her a secret message. Closing her eyes, she lifted her arms and began to dance.
As she twirled among the angels and saints, she glimpsed him out of the corner of her eye. Dark and brooding, he watched from the shadows. Then he came out into the moonlight and she caught her breath. He was so tall, so regal, so elegantly dressed. She went to him at once and cupping her hands around his neck, pulled him to her for a kiss. He obliged without hesitation, his tongue snaking in and out of her mouth until she grew dizzy with anticipation.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said breathlessly.
“And here I am.” He kissed her again, but this time there was something cold about his touch. “Did you have any trouble getting away?”
“It was almost too easy,” she said with a nervous laugh. “Father left hours ago so all I had to do was wait until everyone else turned in, then slip out the back way.”
“No one saw you?”
“Why would they?” She gazed up at him through her thick lashes. “I’ve had lots and lots of practice, you know.”
“You really are an incorrigible little thing, aren’t you?” His hand stroked her breast and she shuddered. “If the old man knew what you were up to, he’d never let you out of his sight.”
“Must we talk about him?” She pulled away. “You said you had a surprise for me. Where is it?”
“All in good time.”
He still seemed preoccupied and anxiety crept over her. The music had stopped and the night grew unnaturally silent. Where were the crickets? The birds?
“I don’t like this place.”
“I didn’t think you were scared of anything,” he taunted.
“Who says I’m scared?” She lifted her chin in defiance, but couldn’t help jumping when she heard a twig snap. “What was that?”
“Probably someone from the party. Just relax. Here…” He pulled a flask from his pocket and handed it to her. “Drink up.”
She took a long swallow, letting the fiery liquor chase away her apprehension. “Who are all those people back there anyway? Why won’t you tell me their names?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Everything’s a secret with you.” She folded her arms and pouted. “It just seems so silly and childish…these clandestine gatherings in a cemetery.”
“You wanted to come.”
“Will I at last get to witness the ceremony?”
“Oh, yes. You’ll have a very good view.”
“Is that my surprise?”
“Shush. Enough talk.”
Already, his hands were busy at the long row of buttons at her back. When he had them undone, she shimmied out of the dress and stood before him in the moonlight. She felt no shame, no embarrassment. Nothing but the most decadent eagerness.
She touched a finger to the silver medallion he wore around his neck.
“Father has one of these,” she murmured, recognizing the emblem.
“Anyone who is anyone in Charleston has one of these.”
He pulled her to the ground and she rose over him. Her eyes dark and hooded, she bent to kiss him, nipping his bottom lip before she trailed her tongue down his throat. When she reached the side of his neck, she sank her teeth in deeper.
“You little vampire.” He caught her roughly by the shoulders. “I told you not to do that.”
“You told me not to do a lot of things. But then you enjoy them anyway.”
“Not that. You’re like an animal,” he said in disgust. She merely smiled as he rolled her off him. Then he caught her hands and lifted them high over her head. “You need to be taught a lesson.”
She didn’t panic. Even when his fingers tightened around her wrists and his body pressed down on hers.
She felt no fear at all…until she heard the chanting.…
A night bird called from the treetops and Hayden wondered if he should consider it an omen. Where the mist thinned, he could see a ring around the moon. Guard your mirrors and hide your babies, he thought as he absently touched the medallion around his neck. Not tiger’s eye, but silver would have to do. Luckily, he wasn’t overly superstitious. Ironic, considering.
Despite the lunar halo, the spirits were definitely not stirring. His readings remained boringly static. If he left now, he’d still have a few hours to study for the bar. That would keep the old man off his back and the partners at his law firm happy.
He checked the EMF meter one last time and was just about to gather up the other equipment when he felt it again…that strangle ripple in the mist. A chill swept across his skull and lifted the hair at his nape. Something was stirring.
Then, from his periphery, he had a visual. His pulse quickened as he turned slowly. There! Just beyond a broken angel. Hayden could hardly believe his eyes. After all these years, an apparition floated before him in the mist.
He was so startled he very nearly dropped the delicate thermometer he’d been using to check for cold spots. Now his hand gripped the handle excitedly as he watched her, so pale and fragile and lovely she might have been spawned from a gothic poem.
But she was no ghost, Hayden realized almost at once. His phantom was flesh and blood, and dressed in white cotton pajamas that were diaphanous in the filtered moonlight.
When she got to the steps of the mausoleum, she glanced around expectantly, then cocked her head, as if a sound had caught her attention. Slowly, she lifted her arms and began to dance.
Maybe it was the uneven terrain, but she moved with very little natural grace and no discernible rhythm, stumbling every now and then over roots and bits of broken headstone. Hayden was at once amused and totally captivated.
After a moment, though, he began to grow uneasy. He felt a little sleazy spying on her, but he didn’t want to frighten or embarrass her by announcing his presence. Nor did he want to slip away silently, leaving her alone in an abandoned graveyard. What the hell was she doing out here anyway?
He cleared his throat, but she paid him no mind. He took a bolder approach and stepped from the shadows where he knew she could see him. She froze. Their gazes locked. And then she did something Hayden would never have predicted in a million years. She came to him, wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her for a kiss.
He was so taken aback, he didn’t have time to resist. Nor did he mean to respond. The whole situation was just too damned strange, but when she pressed her body against his—and man, those pajamas left nothing to the imagination—he felt the stirrings of an arousal even as he told himself to get the hell out of there. This chick was weird.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said breathlessly.
“You’ve been waiting…for me?” He gazed down into her upturned face. Pale skin, full lips, blue eyes…all framed by a cloud of dark hair that smelled like ginger. Never mind Hawthorne or Poe. She might have sprung straight from his fantasy.
Still moving in a dreamlike stupor, she cupped the back of his neck and pulled him down for another kiss. Her mouth was open and eager and when she nibbled his bottom lip, he shuddered. He couldn’t help himself. And it wasn’t to his credit that it took him a moment to break away.
“I don’t think—”
“Don’t worry,” she murmured. “Father doesn’t suspect a thing.”
Smiling, she reached for his hand and placed it on her breast. With her other hand, she reached for him.
“Hey. Take it easy there.” He stepped back.
She gazed at him demurely as she began to unbutton her top.
“That’s not a good idea. You don’t know me, I don’t know you…”
The top fell to the ground. Her skin glowed like marble in the moonlight.
Good Lord. Hayden didn’t want to stare, but…good Lord!
He picked up the garment and thrust it at her. “Come on, now. Put this back on.”
She frowned, glanced around, and then with a slow dawning, gave a little shriek and drew back her hand. He had no doubt she would have popped him across the face if he hadn’t caught her wrist. “Whoa. That’s not a good idea, either.”
Her eyes widened and she looked on the verge of hysteria. “What do you think you’re doing?!”
He lifted his hands. “Nothing. I swear—”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“You came on your own. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Then how…” She glanced down, gasped, and clutched the pajama top to her chest. “Oh, God.”
It was as if he’d doused her with cold water. She stumbled back, mortified and not a little frightened. “Don’t touch me!”
She retreated all the way back to the steps. He peered at her curiously through the mist, but made no attempt to approach her. “Are you okay? You seem a little…disoriented.” To put it mildly.
She struggled into the pajama top, her fingers fumbling with the buttons. “I don’t know. I don’t know how I got here. So help me God, if you drugged me—”
“Drugged you?” This just kept getting better and better. “Until a few minutes ago, I’d never even laid eyes on you.”
“Then how did I get here?”
“You tell me.” Her accusations offended him, but she looked so lost and vulnerable, he couldn’t help feeling protective of her. Outwardly, she appeared fine. He didn’t detect any blood or bruises, but something had obviously happened to her. “You don’t remember anything?”
“It’s all so hazy.” She touched a hand to her forehead. “I remember going to bed and then I had the strangest dream.”
“Dream?” He latched on to the first thing that made sense. “Maybe you were sleepwalking.”
“I’ve never done that in my life.”
“First time for everything. Do you live nearby? In one of the dorms maybe?”
She didn’t answer.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me,” he said. “If I’d wanted to hurt you, I could have already done so by now.”
Her chin came up. “You could have tried.”
He had to admire her pluck. “You’re free to leave,” he said, waving an arm toward the path. “I won’t try to stop you. But just so you know, you’re safer here with me than you are out there alone in the dark. Especially if you don’t know where you’re going.”
“I know where I’m going.” A slight tremor in her voice belied her defiance.
“Well, good. If you’ll wait until I gather up my equipment, I’ll give you a lift. If not…be careful out there.”
Ree knew that she should leave, but instead she lingered, inexplicably drawn to a total stranger. He was slim and attractive with an alternative edge to his demeanor and style that made her wonder if he was a musician, the kind one might see in some cool but slightly decadent after-hours club. Not someone she’d expect to find hanging out in an abandoned graveyard.
She had no reason in the world to trust him, especially considering her state of undress when she’d…awakened, for lack of a better term. But she wasn’t without memories, though hazy they might still be. She’d kissed him. He may have responded—that part was a little sketchy—but she was pretty sure she’d been the instigator. Which wasn’t like her. She was hardly a shrinking violet but she wasn’t exactly aggressive, either. Certainly not with a stranger she’d just met in a graveyard. It was all just so odd. She’d felt compelled to kiss him, as if she had no will of her own. As if she were merely a puppet in someone else’s dream.
She was fully conscious now, completely in control of her faculties, and nothing still made sense. The whole night was beginning to seem like a waking nightmare.
“So do you want a ride or not?” he queried.
An alarm sounded in her head, but so faintly Ree could easily ignore it. “Yes, a ride would be nice. I live a few blocks north of here. Just at the edge of campus.”
“You’re a student then?”
“I’m working on my master’s thesis, but I also volunteer at the Milton H. Farrante Psychiatric Hospital.”
She could almost hear the wheels turning inside his head. Disoriented girl alone in an old graveyard…
“I’m a psych major,” she added.
“Ah.” He made it sound as if that explained everything. “Do you have a name?”
“I’m Hayden Priest. Recent law school graduate and soon-to-be attorney when and if I pass the South Carolina bar.” He took a few tentative steps toward her. When she didn’t retreat, he offered his hand and she reluctantly shook it. A surge of electricity shot up her arm and she felt a little light-headed from the contact. Embarrassed, she dropped his hand and clutched the front of her top, which she’d buttoned all the way up to her neck. It was a little late for modesty, though, seeing as how he’d already seen her half naked. Ree actually caught herself wondering about the impression she’d made on him. Idiot.
His eyes glinted in the moonlight. “Still don’t trust me?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Then why had she told him her name and where she worked? Why not just give him a handwritten invitation to stalk her? At least she’d had the good sense to be vague about where she lived. Not that it would matter if she accepted a ride and/or he turned out to be a serial killer.
She glanced around the old cemetery. Where the mist thinned, she could see stone faces glowing in the moonlight. All those sightless eyes unnerved her.
“What are you doing out here anyway?” she asked with a shiver.
He scratched the back of his arm. “I’m on assignment.”
“What kind of assignment?”
“I’m doing some testing for the Charleston Institute for Parapsychology Studies. Ever hear of it?”
That got Ree’s attention. “You’re a ghost hunter?”
“I prefer paranormal investigator. Ghost hunter is so limiting and I’m not opposed to tracking down vampires and werewolves, or even zombies, if it comes to it.”
A chill crawled up her spine even though she knew he was joking. At least…she hoped he was. “That seems an odd avocation for a lawyer.”
“Soon to be lawyer. The courts are pretty keen on that distinction.”
“So you’re here in the cemetery looking for ghosts?”
“Listening for ghosts. There’s a difference.”
“Have you heard anything?” she asked anxiously. “Voices, music…chanting…”
“Chanting?” He moved a step closer. Despite his easy manner, his gaze was extremely potent. “Now that would be interesting, but no. I haven’t been able to pick up so much as a whisper. No EVPs, no spikes in the EMF readings, no fluctuations in temperature, nothing on the K-2 meter or Frank’s Box. Nothing, nada, zilch.”
“Then why not give up?”
“Because something is here.” His voice dropped and Ree sensed a tremor of excitement go through him. “Can’t you feel it? It’s like an echo…a vibration…”
Ree felt something when he looked at her like that. “But no ghosts,” she said.
“Maybe you don’t hear them because they don’t exist.”
“A nonbeliever, I take it.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“No,” he admitted.
“And yet you still believe.”
He didn’t say anything to that, but merely gazed down at her. He looked pale and very mysterious in the moonlight. Ree trembled in spite of herself.
“Tell me about your dream,” he finally said.
She really didn’t want to talk about it, especially with him, but the moment he took her arm, she was lost. An odd bond had formed between them, one she still didn’t fully trust. But neither could she ignore it. She dropped down on the steps of the mausoleum beside him, and for some reason, it didn’t seem so strange anymore. He was easy to talk to, a very good listener, and Ree found herself telling him about some of the things she’d experienced since Miss Violet’s death, carefully skirting the blackmail scheme. If that somehow got back to Dr. Farrante, he’d suspect she was the source and she shuddered to think how far he might go to protect his work and his family’s legacy.
“You think Miss Violet’s death somehow triggered the dream?” Hayden asked when she was finished.
“Probably. But she wasn’t the young woman in the blue dress. I’m almost certain of that. I think that woman was her mother, Ilsa. According to the inscription in the book, Ilsa was ten years old in 1915. Violet was well into her eighties when she died, which means she would have been born in the early twenties when Ilsa was a teenager.”
“How do you suppose Violet ended up in the psychiatric hospital?”
“I have no idea. But she was there for years. As long as anyone on staff can remember. I think her confinement was somehow connected to her mother. Something bad happened to Ilsa in this cemetery.”
“You said you heard chanting in your dream. Could you tell what they were saying?”
“Not really. I had the sense that it was some sort of ritual, but it was just a dream.”
“And yet here you are.”
Here he was, too. Ree had to wonder about a man who could seem so completely at ease in an abandoned cemetery in the dead of night.
“It’s possible Ilsa is trying to communicate with you,” he said.
“Through my dream?”
“Have you had any other unusual experiences? Cold spots, electrical surges, anything like that?”
Ree thought about the radio playing in her bedroom and the stopped clock beside Violet’s bed. She thought about the frosted windows, the musty smell in her apartment, the sensation of someone behind her. And she drew a shaky breath.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“But…ever since Violet died, I’ve had this sensation of being followed, of needing to glance over my shoulder. And I’ve been hearing this strange song. It’s so haunting. Like a lost memory.”
“That’s pretty much it. It’s all just my imagination, of course. I’ve been working too hard and I’m under a lot of pressure with my thesis. The mind can play tricks when exhausted.”
“Are you sure that’s all it is?”
She hugged her arms around her middle. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“Before tonight, you probably thought sleepwalking in an old graveyard pretty unlikely.”
“That’s different.” But an icy finger traced along Ree’s spine. “Do you really think I’m experiencing some sort of paranormal activity?”
He turned to gaze out over the crumbling graveyard. “I think there are a lot of things in this world—and the next—that can’t be explained.”
His tone, more than his words, deepened Ree’s chill. “Supposing I am being haunted. Why me?”
“Could be a simple matter of proximity. The ghost needed a conduit and you were handy. Or…”
She glanced at him. “Or what?”
“There’s a Chinese legend about hungry ghosts. Entities that devour human emotions. Spirits whose sole purpose is to sustain themselves in our realm by feeding on our warmth and energy.”
It disturbed Ree greatly that he didn’t appear to be joking this time. “How do you get rid of them?”
“You don’t. They get rid of you by slowly draining your life force.”
She hugged herself more tightly. “Just so you know…I still don’t believe in ghosts. But if you’re trying to frighten me, you’re doing a damn fine job.”
“Good. Because until you know the kind of entity you’re dealing with, you have to tread carefully. Best-case scenario, this ghost has an agenda. In which case, all you have to do is find out what she wants.”
“As simple as that.”
“Dealing with ghosts is never a simple matter,” he warned. “Rule Number One: hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”
“What’s Rule Number Two?”
He hesitated. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“I’m a ghost hunter, you’ve got a ghost. Match made in heaven. Or hell, depending.”
Looking back the next morning, Ree could almost believe the episode in the cemetery had been part of her “Ilsa” dream because the alternative was just too distressing. At some point during the night, she’d gotten out of bed, left her apartment wearing nothing but pajamas and trekked all the way across campus and through the woods where she’d somehow scaled the wall of an abandoned cemetery and tried to seduce a complete stranger. She hated to think what could have happened if anyone but Hayden had been in that graveyard.
But he’d been the perfect gentleman. Not only had he seen her home safely, he’d even provided his cell phone number in case she found herself in another compromising situation. He’d been so kind, in fact, that Ree had felt obligated to return the favor. Well…not obligated really. In truth, she’d wanted to make it easy for him to contact her because he was the first guy she’d felt attracted to in ages.
After he’d dropped her off last night, Ree had spent an unseemly amount of time thinking about him. She was at such a critical stage of her thesis that any spare moment of the day or night should have been devoted to her writing. But no. Even though she hadn’t been the slightest bit sleepy, she’d crawled into bed and lain there wondering how old he was, where he came from, if he was in a relationship.
It was almost inconceivable that she could be so obsessed after everything else that had happened to her. And he was a ghost hunter, of all things. Not in a million years would she have imagined herself attracted to someone so alternative. But maybe that was part of the appeal. He was the complete opposite of her.
Ree was still thinking about him as she got ready for class. She had the television turned down low so it was easy to let her mind wander and her thoughts had meandered off into a rather fascinating direction—her and Hayden cocooned in a misty cemetery. Alone and forgotten as if the world outside those walls had simply evaporated. Talk about interesting subtext.
Then, as she stood stuffing a stack of research notes into her messenger bag, a photograph flashed across the screen and she forgot all about Hayden. Gasping, Ree grabbed the remote to turn up the volume.
Jared Tisdale, the man she’d seen coming out of Dr. Farrante’s office, had been found shot to death in his home early that morning. The police had no suspects, no witnesses and no apparent motive.
No suspects…no motive…
Ree dropped heavily onto the sofa. Less than twenty-four hours ago, she’d overheard Jared Tisdale blackmailing Nicholas Farrante. And now Tisdale was dead.
Don’t jump to conclusions. The man’s death might not have anything to do with that argument. Tisdale had said he owed a lot of money to some very unsavory people. It wasn’t a huge leap to assume his murder was somehow connected to his gambling debts.
Ree was still trying to convince herself none of this was her concern when the phone rang. She jumped in spite of herself. Normally, she was a calm and levelheaded person, but the news of Tisdale’s death had rattled her.
Still in shock, she lifted the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“I hope I’m not calling too early. Or coming across too eager.”
“Who is this?”
A pause. “Hayden.”
“Hayden…” She clutched the phone.
“From last night.” He said something under his breath. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Of course, I remember you.” He’d pretty much occupied every waking moment until news of Tisdale’s murder had plopped her so unceremoniously back into the real world. “I’m sorry. I’m a little distracted at the moment.” Her gaze went back to the television screen. Thankfully, the photograph was gone and the anchor had moved on to another story.
“Is something wrong?”
“You could say that.”
“Anything I can do?”
The genuine concern in his voice made Ree realize how long it had been since she’d had a confidant. Her mother was still trapped in her bitterness and her father was too busy with his new life. Ree wasn’t sure how it had happened, but at some point between college and grad school all her friends had moved on. And at that moment, she’d never felt more alone.
“Maybe you can help,” she said. “I think I need some legal advice.”
“Okay. But you do understand I’m not allowed to practice law without a license. Any advice I offer will have to be of the unofficial variety.”
“So long as I can still invoke the attorney-client privilege.”
His voice grew sober. “What’s going on?”
Ree suddenly felt as if the weight of the world rested on her shoulders. Tears burned her eyes, which made her angry with herself. A man had been murdered. He’d probably left loved ones behind. This was no time for self-pity. “I didn’t tell you everything about that conversation I overheard at the hospital.”
“Dr. Farrante was being blackmailed by a man named Jared Tisdale.
He threatened to expose a secret that their families have kept hidden for three generations. Whatever it is, it has something to do with Miss Violet and her mother, Ilsa. I just heard on the news that Tisdale was found shot to death in his home this morning. Maybe it’s just some awful coincidence. Maybe it didn’t have anything to do with Dr. Farrante. But if I go to the police—”
She dragged trembling fingers through her hair. “Dr. Farrante will know that I overheard that blackmail scheme. If he killed Tisdale, what’s to stop him from coming after me?”
“If Farrante is involved, going to the police could be your best protection,” Hayden said. “And if you don’t tell them what you know, you’re technically impeding an official investigation. Cops don’t like that.”
“I know, but—”
“For all the inroads in forensic science, the best way to establish a reliable timeline is still finding the person or persons who last saw the victim alive. That could be you, Ree. Not to mention the fact that you can provide a motive.”
“I know all that. I guess I just needed to hear someone spell it out for me.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said. “We’ll call it moral support.”
“You’d do that?” She felt pathetic, even asking.
“Just give me a chance to clear up a few things here. I’ll meet you outside police headquarters in half an hour.…”
But he didn’t show. Ree waited for almost forty-five minutes in front of the building on Lockwood before giving up. Then climbing the south-side stairs, she squared her shoulders and marched inside before she could change her mind. In very short order, she was escorted to a small and rather antiseptic-looking office where she was told to wait for someone named Devlin.
He appeared in the doorway a few minutes later, a tall, stylish man with dark hair and a face so pale and thin, one might even call him gaunt. Strangely, this only enhanced his attractiveness. Ree judged him to be in his early to midthirties, though when he turned his head a certain way and the light hit him just right, he could have been a decade older. His high cheekbones were sharply defined, his lips full and sculpted. When he walked into the room, the air seemed to collapse and Ree struggled to catch her breath. He had an almost palpable charisma, an intensity that was so deeply masculine, she found herself thinking of dark things. Inappropriate things. And that made her think of Hayden and she wished he was there with her.
As the detective’s gaze collided with hers, Ree was reminded of something her grandmother had said about Amelia Gray: She has the kind of eyes that can see right down into your soul.
That described this man’s gaze perfectly.
Shuddering, she glanced away as he strode across the office and sat down behind the desk. “I understand you have information regarding Jared Tisdale’s murder.” His voice was rich and deep, and he spoke with the sensual cadence of the native Charlestonian.
“I have information about Jared Tisdale,” Ree clarified. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with his murder.”
Devlin pushed a recorder toward the edge of the desk. His hands were very graceful, she noticed. His fingers long and elegant—
“If you have no objection…”
She did, actually, but was too intimidated to say so. “No, it’s fine.” It was all she could do not to fidget under the man’s relentless scrutiny.
“State your name, address and occupation,” he said.
She started to speak when the door swung open and a man—another detective, she assumed—stuck his head in the office. “You’re needed outside.”
Devlin scowled. “I’m in the middle of something.”
“This can’t wait.”
He shot Ree an apologetic look and stood. “Sorry. This shouldn’t take along.”
She nodded and sat twiddling her thumbs for a few minutes until she grew restless and stood. Going to the door, she glanced out over the rows of desks and cubicles. She could see Devlin’s profile through a glass panel in an office across the room. Another man stood with his back to the glass as the detective who’d come for Devlin faced him. They appeared to be in the middle of a very tense conversation. Devlin seemed little more than a bystander, though Ree had a feeling that when he spoke, the other two would listen.
The third man turned suddenly, and Ree stepped back, her heart thudding. It was Dr. Farrante.
This was not good. This was not at all good.
Clutching the strap of her messenger bag, she eased back to the door.
“Can I help you?” A female officer walking by had caught Ree staring out over the squad room.
She cleared her throat. “I’m looking for the ladies’ room.”
The officer angled her head. “Back that way. Take a left.”
Ree kept walking, right on past the restroom, through the lobby, down the stairs and never once did she look back until she hit the parking lot. And only then when she heard someone call out her name.
It was Hayden. He’d just gotten out of his car and was striding toward her. Relief washed over her and without thinking, she launched herself into his arms. He must have been caught completely by surprise, but he pulled her close without hesitation.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
Ree pushed away just enough to glance over her shoulder. “I need to get out of here.”
Nine out of ten men would have wasted time with more questions, but Hayden merely said, “My car’s right over here.”
“What about mine?”
“We’ll pick it up later. Come on.”
A moment later, they sped out of the parking lot and wheeled onto the street.
Hayden glanced at her. “Sorry I’m late, by the way. I got stuck in a meeting with the partners. No cell phones allowed so I couldn’t even text you.”
“That’s okay.” It hit Ree then why he looked so different. He was wearing a suit. This was the attorney-to-be Hayden. The buttoned-down, conventional Hayden. “You look nice,” she said, a rather inane observation considering her predicament.
“Thanks.” He loosened his tie and tossed it aside. Then he unbuttoned his collar. “Now I can breathe.”
She found herself wondering about that subtext.
“So what happened back there, Ree? You’re as white as a ghost.” He grimaced. “Sorry, bad joke.”
She told him about Dr. Farrante.
He heard her out, then shrugged. “You know, it’s possible he was there for the same reason as you.”
“I thought about that. But there was something very strange about that meeting. I had the distinct impression they all knew one another. And they were so intense. I could practically smell the conspiracy.”
“Through the glass and all the way across the squad room? That’s potent.” He sounded amused.
“Make fun all you want, but I’m very good with body language. It’s one of my strengths.”
“I’m sure it is. And I’m not making fun. Just playing devil’s advocate. What would those two detectives have to gain by conspiring with Nicholas Farrante?”
“Maybe he’s bribing them. Or maybe they work for the Order of the Coffin and the Claw.”
He swerved sharply to miss a squirrel.
“It’s a secret society like the Skull and Bone Society at Yale,” she told him.
“Yes, I’ve heard of it.” He kept his gaze focused on the road. “Most people assume it’s an urban legend. And anyway, what does it have to do with Farrante?”
“I think he’s a member. I heard him tell Tisdale that he wouldn’t dare go against the wishes of the Order.”
“Interesting,” Hayden mused. “Did he say anything else?”
“About the Order? No, but I did some research last night,” Ree said. “It’s been around since before the Civil War. They recruit from only the most prominent families in Charleston and they’ve always had members in positions of power in government, business and academia. Evidently, they were once a force to be reckoned with in this city.”
“Not to sound elitist, but it doesn’t seem like a police detective would meet that criteria,” Hayden said.
“Oh, but Devlin would. He’s no run of the mill cop. He’s not a run of the mill anything. The way he speaks, dresses, carries himself…he’s from money. Old money. I’d swear on it.”
Hayden shot her look. “He seems to have made quite an impression. Should I be jealous?”
“No, he’s not my type,” Ree said with a shiver. “And if he has anything to do with the Order of the Coffin and the Claw, he’s really not my type.”
“Good to know,” Hayden muttered.
Ree stared out the window at the passing scenery. The morning was bright and sunny, but she focused on a bank of storm clouds in the distance. “I can’t believe this is happening. This time yesterday, my biggest worry was finishing my thesis so that I can graduate, find a job and start digging myself out of debt. Now I’m a material witness in a murder investigation. And for all I know, the cops could be looking for me right this very moment.”
“Try to relax. We’ll figure something out.”
“Easy for you to say.” She sighed. “Sorry. You’ve been great. I’m just on edge.”
“That’s understandable. Maybe it would help if we go somewhere quiet and talk it through. When do you have class?”
“Not until this afternoon. But I have a meeting with Amelia Gray at ten.”
Ree tucked a strand of hair behind one hear. “Didn’t I tell you about her? She’s the cemetery restorer that Tisdale mentioned. We grew up in the same town so I contacted her. I thought she might be able to tell me something about Oak Grove.”
“Good thinking. Mind if I tag along?”
Ree turned to find him staring at her intently. His gaze unsettled her because she couldn’t quite read him yet. “Don’t you have to get back to the office?”
He grinned. “They’re used to my disappearances. They’ll just think I’ve gone off somewhere to study for the bar.”
“And how long have you been going off somewhere to study for the bar?” she asked lightly.
“Since December. Circumstances kept me from taking the exam in February so now I’ll have to wait until July. Leaves me plenty of time for the odd side project.”
Did he consider her one of those odd side projects? Ree wondered.
He was watching her again, half smiling.
“What?” she demanded.
“Nothing. Tell me about this Amelia person we’re going to see.”
Ree still wondered about that smile. “She was…different. I don’t ever remember seeing her at a party or a ball game or any other kind of social event. She spent a lot of time in cemeteries. Her father was a caretaker and I think she helped him out a lot. She wasn’t a total outcast, but she was known for being a bit of a freak.”
“In that case, I look forward to meeting her,” Hayden said, and a prickle of jealousy caught Ree completely by surprise.
A little while later, Ree wondered if she might have built up Amelia’s eccentricity a little too much because when she opened the door she couldn’t have looked more normal. No fluttering silk. No crown of roses. In fact, she was dressed much like Ree in jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. Light makeup. Ponytail. Just your average girl next door.
Hayden lifted a brow and Ree shrugged as Amelia led them back to her office, a pleasant room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and tall windows that looked out on a garden. While she went to make tea, they studied the framed photos on the walls—graveyards double-exposed over cityscapes. The effect was lovely, but a little gloomy for Ree’s taste.
“How long have you been interested in cemeteries?” Amelia asked as she came back in with a tea tray.
“It’s a recent development,” Ree said. “Although I used to visit Rosehill with my grandmother. She loved all the symbols on the old headstones. She called it graveyard art.”
“I love it, too,” Amelia said as she fiddled with the cups. “Gravestone symbolism can tell you a lot about the deceased. How they lived and how they died. And about the loved ones they left behind.” She offered them tea, then waved toward a chaise as she sat down behind her desk. Ree and Hayden perched side by side with their cups.
Ree’s gaze slipped back to Amelia. She looked young and innocent sitting there in the morning light—younger than Ree, even—but there was something dark in her face. Something cold and shadowy behind her blue eyes.
“So…Oak Grove Cemetery,” she finally said, and Ree could have sworn the woman shuddered as she said the name. But it was probably just her imagination. Why would Amelia Gray, of all people, be repulsed by the mention of a graveyard?
“I understand you’re being considered for the restoration,” Ree said. “That’s why I contacted you. I thought you might be able to answer some of my questions.”
Amelia looked surprised. “I was led to believe the Oak Grove project is to be kept under wraps until the restoration is completed.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Ree said. “Your name was mentioned in a private conversation I overheard.”
“Specifically, we’re trying to find out when and why the cemetery was abandoned,” Hayden interjected. Until then, he’d been mostly silent, letting Ree take the lead. She glanced at him now as she set aside her cup. She found it both comforting and a little disconcerting to have him there with her. Comforting after the episode at the police station and disconcerting because she was so very aware of him. She’d never taken to anyone so quickly, though she realized the way they’d met had created a fantasy element to her attraction. A misty cemetery, a handsome stranger and a dream that had led her to both.
Ree shivered as she forced her attention back to the present.
“I’m afraid I can’t be of much help,” Amelia was saying. “I’ve walked the cemetery a few times in order to prepare my bid, but I don’t normally do a lot of research unless I’m awarded the contract.”
“Can you at least tell us if there are any Tisdales buried in Oak Grove?” Ree asked hopefully. “Ilsa Tisdale perhaps?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know. But if you’ve got the time and enough patience, you can probably find what you’re looking for in the Emerson library. Most of the Oak Grove records are stored in the archives.”
“Thanks,” Ree said. “And thanks for seeing us this morning. I’m sorry we wasted your time.”
“Before you go…there is something you should know about Oak Grove.”
Ree had been in the process of standing, but now she dropped back down on the chaise. Something in Amelia’s voice, an echo of that darkness behind her eyes, caused Ree to draw a sharp breath. Hayden must have heard because she sensed his gaze on her.
Amelia stared down into her cup, as if divining a message from the tea leaves. For some reason, Ree was reminded of her grandmother’s cousin, the one who had supposedly been born with a caul, leaving her with second sight.
When Amelia looked up, Ree felt an odd sense of foreshadowing, like a premonition if she believed in cauls and second sight.
“I’ve always found cemeteries to be lovely, restful places, even the forgotten ones. But Oak Grove is different. There’s something inside those walls I can’t explain. A feeling of darkness…” She trailed away, her gaze going to Hayden, as if sensing a kindred spirit.
“I experienced a similar sensation in a small rural graveyard in Kansas,” he said.
“Stull Cemetery,” she said.
“You’ve been there?”
“Once.” Her eyes darkened. “I’ve never been back.”
“It was a strange experience,” Hayden said. “I definitely sensed something but the readings remained static. I was only able to pick up a minor, indistinguishable sound on the DVR. Pretty disappointing for a place that’s known as one of the seven lost gateways to hell.”
“You’re an investigator?” Was that the vaguest hint of fear Ree heard in Amelia’s voice? “Amateur or professional?”
Hayden shrugged. “A little of both, I guess. Right now I’m doing some work for the Charleston Institute for Parapsychology Studies.”
“You must know Rupert Shaw then.”
“Everyone in my business knows Dr. Shaw,” Hayden said. “He’s a legend. How do you know him?”
“He helped me find this house when I first moved to Charleston. I’ll always be grateful to him for that because I feel very safe here.”
Ree realized she hadn’t said anything for several minutes. Their conversation about Stull Cemetery had both fascinated and repelled her. A lost gateway to hell? Seriously?
Amelia plucked a polished stone from a basket she kept on her desk and handed it to Ree.
“A keepsake from Rosehill Cemetery,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I was certain these stones contained magical properties. I kept one with me at all times.”
“I’ve never been a big believer in magic,” Ree murmured.
“Yes, I remember that about you,” Amelia said, her tone unexpectedly soft.
“Thank you anyway.” Ree pocketed the stone with what she hoped was the proper amount of reverence.
Amelia walked them to the door and stood on the front porch to see them off. As they exited the garden gate, Hayden said under his breath, “Wow.”
Ree glanced at him. “Did you like her?”
“Like? I don’t know if I’d say that. But you’re right. She is different. And probably one of the most fascinating people I’ve met in years.”
“Should I be jealous?” Ree tried to mimic his earlier tone.
They were at his car now and Hayden did something very surprising, something Ree would never have predicted. He bent and kissed her. Not a mere peck, but a real kiss, one that deepened almost instantly. The birds stopped chirping and the breeze died away. Everything became very still. At least it seemed so to Ree. Nothing existed for her but Hayden…the scent of him, the feel of him. The slight hitch in his breath… She put her hands on his chest as she tilted her head and parted her lips. She could feel his heart thudding beneath her palm and her own breath quickened as she started to remember things about that night in Oak Grove. How she had gone to him without hesitation. How she had undressed for him without inhibition.
Tunneling his fingers through her hair, he pulled away and gazed down at her. “Does that answer your question?”
“Yes,” she said in a shaken voice. And very eloquently.
As it turned out, Hayden wasn’t quite so footloose and fancy free after all. A call from someone at his firm sent him scurrying back to the office, leaving Ree to tackle the Emerson library alone. The archives room was located in the basement, a dim, musty area of overflowing shelves and drafty alcoves. One of the librarians upstairs had given Ree a vague suggestion as to where to find the Oak Grove records, but everything was so disorganized, the search was needle-in-the-haystack tedious.
Ree was muttering to herself in frustration when a man popped out from behind one of the shelves and gave her a stern shush.
“Sorry. I’ll try to keep it down.”
“It’s not for my sake, but for the other students,” he said almost apologetically.
She nodded and glanced around. The place was deserted except for the two of them and she felt a little tingle of alarm as he approached her. He looked harmless enough, though, in his corduroy jacket and khaki.
“Perhaps I can be of assistance. This place can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the system.”
“You can say that again. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the way things are stored.”
“I’m Professor Meakin, by the way.”
Ree noticed that he didn’t offer his hand. “The historian?”
“Why, yes. I’m flattered that you recognized my name. Hardly anyone ever does.”
“Oh. Well, I read one of your books a few years back.”
This seemed to please him a great deal. “I take it you have an interest in local history. Are your people from Charleston?”
“No. I came here to attend Emerson.”
“Ah.” A curious smile tugged at his lips. “You have a bit of a Lowcountry drawl so I don’t think you’re too far from home.”
“I’m from Trinity. It’s just north of here.”
“A lovely little town. I used to visit a friend there on occasion. Your family still lives there, I take it?”
He was starting to creep her out a little, but Ree tried not to telegraph her distaste because she suspected the poor guy’s worst crime was social ineptness.
His gaze darted to the book in her hand. “May I?” He glanced at the spine.
“I’m doing some research on a local family,” she explained. “I wonder if you could point me to the birth and death records, circa 1920.”
“What’s the name?”
He thought for a moment. “Would that be the John Braxton Tisdales?”
“I have no idea. I don’t even know who that is…was.”
He gave her a reproachful look. “John Braxton Tisdale was one of General Lee’s most trusted civilian advisors during the Civil War. His son, James rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and was later elected to the U.S. Senate. The family still lives in the East Bay house from which John Braxton and young James watched the firing upon Fort Sumter.”
Would that be the same house in which Jared Tisdale had been found murdered that morning? Ree wondered. “Did James have any children?”
“Two sons, John and Braxton, both of whom followed their father into politics. There was also a daughter. She belonged to his second wife, but James adopted her.”
“What was her name?”
“Ilsa, I believe. She was younger than the boys and quite a hedonist for the time.”
“Really? What did she do?”
He seemed more than happy to oblige her curiosity. “The usual. Scandalous parties, unsavory liaisons… She ran off with a French diplomat, an older gentleman, when she was just seventeen. He whisked her away to some remote chalet in the Alps and she was never heard from again. It created quite a stir in Charleston society.”
“Her family didn’t try to find her?”
“I’m sure there was some form of communication, but with the family’s political aspirations, I imagine her estrangement was a blessing.”
“So the Tisdales just washed their hands of her?”
“It was not an uncommon attitude in those days. Young women of ill repute were often shipped off to boarding school or to live with relatives in some remote outpost.”
“Do you know if there was any kind of scandal involving Oak Grove Cemetery?”
The question seemed to catch him off guard. His eyes widened and he shot a glance over his shoulder.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No…no. It’s just…one doesn’t hear much about Oak Grove these days.”
Evidently, he didn’t know about the restoration. “Were there ever any secret ceremonies or rituals conducted in the cemetery?”
“You mean…occult rituals?” he asked carefully.
“I’m not really sure. Do you know anything about a secret society called the Order of the Coffin and the Claw?”
“I’m aware of it,” he said with a frown. “Elitism at its finest. Thankfully, the Order was dissolved several years ago. Of course, there are some who think it merely went underground.”
“Was it ever affiliated with Oak Grove Cemetery?”
“Rumor had it, that’s where the initiation rituals were held.” He lowered his voice. “There were whispers of dark ceremonies involving drunken orgies and absinthe trips, all manner of debauchery. From everything I’ve read, something happened in that cemetery. Something dark and unspeakable. That’s why Oak Grove was abandoned.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I’m afraid no one who isn’t a Claw will ever know the answer to that question.”
Ree slept the sleep of the dead that night. No Ilsa dreams. No sleepwalking episodes. When she woke up, she felt rested and refreshed and after a text message from Hayden, she had a little something to look forward to as she headed off to Emerson. Things were looking up. Maybe it was time to put all the intrigue and weirdness behind her and start focusing on the future again. Now might be a good time to revisit her goals.
First order of business was research in the library, and Ree was proud of herself for ignoring the lure of the archives. Whatever was to be gleaned about Oak Grove Cemetery and the Tisdales from those dusty old books would have to wait. Her thesis project came first because she’d put way too much time, effort and money into her education to squander it all away now.
Just when she was starting to think she had a handle on normal again, she ran smack into Detective Devlin on the library steps. He put a hand on her arm to steady her, but Ree shied away.
“Miss Hutchins, isn’t it?”
“How do you know my name?” She hadn’t told anyone at police headquarters who she was.
“I ran your plates yesterday.”
Of course, he had. “How did you know which car was mine?”
“I ran them all until I found you.”
Of course, he had. Ree glanced away, not wanting to look straight into the abyss of his gaze. “How did you know I was here?”
“A wild guess.”
Translation: Either he’d followed her from her apartment or someone had tipped him off. And just like that, Ree found herself back in the morass created by that overheard conversation. Maybe she should just tell Detective Devlin the truth. Get it all out in the open. As Hayden pointed out, that might be her best protection. But Ree didn’t trust Devlin. He’d become suspect the moment she’d seen him with Dr. Farrante.
“You ran off without giving your statement,” he said smoothly.
Ree refused to be lulled by that silky drawl. “Something came up. I couldn’t wait.”
“Something more important than a murder investigation?”
“I told you, I don’t know anything about that murder.”
“Then tell me what you know about Jared Tisdale.”
Ree didn’t want to tell him anything, but she was wise enough to realize that she’d better give him something.
She nodded and shifted her messenger bag to the other shoulder. “I volunteer at the Milton H. Farrante Psychiatric Hospital. Night before last one of the nurses asked me to deliver a package to Dr. Farrante’s office. Just as I got there, I saw a man coming out of Dr. Farrante’s office. It was Tisdale, but I didn’t know that until I saw his picture on the news yesterday morning.”
“What time was this?”
“Around nine, I think.”
“Did he say anything?”
“No. It was a very brief encounter. He brushed by me on his way out. I spoke with Dr. Farrante for a moment, left the package, and then went back to work. That’s all I can tell you. I don’t know if it’s important, but I thought it might be helpful in establishing a timeline.”
“That’s very civic-minded of you,” he said. “Did you speak to Dr. Farrante about this?”
“No. I haven’t been back to the hospital. As soon as I saw the news report, I went straight to the police.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” His gaze narrowed and darkened, his focus so intense, Ree had to glance away.
She pretended to check her phone. “As I said, it was a very brief encounter. Now if you’ll excuse me…I don’t want to be late to my next class.”
To Ree’s surprise, he made no attempt to detain her. She ran down the steps and only glanced back when she got to the bottom. Detective Devlin was nowhere in sight.
Ree had a shift at the hospital that night and for the first time since she’d started working part-time jobs at sixteen, she considered calling in sick. But she was already on Devlin’s radar—Dr. Farrante’s, too, unfortunately—so the best thing to do was continue her usual routine. Act as though nothing had happened. Hopefully, Tisdale’s killer would soon be caught and she could fade back into the woodwork. There was still the secret involving Violet and Ilsa to uncover, but nothing could be done about that without calling too much attention to herself. For now, her curiosity and sense of justice would have to be put on hold.
The evening went smoothly enough until Trudy summoned her to escort Alice Canton back to her room. Remembering how Alice had reacted to her two nights ago, Ree almost expected the woman to shy away from her. But instead Alice docilely followed her down the corridor, even humming under her breath as though she hadn’t a care in the world. When they got to her door, however, she turned to glance warily over Ree’s shoulder.
“Where is she?”
“Where is who?” Ree asked.
“The girl in the blue dress.”
Ree’s scalp began to prickle. “I don’t know.”
“She’ll come back.” Alice warned. Then she leaned in and lowered her voice to a terrified whisper. “They always come back.”
More than a little spooked, Ree settled Alice in and then hurried back up to the front desk.
“What’s the matter with you?” Trudy asked. “You look as if you just saw a ghost.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Ree muttered.
Trudy didn’t seem to hear her. “I need a favor before you sign out.” She shoved a thick stack of folders across the counter. “Apparently, Dr. Alden’s researching another book. He finished with these files two days ago, but nobody on days can be bothered to return them. They belong in the dungeon. You know where that is, right?”
Most of the patient records were computerized, but the archived files were stored in a separate wing in a basement-level room dubbed the dungeon. Where that designation had originated, Ree didn’t want to speculate.
“I don’t have access,” she said.
Trudy glanced around. “You didn’t get this from me.” She scribbled a number on the back of a note card and handed it to Ree. “Not that it matters. Nobody’s likely to be down there at this hour and the code changes every week. Just leave the files on the counter and skedaddle.”
The corridors were eerily silent as Ree made her way to the dungeon, but every now and then she could hear the distant wail of a restless mind. As she hurried along on her mission, she began to get the creepy sensation of being followed. Time and again she glanced over her shoulder, but the long hallway behind her was empty. She’ll come back. They always come back.
Gooseflesh quilled the hair at her nape. Ignoring a draft that could only be coming from the air-conditioning vents, Ree tapped in the code and entered the dungeon. The chill followed her in.
She gave herself a pep talk as she reached for the light switch. A moment later, the fluorescent bulbs flickered on, casting a harsh glow over the room. The area was large and well-organized, very different from the archives at Emerson. Above the long rows of metal storage cabinets, she could see darkness through the bars installed over the narrow windows.
Her sneakers made barely a sound as she moved along the tile floor. She placed the folders on the counter and started to turn. Something caught her attention, a sound that might have been a whisper.
Ree forced a laugh. Keep it together, girl. There’s nothing down here but a bunch of ancient files. Decades of recorded misery.
Then, whether it was a hallucination or another figment of her imagination, Ree couldn’t say, but suddenly she had a very clear vision of being in that room. An image formed in her mind…a young woman strapped to a gurney with electrodes attached to a metal apparatus fastened around her head.
Where is my baby? What have you done to her? Please don’t hurt her! Please don’t do this to her!
On and on the woman babbled until a long needle was inserted beneath one of her eyelids. And then her screams became incessant.
Ree clutched her head, trying to quell the disturbing tableau. It was an image from a movie, no doubt. Something that had been tucked away for years in the far recesses of her mind.
Again, she turned to leave, but something suddenly occurred to her. There was a very good chance that some of Violet Tisdale’s early records were stored down here. Confidentiality in the mental health care profession was sacrosanct so rummaging through patient files wasn’t something Ree took lightly. But this was an opportunity that might not come again.
A cursory examination revealed the files were sorted by decade. Ree had no idea when Miss Violet had first been committed. The only specific date she knew was Ilsa’s tenth birthday—June 3, 1915. Professor Meakin said she’d run off to Europe when she was seventeen, which would have been sometime in 1922. Assuming Violet had been born at a later date, the most logical place to start a search was the year of Ilsa’s disappearance. Then Ree would work her way forward until and if she found something.
As it turned out, she needed to search no further than 1922. Everything she wanted to know was in a file labeled Ilsa Tisdale.
Ilsa had also been a patient at the hospital.
It took Ree a moment to absorb the significance of that revelation. At the age of seventeen, Ilsa had been committed by her father, James, and by her doctor, Milton Farrante. And she had remained confined until her death seven years later.
Ree read through the file, so engrossed in Ilsa’s tragic history that the swish of the door barely registered. She had no idea anyone was about until she felt an icy touch at the back of her neck. A warning…
A split second later, the lights sputtered off. Ree slanted her head, listening. She heard nothing at first and then a few feet away came an infinitesimal shuffle. Stealthy and determined, someone was closing in on her.
Ree waited for a moment longer, then slipped to the end of the row and flattened herself against the metal cabinet. She could discern footfalls now and turned her head toward the sound, trying to mentally chart his course. The outside security lights filtered in through the high windows, and as her eyes adjusted, Ree could see well enough. She glanced around the edge of the cabinet and saw a movement at the opposite end of the long row.
Jerking back, she held her breath. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe it was just someone returning files the same as her. But why turn off the lights? No, whoever he was, he was coming for her.
A few heartbeats went by before she chanced a second glance. She saw nothing this time and crept to the next row. Had she made a sound? Did he know where she was?
On and on the cat-and-mouse continued as row by row, Ree inched her way back to the door. She was just about to make a run for the exit when a figure glided out into the open. He was dressed in surgical gown, mask and cap. In one hand, he had what appeared to be a long needle. Oh, Jesus.
As Ree stepped back into the shadows, her heel bumped one of the metal frames. It made barely a sound, but she saw his head come up and around, and before she could turn, he rushed her. Ree couldn’t move. Her shoe was caught on a bolt and as she wrenched free, she lost her balance and crashed to the floor. She tried to scramble away, but he grabbed an ankle and yanked her toward him.
She lashed out with everything in her—kicking, clawing, biting—as something primitive and feral took hold of her. But she couldn’t get away from him. He straddled her, pinning her to the floor with his knees as one hand clamped around her neck. With his other hand, he lifted the needle.
Ree grabbed his wrist and tore his flesh with her nails. He dropped the syringe and with an outraged grunt, pressed both hands into her throat. He was crazed now. Like her, only stronger. Spots danced before her eyes as she tried to fight him off. She reached for his mask, fell short, and grabbed a fistful of gown while her left hand scrabbled along the floor. Fingers closing around the syringe, she used every ounce of strength she could muster to bury it in his neck.
He jerked back, spurting blood and screaming in pain. Ree kicked her way free and struggled to her feet. He would come after her. She had no doubt about that. Stumbling to the door, she flung it open and sprinted down the long, empty hallway.
It wasn’t until she was back in the south wing that she looked down and saw a silver medallion clutched in her fist.
Now it was Hayden who looked white as a sheet. “Jesus, Ree. We have to go to the police with this.”
“No! No police.”
They were seated in a dark corner booth at the bar near campus where Ree had asked him to meet her. She was too afraid to go back to her apartment.
“We can’t go to the police,” she said more calmly. “They’d never believe me.”
“What do you mean, they won’t believe you? You have his blood all over you.”
She looked down at the tiny spatters and shuddered. “It takes time to run a DNA test. And how do we know the results wouldn’t be compromised? Dr. Farrante apparently has some powerful allies. If I level any sort of accusation against him or the hospital, my career’s as good as dead.”
“Better than you being dead.”
“Look at this.” She slid the silver medallion across the table. “It’s just like the one I saw in my dream. Whoever attacked me…he’s one of them.”
Hayden said slowly, “But as you pointed out, it was just a dream. Or are you starting to believe that Ilsa really is trying to communicate with you?”
Ree thought about that warning touch at her neck right before the lights went out. “I don’t know what I believe right now.” She massaged her temples with her fingertips.
She didn’t want to talk about Ilsa’s ghost anymore. She wanted to talk about what she’d seen in that file. She’d told Hayden most of it over the phone, but she still needed to process it. “What was done to Ilsa that night was a secret that would bind those men together forever. No one dared speak the truth because if one fell, they all fell.”
Hayden said nothing but his gaze was very intense.
“She was lured to the cemetery that night by her own stepbrother. And when he was finished with her, he left her there for the others. Instead of seeking justice, James Tisdale covered it up. He sacrificed Ilsa in order to protect his son and the family’s political aspirations. She never ran away to Europe. She was committed to an insane asylum.”
He reached over and took her hand. He seemed to understand that she needed to talk about what she’d read in those files, as if sharing the horror would somehow diminish it.
“Her family abandoned her, leaving Milton Farrante free to conduct his gruesome experiments. She was subjected to electroconvulsive shock therapy more than ten years before the procedure was formally introduced. He may have performed one of the first lobotomies on her.”
“Unbelievable that he could do all that without anyone knowing,” Hayden said.
“The asylums were full of the forgotten back then, including Ilsa’s baby. Violet was born perfectly healthy, but she spent her whole life inside that hospital, a human experiment from birth to death for three generations of Farrantes. Poor Ilsa died when Violet was just seven years old.”
“But I don’t think she moved on,” Hayden said. “I believe her ghost remained in the asylum with Violet. Think about it. All those years, helpless to stop the experiments as she watched her daughter grow into a lonely old woman. But the moment Violet died, Ilsa was set free. And there you were, at Violet’s bedside, a way for Ilsa to finally leave the hospital.”
“I’m sorry, Hayden, but I just can’t believe something that—”
“Irrational? Illogical? Crazy? How else can you explain the dream?”
“I can’t. But there has to be another reason. Maybe something I read or heard a long time ago stuck in my subconscious and Miss Violet’s death triggered it.”
“What about the cold spots, the frosted windows, the frigid breath at your neck? That’s not your subconscious or imagination. She’s there, Ree. You can’t see her, but she’s there. And she’s not going away until you give her what she wants.”
“And what is that?”
His hand tightened around hers. “Put yourself in her place. After everything that was done to her and her daughter, what would you want?”
“Revenge,” Ree said and shuddered.
“Exactly. And she needs a conduit, a way to channel her rage.”
Ree drew her hand away. “That’s crazy. Even ghosts, even Ilsa, can’t make me do something against my will. She can’t use me unless I let her.”
Hayden’s dark eyes burned into hers. “I wish that were so, but we really have no idea what we’re up against.”
The Charleston Institute for ParapsychologyElsewhere, it’s called the Institute for Parapsychology Studies, not Paranormal Studies.
Studies was located on the fringes of the historic district, in a glorious old antebellum with long, gleaming columns and three levels of piazzas to catch the Lowcountry breezes. Hayden let himself in the side entrance and made his way down the hall. He’d called ahead to make sure Dr. Shaw would see him at so late an hour and the older man had agreed. Now he looked up curiously as Hayden entered the office, and motioned for him to take a seat. Tall and dignified, with vivid blue eyes and a shock of white hair, he’d always struck Hayden as the epitome of the slightly absentminded professor.
He steepled his fingers beneath his chin as he waited for Hayden to settle in. “You’re out and about late. Are you just returning from the cemetery?”
“I didn’t go out there tonight,” Hayden said. “Something came up. Which is why I’m here. I’m hoping you can give me some advice. I think my friend is being haunted by the ghost of a woman who was committed to a psychiatric hospital over eighty years ago.”
One brow rose ever so slightly. “I’ve always found that mental patients make for some of the most fascinating cases. Please go on.”
Quickly, Hayden told him everything Ree had experienced, starting with the Oak Grove episode and ending with her attack earlier that night. When he was finished, Dr. Shaw sat pensively for a moment.
“Where is your friend now?” he asked.
“At my place. She’ll be physically safe there, but I want to know how I can protect her from the ghost.” It was ironic, Hayden supposed, that he’d dedicated nearly ten years of his life to searching for spirits and now that he’d found one, he hadn’t a clue what to do.
“You could try a cleansing.” Hayden gave him a look and Dr. Shaw nodded. “Yes, my feeling precisely,” he muttered.
“Ree still isn’t convinced, even after everything that’s happened. She wants to believe it’s her imagination.”
“Have you seen any evidence of possession? Personality changes, addictions, depression? Not that these signs would necessarily indicate ghost or demon possession. They could also be symptomatic of mental illness.”
“I’m aware of that,” Hayden said quietly.
“Yes, of course, you would be.”
Dr. Shaw was one of the few people who knew about Jacob’s suicide, and how it had led Hayden to ghost hunting.
“As to a personality change…I haven’t known her long. I might not even notice. But my guess is, the sleepwalking episode was the first manifestation,” he said.
“A trial run, so to speak. Perhaps testing Ree’s limitations as well as her own. From what you’ve told me of Ilsa’s history, I’m afraid the likelihood of cohabitation is strong. Ghosts that invade—not just attach—are usually those spirits that were addicted to earthly pleasures.”
“So how do I protect Ree?” Hayden asked impatiently. “She’s not going to protect herself.”
“Make contact. Assuming the ghost is looking for a vehicle and not a host, you have to find a way to communicate with her so that you can determine her ultimate goal. Then you either appease her or thwart her. And if you can, locate the obstacle that’s keeping her earthbound and remove it.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“It can be, but doing nothing would be far riskier. As long as the ghost hovers in your friend’s orbit, her strength will grow as Ree’s diminishes.”
Until she becomes nothing but a shell, Hayden thought. He remembered those last days with Jacob. The sunken eyes, the hollow cheeks, the pallor of a walking corpse. And he knew he would do anything to keep that from happening to Ree.
“It may even be helpful that your friend is a nonbeliever,” Dr. Shaw said. “A negative ghost can feed off fear and make itself stronger. That’s where you come in. If Ree is the ghost’s conduit, then you must be her buffer.”
“By drawing the entity’s attention onto you, thereby dividing her strength.”
“Ghosts are attracted to human warmth and energy. The stronger the energy, the more irresistible the lure. In other words…” Dr. Shaw’s eyes gleamed as he leaned forward. “Generate enough heat and the ghost will come to you.”
When Hayden got home that night, Ree was so happy to see him, she threw her arms around him without thinking. “Thank God. I was worried something might have happened to you.”
“Was I gone that long?” He hugged her, too, but he looked a little taken aback by her enthusiastic greeting.
“It probably just seemed like forever.” She stepped back from him. “I took a shower. I hope you don’t mind. I wanted to get out of those bloody scrubs. This was all I could find to put on.”
His gaze dropped, taking in the cotton shirt she’d dragged out of his closet. The hem hit her below midthigh, longer than some of her skirts, but for some reason, Ree felt exposed in it.
“I don’t mind.” Now he was staring into her eyes. He had the strangest expression on his face. Bewilderment? Astonishment? She couldn’t quite read him.
“What is it?” she asked in alarm.
“I was just thinking about that night in Oak Grove Cemetery.”
“What about it?” The way he kept looking at her—as if he didn’t quite know how to read her—was a little unnerving.
“Do you believe in fate?” he asked.
“Fate?” She hadn’t expected that question.
“Do you believe that out of the entire population of the world, there are two people who are meant to be together?”
“I don’t know. I guess I never thought much about it before.”
“Think about it now. What were the chances that we would both end up in an abandoned cemetery at exactly the same time?”
“When you put it that way…”
His arms were lightly around her. Ree could have stepped from his embrace at any time, but his eyes—as dark as a midnight sea—held her enthralled. He seemed so…different.
“I think I was meant to find you that night, in that cemetery. I think the past ten years of my life led up to that exact moment.”
“You’re scaring me a little,” Ree said. “You seem…I don’t know.”
He bent and put his lips to her ear. “Don’t be afraid. This is meant to be, too.”
As his warm breath feathered over her, Ree went very still. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Could barely even think.
Hayden turned her and pulled her against him, one arm wrapping around her breasts as the other hand lifted her hair. She felt his lips against her neck and everything inside her stilled. She recognized the moment. It was time to move forward or take a step back.
Her head fell against his shoulder. “Are we crazy? We barely know each other.”
“Time is a relative concept,” he murmured.
Ree turned, wound her arms around his neck and they kissed for the longest time. When they finally broke apart, she saw that he was looking—not at her—but at something beyond her shoulder. With a shiver she glanced back. They were standing in front of a window and she could see the barest hint of frost creeping over the glass.
She could feel something in the air, too, but Hayden was lifting her so that her legs were around him and they were pressed so intimately together, she could hardly breathe. He carried her into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed. Her legs were still locked around him as she fastened her mouth to his. On and on they kissed, Ree’s fingers threading through his hair, his hands sliding up the shirt to grasp her hips. She began to feel anxious and feverish and she thought she might shatter into a million pieces if he didn’t stop kissing and touching her. And if he did stop, she would die.
“No,” she whispered in protest when he lifted her off him.
He went to open the window and a breeze blew in, cool and moist and feather-soft. She lay back on her elbows, letting it skim over her as Hayden began to shed his clothes.
He came to her and she sat up, resting her cheek against his hipbone. It was so marvelously sensual, being so close but not touching him, not yet. His hands curled in her hair and they stayed that way for the longest moment. Then very lightly Ree traced a fingertip along the length of him. He shuddered, said her name. And shuddered again as she encircled him.
They fell back against the bed and she saw the gleam of silver around his neck as he rose over her. She reached for it, but he dropped his head to kiss her, tugging on her bottom lip with his teeth. Then nuzzling her head to the side, he tasted the side of her neck, first with his tongue, then with his teeth. The sharp sensation shocked Ree at first, evoking something foreign yet familiar, something a little unsettling. But already the sting had subsided, and she could feel him between her legs, pushing into her and she turned dreamily toward the window. Above the open sash, the glass had frosted and for one eerie moment, Ree could have sworn she saw a pattern start to form.
But Hayden was moving inside her and with very little effort, Ree found his rhythm. It went on for a very long time. Impossibly long, it seemed to Ree. So many times she found herself on the verge, only to have him pull back, making it last and last as she dug her nails into his flesh.
The room grew cold but their bodies were molten. Mist crept in through the window. Ree felt a prickle of fear, but Hayden gathered her up in his arms and held onto her tightly as his movements became more urgent. The mist seemed almost alive now, coiling and writhing and pulsating with energy. Something told her to stop, push him away, but she couldn’t. The pleasure fed on her fear. She opened herself to him and he pressed more deeply into her, against her. With a gasp, she closed her eyes and clung to him as the mist began to envelop them.
And then it was over. An explosion of white light, and Ree was spiraling back to earth as Hayden collapsed against her with a shudder.
When she opened her eyes, they were swathed in nothing but moonlight.
Ree awakened to sunshine. She bolted upright and glanced around. It took her a moment to remember where she was. Then she saw Hayden. The bathroom door was open and he stood at the sink. He wore jeans but no shirt and his hair was still damp from the shower. She thought for a moment that he was shaving. She swung her legs over the bed and walked over to the door to watch him.
He wasn’t shaving. He stood with his hands propped against the sink, staring into the mirror. Just…staring…
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Wrong?” He was still studying his reflection. “I feel a little strange.”
“Like I just woke up from a dream.”
Was that good or bad? she wondered.
And then she saw the silver medallion dangling from his neck. Not the one she’d grabbed from her attacker last night because that medallion was in the pocket of her scrubs.
She gasped. “Oh, my God. You’re one of them.”
His gaze met hers in the mirror and for a moment, he seemed to snap out of his lethargy. “I can explain.”
Ree took a step back from the door. “What’s to explain? Are you or are you not a member of that despicable group?”
“It’s a legacy thing.” He turned to face her.
There was something so different about him. Something so odd about the way he’d been staring into that mirror…
If Ree didn’t know better, she’d swear he was a different man than the one she’d met in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Her scalp tingled in apprehension. “What does that mean? A legacy thing? You were automatically recruited because of your family’s history?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with us. You and me.”
As he moved toward her, sunlight sparked off the medallion. Ree averted her gaze and took another step back from him. “It doesn’t have anything to do with us? After what I told you about Ilsa? And you didn’t say anything?”
“It was so long ago, Ree.”
“What about your family? What about other initiation rituals?”
His voice turned cold. “You’re making a lot of assumptions that I don’t much care for.”
“And I don’t like that you lied to me! You know you should have told me.” She drew on the bloodstained scrubs she’d discarded the evening before. “I have to get out of here,” she muttered.
“Where are you going?” He followed her into the living room. “Come on, Ree. It’s not safe for you out there.”
She whirled at that. “I’m not sure it’s safe for me in here. How do I know you’re not the one who told Devlin where to find me yesterday? How do I know you’re not the one—” Her gaze dropped to the blood on her shirt and she shuddered.
He looked suddenly furious. “Is that what you think of me then?”
“I don’t know what to think about you, Hayden. And that’s the problem. I barely you know you.”
Ree didn’t want to believe it, but her mind was racing and things were starting to click into place. How he’d wanted to go with her to see Amelia Gray. How Detective Devlin had known she’d be at the library when she’d told no one but Hayden. On and on it went.
As she hurried out to her car, the tears started to flow. That was her only excuse for allowing danger to creep up on her. He must have been waiting for her to leave. Maybe Hayden had called him.
By the time Ree sensed his presence, it was too late. He’d seized her around the neck, pricked her with a needle and pushed her into the backseat of a waiting car.
A blinding headache awakened her. She opened her eyes and lifted her head, but a wave of nausea flattened her. She lay still for a long time before she felt strong enough to try and get up.
Panic mushroomed in her chest as she realized her arms and legs were constrained. She couldn’t move at all except for her head, which she swiveled from side to side, taking in the details of the small, antiseptic room in which she found herself. After a bit, she tried to call for help, but her tongue was too swollen. She could barely muster a groan.
She had no idea how much time had gone by before the door opened and Dr. Farrante entered. He came to the foot of her bed, hands clasped behind his back, observing her as passively as he’d studied Miss Violet’s corpse.
Ree opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
His smile was patronizing. “You can’t speak, but that’s a normal side effect of the medication. I’m afraid we’ll have to keep you sedated for a little while longer. It’s for your own good.”
He came around the side of the bed to check her pulse. When he turned, Ree saw the bandage at his neck.
His smile turned cold. “You’re in the north wing of the hospital. I’m sure you understand what that means.”
The north wing was reserved for those patients perceived to be a danger to themselves or others. For those patients that had to be physically restrained behind locked doors.
An image of Ilsa Tisdale in the dungeon came back to her and Ree wanted to scream. She turned her head from side to side in panic.
“You should have minded your own business, Miss Hutchins. None of this would have been necessary.”
“I can’t let you ruin things. You do understand that, don’t you? My work here is too important.”
You won’t get away with this! Ree silently raged. Her family wasn’t perfect by any means, but they were not the Tisdales. Her parents would tear this place apart until they found her.
And Hayden? Oh God, was he in on this?
She wouldn’t think about him. Not now. Maybe not ever again.
A tear seeped from the corner of her eye and ran back into her hair. She couldn’t even lift her hand to wipe it away.
Dr. Farrante meant to keep her here. Like Ilsa Tisdale, she would not be leaving that hospital alive.
A little while later, a nurse came into the room with another dose of medication. Ree could do nothing but lie there helplessly while the nurse injected her. Afterward she drifted in and out of consciousness. When her head finally began to clear, she thought that hours must have passed. It had to be dark outside because she could see the hallway through the glass panel in the door and the lights had been dimmed.
She had some feeling in her arms and legs, but she knew better than to struggle against the restraints. That would only sap her energy and she needed whatever fortitude she could muster in case an opportunity for escape presented itself.
As she tried to formulate a plan, the door opened and an orderly pushed a wheelchair through. Where were they taking her? What were they going to do to her?
Ree braced herself. This might be her only opportunity. Once the restraints were removed, she’d have her chance.
The orderly left the wheelchair and came to her side. Bending over the railing, he checked her pupils.
“Ree? Can you hear me?”
“It’s Hayden. Are you okay? Have they hurt you?”
She shook her head.
“I’m going to get you out of here. Just hang on…”
Ree didn’t even question why he’d come for her. That would come later. Right now, she’d never been so happy to see anyone in her life.
He unfastened the straps and helped her into the wheelchair, covering her legs with a blanket. Then he wheeled her into the hallway.
“Here we go,” he muttered and began the long trek down an endless corridor.
With every step, Ree thought they would surely be stopped. Her nerve endings tingled with sensation, a good sign, but she knew she would never be able to outrun a guard or orderly. She doubted she could even stand.
As they came to the end of the hallway, the door opened and someone motioned them through. It was Trudy. “Hurry,” she said. “We don’t have all night.”
Ree glanced up at her, a question, but Trudy merely patted her shoulder. “Don’t you worry, honey. You’re in good hands.” To Hayden, she said, “This exit is always kept locked. Once we open the door, the alarm will sound. That only gives you a matter of minutes to make it to the car, much less through the front gate. I’ll try to divert them for as long as I can, but my best advice is to haul ass.”
“Thanks for all your help,” Hayden said.
“Honey, when I caught a glimpse of her in that room, I knew something was up. Lucky my cousin’s a cop. Now go.”
And then they were through the door and the wheelchair had to be ditched on the rough terrain. Hayden swept her up and carried her at a dead run as she buried her face in his neck.
By the time the floodlights came on, they were already in the car flying down the drive. The gates were open and Hayden shot through without slowing.
Ree turned to glance back.
“Sometimes it’s good to have friends in high places,” Hayden said and then he laughed as her eyes widened because he didn’t sound like Hayden at all.
He pulled to the curb in front of a large white house and killed the engine and lights. Ree had no idea where they were. She’d drifted off sometime after they’d crossed the Ravenel Bridge. She thought they might be on one of the islands.
“How are you feeling?” Hayden asked.
“Better,” she managed to say.
“Think you can walk?”
“I can try. Where are we?”
His eyes were nearly black in the dark. “Do you trust me?”
Tricky question. Ree couldn’t forget that medallion and all that it implied. On the other hand, he had rescued her from a possible lobotomy.
“I trust you,” she finally said.
He pulled her to him, kissed her hard on the lips, then got out and came around to open her door. Taking her arm, he guided her through the gate and around the house to a deck. Ree could hear water lapping at a nearby pier and she could taste brine in the breeze.
They climbed the stairs, and Hayden put a finger to his lips as voices drifted through an open door. Ree could see two men inside—Detective Devlin and Dr. Farrante. By the way Farrante reclined with an elbow on the mantel, Ree thought the house belonged to him.
Taking out his phone, Hayden pressed a number. Inside, Detective Devlin’s phone rang. As he glanced at the screen, he said slowly, “Are you sure you don’t want to change your story? You still maintain you’ve had no contact with Ree Hutchins?”
Dr. Farrante flicked a piece of lint from his jacket. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you. I barely know who the woman is.”
“Well, let me refresh your memory, then.”
At his nod, Hayden took Ree’s elbow and guided her through the door.
The color drained from Farrante’s face when he saw her, but he rallied almost instantly. “I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but this young woman is completely unstable.”
“Nicholas Farrante, you’re under arrest for the false imprisonment of Reanna Hutchins. You have the right to remain silent…”
What happened next would always remain a blur for Ree. One moment Detective Devlin had reached for the cuffs attached to his belt, and in the next instant, Farrante had whipped out a weapon he’d had concealed somewhere on the mantel. A shot rang out and Hayden stumbled back, clutching his arm. Ree screamed. Devlin had a bead on Farrante, but by this time, he’d grabbed Ree about the throat, hauled her up against him and stuck the gun to her temple.
Detective Devlin’s gun clattered to the floor.
Inch by inch, Farrante backed Ree to the door as Hayden struggled to his feet. Blood ran down his arm and dripped off his fingertips. He had such unfettered rage in his eyes, he didn’t look like Hayden at all. For a moment, Ree thought…
“Don’t try it,” Farrante warned.
After all the drugs he’d pumped into her, he must not have thought Ree had any fight left in her. He loosened his grip as they reached the deck and she tried to wrench free, catching him completely off guard. She kicked at his legs and he stumbled back, teetering on the edge for what seemed an eternity. Then Hayden rushed past her and she heard the impact as he made contact with Farrante. He couldn’t have known that Farrante still held her arm. As they crashed down the stairs, Ree was jerked off her feet.
She hit the ground and lay dazed for a moment. When her vision cleared, she saw Hayden with Farrante’s gun. He held it close to his leg where Detective Devlin couldn’t see it. Oh, dear Lord…
Their gazes collided and Ree thought, that’s not him! That’s not Hayden!
“Don’t do it,” she whispered.
He merely smiled.
The detective came down the stairs and knelt beside the doctor’s prone body. “He’s dead. His neck’s broken.”
Ree saw a shadow fleet across Hayden’s face and he shuddered, as if something very cold had just touched his soul. The gun dropped to the ground as his gaze clung to hers.
Ilsa had her revenge.
Violet Tisdale was buried in the hospital cemetery, in a grave next to her mother’s. The headstone that marked Ilsa’s final resting place was shrouded in moss and lichen, and Ree had asked Amelia Gray how to clean it. The restorer had volunteered to take care of it after the service, mostly, Ree figured, because she didn’t trust the old stone to an amateur.
Besides the minister, there were only four mourners at the service—Ree, Hayden, Trudy and John Devlin. If the enigmatic police detective had noticed Hayden’s strange behavior at the scene of Dr. Farrante’s death, he had decided to turn a blind eye.
According to Detective Devlin, he’d gotten wind of Farrante’s scheme through Trudy’s cousin and this, coupled with Hayden’s rather violent insistence that Ree was in danger, had led him to confront Farrante—partly to catch him off guard and partly to keep him away from the hospital until Hayden could whisk Ree to safety. It had all been kept hush-hush because of Dr. Farrante’s powerful allies in the Order.
Ree still wasn’t sure how she felt about Hayden’s legacy. The Order had done some very bad things in the past, but none of that had anything to do with him. And besides, she glanced at his bandaged arm. He’d proven his allegiance when he’d gone against Farrante to save her.
As for ghosts…Ree still wanted to believe that everything could somehow be explained away. But for as long as she lived, she knew she would never forget the look on Hayden’s face at the moment of Dr. Farrante’s death.
She looked up and found him staring down at her. His eyes were clear and guileless, shadowed with only a tinge of something she would never understand. He took her hand and locked his fingers with hers.
Ree shivered. Maybe there were some things she didn’t need to understand.
Amelia hadn’t expected it to take so long, but the old granite marker was in very bad shape. By the time she finished, twilight had fallen. It was that time of day when the air cooled, the shadows deepened and the veil between this world and the next thinned.
From the corner of her eye, she saw them. She didn’t turn, of course. It was dangerous to look directly at them.
She busied herself packing up her tools, but every now and then, she caught a glimpse from her periphery. There were two of them. A young woman in a blue dress and a little girl of about seven. The child wore white and in one hand, she clutched a nosegay of violets.
They were in the cemetery one moment, gone the next.
Amelia didn’t see them again until she was leaving. They were at the end of the drive, walking hand in hand through the gates. The young woman turned to stare, but Amelia didn’t make eye contact. Nor did she glance in her rearview mirror. As she merged with the early evening traffic her thoughts had already turned to her next project. Oak Grove Cemetery.
About the Author
Amelia Gray’s story begins with THE RESTORER, available May 2011 wherever MIRA books are sold. THE GRAVEYARD QUEEN SERIES continues with THE KINGDOM (November 2011) and THE PROPHET (May 2012) by Amanda Stevens.
Amanda Stevens is a bestselling author of more than thirty novels of romantic suspense. In addition to being a Romance Writers of America RITA® Award finalist, she is also a recipient of awards for Career Achievement in Romantic/Mystery and Career Achievement in Romantic/Suspense from RT Book Reviews magazine. She currently resides in Texas. To find out more about past, present and future projects, please visit her Web site at www.amandastevens.com.