Although somehow, her magazine’s new owner had gotten the information. But why had he sent her to write a story about a ghost tour?
She cracked the window of her rented car and the sea breeze rushed in, carrying the scent of fish and diesel fuel, nothing like the scents on the Riviera, where she’d researched her last story.
For years she’d toyed with the idea of leaving "Extravagant,” the luxury travel magazine specializing in getaways for the rich and famous, that her family had owned for the past two decades. After all, she’d gone to NYU with the idea of a much loftier goal, news journalism. She’d been editor of the Washington Square News but had turned down two offers from major papers out of obligation to her family.
Then they sold the magazine without telling her, and "Extravagant" was now "Adventure," an adventure tours magazine.
And she was out here to hunt ghosts.
She toyed with her charm bracelet, lifting her newest charm for closer inspection. She loved the Celtic design with the swirling lines the moment she’d seen it in the display case at her friend Annie’s antique store back in St. Augustine. But when she’d looked at the tag and noticed it was originally from McDavid Island, she had to have it. Usually, she rewarded herself with a new charm when she’d completed a story, but this had been too perfect. Since Annie was having a going-out-of-business sale, Maddy feared the charm might not be here when she got back, so she snatched it up, and at a good price, too.
Maybe finding the charm was a good omen, and this assignment wouldn’t be as bad as she thought.
* * *
Once she arrived on the island, she was pleased to find the picturesque, little town with its sturdy old brick buildings and covered sidewalks lined with flowers quivering in the breeze. The people here had gone to some trouble to turn their homes into a tourist town. But she had to set that angle aside. It wouldn’t suit the magazine’s new platform.
Sally’s diner on Main Street was the meeting place for the tour. When Maddy walked into the glass-fronted building, accompanied by the jangle of bells overhead, several expectant faces turned in her direction.
These folks, in jeans, athletic shoes and ill- fitting t-shirts, looked more like people she’d find on a budget cruise. Three couples sat at two round tables that had been pulled haphazardly together, Coffee cups and many empty sugar and cream packets were scattered in front of them. Three girls, maybe in their early twenties, sat at a booth nearby with half-empty plastic, amber glasses of water in front of them. They wore what her friend, Diane, would call Skank Chic, the low-slung jeans and midriff blouses, displaying their amazing bodies. They looked like they should be strutting their stuff in the big city, not following a ghost tour.
Feeling out of place—odd, since she usually traveled alone—she nodded a greeting and moved to the counter. Eying the menu above the pass-through window, she could feel her hips widen as she read the list of fried foods. Wasn’t seafood meant to be healthy?
The bells above the door jangled again. Maddy turned to see two young men walk in. The first was heavy-set, with curling hair that hung to his shoulders and sideburns that reached his jaw. He wore an Army surplus jacket over a t-shirt that proclaimed McDavid Island was for lovers.
The second man was taller. His broad shoulders filled out a plain blue t-shirt and jean jacket. His dark blond hair cropped close around his ears was longer on top and fashionably mussed, accenting his strong-jaw and high cheek-bones. His swagger as he walked toward the joined tables reminded her of Elvis.
Uh-huh. The presence of the girls made perfect sense now. Maddy watched them titter. Could they have less pride? Elvis angled his head and grinned.
“Welcome back, ladies,” he drawled. “Didn’t we scare you off last time?”
The boldest winked. “Hey, Mal. You have to try harder this time.”
Oh, for... Maddy didn’t roll her eyes, but she wanted to. Ghost hunter groupies. She was in hell.
He stepped back, squaring his shoulders. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Mal Sheridan, this is my partner, Justin Stromberg.” He swung a hand in the larger man’s direction. “Welcome to our haunted tour of McDavid Island. It’s good to see so many of you. I hope we live up to your expectations.” He clapped his hands together. “We’ll begin the tour at the house that used to belong to the McDavids themselves. It’s not the original building, where Elizabeth was supposed to have practiced her witchcraft, but the home of their more recent descendants. After that, we’ll call it a night—or, actually, a day—and sleep at the inn, which was once the governor’s mansion. We’ll tour that tomorrow night. Then the third night we’ll be visiting the most haunted place on the island, the old lighthouse. We’ll see how long you can hold out. No one in our last tour made it through the night.” His hazel eyes glinted and the corner of his mouth quirked.
Excited murmurs rolled around Maddy like the sea breeze. She tamped down her own little thrill. It was ridiculous to get excited over flickering lights and, what...drafts?
When the others bent to gather their belongings, Maddy stood. Apparently, her movement attracted Mal’s attention because he turned and skewered her with his gaze.
“You must be the reporter from the magazine.” He crossed to her, hand extended, eyes crinkled in an attempt to charm.
“‘Adventure’, yes.” She still couldn’t say the name without choking.
He eased back to give her one of those once- overs she hated, the ones that always made her feel objectified. The flick of his eyebrows—approval or disdain, she couldn’t tell, and shouldn’t care—didn’t dispel the feeling.
“You don’t look very adventurous.”
“You don’t look very entrepreneurial,” she shot back, surprising herself. There was a reason she was a writer—she did not think on her feet.
Just for a moment, the smirk melted to a genuine smile. He moved away, not taking his eyes off her until he was standing in front of the whole group, who turned to give him attention even though he didn’t call for it.
“We’ll go on down to the McDavid House now, get settled in, get something to eat, and make sure we keep our minds open.”
He looked straight at Maddy when he said it.
What a waste, really, a good looking guy like that, all strong jawed and buff but believing in spooks. Or at least capitalizing on other people’s beliefs in spooks.
“So get what you need out of your vehicles and meet us back on the sidewalk. It’s a lovely day and the house isn’t far.” He turned toward the door. Behind Maddy, chairs scraped as people scrambled after him. He was definitely a con man. So why was this assignment suddenly looking up?
She retrieved the supplies the brochure had told her to bring: a camp chair, snacks, and bottled water, among other necessities.
Mal Sheridan hung back from the rest, waiting for her. She hefted her messenger bag over her shoulder, engaged the car alarm, and crossed the street to join the others, with Mal following closely behind her.
The house was a block down and around a corner lined with other buildings made to look historic. This one was a three story Federal style brick home. A plaque from the historical society was prominently placed near the front door. Maddy’s pulse jolted to see a symbol on the plaque matching the charm she’d bought from Annie. She hadn’t expected to see it displayed, and just as she opened her mouth to ask about it, Mal launched into his spiel.
“This house was built when the island was settled in 1813,” he said. “It housed the descendants of the founding family, the McDavids. Third generation, I think, and they built this house on the spot where the original family settled. The McDavids who built this house had a number of kids—five, I think—they all grew up here, married, and moved back to this house with their spouses. Kind of like that old show ‘Dallas’.”
Chuckles rippled through his audience as they hung on his every word.
“Imagine living that close to every member of your family every day, every week, every month, every year. Some of us barely make it through Thanksgiving dinner.”
More appreciative laughs. Maddy felt a smile tug at her own lips. No lie.
“Finally, one of them snapped from dealing with all of that togetherness. The husband of the middle daughter got in an argument with the husband of the eldest daughter. No one knows what it was about, but speculation ran through the town like wildfire after the event, ranging from love affairs to someone taking more than their share for breakfast. The younger man was a known hot head, had been in trouble before his marriage, and was in love with another girl from town. Some say he’d been forced to marry the McDavid girl after compromising her. Whatever the case, the living arrangements became too restrictive, and he lost his mind.”
Mal paused, looked around.
“He had a shotgun, a Henry, and he took it downstairs into the parlor after the children went to bed.” He gestured to the house behind him. “And he killed the whole family, with the exception of one.”
Silence. No one was even breathing. The man was a master storyteller.
“Who escaped?” asked one of the women, shod in athletic footwear, a hoodie and cargo pants.
“His own wife escaped through the back window.”
“He meant to kill her, too?” the woman’s husband asked.
“As far as we can tell, he meant to kill everyone. The only thing he seemed to do with any foresight was to wait until the children were in bed.”
Not silence this time, but quiet murmurs.
“We will be spending the night.” He paused for effect, as if expecting lightning to flash to accentuate his words. “In the parlor.”
“Where they died?” one of the girls squeaked.
He nodded solemnly, but Maddy didn’t miss the playful glint in his eye. “That’s our best chance of seeing any activity.” He pivoted on his heel and gestured with a swing of his hand toward the door. “Shall we?”
Maddy followed the others into the pristine mansion with gleaming wood floors, white walls, high ceilings, and a curving staircase. She’d expected to see furnishings from the period when the house was occupied. Instead, it was completely empty. Perhaps a precaution on behalf of the historical society before they allowed strangers in to spend the night.
“You want to set your stuff down here in the hallway before we take the tour?” Mal asked, motioning to a stretch of wall in front of closed double doors.
But he didn’t open the doors. Maddy noticed Justin had disappeared. Where had he gone, and what was he up to? Was he in the parlor ready to jump out at them? The others didn’t appear to have the same suspicions as they followed Mal through the kitchen, dining room, and then upstairs to the empty bedrooms. Several of the tourists took photographs without flashes, then immediately studied their view screens.
Her curiosity got the better of her, and she looked over the shoulder at the short brunette’s camera. “What is it you’re looking for?”
“Orbs,” the girl muttered, inspecting her screen. “What are orbs?”
Now she was the one on the spot as everyone
turned to her. Her shoulders tightened defensively. “You’ve never heard of orbs and cold spots?” another one of the girls, the tall blonde, asked incredulously. “Mal, can you believe that?” She turned back to Maddy. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“She’s doing a magazine article,” Mal spoke up, feet parted, palms together, and a playful glint in his eyes. “Perhaps we can educate her. Who would like to explain?”
“Oh, me.” The blonde stepped forward like a star pupil.
“By all means, Joyce.” Mal gestured her to go ahead with a sweep of his hand then folded his arms. “Orbs are balls of energy,” Joyce said, mirroring Mal’s stance. “People believe they’re the spirits. Did you see ‘Haunted Mansion’ with Eddie Murphy?”
“Did anyone?” she asked, still defensive.
Joyce’s lips twitched in amusement, and Maddy relaxed a little. So did Joyce, who moved ahead in full teacher mode. “Okay, how about ‘Poltergeist’? The scene where the lights are coming down the stairs? Those were orbs. Only in real life, they’re not so grand. Just about the size of a ping pong ball most of the time.”
She sounded so matter of fact. “You’ve seen them,” Maddy observed. The girl seemed to really believe. She may not just be here because of Mal.
Joyce nodded, eyes bright. “On the last trip, we got several photographs of a particularly bright orb. I wish we’d thought to bring it.” She glanced over at one of her friends.
“I get glowing dots on my pictures all the time, especially when the light isn’t good,” Maddy said. “I’ve been told it’s just dust specks catching the light from the flash.”
Joyce’s expression tightened. “If you choose to believe that I can’t convince you otherwise, not without my pictures. But if you don’t have an open mind, how can you write an effective story?”
Maddy glanced toward Mal, who lifted a she- said-it-I-didn’t eyebrow before pushing himself away from the wall and moving toward the door.
“We don’t know if we’ll see anything tonight. Most likely we’ll hear something. That’s what’s happened on previous tours. But not if we stand around talking all night.” He herded the group together and out of the room.
Maddy couldn’t repress the feeling that he was guiding their expectations as they traipsed down to the parlor. She knew all about being manipulated, and in order to pull off this tour time and again, this guy had to be a pro.
The doors of the parlor were open now, and candles lit the room, some on the mantel, some on iron stands. More lined the circle drawn with chalk in the center of the room. Justin was on his knees in the center of the circle, drawing lines with chalk on the wood floor, using sure strokes. Maddy glanced about, but no one seemed concerned at the desecration. Maddy watched as the lines intersected into a five-point star.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she asked, surprised by the alarm running through her.
He sat back on his heels. “A pentagram isn’t demonic,” he said wearily as if he’d explained it several times before. “It’s protective.”
“You think evil spirits will try to come?”
“They’re always looking for ways,” he muttered, sketching symbols within each point of the star.
He sounded deadly serious, unlike Mal. Like he really believed in this.
“Have you ever encountered one?”
Okay, he didn’t have Mal’s charm, but his matter-of-factness was compelling.
“Can you tell me about it?”
He dragged his duffel over, passed it to her, open to reveal more white candles. “Start lighting these. Set them in the center of the pentagram.”
“Justin? The evil spirits?” she prodded.
“Leaves you feeling dirty,” he said when she touched the lighter to the first candle. “Slimy inside, and it’s hard to shake.”
She froze, flame flickering inches from her fingers, before she moved to the next candle. “You mean they come into you? Are you like a medium?”
He grunted, his attention on the pentagram. “No, but you get this energy from them. Bad energy. And it’s like poison, gets into you. Trust me, you don’t want it.”
“Where did you experience this?”
“In an abandoned prison in Boston. Again, in a house in Connecticut.” He rubbed the back of his neck, as if he could still feel it. “Apparently, a pedophile lived there. Killed his victims there.”
“But you don’t get those feelings here?”
He shook his head.
“Why not? A mass murder took place here.”
He lifted a shoulder to wipe at a bead of sweat trickling down from his hairline. “I don’t know why.” “How long have you and Mal been doing this?”
“The tours? A little over a year. But we’ve been interested in the paranormal for years. His sister—”
“We’re taking advantage of popular interest,” Mal said, moving closer and crouching, careful not to scuff the chalk drawing. “Hand me a couple of those candles, would you, Maddy?”
She handed them to him but kept her attention on Justin, even though she sensed him withdrawing with Mal’s presence. Had Mal moved closer on purpose? Was he afraid Justin would give some of his secrets away?
“What made you interested in the paranormal?” she asked Justin, ignoring Mal. “Did you have an experience?”
“Oh, you know,” Mal said, “some kids are into dinosaurs, some kids into sports, some into video games. We were into ghosts.”
“So, you grew up together? Here on the island?” “Since middle school,” Mal replied.
“Have you ever been to Gettysburg?” the man, who’d been introduced as Mick, asked. “I swear, we had some serious chills when we went out there.”
Mal sat on his heels. Maddy watched his expression change, relax, as he went into man-to- man mode.
So sexy, watching men relate to each other. Not that Mal was hard to look at in any case. And what was she doing letting her thoughts go there?
“What happened?” he asked Mick.
“Oh, we didn’t see anything, but the emotions were so powerful. We knew we weren’t alone. And those boys are so sad. I’ll never forget it. I left there with memories that weren’t my own. You definitely need to go, see what you feel.”
“Sounds awesome. We’ll have to check it out.” He motioned for Maddy to place a candle at a spot beyond his reach.
“So, since middle school?” she redirected. “Were you born here or was Justin?”
“Neither. Justin moved from Maryland, and I moved from Texas.”
“I thought that was a Texas accent. Not many ghosts there?”
“Enough. More here, though. So, do you want to interview me?”
She sat back and folded her arms, aware of the defensive stance, but too late to undo without drawing his attention. “Why would I want to do that?”
“For your article.”
“It’s not about you. It’s about the tour.”
“But how good is your article going to be if you don’t believe?” He rose and held a hand out to help her to her feet.
She hesitated, then took it, releasing it the moment she got to her feet to brush off her butt. “And you’re going to try to change my mind with an interview?”
He lifted a hand in concession of the unlikelihood of that. “Maybe just enlighten you a bit.”
“Won’t the tour do that for me?”
“Depends on how active the spirits are.” He walked toward the parlor doors where they’d left their things. Unerringly, he picked up hers and handed them to her.
She opened her mouth to ask how he knew, but the smug expression on his face told her he wanted her to ask, to notice that he’d noticed. So she kept to the topic as she hefted her camp chair over her shoulder. “I suppose it would be rough running a business where you can’t predict outcomes.”
He led the way to a spot by the fireplace with his own gear. “Can you in any business?” He set up his chair with a single shake and placed it in front of the fireplace.
It was Maddy’s turn to concede. “Seems a risky venture.”
He flashed a smile, all white teeth and crinkled eyes, and motioned her to sit beside him. “The only kind worth taking.”
Read A Ghostly Charm, available at all retailers!