The Victorian mansion is everything Eve Jeremy dreams of and is in perfect condition. There’s one problem–it’s haunted by the sexiest ghost imaginable. Buried alive over 150 years ago, Michael has forgotten his name and his Amaki heritage. He only knows he loves Eve. He’ll do anything to sustain himself to be with her, even drink human blood. Yet the very thing that strengthens him may destroy him forever.
This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.
Copyright © 2011 by Tori Minard
Let me translate some real estate terms for you. A “dollhouse” is a house too small for the average-sized human to fit inside. A “fixer-upper” is a house that stinks because eighty-nine cats have peed all over every square inch of it. A “handy-man special” is a house with a concave roof and rotten floors, which has not only been peed on by eighty-nine cats but which also houses the decomposing bodies of said cats.
—from Eve Jeremy’s journal
The run-down Craftsman was the thirtieth house Eve Jeremy had looked at, and her real estate agent was getting sick of her. She could tell by the way the woman’s lips tightened when Eve said it wasn’t the right place for her. The agent, whose name was Christy Engelhausen, gave her an obviously forced smile and opened the folder she always carried with her on these excursions.
“I have one more prospect for today, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort,” Christy said as she started the engine of her luxury sedan and turned on the windshield wipers.
“Oh?” Eve turned in the passenger seat to stare at her. “Why not?”
“Well, it’s been on the market for a whole year and it still hasn’t sold. The price is right, so that’s not the reason.”
“What’s the price?”
“Three hundred thousand.”
Three hundred thousand was chump change in the Portland housing market these days. Especially when you wanted something with charm and character. “Is it a little ranch or something?”
Christy frowned. “No. It’s a Victorian with eight thousand square feet.”
“What? That can’t be right.”
“Seriously.” The agent handed her the stats. “Says so right here. Unless it’s a typo nobody’s bothered fixing.”
“Don’t houses like that usually sell before they’re even officially listed?”
The sheet claimed the house had been built circa eighteen seventy. Eve sat up straighter, her belly giving a little flutter of excitement. “I want to see it.”
“Are you sure? It’ll probably be a mess. A real money pit.”
“It can’t hurt to look.”
“Alright.” Christy shrugged as she pulled away from the curb. “It’s right here in the Hawthorne area.”
She drove a couple of blocks, peering through the drizzle at house numbers. The other houses were a mix of Old Portland-style foursquares, bungalows and faux-Tudor cottages, the street overhung with huge maples whose leaves were just beginning to turn gold and orange. Eve tapped her fingers on her denim-clad knees.
A Victorian. It sounded too good to be true. It probably was too good to be true. But what if? What if she’d found the right one, the house she could restore and live in?
Live out your fantasy, you mean.
As an amateur novelist, she had a lot of fantasies.
Christy pulled in and shut off the engine. Eve leaned over to look out the windshield at the overgrown lot to their left. A jungle-like growth of rhododendron, boxwood, and huge sword ferns crowded around the foot of an ancient maple, the greenery so thick she couldn’t see the house.
“Are you sure this is the right place?”
“It says number seventy right there.” Christy pointed at the worn wooden sign hanging from a post barely visible in all the greenery.
“Okay.” Eve opened the door and got out of the car. The drizzle made the air look misty, like a silver veil over the bushes obscuring the house. She walked around to the post. It marked an opening in the overgrown boxwood hedge. A rusted, wrought-iron gate with fleur-de-lis finials on its pickets stood open to a cracked concrete garden path.
“It’s got a big yard, almost a half acre.” Christy led the way in to the yard.
The boxwood brushed against Eve’s coat, dampening the wool and giving off a pungent odor that always reminded her of old fashioned gardens and antique houses. Then she emerged from the miniature forest and saw the house itself.
“Wow. I want it already.”
It rose three stories above them, a grand Second Empire mansion with ornate dormers peeking out of its Mansard roof, a widow’s walk, and a wrap-around porch which still boasted what looked like the original posts. At least, they were in a believable Victorian style you just didn’t see very often in the twenty-first century. It even had a large, two-story bay on the front.
Years ago someone had painted it white, even the trim, which obscured much of the detail, and with no maintenance on the paint, it had peeled and gone gray. Even so, the house’s beauty was obvious. Eve stood in the weed-choked front yard and stared up at it in awe.
She could feel the weight of the years, the heaviness of atmosphere that sometimes hung over old houses like this. Usually that kind of thing didn’t become apparent until she went inside a house. But here, it seemed to pervade the very soil. Maybe that’s why the house hadn’t sold. People could sense there was something strange about this place.
“It’s gorgeous. Makes you wonder why some investor didn’t come in and flip the place,” Christy said. “Or turn it into condos.”
But it was watching them, its windows staring down at them like glassy eyes. It probably watched everyone who came to look at it, and that’s why no-one had bought it yet. People were too spooked by it.
You’re turning loony from all these creepy old houses. Maybe you should be looking at new construction.
No. She wanted an old house, had wanted one since she was a kid. And now she had the money to fulfill that dream.
“Can we go inside?” She marched up the path to the porch.
“Of course,” Christy said, following her.
The agent punched in the code to the lockbox and removed the house key. “Hey, look at this.” She held it up for Eve. It was a skeleton-style key made of tarnished brass.
“Dang. That looks as old as the house.”
“It probably is. The knobs look original too.”
And they did. They were also brass, egg-shaped instead of round, with ornate bas-relief tendrils all over them. The strike-plate had the same pattern. And over the mahogany door was a stained-glass window in a beautiful red, amber and blue design.
Of course, the door creaked loudly when Christy opened it.
They entered into a small foyer. Double doors with leaded glass windows led into the central hall of the mansion. Eve opened the doors and stared. Coming into this house was like stepping through a time-travel portal.
The central hall was truly a room in its own right, with a high ceiling and heavy, dark wood baseboards. Elaborate plaster molding. A huge, brass gaslight chandelier. Mahogany and walnut curio cabinets, hall tree, carved pedestals with classical reproduction statues. And an elk-head mounted to one wall. She walked through the gloom to the elk head and stood staring up at it.
“Why did they leave all their stuff?”
“Beats me,” Christy said.
“Is it included in the price?”
“Yep. Says here all furnishings included.”
“Curiouser and curiouser.” Eve drew the tip of her index finger along the foot of one of the statues, which seemed to be made of marble and depicted a Greek or Roman soldier. She wasn’t sure which. Her finger came off coated with dust.
“Do you want to keep looking?” Christy said with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
Her agent sighed. It was a strange reaction from a woman who’d just minutes before been irritated with her for her lack of excitement about the houses they’d seen. Eve decided to ignore it. This house was definitely too good to be true, which meant she had to inspect all of it.
Each room they saw was fully furnished. The parlor had ancient horse-hair stuffed sofas with burgundy velvet upholstery; the library still had walnut shelves full of books from a century and a half ago. All the windows had velvet draperies and lace or gauze sheers underneath. Gaslight chandeliers still hung from the ceilings.
The kitchen possessed a wood-burning stove right next to an electric one in avocado green from the nineteen seventies and matching green fridge, along with freestanding cupboards and a battered pine table in the center of the room. Plus an honest-to-God icebox, ice not included.
In spite of the elaborate Victorian façade, the house had a distinctly masculine personality. If I buy it, I can give it a name. Something like Frederick or Benedict. She could already see herself working on her novels at the desk in the library and fixing up the yard little by little.
Dust was thick on every flat surface, and the windows were covered in grime, but otherwise it seemed to be in good shape. The air had just a faint odor of must, unlike some of the other, smellier places she’d seen. And the stairs didn’t even creak. Much.
The bedrooms were full of Eastlake beds and dressers and washstands with marble tops. The bathrooms still had gravity-flush toilets. It really was like stepping back in time. And all the while they were exclaiming over the oddity of it, someone was watching them.
She could feel his attention on her, although she couldn’t see him.
Come on, Eve, you don’t really believe in that stuff, do you? I mean, you’re talking ghosts or something, right? And ghosts don’t exist.
But the feeling wouldn’t go away. And she had felt that heaviness in the air, even when standing in the front yard. Maybe it wasn’t just her imagination.
Ghost or not, I want this house.
“I hate to say this, Eve, but I don’t think this is the right house for you. It’s huge, the upkeep would be enormous, it needs major modernization. And it’s—well, it’s creepy.”
“I love it. I want to put in an offer.”
The agent closed her eyes. She looked like she was praying for patience. “I don’t think you understand what you’d be taking on here.”
“I won the lottery, Christy. This is a dream I’ve had since I was ten years old. And houses like this don’t come along every day. Hell, they never come along. I mean, look at all this stuff! Look at all the original details. It doesn’t even really need restoration.”
“You’re young. You have plenty of time to find the right home for you. This place is ringing all my alarm bells.”
Maybe she was young, but having a house of her own was a lifelong dream, and a cool old house like this even more so. “I’ll have an inspection. If it’s about to fall down, I won’t buy it. On a secretary’s salary, I might never get another chance like this.”
Christy made a helpless gesture. “Okay. If it’s what you really want, I’ll submit your offer. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I’d never say that.” She grinned like an idiot. “I can’t believe my luck. How soon do you think I could move in if they accept my offer?”
He listened to the women’s voices as they walked through his central hall and out onto the front porch. The younger one, Miss Jeremy, was the one who would come here to live. She would be the one to bring life back to his empty rooms, light the lamps, burn fires in the fireplaces, cook meals in the kitchen. She might bring friends with her. And at night, when she slept, he could watch her.
Would she let him touch her? Would she speak to him? Or would she scream and run away, like the others?
I meant for the others to run. Eve Jeremy will stay and talk to me.
I don’t believe in ghosts, okay? I don’t care how many ghost hunting shows they have on TV these days. I’m not buying it.
Eve’s friend Josie stared up at the house and shuddered dramatically. “I don’t know why you bought this place. It looks haunted.”
“Yep. That’s why.” Eve walked up the porch steps to the front entrance. She stuck the key in the lock and opened the door, which gave an obliging haunted house squeal.
“Come on, Josie. It’s a great house. Wait till you see all the stuff they left behind. There’s no way I could pass up an opportunity like that.” Eve gestured her friend into the central hall.
“And the great price didn’t set off alarm bells for you? Victorians don’t go for that kind of money anymore, especially not with furniture included. How come nobody else wanted it?” She peered inside as if afraid to step over the threshold.
“Who cares? Get in here before you let all the heat out.”
“There isn’t any heat,” Josie grumbled, closing the door behind her.
“There is. It’s just on low.” Eve glanced around the hall with satisfaction. She’d dusted everything in this room thoroughly and mopped the floor so the place no longer looked like a Halloween attraction. Even the elk seemed happier now that he wasn’t covered in dust.
Her friend gazed around the central hall in awe. Or maybe just apprehension. “This is like time travel or something, with all these old things around. Doesn’t it remind you of, I don’t know, death and stuff?”
“It’s just furniture.” She led Josie to the kitchen, setting her bag of groceries on the table.
“Wow,” Josie said, looking around at the furnishings. “It’s—uh—really quaint. Is that an icebox?”
“Don’t you think something modern would work better?”
“I’ll probably upgrade it a little, but I like how old-fashioned it looks. It feels like it’s been here forever.”
Josie snorted. “That’s because it has.”
“Smart ass. What kind of tea do you like? I have English breakfast and market spice.”
“Market spice, please.”
Eve took the tea out of the cupboard and set it on the big pine table in the center of the room. A thump sounded right over their heads. The women stared at each other with wide eyes. Another thump followed, and then the sound of heavy male footsteps. The hair on Eve’s neck stood up.
“Does anyone else have a key?” Josie whispered.
The footsteps clomped along over their heads and began descending the servants’ stair, which ended right next to the kitchen door. Damn it, who was in her house? Probably some kid checking out the local haunted mansion. It was the season for that kind of behavior.
She walked toward the kitchen door, careful to keep her steps quiet. The footsteps continued down the uncarpeted wooden stairs. They sounded very close. Whoever it was had passed the landing. Eve rushed out into the hall to confront the intruder.
No-one was there.
Josie came up behind her, holding a rolling pin like a war club. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. There’s no-one here.”
They exchanged another look. “But we heard it,” Josie said.
“Yeah.” Eve rubbed the back of her neck. It was sore where something had bitten her. A spider, or a biting fly. “Maybe it was just the walls creaking. You know how old houses do that?”
“Uh uh. No way. I heard footsteps.” Her friend lowered the rolling pin. “I think you’ve got a ghost.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.” She turned her back on the staircase and returned to the kitchen, where she grabbed the kettle from the stove. Whatever had happened on the stairs, she wasn’t going to let it scare her.
“Eve, this house just breathes ghostly energy. Can’t you feel it? I noticed it before I even came inside.”
Eve turned on the water and filled the kettle. “I agree it has a spooky atmosphere, but that’s just because it was empty for so long. Except for all the furniture, that is.” She raised her eyebrows at her friend. “Maybe you’re reacting to all the old furniture. You did say it feels like a portal into the nineteenth century around here.”
“It does. But that doesn’t explain footsteps from an invisible intruder.”
“Well, this is my house. My dream house. I don’t care if there are a dozen ghosts, I’m staying.” You hear that, whoever you are? You don’t intimidate me.
“You’ve got more nerve than I do.” Josie walked over to the nearest cupboard. “Is this where you keep your mugs?”
“Yeah. Top shelf.” She turned on the burner under the kettle. “This is too good a place to pass up. Even with the lottery win, there’s only so much house I can afford. And you don’t find a house full of antique furniture every day.”
“I can’t argue with that.” Josie brought two mugs over to the central table. “But you might want to smudge the place. Or even bring someone in to bless it for you. If you ask around at that New Age bookstore on Twenty-third, they can probably recommend someone.”
“I’ll think about it.” But not for very long. Josie was into all that New Age crystals and incense stuff. Eve wasn’t.
She didn’t really believe in ghosts. They were just a combination of wishful thinking and superstition. Besides, believing in ghosts required thinking about death, and Eve had had more than enough exposure to death as a kid. Finding her favorite neighbor’s decomposing corpse was as close as she ever wanted to get to the subject until God, or whoever was in charge, called her number. For now she focused on life.
But she could feel someone watching her again, someone male.
“Are you going to be okay here at night?” Josie said. “Do you need someone to stay with you?” The words were generous, but the expression on her face said she’d rather not have to follow through with her offer.
“I’ll be fine.” She smiled.
“Good. Because, no offense, this house still gives me the creeps. I don’t care how cheap it was.”
After Josie went home, Eve sat down in the library with a second mug of tea and a book. Christy had been right, in a way. This house needed new electrical wiring, at the very least. There weren’t many outlets. She hadn’t even tried to plug in her computer because it would probably blow more than one fuse when she did.
And that just about said it all. The place still had old-fashioned fuses. Her first act of renovation would be to upgrade the wiring and get a real breaker box. In the mean time, she had to write in longhand, which sucked.
The watching sensation persisted. She’d been in the house for a week now, and she’d experienced that feeling in each and every room. It was almost as if the house itself were aware. Sentient. Which was a ridiculous notion. Houses were inanimate objects, not beings.
Her neck prickled again. He was behind her. Standing—or floating—behind her chair just a couple of feet away. His attention felt like a caress, like he was stroking some nonphysical part of her. Eve opened her book and forced herself to concentrate on the story. Whatever she was sensing, it couldn’t be real. It was just a combination of Josie’s silliness and the feeling of age that pervaded the house.
She was so beautiful. He longed to go back inside so he could look at her again. If he could reach out and touch her long brown hair, it would feel as smooth and soft as silk. But he didn’t have arms with which to reach. All he had was his mind, contained in the wood and stone of the house structure. All he could do was observe.
But I made noise earlier. I frightened her and her friend.
How had he managed that? He’d wanted to go down to the kitchen and talk to her, had imagined how it would be if she could see his face. If he had a face to see, that is. And then he’d found himself on the stairs, and there had been the sound of footsteps. Footsteps without feet.
Would she be afraid of him if he had a human-looking body to show her? Would she see him as a threat? Or would she simply accept him as a man?
That was useless speculation, of course. He wasn’t a man, and he didn’t have a body in the usual sense. He was nothing but walls and floors and windows. Still, if he could talk to her . . . he wanted to talk to her. Longed to hear a human voice directed at him, instead of simply eavesdropping on human conversations as he’d done for the whole of his existence.
He looked down at his hands and there they were. Five long fingers each, strong and nimble, the skin pale with a light dusting of dark hair. Human hands. Where did they come from?
Why was he human on the astral? From his vantage point on the back lawn, he could even see his house-self as a semi-transparent form, slightly distorted, the walls bulging and odd projections sticking off it. He was a freak. The astral shapes of trees still looked like trees, grass like grass, sparrows like sparrows. Only he possessed an astral form so different from his physical one. He glanced down at the stick-like creature who clung to his astral calves.
“There’s something about me that’s not right.”
Twig looked up and smiled, her woody face crinkling around the eyes. “You are very right,” she said in her scratchy voice. “You’re the rightest person I know.”
He and Twig turned at the same time. The thing that had spoken his name seemed to be made of clumps of mud and gravel in the rough shape of a person. Twig squeaked, trying to hide behind his trouser leg.
“House,” the newcomer said with a rumble like breaking stone. “You were to keep humans out, yet you allowed the female to buy. You should not have done that.”
Grundle kept up a never-ending campaign to intimidate him and Twig, and the rest of the spirits on the property.
He shook his head. “I don’t follow your orders.”
The creature growled at him. It sounded like a rock slide. “You are here on my sufferance.”
House laughed. “I’m here on no-one’s sufferance but my own, as you’re well aware.”
“The others will pay for your refusal to cooperate.”
The others were under his protection. He glowered at the creature. “You will leave them alone. This is my territory, Grundle. Now get out.”
Grundle slammed his fist in his other palm. “This is not your property. This place belongs to me.”
“I will take her away from you.” Grundle smiled, revealing teeth made from chips of granite. “I will eat her. I will use her bones to decorate my home.”
“You will leave the woman alone,” House said with narrowed eyes, “or I’ll break you into so many pieces you’ll never put yourself back together.”
Grundle snorted. “You’re nothing but a wooden box that dreams it’s alive. You cannot defeat me.”
“Please, House.” Twig tugged at his trouser leg. “Let’s go, before he crushes you.”
“Twig, find yourself a good hiding place.”
He felt her let go of his trousers, but didn’t wait to see where she hid. Grundle was shifting back and forth on his feet, grinding his stony teeth together. House bent and scooped up a fallen branch covered in clumps of light green reindeer moss. It wasn’t a sentient being, just an ordinary stick—or at least an ordinary stick’s astral form.
Grundle lumbered toward him. House swung his makeshift club. It slammed into Grundle’s side, dislodging a large chunk of rock. Grundle roared.
He swiped at House with a massive paw. House ducked. The blow caught him on the edge of his jaw, knocking him off-center. He staggered a couple of yards before regaining balance, his face throbbing.
Blows in the astral hurt just as much as those received on the physical plane.
“I’ll eat them all!” Grundle shouted. “And you, too!”
From a crouch on the ground, House scythed the monster’s feet out from under him. Grundle crashed onto his back, dirt and pebbles spraying from his bulk. He rolled and clambered upright as House danced back out of reach. Miniature landslides dribbled more earth from Grundle’s form until he sagged a little at the edges.
“You’ve done enough,” House said. “For centuries you drained this land of its health and vitality. Now it’s time for you to go.”
“Never.” Grundle’s feet shook the earth. “Never. Never.”
He lunged at House, catching him in the belly with a fist like a sledgehammer. House fell backward, the breath knocked out of him. Grundle pounced. His fists descended. Head. Heart. Ribs. House groaned. He bucked under the weight of the being above him.
Grundle put his hands around House’s throat and squeezed.
House’s vision blurred. His hand scrabbled at his side until his fingers met the damp bark of his stick. His fist closed around it. He peered up at the rocky face looming over him. And swung.
The stick clobbered Grundle right in the temple. The monster blinked, swaying. House swung again. Smack. The center of his forehead. Grundle’s grip on his throat loosened. Another blow with the stick and the earth-being leaned slowly to the side, then toppled onto the ground.
House crawled on hands and knees away from the fallen creature. He was covered in mud from its body and from the ground, and his astral body hurt everywhere. Twig scurried out from her hiding place under a rhododendron. She held out her twiggy hands, giving him a boost to his feet.
“You won.” She sounded surprised.
For now. He drew himself up and turned a fierce stare on Grundle. “Yes. I won.”
Grundle heaved his bulk off the ground. “You won’t be here forever. Some day you’ll be gone and I’ll have my land back again. Then we’ll see who is master.”
“For now, I am master.” House took a step toward the creature, clenching his fists as he went.
Grundle flinched. House bared his teeth at him. With an angry mutter, the earth-being clumped away. It was a temporary victory, anyway, but one that wouldn’t last long. The earth spirit never gave up.
Twig pointed at the retreating Grundle. “He’s the one who isn’t right. When he ruled, the land was sick.”
“We’ll just have to see to it that he never rules again,” House said.
It is doubtful if the average man’s mind would remain intact were he ever to directly experience the peculiar and terrifying realms that underlie our ordinary perceptions.
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Eve lay in bed on Saturday morning. The sun rushed gloriously through the stained lace curtains on her bedroom window. There was another mysterious bite on her neck, and it itched, making her wonder if she had bedbugs. But otherwise, it was a beautiful day. She raised her arms over her head for a long stretch and the antique bed creaked ominously as she moved.
I’m going to have to get a new bed frame in here before I end up on the floor.
Not today, though. Today was one of those perfect fall mornings with brilliant blue skies and chilly temperatures—the perfect weather for a detailed inspection of the yard. The first thing she’d done to the house was modernize the wiring. She’d been so busy with that, she hadn’t gotten around to looking at the grounds.
She got up, yanked on her rattiest jeans and a faded red sweatshirt. A shower could wait for later, after she’d gotten herself good and sweaty outside. As long as she finished pretty quickly, she’d have plenty of time to get ready for her housewarming party.
Eve stood in front of the antique dressing table, which boasted elaborate Eastlake styling and a mirror whose edges had gone dull and foggy with age. She used her fingers to rake her hair into a messy ponytail. As she reached for a ponytail holder, a movement at the edge of her vision made her turn her head.
What was that? For a second she’d thought she saw a man standing next to her. But it had only been a flash, almost a shadow or impression of a human shape. Probably her imagination.
Ghosts aren’t real. Ghosts aren’t real.
She opened the top drawer of the dressing table, searching for her lip balm. The interior of the drawer was utter chaos, lipsticks and eyeliners and blush and mascara all banging together with combs, nail polish, sample sizes of hairspray and gel. Aha. There it was.
Eve picked up the lip balm. Her gaze returned to the mirror. She gasped, dropping the little tin on the table top. A man stood there, right behind her, in full view. Her mouth was suddenly so dry she could hardly swallow. She spun to face the intruder.
The room was empty.
“What the hell?” she said aloud.
I saw him. I know he was there.
He’d been tall, with longish dark hair that fell over his forehead in a careless arc. His eyes were a smoky gray, like storm clouds. Beautiful eyes, long thick lashes, a sensuously curved, expressive mouth. And odd clothes.
His black jacket had been strangely cut, loose, with a high lapel. He’d worn a vest underneath. No, not a vest. A waistcoat. Because those garments had not been modern. They looked nineteenth century.
Eve shivered. He wasn’t a ghost. Ghosts aren’t real.
But if he wasn’t a ghost, what was he? The thought of a flesh-and-blood man breaking into her home was hardly reassuring. Had he watched her sleep? Watched her dress? Now that she thought of it, she could feel someone watching, still.
She stuffed her feet into a pair of old running shoes and dashed down the stairs. The front door was locked tight. None of the windows were broken. Walking through each room on the first level, she inspected all the windows, but they were all locked and in perfect condition.
Upstairs it was the same story. No-one could have gotten inside without breaking some glass or jimmying a lock, and that would have left signs. So where had he come from? Had she imagined him?
Maybe I’m going crazy and hallucinating.
Somehow, that wasn’t any more appealing than the notion that she had a ghost. She gave up trying to make sense of the situation, made herself some scrambled eggs and wolfed them down before heading outside. Whoever—whatever—that had been, he was gone now.
Outside, the sunshine made it harder to believe in ghosts. Eve stood on her porch and surveyed the front yard. The shrubs along the property line were so tall and thick she couldn’t see the sidewalk. A similar tangle crowded the porch, blocking much of her treasured sunlight. They’d have to be either cut back or removed.
What will he think of the changes I make?
Christ, she really was getting loopy. There was no ghost to think anything. But she could sense him again, damn it. His presence seemed to emanate from the house walls.
Eve strode down the steps and around to the old carriage house. Ghost or no ghost, she had work to do. Maybe the previous owners had left some garden tools she could use, because she sure wasn’t going to hang around waiting for another . . . manifestation.
The carriage house was painted white to match the house, and like the house it was peeling and turning gray. It didn’t have quite as heavy an atmosphere as the main building, yet she could sense the age in it. There were stories here, saturating the fabric of the property. If only she knew what they were.
She rounded a bend in the path. Once again something moved in her peripheral vision, something tall and dark-colored. Eve snapped her head around, hoping to catch whatever it was. All she saw was a shadow disappearing into the overgrown hedge. But the shadow was shaped like a man.
Just as she stuck her key in the lock of the carriage house door, she heard the crunch of feet on the gravel in the driveway. Eve threw a glance over her shoulder. A man was walking toward her with an ingratiating smile. He wasn’t the one from before. This guy was blond, for one thing, and significantly shorter than her apparition. He wore navy-blue chinos and a navy fleece jacket with a blue plaid shirt.
A missionary, or a salesman? Missionaries usually wore suits and ties. This guy was probably a salesman. Yuck. The last thing she wanted to do was fend off a salesman intent on his pitch.
“I’m not interested,” she called, turning the key.
He kept his smile, but it didn’t reach his muddy-blue eyes. “Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything.”
The man stuck out his right hand. “I’m Tony Crouch. I’m actually interested in buying your house.”
His hand stayed out for a few seconds before he realized she wasn’t going to shake. “I love your house.” He stuck the hand in his pocket. “I made an offer about a year ago, but the owners at that time weren’t interested.”
“I’m not either. I just moved in.”
“I’d give you a lot more than you paid for it.”
“No. Sorry. This is my dream house.”
He frowned, his lips thinning. “With the money you’d make, you could build a new one just like it.”
Eve smiled. “A new house wouldn’t be the same.”
“Yeah,” Tony said in a sarcastic tone. “It’d have good insulation, brand new wiring and plumbing, no asbestos and no lead paint.”
She crossed her arms. “If that’s the way you feel, then why don’t you buy a new house?”
He took an audible breath and gave her a forced smile. “Because I want this one.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the house. It looked like a relic of another age. “Why? Why this one?”
“What difference does it make to you? The point is, I’ll give you a fortune for it. You’re a fool to say no.”
Was this guy for real? His tactics sure needed work. “I’m not selling.”
He stared down at her, his jaw working. “I’ll give you some time to think about it. Don’t make up your mind too quickly.”
Eve suppressed the urge to laugh as he stomped back down the driveway. After all, laughing at him would be rude. He was peculiar, though. And almost threatening. For a minute he’d looked like he wanted to strike her.
Once he’d left her driveway she couldn’t see where he went. The jungle of her yard screened her from the street, allowing him to disappear from her field of view as soon as he reached the sidewalk. Where had he come from? Did he live in the neighborhood?
Please, God, no. I can’t deal with a neighbor like that.
Strange that he wanted this particular house so much. Granted, it was a beautiful example of the Second Empire style and there were very few houses in Portland from that era. In fact, this might be the only one. But still. Why this house? There were other old houses in town, some of them bigger and probably even fancier than this one. One of the Neo-Colonial or Tudor revival houses up in the West Hills or Laurelhurst might be more popular with potential buyers, too.
Eve shrugged mentally and opened the carriage house door. Inside it was dim and dusty. The air smelled of mildew and old wood. She left the door open for extra light.
At some time in the twentieth century, this building had been converted to a garage-slash-storage shed, and it was crammed to the rafters with old paint cans, wooden crates, and saggy cardboard boxes full of who-knew-what. In the back were several large shapes covered in drop cloths.
“Oh, God, this is going to take weeks to clear out and sort.” She bit her lower lip. It would probably be faster and easier just to go out and buy new tools than to dig through the mess in here.
Fingers brushed gently across her cheek.
Eve jumped. “Who’s there?” she said, like a fool. When she turned, of course no-one was there.
It was probably just a cobweb, or even a strand of her own hair. She was scaring herself out of her wits with all this ghost stuff. Maybe Christy was right and she ought to have gone into new construction. Then Mr. Tony Crouch could have gotten his mitts on the house and everyone would be happy.
No way. This is what I’ve wanted to do all my life. Ghost included.
Growing up in tiny, rundown apartments had given her a fascination for houses. Old ones especially. They seemed so full of personality, of history, compared with the sad little boxes her family called home. When she’d won the lottery, she’d known instantly what she’d do with the money. She wasn’t giving up on her dream just because of an attack of silly nerves.
The ghost was watching. He was here in the carriage house with her.
“Look, Mr. Ghost, I don’t know who you are or what you want,” Eve said aloud. “But quit scaring me. This is my house and I have a right to be here.”
Okay, now she could officially join the ranks of the mentally unbalanced. Talking aloud to someone she couldn’t see. Christ, what next?
Yet, the sense of being watched vanished. Maybe talking to him really worked.
Eve locked up the carriage house. She wouldn’t get any more done until she bought tools. For now, a tour of the grounds would have to do.
House followed Miss Jeremy as she rambled over the property. If he didn’t escort her, Grundle might make an appearance and threaten her. House couldn’t allow that. He liked Miss Jeremy and wanted her to stay.
That other fellow, Tony Crouch, was a different story. There was something about the man he disliked intensely. Something familiar, that he couldn’t put his nonexistent finger on. Eve Jeremy needed to stay, and Tony Crouch needed to stay away. Therefore, House would escort her.
Besides, he liked looking at her. As long as he kept his distance, she didn’t seem to know he was there.
Am I a ghost?
He didn’t feel like a ghost. He felt like House. An anomaly, neither human nor wood-and-stone structure. Some kind of hybrid creature, belonging nowhere. But she apparently experienced him as ghostly, which might explain why he scared her so much.
If only he could find a way to tell her he wasn’t a threat.
Miss Jeremy finished her tour and went back inside, so House followed her. As she went upstairs, he looked down at himself and realized he was still in his human form. He could see his whole body, down to his boot-clad feet.
How did that happen? Usually when he was indoors, he melded with the fabric of the house, losing his independent form. Although he had stood behind her when she was putting up her hair. And she’d seen him, briefly, in the mirror.
Something inside him was changing.
He followed her downstairs to the library, where she had a desk with a strange machine on the top. It had a screen, somewhat like a television except it didn’t usually run T.V. programs. The former owners had never owned anything like this, so House didn’t know what to call it.
There was another machine next to it which occasionally spit out printed papers. While Eve sat in front of the glowing screen, House examined the printer. He’d learned years ago that he could influence televisions and radios, making them change channels and perform other tricks. Maybe he could do the same with this contraption.
He sent his message to the wiring of the machine. It began to hum. Miss Jeremy looked over at it with a puzzled frown. The printer sucked in a sheet of paper, hummed over it for a minute, then released it. She caught it.
I am a friend, it said.
Miss Jeremy dropped the paper with a startled squeak. “Holy shit.” She looked around the room, her eyes wide and strained. “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?”
I am a friend, he thought. I won’t hurt you.
He didn’t mean to send that one to the machine, but it produced his message anyway. Another piece of paper moved slowly through the device and slipped to the floor. Miss Jeremy took up the new sheet with obvious hesitation. Her hand was trembling. Damnation. He was scaring her again.
“Are you a ghost?” Her voice even trembled.
No. I don’t know. I’m not sure what I am.
“What is your name?”
The questions and answers began to print on a new sheet of paper.
“W-why are you following me? Why are you watching me?”
I will protect you.
Miss Jeremy took up the paper and read it. Her eyes widened again. She turned in a slow circle, peering into the corners of the room as if she might see him hiding there.
“What is there to protect me from, House?”
Grundle. And others.
She picked up this sheet as well, muttering the words he’d written. “I don’t know who this Grundle is,” she said, her voice rising in pitch. “I don’t know who you are. And I have to tell you, I’m seriously freaked out right now.”
Freaked out? What did that mean?
“I—uh—I’m going out for awhile.” She almost ran from the library to the hall tree at the entrance. “Don’t follow me out of the house.”
Did I say I didn’t believe in ghosts? Oh, I believe, alright. I’m a believer.
—from Eve’s journal
Eve left the house with no jacket. She’d forgotten to put one on in her rush to get away from “House.” The day was relatively warm, but not exactly balmy at nine o’clock in the morning.
Where was she going? She had no plan. The only thing she’d been able to think of was escaping from her new friend. Without a better idea, she headed for Hawthorne and its mélange of shops and restaurants. A hot cup of coffee would make up for her lack of jacket and it might even give her an extra jolt of courage for the return home. Not to mention the brain power to think of some way of dealing with House.
Eve started up Hawthorne, wending through clumps of fashionistas, pierced and tatted neo-tribal types, and hippie women in flowing skirts. Two blocks up, she came to a little cafe housed in a Victorian much younger and smaller than hers. This would do. She mounted the steps to the front door.
A wooden sign next to the door proclaimed this the home of the Dreaming Moon Cafe, with Thorn and Blossom Books and Gifts upstairs. Thorn and Blossom was, apparently, a place where “enchantment never sleeps.” Cute.
The cafe was one of those oddball Portland places. With weird murals—featuring moon imagery and Bigfoot—painted on the walls and hanging lanterns that looked like they’d been made in a children’s craft workshop, it definitely had a unique atmosphere. The coffee was good, though, and so was the scone she bought to go with it. Thus fortified, Eve stood up to brave the cold.
In the entry hall, a bulletin board full of fliers caught her eye. One advertised a weekend workshop in “living peacefully with ghosts.” The teacher’s name was Sunshine Berry. Eve snickered. Then she cast a speculative glance up the stairs. Maybe someone up there could give her advice on how to deal with her unwanted roommate.
This house is going to turn me into an eccentric with forty-five cats and an invisible friend. After all, I’ve got the friend covered. Now I just have to find my first cat.
The walls of the narrow staircase were covered in fliers for every New Age and alternative event imaginable. Eve emerged in the house’s attic, which had been converted into a “magick” store.
She’d never been in a store like the Thorn and Blossom. The scent of incense wafted pleasantly to her nose when she opened the door. There were cases full of uncut crystals in various colors, shapes and sizes, along with a huge array of silver jewelry. Shelves held all kinds of paraphernalia she couldn’t even identify. Some sort of ambient music played in the background, and statues of mythological figures stood everywhere, staring down at her.
Books were on shelves in the back. She looked for one about ghosts, but the only thing they carried was something on ghost hunting. She didn’t need to hunt her ghost. All she wanted to know was how to get rid of it. Him.
“Can I help you find something?”
Eve turned. The speaker was a pleasant-faced middle aged woman with a huge pentacle necklace over a knit tunic.
“I – I’m looking for information on ghosts.” Her face burned. “I don’t usually go into places like this. Not that your store is a bad place. It’s really charming.”
“What kind of information do you need? We have this ghost hunting book.”
“No, I have a ghost in my house and I want to get rid of him. It.”
The woman gave her a puzzled look. “Okay. Why?”
“Why?” Eve frowned. “He’s a ghost.” Wasn’t that reason enough?
“Is he causing problems?”
“Well, no, I guess not. Except he startled me this morning.”
“If I were you, I’d have a talk with him. Explain you don’t like to be startled. If he’s willing to abide by your rules, then you don’t have to get confrontational with him.” The woman smiled in a way Eve guessed was meant to be reassuring.
“But—he watches me. It makes me nervous. God, I feel like an idiot just talking about this stuff. I never believed in ghosts until now. I’m still not sure I believe.”
The clerk nodded. “Lots of people feel that way when they have their first encounter. It’s perfectly normal.”
Normal. Eve laughed. “Nothing about this seems normal.”
“You’ll get used to it. If I were you, I’d start with having the talk. Also, you might want to burn some sage or another cleansing incense to clear the house of negative energies. Do you know if anyone died there?”
“Probably. It’s a Victorian.”
“Yeah, those old places hold a lot of energy sometimes. Try the sage and try talking to him. If that doesn’t work, come back and we’ll talk again.”
So Eve bought a smudge stick and took it home. As she left the store, she felt like she had “New Age Airhead” tattooed on her brow. Yet no-one gave her any funny looks or even seemed to notice where she’d been.
Now all she had to do was use the thing.
She had a feeling Tony Crouch would show up as soon as she crossed into her yard, but he was nowhere to be seen. Good. Eve unlocked her front door and poked her head inside, her palms beginning to perspire. Mr. House wasn’t there—or at least he wasn’t showing himself. She went in and headed straight for the kitchen.
The sage-burning thing couldn’t hurt and might help, so she’d give it a try. With a saucer to support the smudge stick, she lit the sage and watched smoke curl up from the tightly packed leaves. The smell reminded her of pot. Hopefully none of her neighbors would think she was smoking weed and call the cops.
Her heart began to thump hard and fast. What if he got mad because she was trying to cleanse negative energies? What if he pitched a fit? Attacked her?
Eve carried the smudge stick into the central hall. She cleared her throat. “Um, Mr. House? Are you there? Because I really need to have a talk with you.”
If she hadn’t felt like a complete idiot before, that little performance convinced her she really was rowing with just one oar. She was talking to someone she couldn’t see and in spite of her nerves and her earlier experiences didn’t fully believe in.
She waved the stick up and down so the smoke traveled all through the space. “Are you listening, House? The lady at the bookstore said I should tell you that it makes me nervous when you watch me. And to say you shouldn’t do that anymore. And that if you can respect my rules, you can stay here.”
Naturally, now that she was trying to talk to him, he wouldn’t manifest. Of course. She sighed. Part of her wanted to douse the smudge stick and go work on her current novel. But she’d gotten the thing lit and she might as well continue with her silly ritual. It might help, and it wouldn’t really do any harm except for making her feel foolish.
The house was big. It took a long time to walk through each and every room with the sage. By the time she reached the attic stairs, she was bored and tired. She needed to keep a little of her energy for the housewarming party. Maybe she’d knock off the smudging and get ready for her guests.
You’re just too chicken to go up in the attic by yourself.
Eve lifted her chin. She wasn’t chicken. Holding the smudge stick before her, she climbed the stairs to the attic. She’d only been up here once, when the inspector had looked at the house. From what she remembered, it was crammed with junk.
At the top of the stairs was a generous landing and a single, heavy wood door, plainer than the ones on the lower floors and heavily scuffed. She opened the door. The room on the other side was large, the walls mostly vertical because of the Mansard roof design. Grimy windows let in a few stray shafts of sunlight and illuminated piles of boxes, old trunks, broken rocking horses and an old-fashioned dress form.
There was no way she could climb over all of that just to make sure the smoke got into all the corners. She pressed as far into the mess as she could and held her arm out full-length to spread the sage around.
“There. If there are any negative energies up here, consider yourselves evicted.”
“Figures.” Eve shook her head. “I’m going to have to hire someone to help me with all this stuff.”
Something made her turn around. Maybe it was a noise, like the scuff of a shoe on the floorboards, or the sound of someone breathing. Or maybe it was just the sense there was another person in the room with her. She turned. And there he was.
Every hair on her neck stood up straight. Her throat and mouth went completely dry.
He still wore the same outfit she’d seen him in earlier. Which made sense, if he was a ghost. His eyes were fixed on her.
“Mr. House?” Her voice came out in a strained whisper as her heart pounded loudly enough for her to hear it.
“Oh, God, oh, God.”
The ghost—or whatever he was—frowned.
“Are you going to h-hurt me?”
His frown deepened. He shook his head.
“Did you hear what I said earlier?”
He cocked his head, looking puzzled. His mouth opened but no sound emerged. His eyes darkened as if in frustration.
“Does this bother you?” Eve held up the sage.
House shook his head again.
“I wish you could talk to me.”
He smiled. There were dimples in his cheeks. God, he was cute. Gorgeous, really. For all her fascination with old houses, she’d never thought of nineteenth-century men as attractive. This one, however, was clean-shaven, without the crazy facial hair people in the eighteen-hundreds had favored.
House took a step closer to her. Eve stood very still. Did she want him to approach her? She didn’t know. He looked so solid, like a real person. Weren’t ghosts transparent or something?
She fought down the urge to scuttle backward. He took another step and then another, until her face was just inches away from his chest. He was so near, he could have kissed her. Eve’s heart raced so fast she felt lightheaded. Slowly, he lifted a hand. His fingers curled and he brushed the backs over her cheek with the tenderness of a lover.
“I felt that,” she whispered, trembling.
He did it again, his eyes darkening with what looked like sadness. Eve reached for his hand. She felt it under her fingers, the surface of it slightly cooler than she’d expect from the hand of a living person. His eyes widened.
“Who are you, House?” she said.
Someone banged loudly on the front door. House vanished as Eve jumped about a foot in the air.
The banging sounded again. “Alright, I’m coming!” she yelled.
She thumped down two flights of stairs and down the central hall. From there she could see the silhouette of a female body through the sidelights on the door. Damn it, people weren’t supposed to start showing up for another three hours. Whoever it was, they were going to get a talking-to.
God, what if it was Tony Crouch? Ick. Well, she was just irritated enough to chew him out so bad he’d never come around again. She opened the door and found Josie standing on her porch with a cake pan in her hands.
“I thought I’d come early and help you set up,” Josie said. She lifted the pan. “I brought the pineapple upside down cake. What were you doing? I rang, like, five or six times.”
“I was in the attic.”
Josie gave her a look from behind her horn-rimmed glasses. “Um, can I come in?”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.” Eve stood aside.
“Are you okay? You look kind of strange.”
“Are you smudging?”
Eve looked down and realized she still had the smudge stick in her shaking hand. “Yeah.”
Josie closed the door. “Are you sure you’re okay? I thought you didn’t believe in all that airy-fairy stuff.”
“I—um—I saw a ghost. At least, I think he’s a ghost.”
Her friend’s eyes went round with apprehension. “You saw him? What did he look like? What was he doing?”
“He was looking at me.” He touched me. “And he’s, um, he’s really cute. Hot. For a ghost, that is.”
“Wow. Are you trying to get rid of him?”
“I don’t know.” Eve turned for the kitchen without waiting to see if Josie would follow her. “I’m really confused.”
House sank back into the fabric of the house frame. That woman was there again, that friend of Miss Jeremy’s. She seemed a friendly sort, but her interruption was annoying to say the least. He needed more time with Eve. Time to explore the novel sensation of her skin under and over his. Time to at least attempt a conversation.
She’d stood there and spoken to him. Laid her hand over his. Maybe Eve was no longer afraid of him. If so, she’d be the first one.
He tensed at the thought of the afternoon party Miss Jeremy had planned. Decades had passed since the last party he’d witnessed. There would be noise and confusion, and he’d have to keep himself under control or risk frightening her and her guests. He stretched his consciousness out through the whole building, feeling for other visitors, for intruders, for anything that might disturb her.
People began trickling in. House descended through the structure until he came to the parlor, where Miss Jeremy chatted with Josie and another woman. Miss Jeremy’s hair was piled loosely on top of her head, with tendrils that kissed her neck. She wore a flowered dress with a skirt so short it barely covered her knees. House wanted to touch her there, where the hem of her dress ended, just above the graceful curves of her lower legs.
She bent over a side table and turned on a tiny machine which suddenly blared loud, rhythmic noises. Was that supposed to be music?
More people knocked on the door, entering with laughter and loud voices. House gritted his imaginary teeth against the discordant sound. Usually the building was quiet. He was quiet. A handful of men and women stood in clumps in the room, their voices raised over the song.
They should go.
But of course they didn’t. No-one even knew he was there. They came into his home and brought this hideous noise with them, monopolized Eve so he couldn’t communicate with her and clomped around the house on random self-guided tours, touching his things and invading his privacy.
Damnation. He was like a spoiled child and he wanted to throw something.
As soon as the thought flashed in his mind, one of the loose pillows on the sofa rose into the air and sailed over the heads of the guests. They gave a collective gasp. One woman shrieked. An instant later, two cheap vases from the seventies jumped up from the mantel and hurled themselves at each other, smashing their amber ceramic bodies into hundreds of pieces on the hearth.
Another woman screamed, high and shrill.
House looked at the mess he’d made. Shit. Hell and damnation. How did I do that?
Everyone began talking at once.
Miss Jeremy put her hands on her hips. “House! House, do you hear me? You can’t break things. Don’t break my stuff.”
Those vases have been here for almost forty years. They belong to me, not you.
Her guests quieted, giving her uneasy stares. She laughed, a false nervous sound, and played with a tendril escaping from the loose knot on her head.
“I seem to have a ghost,” she said.
Miss Jeremy’s guests all began talking at once, telling her to get an exorcism or have a psychic come in and do an evaluation. Hauntings always escalated. Spirits were dangerous. Wasn’t she afraid?
“He’s already violent,” one young man said earnestly. “It’ll only get worse from here.”
“Yeah.” The brunette clinging to his arm nodded. “Those haunted house shows always go from friendly encounters to more and more violent stuff. He could attack you!”
House tensed, clenching his hands. He would never attack Eve. How could they think that? He hadn’t even meant to throw those vases, or the pillow either. It had just happened.
Would she get an exorcism? No-one had ever tried one on him. Something told him it wouldn’t work, but in truth he had no idea how the rite would affect him.
Foolish and tender sentiment has no place in magic.
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Eve removed the rock cd from her player and substituted a classical one. Everyone needed something soothing now, because nerves were obviously jangled after that poltergeist show. What was House’s problem, anyway? Did he want her to live alone and talk only to him? That did seem like a bad sign. Yet calling in an exorcist was such an overreaction.
Besides, she wasn’t Catholic and even if she was, the Church didn’t do exorcisms for frivolous reasons. A little poltergeist activity was frivolous in the general scheme of things.
“Honestly,” Jenna said, “these hauntings always get worse over time.”
She’s just repeating what she’s seen and heard on T.V.
“I don’t think he’s dangerous,” Eve told her.
Jenna’s mouth fell open. “Not dangerous? After what we just saw?”
“He didn’t hurt anyone. Those vases were across the room from all the people.”
“It seemed dangerous to me.” Jenna shuddered dramatically. “I think you have a malevolent being in your house.”
Jeez. She’d had no idea Jenna was such a believer. “Maybe he’s just not used to all the noise. The Van Ortons were really old people.”
Is that the problem here, Mr. House? You’re not used to so much activity? Or maybe she was simply making lame excuses for him.
“Eventually he’ll threaten you personally.” Jenna lifted her eyebrows. “You’ll see. It’s like an abusive relationship. You should get out now, while you still can.”
“I’m not going to leave. Besides, this is great material for a book.”
“Well, it’s your house, I guess.” Jenna moved away, a polite but obviously fake smile on her face. Did she really expect Eve to pack up and move just because of one incident?
“It was kind of scary,” Josie said, pushing her glasses higher on her nose. “Okay, I almost peed my pants. I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”
“Gee, thanks, that helps a bunch.” Eve rolled her eyes at her friend. “Aren’t you supposed to say something comforting?”
Josie gave her a look. “Why?”
“Because this is my house and my housewarming party.”
“I already told you the place gives me the creeps. And that was before I saw objects floating right in front of my eyes.”
“He said he wouldn’t hurt me.”
Her guests turned as one to stare at her.
“He said?” Josie lifted her eyebrows almost all the way to her hairline. “When did you have this conversation?”
“Um. This morning.” She fiddled with her escaping hair again.
“He actually talked to you.”
“Not exactly. He sent me messages through my printer.”
Josie drew in a deep breath. “May I see these messages?”
Eve glanced at each face in turn. They all wore various expressions of fascination and horror. The horror was mostly Jenna’s. She sighed.
“Okay. They’re in the library.”
Her friends murmured excitedly behind her, as Eve led the way to the library. The printouts were on her desk where she’d left them. She picked them up and handed them to Josie, who read them aloud.
Josie looked up from the papers and fixed her with a gimlet-eyed stare. “How do you know he’s telling the truth? How do you know you can trust him?”
“So you believe those are real? You don’t think I’m hoaxing?”
Josie’s eyes narrowed even more. “Are you?”
“No! Of course not.”
“Okay, then. How do you know you can trust this guy?”
“I just—I don’t know. I’m not sure I can. But so far he hasn’t threatened me. He seems nice.” Boy, that sounded weak.
“Like I said,” Jenna put in, “they start out that way to lull you into accepting them. It’s only later they turn nasty.”
“This isn’t an episode of Ghost Sightings, Jenna,” Eve said, with a bit more acid than she’d intended.
Jenna winced. “I’m only trying to help.”
Eve reached up to run her fingers through her hair, then remembered she had it pinned in a knot. She lowered her hand. “I’m sorry. I guess I feel kind of protective of him. He seems really sad. And when I burned the sage, it didn’t even bother him. Doesn’t that mean he’s not evil?”
Jenna looked thoughtful. “I don’t know.” She looked at Josie. “What do you think?”
Josie shrugged. “Ghosts aren’t really my area of expertise. But it does seem reassuring.” Then she rolled her eyes. “What am I saying? You have a ghost. There’s nothing reassuring about it. I think you need more sage.”
“He said he didn’t mind it. I don’t think it would make any difference, and besides I don’t like the way it smells.”
“Maybe you should call the local Catholic church.”
Eve shook her head. “I’m not going to waste their time with this. It’ll be fine, honest.”
She felt only relief when the guests left. Maybe a normal person would have been scared to be alone, but all they wanted to do was lecture her and she didn’t want to listen to it. People could be so irrational when it came to ghosts and spirits.
Irrational? Don’t you think it’s pretty irrational to believe in this crap in the first place?
But she couldn’t deny what she’d seen with her own eyes.
What if they’re right and he does escalate? What if he’s just trying to lull you into accepting him? Just because he said he wouldn’t hurt you doesn’t make it true.
That was an unwelcome thought.
It was strange how quickly she had accepted him. She’d gone from refusing to believe in him to defending him from her guests in the space of one day. She finished cleaning up the mess from the party and took a seat in one of the library’s overstuffed antique armchairs to rest. The print-outs from her earlier conversation with Mr. House lay on the burgundy velvet seat where Josie had dropped them.
Eve picked them up and read them. I am a friend . . . I won’t hurt you . . . I don’t know what I am . . . I will protect you. She ran her fingertips over the words. They seemed to ache with loneliness. They made her want to comfort him, although she didn’t know why.
Mr. House had something to do with the man who’d built this place. There was no evidence to support that assumption, except maybe the clothes he wore. But the two people had to be connected. Maybe House was a friend of the owner, or even the owner himself, and had simply forgotten his true identity. Whatever the truth was, the answer to the puzzle was most likely somewhere in the house itself.
She put the papers down on the side table. Her gaze swept the room, falling on the old walnut library shelves. They were crammed with books, most of them leather or cloth bound and probably antique. Whoever had lived here over the years must have loved reading. At least, someone had. Maybe the original owner?
Eve got out of her chair and went to the shelves to have a look. She’d had so many other things to do that she hadn’t had a chance to examine the library.
After perusing shelves of vintage cookbooks, a faded Nancy Drew collection, out-of-date encyclopedias and an original edition of The House at Pooh Corner, she was almost ready to give up. Then she saw them.
On a shelf farthest from the window, she discovered three volumes by Helena Blavatsky, including The Key to Theosophy. Next to it was Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, and next to that, The Magus by Francis Barrett. All of these were worn and obviously quite old. There were a few more theosophy texts to round out the collection.
Eve pulled the books off and opened them one by one. Someone in the house had been interested in the occult. Maybe several someones, because while Hall’s book had been published in nineteen twenty-eight, the Blavatsky works were first editions, including Isis Unveiled, published in eighteen-seventy-seven.
It must have belonged to the original owner, since it dated from around the time the house was built. Could there be a connection with her ghost?
Eve carefully slipped all the books back on the shelves, except for the Francis Barrett. The library might be worth quite a bit of money. However, she was more interested in what it could tell her about the history of the house.
Maybe it would be worth my while to explore the attic after all.
Tomorrow. Right now she was too tired.
She opened The Magus. At one time, she would have thought it was all complete bullshit. Magic squares and talismans? Commanding the spirits of the days of the week? Even if there were such things as spirits and demons, she wasn’t sure she believed that magical exercises could cause them to appear to her. Only, there was Mr. House. The fact of his existence changed everything.
Her eyelids drooped and she yawned. She was so flipping tired. She needed to go to bed. But somehow she just kept reading, staring bleary-eyed at the strange flowery prose and weird illustrations, until she fell asleep and the book slipped from her hand.
Someone stroked her forehead. “Miss Jeremy.”
“Sleeping,” Eve muttered.
“Miss Jeremy, please wake up.” The voice was deep and unfamiliar.
She pried her eyes open, squinting upward at the man standing over her. There’s a man standing over me. Eve gave a sharp cry, shrinking back in the chair.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said. “Please don’t be afraid of me.”
She blinked. It was House. Her heart sped up so fast she felt dizzy. He was looking at her patiently, as if he expected a rational answer, but how was she supposed to talk to a ghost?
Pull yourself together, Eve. You’ve got to find out what he wants.
Finally, she found her tongue. “Y-you startled me.”
“I apologize. I only wanted to talk to you.”
She sat up straight. “Y-you can talk! Earlier you c-couldn’t make any sound.”
He smiled. “Yes. It seems I am becoming more solid.”
Eve watched him warily. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep down here.”
“It’s been a long day.”
“Um. Yes. It has.” She stared at him. He looked completely solid and alive, although his skin was a little pale. But not vampire pale. Not ghost pale.
“You aren’t afraid of me anymore?”
Her hands tensed on the chair arms. “I—I ‘m not sure. Should I be?” Her belly was fluttering, from fear but also something else. Something more like excitement than terror.
House shook his head slowly. “No. I only want to talk.”
“My guests think I should be. They said you’d escalate from throwing objects to hitting me.”
House frowned. “I would never hurt you. Not for any reason.”
“You scared people when you broke those vases.”
“I’m sorry about the vases. I didn’t mean to do that. In fact, I’m not sure how it happened. I was . . . angry.” He frowned again. “It was . . . difficult to have all those people in here at once.”
“Well, I hope you can get used to it, because I don’t intend to live here in isolation. I like having my friends over.”
House nodded. “I will adjust.”
This was truly bizarre. She was sitting down with a ghost and having a conversation. The weirdest thing about it was how much like an ordinary person he seemed. “Maybe you’ll come to like having people over. It must be lonely here sometimes.”
He nodded again. “Yes.”
“A man came up to me today when I was unlocking the carriage house. He wanted to buy this place from me.” She wasn’t sure why she’d wanted House to know that.
“I know. I was watching.”
“He was rude to you.”
“Yeah, he was kind of strange. I don’t understand why he wants this particular house so much. There are other big old houses in Portland he could buy. I mean, he got mad when I said I wouldn’t sell. I just moved in. Why would I want to sell? It was weird.” She was babbling. She must be even more nervous than she’d thought.
Mr. House cocked his head as if listening to a sound she couldn’t hear. “He works for someone else. Or he is someone else.” He frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It doesn’t sound any weirder than his behavior.”
“You should stay away from him.”
“Well, I don’t plan to ask him on a date.” She smiled.
House glanced at chair next to hers. “May I?”
He sat down, his suit sliding over a body she suspected was highly muscular. What would he look like without his clothes? They were pretty baggy and hid his general shape. As she recalled, that had been the style for men in the mid-nineteenth century—baggy clothes and messy hair. But House’s hair wasn’t really messy. It was more carelessly tousled, making her want to run her fingers through the dark curls.
“So.” What did you talk about with a ghost? Or a non-ghost. Whatever.
He merely watched her.
“Do you come here often?”
House blinked. “I cannot leave.”
“Seriously? You’re trapped in the house?”
“I cannot leave. I am trapped.”
Uh huh. Eve clasped her hands in her lap. “Are you angry about that?” And how does that make you feel, Mr. House? Jeez, she ought to take up psychotherapy. She’d make a lot more money that way than as a secretary.
House shrugged. “This is how I am meant to be. What reason is there to be angry? I’m only angry when people don’t respect me.”
“So if I updated the plumbing, would that make you angry?”
“Not at all. You’d be improving my structure.”
“Well, good. The plumbing is the next thing on my to-do list. I have to say the house is in incredibly good shape overall. The inspector was really impressed.”
He smiled. “Thank you. I maintain it carefully.”
“You do?” Eve sat up straighter. “How do you do that?”
“I’m not really sure how to explain it to you.”
“Oh.” She studied the man sitting across from her. His gray eyes looked really dark in the low light. Almost black. “House, if you’re not a ghost, does that make you a demon?”
House laughed. “No. I’m not a demon.” Then he frowned. “I don’t think so, anyway. I get confused sometimes.” He rubbed his temples with long, powerful fingers.
“Have you talked to other people who lived here?”
“No. Not really. Some of the children have seen me, but they never stopped to talk to me.”
“They were probably afraid of you.”
“You don’t seem that scary to me, now that I’m talking to you.”
He gave her another smile. “I’m glad you came to live here, Miss Jeremy.”
“Thank you. So am I.”
“Are you?” There was something wistful in his tone.
“Yes. I am. I’m sitting here having this incredible conversation with you. I never would have had that opportunity if I’d bought a different house.”
“Most of the people who saw me screamed and ran away.”
He shrugged. “I meant for some of them to scream.” His eyes met hers with a hint of mischief. “Some of them weren’t right. I didn’t want them here.”
There was a strange sensation in her belly, apprehension and pleasure mixed together. “Did you want me here?”
The mischief vanished, replaced by naked longing. He leaned his large body forward in his chair. “Yes, I did. I do.”
Oh, boy. How did she answer that? She might just have found out what he wanted. Her. The sudden tension between them made her want to change the subject.
Eve rubbed her hands together. “Um, I think I’m going to have a snack. Would you like me to get something for you?”
“No. I don’t eat.”
Of course he doesn’t eat, doofus. He’s a ghost.
“Okay. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
Blood feeds the spirits, especially those of the Earth and of the Dead.
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Eve shot out of her chair and hustled down the hall to the kitchen. One thing about living in a house of this size was it seemed to take a lot longer to do anything because she had to cover so much space. She poked into her cupboard and found a package of graham crackers. That would work.
Armed with crackers, she returned to the library. But House was gone. The room was empty of ghosts.
“Damn.” Eve’s shoulders sagged. “Where did he go?”
Back to wherever it was non-ghosts hung out when they weren’t appearing to the living. Nibbling on a cracker, she turned off the light and went back to the kitchen. She’d been looking forward to learning more about him, but at least they’d been able to actually talk together.
He’d wanted her to live here. Was that touching or creepy? Eve was leaning toward touching. He seemed like a gentle and caring person . . . er, ghost. Of course, there was Jenna’s theory that he was saving the abuse for later, when her guard was completely down.
Nah. She didn’t believe it.
Upstairs in her bathroom, she took the pins out of her hair and combed it. When she swept the golden-brown mass to the side, two puncture wounds were revealed on her neck. Eve frowned. She leaned forward. They looked a lot like the bug bites she’d had lately, except these were oozing some blood.
She touched them lightly with a fingertip. The flesh was a little sore, and a tiny drop of blood came off on her finger. What was going on here? The other bites had healed, but these looked just like them. They always came in pairs, evenly spaced. If she didn’t know better, she’d think a vampire had made them.
For crying out loud. Just because she now believed in ghosts, that didn’t mean she also had to believe in vampires. They were just bug bites. Eve brushed her teeth and went to bed.
Sometime in the night, House came into Eve’s room.
This time he didn’t frighten her at all. She was awake when he opened her door and she smiled at him from her bed. He removed his jacket, kicked off his boots and unbuttoned his waistcoat.
Eve got out of bed in a dreamlike haze. He was there to make love to her, and she wanted it, more than anything she could remember desiring in all her life. She helped him with the last button. He smiled at her as she slid the waistcoat off him and draped it on her vanity chair. He felt so warm. Warmer than she expected.
She reached up to his throat and undid the first of his shirt buttons.
“I want to kiss you,” he said.
Eve tilted her head up as he cupped her jaw in one hand. He leaned in and captured her mouth and she opened for him, accepting his tongue with a soft moan. God, he tasted good. She wrapped her arms around him, trying to get closer.
They struggled together to remove the rest of his clothes. The hard-muscled form revealed made her so hungry she ached between her legs for him. She placed her palm flat against his chest.
“Take off your nightgown.” He tugged at the thin knit.
Eve stripped herself of her nightshirt, flinging it on the floor. They came together as if they were starving, their hands roaming everywhere, touching everything they could reach. Together they fell to the bed. House lifted her breast, massaging, and then took her eager nipple in his mouth.
She cried out.
He rose over her and she spread her legs and he pushed into her and she yelled again. His cock was so big, so hard, she almost came as he worked it deeper inside her. Eve sobbed when he began to flex his hips, moving that cock in and out of her.
She clutched him as he rode her, faster and faster, his hips pounding frantically as they both moaned their pleasure.
“So good,” she sobbed. “So good.”
Orgasm crashed over her just as he began to shudder and groan in her arms. And then he bit her. A sharp stab in her neck made her gasp. There was a deep pull at her vein and a flush of warm pleasure washed through her.
Eve cradled his head as he drank from her. Then the darkness seemed to roll over her, a dark mist that made her lids heavy and her limbs too relaxed to move. She closed her eyes and slept.
The sunlight hurt her eyes. She pulled her blanket over her head. Then the alarm clock started that godawful buzzing noise. Why couldn’t alarm-clock makers design one that sounded pretty?
“For pity’s sake, shut up.” She rolled over and smacked the snooze button on the top of its snotty little head.
What a dream she’d had. Sex with Mr. House. A vampire version of Mr. House. Her sheath clenched in longing just thinking about it. Eve shuddered in an orgasmic flashback. Would it feel half that good in real life?
Grumbling, she forced herself out of bed. She’d had a full eight hours, but it felt more like three or four. When she passed her vanity and saw her reflection, she had to laugh. Her hair looked like squirrels had been nesting in it. He wouldn’t think she was sexy now.
She tried to put some order in it by combing it with her fingers. Then she pushed it behind her shoulders. There were new marks on her neck again. Eve sighed as she touched them with a fingertip. This time they didn’t bleed and they weren’t even sore.
In the dream, Mr. House was a vampire.
No way. He wasn’t a vampire. She’d seen his teeth when he smiled, and there hadn’t been a fang in sight. He was just a lonely ghost, and she liked him. Maybe a little too much.
House found Miss Jeremy asleep in the library armchair again, her head at an awkward angle, afternoon sun illuminating the side of her face. She muttered something, her hands twitching. It was the muttering that had caught House’s notice and drawn him into the room, even though he knew he ought to stay away from her. She seemed to be having a nightmare.
Perhaps he should wake her. She turned her head from side to side with a little moan. House came closer. If he touched her she might be startled, like the last time he’d awakened her, and that would be unfortunate.
Miss Jeremy gave a little gasping cry. Her eyes flew open. She stared at him, panting and shivering.
Damn, it was hard not to touch her. He smiled at her in the hope she would be reassured. “You were dreaming. It was only a dream.”
She clutched her upper arms, curling in on herself. “I know. God, I hate that dream.”
“I wasn’t sure if I should wake you.”
Her lips curved up, although she continued to shake. “I’ll be alright. It’s an old nightmare.”
House took a seat next to her. “Would you like to talk about it?”
He waited. Eve plucked at the fabric of her sweater, and then brushed some imaginary dust off the chair arm. She bit her lower lip.
“I—um—found the dead body of a neighbor when I was nine years old. Sometimes I dream of it.”
“Did you know her well?”
“Yeah. Her name was Mrs. Goldberg. She had this cool little garden around her house and she used to let me play there while she worked in it. My family lived in this crummy apartment house next door.”
“You didn’t like your own home?”
Eve shrugged. “It was okay, I guess. Just impersonal and boring, you know? The rooms all looked the same as everyone else’s rooms and there wasn’t anyplace to play outside.”
Maybe that was why a young woman like Eve had been so determined to saddle herself with a huge old house like this one. “Mrs. Goldberg was a kind neighbor.”
“She was. She put up with me, and she wasn’t even related to us.”
“How did she die?”
“I think it was a heart attack. She’d been dead for a few days when I found her. She was all—” She broke off with a grimace.
House had seen bodies that had lain around in the open for a few days, although he couldn’t quite remember where. “Good God.”
Eve gave a short laugh. “Yeah. It was horrible. I couldn’t sleep for weeks.”
“No wonder you have nightmares.”
“You’d think I’d be over it by now. It happened a long time ago.”
“A shock such as that leaves a mark on the soul.”
Her expression softened, her smile warming her pretty face. “I think you’re right.”
“At least you don’t have to worry about that with me.” Her brown eyes widened a little and House bit the inside of his cheek. “I apologize. I spend too much time alone. I’ve become uncivilized.”
“It’s alright. You just surprised me.” She tilted her head, looking at him. “How do you spend your time, anyway?”
“I take care of things. I have . . . friends.” None of them were human, but they were true friends nonetheless. “I read. And I sleep.” He’d been sleeping more and more, until Eve had come.
“Who are your friends?”
Would she be able to understand or would stories of local spirits only terrify her? In House’s experience, most humans didn’t want to hear tales of beings like him. They preferred to imagine the world empty of anything they couldn’t touch and label.
Finally he said, “they are similar to me.”
She smiled, releasing her arms. “I’m glad you have friends. I don’t like to think of you all alone.”
He blinked. That was not the response he’d expected. “Thank you, Miss Jeremy. That’s very kind.”
She was far more tolerant than anyone else who’d ever lived in or visited the house. Maybe she would accept a true friendship with him. Maybe she’d do more than speak to him on occasion.
You delude yourself.
He wanted something from her that he could never have. She was human, and he was something he didn’t know how to explain. Yet his body—the body he shouldn’t even possess—ached with the need to gather her close, to feel her skin against his. He wanted to bury his cock inside her and listen to her moans as he took her.
His sex swelled, pushing against the fabric of his trousers.
“I’d like to help you,” Eve said.
“Help me? In what way?” He shifted, hoping his new position would disguise his state of excitement from her.
“Well, you seem to be stuck here. You said you were trapped. Wouldn’t you like to be able to leave if you wanted to?”
He stilled. She was trying to get rid of him. “I gave up on leaving many years ago. There’s no place else for me.”
“I’m not trying to kick you out. I just feel bad that you’re trapped here. Maybe you need to move into the light, or whatever it is ghosts do to get to the other world.”
“I’m not a ghost.”
Eve sighed. “Okay. Like I said, I’m not trying to get rid of you.” She narrowed her eyes. “You weren’t thinking that, were you?”
“Oh, no, House. I love having you here.” She reached across the distance between the two chairs and took his hand.
He couldn’t help the small hitch in his breath as her skin covered his. She was so warm, so soft. And he was pathetic, waiting for the slightest approval from her, the slightest tidbit of affection. House twined his fingers through hers. For one hundred and sixty-one years he’d been waiting for this. Waiting for the touch of a human being.
Slowly he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. She closed her eyes as if savoring the caress. House felt as if he were outside of himself, observing yet not directing his own actions. What he wanted, what he’d begun between them, was wrong, yet he continued. He left his chair, her hand still clasped in his, and knelt beside her.
Eve opened her eyes. He leaned over her, very gently so as not to frighten her. If she would have pulled away or turned her head, given him any hint that she didn’t want the contact, he would have stopped. But she didn’t. She even moved toward him, just a hair, and her lips parted.
House pressed his mouth to hers. Her mouth pressed back. She laid her palm against the side of his face. His heart pounded hard enough to punch its way out of his chest. He kissed her again. Then he withdrew a few inches, just far enough to look at her face, and she smiled at him.
I’m in love with you. He didn’t say the words. They were madness. A being such as he couldn’t love and certainly could never build a life with a woman.
“House,” said a scratchy little voice.
He looked up. Twig sat on the back of Eve’s chair, kicking her tiny feet against the upholstery.
“It’s Grundle,” she said. “He’s angry.”
House sighed. Damn it. “I’m sorry, Eve, but I must go.”
“Nothing. There’s a small problem on the grounds that I have to take care of.”
“Okay.” She leaned in and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “That’s to tide you over.”
He felt an idiotic smile cross his face. “I’ll see you later.”
House focused on transforming his physical body into the fabric of the house. He disappeared from Eve’s sight, vanishing into the floorboards. Then he took on his astral human form in order to confront Grundle. Eve stared at the place he’d been for a moment, then picked up a book and began to read.
Twig gave him a questioning glance as they left the building together. She was probably wondering what insanity had come over him. If only he had an answer for her.
“You like Miss Jeremy a lot,” she said.
House peered out at the drizzle. In Oregon it even rained on the astral plane. “Yes, I do.”
“Then I like her, too.”
He smiled down at his friend. “Thank you. Now, what trouble is Grundle causing this time?”
Twig leaned around one of the porch spindles to survey the yard. “He was roaring and shouting. Now he’s quiet. I don’t know what happened.”
“Let’s find him.”
Twig trotted along next to him as he walked into the drizzle. Grundle liked to lurk under the canopy of a bad-tempered blue spruce that grew behind the carriage house. Its branches nearly reached the ground, giving the earth creature a dim and sheltered place in which to sulk. The spruce’s needles pricked House’s astral skin as he pulled a branch aside.
Grundle’s dark bulk made a lumpy mound against the spruce’s trunk. He looked up with a growl. “What do you want?”
“I heard you were raising hell.”
The earth creature growled even louder. “None of your business.”
“You know it is, Grundle.”
“I don’t like that woman. I don’t want her here. She’s going to ruin our home.”
“Then go someplace else. I want her to stay.”
“I want her gone!”
He shook his head. “Do you think I’ll remain empty forever? Houses are made for people to live in. If Miss Jeremy didn’t move in, someone else would.”
Grundle made a harsh rumbling noise. “She does not feed me the blood I need. She must go.”
“The Van Ortons are gone forever. People nowadays don’t know about creatures like you and me. They don’t make offerings.”
“Then educate her.”
House contemplated the creature’s ugly face. “I’ll consider it.”
“If you don’t, I’ll see to her removal myself.”
“Beware, Grundle. You can only push me so far, and I’ve almost reached my limit.”
He dropped the branch, motioning Twig to follow him. They walked all the way to the other side of the property, which was bordered by a somewhat busy road. Cars drove by, their drivers oblivious to the spirit creatures standing just feet away from them. A middle-aged woman in a black hooded raincoat pushed a sleeping toddler in a stroller along the sidewalk. She didn’t notice them either.
“We’re going to have to work together to keep Grundle in line,” House said. “I’m concerned about him.”
“Yes. My people will help you.” Twig jumped up and down. “We’re small but there are a lot of us.”
“Thank you, Twig.”
She stopped jumping. “Are you really going to tell Miss Jeremy to leave blood out for Grundle?”
“No. I don’t think she would understand.”
“The Van Ortons did it, and I don’t think they really knew why.” She looked thoughtful. “Mr. Van Orton’s parents taught him to do that, didn’t they?”
“Yes. And they were taught by their parents. I think only Gerald really understood what he was doing.”
“Gerald Van Orton was a bad man.”
The pains he always got when thinking of Gerald Van Orton stabbed him in the skull. House pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. “He was. And I don’t want to talk about him.”
“Okay, House. What should we talk about?”
“How we’re going to defeat Grundle.”
During the next week, Eve saw no sign of Mr. House. She didn’t get into the attic, either. Two people had called in sick at the office and she was swamped with their work as well as hers. When she came home she barely had enough energy to eat a sandwich and crawl into bed.
The bug—or vampire—bites continued to appear, a new set every couple of days. Maybe that was part of the reason she felt so tired. Could you get Lyme disease from bed bugs? Probably not. No. But maybe they could transmit something else that drained the energy out of her.
In spite of these problems, she had two more erotic dreams about him. They always ended in him drinking her blood like a vampire. Maybe her sleeping mind was trying to come up with a pleasant explanation for those little marks on her neck.
On Saturday, she didn’t get around to looking upstairs until the afternoon. The morning was taken up with laundry and errands. By the time she got around to it, she was already tired and running on empty. But she didn’t want to wait any longer.
She went to the kitchen to find her flashlight. There was only a single bulb dangling from the attic ceiling, and she might need more light. Then she went upstairs and put on her grungy clothes, sticking her cell phone in her pocket before climbing the stairs.
The attic door still stood open.
Eve turned on the light and stood looking at the accumulation of junk in front of her. It looked like no-one had ever thrown anything away. Good grief. This was going to take awhile, and she didn’t want to simply toss everything in a dumpster. She might miss all the good stuff that way.
“I’m going to just have to start at the edge and work my way back,” she muttered.
Plopping down next to a random box, she opened the cardboard and started digging through the contents. It looked like old school papers dating from the seventies. Childish drawings in crayon and marking pen on yellowed paper, old report cards and faded class pictures. They were cute, but didn’t seem to have much to do with Mr. House.
Another box held baby clothes. Mid-twentieth-century, judging by all the nylon and polyester. Then there were several boxes of cheap paperback novels and old girlie magazines. Eve shoved all this into the area near the door.
Her cell rang. Frowning, she fetched it from her pocket. “Yeah?”
“Eve? This is Tony Crouch. Do you have a minute?”
Eve closed her eyes. She’d thought she’d seen the last of him. “I suppose.”
“Have you had time to consider my proposal?”
“Mr. Crouch, I already told you no. Why are you calling me, anyway? How did you get this number?”
“A friend got it for me.”
“I don’t know who could have given it to you. Only my close friends and my boss have it, and I can’t see them giving it out to someone they don’t know.”
“I’m sorry if I’m intruding. I just wanted to discuss a sale with you.”
She rolled her eyes, even though he couldn’t see her. “There isn’t going to be a sale. I just moved in here. Why would I want to sell?”
“For money. I know you paid a rock-bottom price, and I’m willing to give you market value for the house. That’s a huge profit you’re turning down.”
“Go buy some other historic house. This one is mine.”
“I don’t want another historic house. I want this one.”
“Why? Why is this house so important to you?”
He made a funny sound, like he was gritting his teeth. “That’s really none of your business.”
“Yeah, it is. You’re harassing me, and I want to know why.”
“A phone call isn’t harassment.”
“It sure feels like it. Since I already told you no.” She could hang up on him but he’d probably only call her back.
Crouch heaved a sigh. “The house has a particular history that interests me, okay? The original owner was an occultist.”
“An occultist. You mean, like a wizard or something?”
“Yes, exactly. That’s why I want it. Some other house wouldn’t have the same history.”
Eve glanced around the attic with renewed interest. A wizard. Well, that would certainly jibe with the books in the library. “I’m sorry, Tony. I still don’t want to sell. But I’d be happy to give you a tour of the house some time. You can soak up the atmosphere or something.”
There was a long silence from Crouch. “Okay,” he finally said in strained tones. “I can’t make you sell. I’ll just have to wait you out.”
“Uh, right.” Of course, she had no intention of moving. Ever.
“Sorry I bothered you.”
“Yeah. Well, if you ever want to come by and commune with the wizardly vibes, let me know.”
“I’ll do that.”
The line went dead, so Eve disconnected her end, sticking the phone back in her pocket. With luck that conversation had gotten Crouch off her back. It was too bad, in a way, that he couldn’t have the house, since he was so interested in the man who’d built it. But it was hers now, and House came with the place. House wanted her to live here, not Tony Crouch.
Eve turned her attention back to the attic stash. Maybe there was something related to wizardry in here.
The first thing she discovered was a psychedelic suitcase in orange and pink paisley, which contained some equally psychedelic women’s clothing. Magical in its way, but not exactly wizard-related. It went with the books and school stuff. Next, right near the dress-form, there was a large trunk stuffed full of glamorous evening clothes circa nineteen-sixty. Silk evening gowns with outrageously full skirts, pumps with wickedly pointed toes, and two mink stoles. Someone had liked to party.
As she dug through the mounds of old possessions, she seemed to be going back in time. There were two more trunks of clothing from the forties and fifties, and one full of old toys, including a Shirley Temple doll—still in its box—that must be worth a fortune.
Eve looked up from her labors and realized the sun had set. Probably a couple of hours ago. She was hungry and exhausted.
“Time to quit, I guess.”
She picked up the box of school papers and carried it downstairs with her, just to make more working room. Tomorrow was Sunday, and she could spend all day up there if she wanted to.
As she reached the second-floor landing, something fell out of the bottom of the box. “Shit.”
The damn thing was probably falling apart. Eve set the box on the landing before she lost the rest of its contents and stooped to examine the object that had escaped. It was another drawing.
The style was naive but way beyond a stick drawing. It looked like something a twelve-year-old might have done. It depicted a dark-haired man in loose trousers and jacket, with a vest—no, a waistcoat—underneath. He wore a top hat. Under the figure, in a childish hand, was the word ghost.
Eve shivered. The picture couldn’t be a coincidence. Some young resident of the house had seen him, too, and made a drawing of him.
She left the box on the landing, but took the picture with her to the kitchen where she made herself a peanut-butter sandwich and a glass of milk for dinner. Sitting at the old pine table, she stared at the drawing while she ate.
He didn’t think he was a ghost. But what other explanation was there? Obviously the young artist had believed it.
Mr. House was probably the reason the place hadn’t sold until she’d come along. Eve chuckled. If Tony Crouch knew about him, maybe he wouldn’t be so eager to buy her out.
Eve left the picture on the kitchen table and went upstairs to bed. Tomorrow she would return to the attic and dig through more boxes. If she went back far enough, she might even find the belongings of the original owner.
She climbed into bed. The existing Eastlake frame was a little bigger than her full-size mattress, which tended to slide a bit when she got in or out. Maybe when she’d finished with the attic she’d buy herself a new bed.
I wonder how many people have slept in this one? It wasn’t a totally comfortable thought. In the nineteenth century, people usually died at home. In bed. Eve shuddered. I’m not going to think about that.
She woke with a start in the very early morning. Something had made her wake up, but what was it? Silvery moonlight shone through the dusty lace at the windows, throwing long shadows across the room. Nothing moved, nothing was out of place.
But she felt it.
Someone else was here. There was a presence in the room that made her neck prickle. Eve’s mouth went dry. The thing—whatever it was—made no sound, but somehow she knew it was there. A curl of dread pierced her stomach.
“House?” she whispered. “Is that you?”
The silence was broken by the sound of raspy breathing from just beyond the foot of her bed, where a thick shadow lurked. A shuffling sound followed, like big feet scuffing across the floorboards. Shuffle. Shuffle. Coming closer.
Eve went cold all over her body. “You’re scaring me.”
She reached for the lamp switch. An enormous hand descended on her wrist. It was heavier than anything human, and it felt cold, like wet clay. She screamed.
The thing crashed on top of her, pinning her to the bed. Coarse breaths blew over her face, smelling like old earth. Like a crypt. She could feel the dampness of its body through her nightshirt. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a human being.
Eve shrieked. She thrashed under the creature. Its bulk pressed on her, pushing the breath from her lungs, holding her captive. There wasn’t even enough air in her to power another scream.
The creature’s weight was centered over her, leaving her arms and legs free. She kicked against the bed, trying to shift it off her. Nothing happened. Eve grabbed at the antique headboard. Her fingers slid over the carved surface, searching for a handhold. There wasn’t one. Nothing on the frame stood out far enough for her to grab.
The weighty hand clamped over her breast and squeezed. Its head descended toward her. Rough teeth scraped over her cheek.
“Eat you.” The voice sounded deep and inhuman. Its hand squeezed her breast again, hard enough to hurt. The teeth closed on her earlobe and bit in a painful parody of foreplay.
Eve pounded her fists into the body that lay on top of her. The creature bit down harder. It was really going to eat her, tear off her earlobe, and God knew what else. Her heart raced so fast she felt dizzy.
Okay, if I can’t push it off me, what can I do?
“What do you want from me?” she wheezed.
“Flesh.” It bit so hard she felt a warm trickle from her ear.
Alrighty. Maybe talking wasn’t such a good idea. “Um—what about a substitute? I could feed you.”
The creature responded by sniffing her neck.
“Did you hear me? I’ll give you food. Steak. I have raw steak in my fridge.”
“A woman is tastier. Fresher.”
Then there was another presence and the sound of a chair moving. In the moonlight she saw the silhouette of a man. House? He lifted her small vanity chair over his head and brought it crashing down on the back of her attacker.
The creature roared. Eve’s ears rang from the noise. The newcomer smashed the creature again with the chair. One of the chair’s legs clattered to the floor.
The mud-creature lifted its heavy body off her, turning to face the man with the chair. The light caught the man’s face. It was House, his mouth a grim and furious line. He lifted one of the remaining chair legs like a club.
“Get out of my house,” he snarled.
“Eat her,” the mud-thing said, and laughed with a harsh, grating sound.
It was taller than House and twice as broad, its fists like bowling balls. How could he possibly fight it and win? It was going to crush him.
House swung his improvised club at the creature’s head, cracking it into its skull. Another blow slammed against the side of its neck. Her gentle ghost had transformed into a warrior.
“Friends, to me!” he shouted.
The creature slammed a fist into House’s mid-section. He bent over with a groan. No! The mud-thing pulled its giant hand back for another blow. House sidestepped just in time, and mud-thing stumbled into the bedroom wall with a thud.
A weird clattering sound came from outside her door. Small humanoid figures poured into her bedroom from the hallway. What were those things? They had skinny, knobby arms and legs, as if they were made from twigs.
Mud-thing turned from the wall with a growl. The twig-people swarmed over it, scratching and digging at it with their sharp hands and feet. Eve stared, shivering.
She wasn’t really seeing this. Was she?
Mud-thing roared again. It batted at the twigs, trying to brush them off, but there were too many. For every one that fell to the floor, two or three climbed up to replace it. And they seemed to be hurting the mud creature, judging by the frantic way he slapped at them.
In the midst of the pandemonium, House stuck out his foot and tripped Mud-thing, which fell backwards onto the floor. A wave of twig-people scurried out of its way, but a few were caught beneath it. She winced at the crunching sound when Mud-thing landed on them.
Eve scooted to the edge of the bed to watch. Maybe there was something she could do to help. Like what? Come at it with a garden tiller?
House put a booted foot on the thing’s neck. Twig-people swarmed back onto the creature, digging into its body. Mud-thing twitched. House raised his club and brought it down on Mud-thing’s forehead.
The creature attempted to rise, but House’s foot and the hordes of twig people restrained it. He raised the club again. Over and over, House beat it into the block-like skull. With every strike, the creature grunted.
Pebbles rattled on the floorboards every time the stick landed. The twig-people chattered in high-pitched voices as they clambered over it. They seemed to be pulling pieces off it and tossing them on the floor.
House slammed his club down one last time and Mud-thing’s head broke apart. The twig-people cheered. Some of them broke into a spontaneous circle dance around their prone enemy. It was like a scene from some mutant horror kid’s-movie hybrid.
Eve took a shuddering breath. “Is it dead?”
House looked at her. “No.”
“He won’t hurt you now. He’ll be weak for awhile. A few months, maybe.”
“What was that thing?”
“That is Grundle.” House dropped his chair-leg on the thing’s body. “He’s an earth spirit of sorts.”
Eve turned on her bedside lamp. Her hands were shaking. As she watched, Grundle’s form began to shimmer and fade. Light began to show through its blocky form until it became so transparent she could see the floorboards right through its body, along with the tiny creatures it had trapped beneath itself. Then it vanished, leaving the squished twig-people free to spring up from the floor.
“What just happened?” she said. “Where did he go?”
“His primary form is in the spirit world. What you might call the astral. He returns there to heal when he’s injured.”
She wrapped her arms around herself. “Thank you for saving me.”
House smiled gravely. “You’re very welcome.”
The twig-people stopped dancing and scampered from the room in little groups of three and four. With the light on, she could see their bark-like skin, their knobby knees and elbows, and their tiny creased faces. None of them came any higher than her knee.
“They’re shy,” House said. “Not accustomed to humans.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“Not to you.” He came a little closer, leaning in and peering at her face with a concerned expression. “Are you well? Did Grundle injure you?”
“No. I mean, yes. I’m fine. Just a little freaked out.”
But she was shaking, a fine quiver through her whole body that she couldn’t seem to control. That thing had pinned her to the bed and bitten her. Would it have raped her, given the chance? A shudder wracked her body.
House sat down next to her on the bed and put his hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be alright.”
Eve nodded with jerky movements. She continued to shiver, her head down. It was too much. Just too much. Ghosts were one thing, but tiny twig-people and mud monster rapists were something else completely.
“I’m having a d-delayed reaction,” she said.
An ugly thought occurred to her. What if she was hallucinating all this? Maybe she was crazy and didn’t know it. But Josie and the other guests had seen House throw those vases, so that at least had been real.
Very slowly, House’s hand slid around to her other shoulder until he had his arm around her. It had real weight, and warmth. Eve allowed herself to lean into him a little, and his arm tightened around her. She drew in a breath. He smelled slightly musky, like male sweat. Alive.
It was a scent that made her core contract in recognition and yearning.
People on those old house renovation shows always talk about how their house has a personality or a soul. Mine really does.
—from Eve’s journal
Gradually her head came to rest against the soft, fine wool of his jacket. It wasn’t black after all, but a dark herringbone charcoal. There was mud on the front of it from Grundle.
“You’re safe now, Miss Jeremy. He won’t be able to come back for some months.”
She looked up at him. “Did I really see all that?”
“I’m not hallucinating?”
“You’re not hallucinating.” He glanced at the front of her. “He left mud on you.”
Eve looked down at her nightshirt. Smears of reddish clay covered it from neckline to hem. “Crap. I think it’s on my face too.”
“You have some on your jacket. Why can he leave mud on us when the rest of him has disappeared?”
House shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s like blood. If blood leaves your body, it stays even when you go.”
“That sounds remarkably logical for something so totally weird.”
He smiled, a little more broadly than before. “The spirit world has its own logic.”
She wanted to take a very hot shower and wash off every trace of Grundle. But she didn’t want to lose contact with Mr. House. Especially when he smelled and felt so damn good. Her body remembered the erotic dreams she’d had about him and wanted to relive every moment. Eve looked at him and tried to smile.
“I—um—need to get clean.”
He straightened his back as his arm fell away from her body. “I’ll leave you, then. I apologize for the necessity of invading your private chamber.” House stood up without looking directly at her. Was he embarrassed? He was a product of the nineteenth century, after all, whether house or man.
“Wait!” she said before he could vanish on her. “Don’t go.”
“Would you wait for me? I’m going to go down to the kitchen for a snack after my shower. You could join me. I mean, I’d like it if you joined me.” She was so tongue-tied, she sounded like a teenager with a crush.
His posture relaxed just a hair. “I would be pleased to do so.”
“Okay. I’ll be done in about ten minutes. You won’t disappear on me, will you?”
“No. I will stay here for you.”
The words had an odd weight to them, as if he meant more than he said. Eve slid off the bed, wondering if he would stare at her bare legs. She pulled a clean nightshirt from her drawer, grabbed her robe from its hook behind the door, and went down the hall to the bathroom. In her peripheral vision, she noticed him watching her. His regard gave her another shiver, this time of pleasure.
Eve left him in her room and walked into the hallway on her way to the bathroom. There were no en suite baths in this house. In fact, the bath on this level seemed to have been a small bedroom at one time.
There was never enough hot water either. She stood under the meager spray and scrubbed clay from her face and sweat from the rest of her. By the time she’d gotten herself clean, the water was going cold. She needed something hot in her stomach to drive the rest of the shakes from her body.
When she emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later, clean and semi-decent in her robe and furry house boots, she half expected House to be gone. But he wasn’t. He stood on the landing, staring meditatively at an old black-and-white photograph on the wall. As she left the bathroom, he turned his head and smiled at her. This time his dimples showed.
“Feeling better?” he said.
“Much better. Thank you for waiting.”
“It was my pleasure.”
He offered her his arm. Eve gazed at it a moment in bewilderment before accepting. She’d never seen a man offer his arm in her life. Nobody did that anymore. But, as she’d reminded herself earlier, Mr. House was not of this century.
They walked down the staircase together in awkward silence. His arm felt hard and muscular under her hand. Solid. There was some body heat, too, even through the jacket.
Her hands itched to push their way beneath his shirt to the warm skin beneath it. Her physical self didn’t seem to know the difference between dreams and reality, because all her body wanted was to have his cock in her again.
He’s not even a living being, Eve. Give it up.
Yet he felt alive. At the bottom of the stairs, she looked up at him. “I can feel you. I mean, you’re warm and solid, like a living person. How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. Something is changing in me, but I don’t know what it is.”
They went into the kitchen, where Eve turned on the overhead light. She filled the kettle, set it on the stove, and put some bread in the toaster. Tea and toast could fix almost anything. Mr. House stood next to the table, watching her.
“I wish I could get you something,” Eve said. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
He blinked. “I don’t believe I can drink.”
“Let’s find out.” She took a couple of mugs from the cupboard and put a teabag in each one.
“A-alright.” He looked so suddenly unsure of himself that she wanted to comfort him. Then he looked away from her, as if embarrassed, and his gaze fell on the picture she’d left on the table.
“What is this?” He picked it up.
“I found it in the attic, in a box of old kids’ drawings and stuff.”
“It says ‘ghost.’” House glanced at her. “Do you think it refers to me?”
“Are there any other tall, dark and handsome ghosts in this house?” she said lightly.
He blushed. “I don’t believe so. But I’m not a ghost.”
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“I can’t explain it,” he answered, shaking his head. “I feel I’m a part of the house itself, rather than the spirit of a dead human.”
“The house itself? Is that why you call yourself Mr. House?”
“It’s the only name I know. Everyone calls me House.”
Her brows rose. “Everyone? Who is everyone?”
“Twig and her people. Grundle. The other local spirits. They all address me as House, so I have assumed it’s my correct name.”
The toast popped up and the kettle began to whistle at the same time. Eve turned to making tea and buttering toast. Mr. House believed he was the spirit of the house itself. That had to be the weirdest thing she’d ever heard, even weirder than a mud-creature attacking her in her bedroom. Although people did say they felt like their houses had souls . . . but then, they didn’t mean it literally.
“I’ll bet the lady at Thorn and Blossom has never heard of anything like this,” she said.
“Thorn and Blossom?”
“It’s a bookstore I visited. That day I was burning sage. They specialize in ritual magic.”
“I like the name.”
Eve put the plate of toast on the table and sat down next to House. She mixed some milk and sugar into the mugs and passed one to him. He looked at it for a moment before taking it in both hands. Then he lifted it up to his nose and inhaled the steam.
“I can feel the heat.” He sipped, carefully. His eyes widened. He stared into the cup, then looked up at her with a surprised grin. “I drank.”
She grinned back. “I’m glad it worked.”
He took another sip of tea, enjoyment evident on his face.
“Would you like some toast?”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Just try.” She pushed the plate toward him.
He picked up a slice. Brought it to his nose and sniffed. Eve tried not to smile. Then he took a bite. His eyes widened again when the bite of toast disappeared inside his mouth. Eve watched as he chewed and swallowed.
“That tastes incredible. I can’t believe it worked,” he said.
“I wonder if it means you’re right, and you’re not a ghost.”
“I’m reasonably certain ghosts can’t eat solid food.”
She laughed. “Probably not.” A thought occurred to her. “If you’d never picked up a solid object until now, how did you hit Grundle with the chair?”
House contemplated that. “I guess that was the first time after all. When I did it, I was thinking only of how to stop him.”
Eve clasped his wrist in a gentle squeeze. “Thank you again for saving me. I think he really did want to kill me.”
“I would never let that happen.”
His gaze moved down to her lips. He wanted to kiss her. Please, yes. Eve licked her lower lip.
He leaned toward her and she leaned toward him at the same time. Their lips met in a caress. There was something sacred in it that she could feel even though she couldn’t explain it to herself.
What a strange thought to have during a kiss. She’d never experienced making out as sacred before.
His lips were soft. They lingered on hers as the two of them just breathed together. Then they moved slightly, pressing into her upper lip. He did the upper lip a second time, like he was trying to remember how it was done. Or maybe like he was asking permission.
The ferocity he’d shown toward Grundle seemed banked. House lifted a hand to cradle her head as he moved further into the kiss. He toyed with her lower lip for awhile, angling his head as his tongue swept along the margin of her mouth.
Eve made a little sighing sound. She put her hands on his shoulders, holding onto him, opening for him. His body felt like solid muscle and bone beneath her touch. Her core grew warm and moist.
He gave a soft moan and plunged his tongue into her mouth. He tasted so male, so alive. He couldn’t be a ghost. She leaned against him. His free arm slid around her back, holding her tightly to his body.
House withdrew from her mouth to press kisses along her jaw. “Eve,” he murmured, working his way down the side of her neck. “Darling Eve.”
Their mouths came together again, open and wet, plunging, seeking. She reached up to run her fingers through his hair. It felt silky and clean. His hand stroked up and down along her back and then wandered downward to the curve of her hip. Eve whimpered, arching against him.
House broke off the kiss. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He was breathing hard.
“Why not?” She tried to urge him down to her lips, but he was immovable.
“No, Eve. Miss Jeremy. It isn’t right.”
He pushed himself away from her, shoved his chair backward until there was at least a foot of space between them. She ached at the loss. Eve leaned over and grabbed his hands.
“It feels right to me. I want to be with you.”
“I’m not human,” he said with a pained expression.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t love.” Was she trying to convince him or herself?
“I don’t even know what I am.” He scowled. “I could hurt you without meaning to.”
“Oh.” She began to shiver again. “I guess that’s a good reason.”
House bent his head for a moment. Then he looked her in the eye. “I won’t kiss you anymore, but if you will let me, I’d like to visit you again.”
Her heart was still racing, her core wet and achy after that kiss. Eve pressed her hands together. “Of course you can visit me. I’d be mad at you if you didn’t.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t want you to be mad at me.”
“No, you wouldn’t. And you can call me Eve instead of Miss Jeremy.”
House stood up and gave her a small bow. “Until next time, then. Eve.”
He vanished. He didn’t fade and turn transparent like Grundle. One minute he was there, looking totally solid, and the next he was gone. Eve sat staring at his tea cup, still mostly full. For some reason her eyes stung like she was about to cry.
She didn’t want her tea anymore, and she didn’t want to go back upstairs to bed. In fact, she might have to move into another bedroom after what had happened in there. She heaved a sigh. Then she went into the living room and laid on the old saggy couch with the light on behind her.
She hadn’t had a boyfriend in two years. That’s all this was—sex deprivation. Using hand tools was no substitute for a real man.
And neither is an apparition, no matter how alive he feels.
House dreamed. He was in human form and surrounded by a large crowd of other people in a dizzying variety of costumes. Some wore clothes that appeared to be made of feathers or leaves or the petals of flowers. It seemed to be a fancy dress ball, although no-one wore a mask.
Music played, lively music that sounded strange to his ears. And the people were dancing all around him, even though he stood still. Women and men leaped and whirled, alone or with a partner, it didn’t seem to matter.
The tempo of the music grew faster and faster, the dancers moving more and more quickly without missing a beat. They looked inhuman as they swept through the swift and intricate movements of their dance. For no human could possibly move as quickly and accurately as they did.
Then he was alone in a dark and quiet place. No, not alone. Another person was with him and his lips were pressed to her neck. His mouth was open on her warm skin. There was a persistent beat coming from her, a whoosh and thump that he realized was the sound of her heart beating.
His cock was inside her. She felt so warm, so alive beneath him, surrounding him with her wet heat. He loved her. Loved being inside her body. Flexing his hips, he moaned against her neck.
His teeth were wrong. They were too long and too sharp. Before he knew what he meant to do, he’d stabbed the woman in the neck with them. Hot, salty blood flowed from the wound he’d made, and he petted her as he drank it down in great gulps. Like a monster.
House awoke. Rain pattered on his roof. His human body was gone, his mind spread out along rafter and beam, through walls and floors and window glass. If he’d been in human form, he would have sighed in relief. Thank God it had only been a dream.
He wasn’t a vampire.
Eve had left the house. She had left him. She must have gone while he was asleep, because he couldn’t remember her leaving. What was she doing out there in the world? If he’d been a normal person, he could have gone with her.
Probably she’d gone to church or the grocery store, something ordinary. Was today Sunday? He could never keep track of the days as they came and went in a seemingly endless stream.
He shifted his consciousness toward the outside skin of the house. Rain dripped from a gray sky, dripped from his eaves, dripped from the branches of the trees. He was wet. Not an unusual state for him to be in this time of year.
At the edge of the garden, someone moved around in the bushes. The person was too big to be Eve. It was male and walking into the yard from the overgrown perimeter hedge. House focused all his energy on looking at this person. There was something familiar about him and that familiar quality set House’s nonexistent teeth on edge.
The intruder wore a navy-blue hooded rain jacket over jeans and kept his head down as he crossed the garden. But then he glanced up at the house and showed his face.
House growled soundlessly. That man didn’t belong here, and definitely shouldn’t be on the property when Eve was gone. House watched as the fellow neared the front porch. He felt the weight and rhythm of Crouch’s steps as he climbed the stairs and crossed the porch to the front door. Then the doorknob rattled.
He dared try to enter without permission?
House found himself standing in human form on the grand staircase. Time to let that insufferable human know just how unwelcome he was. He ran down the stairs toward the foyer. Crouch was not getting in here, even if House had to wrestle him down and toss him out the door.
When he reached the small foyer, he heard the sound of a key being inserted into the lock. Where had Crouch acquired a key? There was a rattle and then a slight grating noise. Maybe he hadn’t; he was picking the lock. House grabbed the doorknob and held it so it wouldn’t turn.
“Who’s there?” Crouch said.
House didn’t answer.
“Benedict?” Crouch said in a stunned tone. “Michael Benedict?”
The name sent a strange shock through House. He was standing behind a solid mahogany door, so Crouch couldn’t see him. What reason would the man have for imagining he was this Benedict fellow?
But the name felt familiar. It felt right.
Crouch pounded on the door, rattling the knob at the same time. “Open this door, Benedict!”
“You’re trespassing,” House said.
“By the gods, it is you!”
By the gods? It was a strange and anachronistic expression for modern Portland, Oregon.
“Get off this property.”
“Let me in, Benedict. We need to talk.”
“Mr. Crouch?” It was Eve’s voice.
Because House was in his human form and she was on the other side of the door, he couldn’t see her. But he heard her feet on the walk. He heard Tony Crouch turn from the door to face her as she came up the steps.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m speaking to Michael Benedict. If I were you, I wouldn’t allow a character like that in my house.”
“Michael Benedict? I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“Then he’s breaking and entering. Or should I say broken and entered?”
“That isn’t funny. Here, let me open the door.”
House heard the sound of a key in the lock. This time, it was Eve’s key. She would open the door and they’d see him. He tensed, as an urgent need to retreat possessed him.
I can’t let Crouch get that close to me.
He focused on receding into the fabric of the building. Nothing happened. His form remained stubbornly human. The doorknob turned.
I have to disappear.
He took a step back toward the central hall. The door opened. House caught a glimpse of Eve’s astonished face and then he sank into the floorboards. Eve walked across him, Crouch following her inside uninvited.
House retreated, moving from the floor of the central hall into the staircase and then the ceiling. He wanted to watch and listen, to see what Crouch would do. But he couldn’t allow himself to be detected. Crouch was dangerous to him, although not to Eve.
She removed her coat and hat. When she took off the hat, she pushed her hair off her neck, and then he saw the marks. Two pinpoint wounds, like stab wounds. Like a bite wound. House froze in horror, his distress making the floorboards creak.
Hell and damnation. The dream was real.
A magician’s wife must not ask impertinent questions, for woman is by nature far too weak and frivolous for occult knowledge. She is better left in ignorance.
—Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Eve turned in irritation as Tony Crouch followed her into the house. Had he seen Mr. House when she opened the door? The expression on House’s face had been one of tension, maybe even anger. Or fear.
Crouch closed the door behind him, as if she’d invited him to come inside. She crossed her arms over her chest and frowned at him as she cast around for a way to get him to leave.
“I don’t remember asking you in.”
Crouch frowned back at her. “There’s a dangerous intruder in your home. I want to help.”
“I have only your word that a man was in here. And it looked to me like you were the one breaking and entering.” When Crouch flushed, she pressed her advantage. “You were picking my lock, weren’t you?”
He puffed up his chest. “I was not picking your lock. I simply knocked on the door and Benedict answered.”
“Then why were you bent over the keyhole?”
Crouch flushed an even darker red. “I—was examining your unusual knob. It looks original.”
“Uh huh. Okay, so if you knocked on the door and Benedict is an intruder then why would he answer? Wouldn’t he go and hide? Or run out the back door?” Crouch obviously wasn’t very bright.
“Are you going to stand here arguing with me when there’s a strange man in your house?”
She cocked her head as an idea occurred. “Hold on. What does this Benedict guy look like?”
“He’s tall and dark-haired, and he wears weird old-fashioned clothes. He’s an eccentric.”
He’s talking about Mr. House. She should have known when she saw House standing in the foyer, but she’d been too focused on getting rid of Crouch. Wait a minute. Mr. House spoke to Tony Crouch?
“Okay.” She nodded. “Tall, dark and weird, got it. How do you happen to know him?”
Crouch hooked one thumb in the pocket of his jeans. “We’re both interested in the house. You might say he’s my rival. He’s not a safe person for you to be around, Eve.”
“Oh, come on. Just because he’s an oddball doesn’t mean he’s dangerous. Lots of people in Portland are a little off-center.”
“This is more than off-center. He’s unstable and violent, and a compulsive liar. I knew he had an interest in the house, but I had no idea he’d actually been here. I have to say I’m worried about you.”
Crouch did sound worried. He seemed genuinely concerned about something, but it probably wasn’t her safety. She put on a smile.
“Listen, thanks for warning me. I appreciate your concern. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone here, and I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Her unwanted visitor looked around, as if he might spy Benedict hiding behind a sofa. “This is a big house, Eve. He could be anywhere in here and you wouldn’t know it until it was too late.”
“Maybe I should call the police.”
For a second, he looked taken aback. “Oh,” he said, clearing his throat. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Why not? You said he was in the house and he’s dangerous.”
“Well, uh, if you want to call the cops, go ahead. I mean, it’s your house. But I’d rather not give a statement.”
Eve narrowed her eyes. He didn’t want to give a statement? “I have to say that makes it harder for me to believe your story.”
“It’s just, I think you’re right. He probably went out the back door. I’m sure he wouldn’t be waiting around for us to find him.” Crouch lifted his arm and pushed back the sleeve of his rain jacket to check his watch. “Shit, it’s later than I thought. I’ve got to go. Let me give you my card and you can call me if Benedict shows up again.”
He produced a business card from his pocket and held it out to her. Eve took it, sticking it in her own jeans pocket. Crouch turned toward the front door and stopped with his hand on the knob.
“It’s a good thing I came along when I did, or you would have surprised him yourself,” he said. “He might have jumped you.”
That would be nice. I really didn’t want him to stop kissing me last night. She made an effort to look worried. “I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“That’s a wise choice, Eve.” Crouch opened the door.
“Thanks, Tony. See you later.” The man was nuts. Whoever this Benedict was, he couldn’t be Mr. House, could he? Not unless he was dead, and if he was dead then Crouch wouldn’t have warned her about him.
She waited, watching through a bit of clear glass in the stained-glass sidelight until Crouch was completely off the property. Then she took the card out of her pocket and examined it.
Anthony Crouch Enterprises, it read. Underneath the name was an e-mail address and website url. Hmm. Not very enlightening, but she could always look him up on the web and see what she could find that way.
Eve hung her purse next to her coat on the hall tree. She kicked off her running shoes and put on the fur-lined boots she liked to wear in the house. The floors were always cold. Then she walked to the end of the central hall, where anyone listening from outside was unlikely to hear.
“Mr. House? I know you’re in here. I saw you.”
“Mr. House? You said you’d like to spend time with me. Won’t you come and talk to me now?”
Still no answer. Eve sighed. House was even more unpredictable than ordinary men. “I had a great time, baby. I’ll call you.” Yeah, right.
Either way, she had an attic to explore. She found the flashlight and climbed the stairs.
This time she was going to be more efficient. She went through each box swiftly, just to see if it looked relevant. If she didn’t see anything really old—as in, mid-nineteenth century—the box went on the landing or against the west wall. An hour later, all the boxes she’d opened were on the landing or against the west wall.
She’d traveled back in time to the turn of the twentieth century and found plenty of treasures on the way. Mostly women’s clothes, but there was a World War I uniform that looked complete. Maybe after she’d sorted all this stuff, she could open her own museum. Eve smiled a little at the idea. The money she made could help pay for renovation costs.
Finally she’d worked her way to the back of the attic, where the oldest stuff was hidden. There were several gigantic steamer trunks here, along with some worn cardboard suitcases, a raft of variously sized crates and wooden boxes, and five enormously heavy leather suitcases with brass fittings. This was the good stuff. She could feel it.
Eve looked up at the empty air behind her. “House? Are you sure you don’t want to join me? I’m going to open some of these old boxes. They look like they’re from the time the house was built.”
Once again, there was no answer. Maybe he couldn’t even hear her voice. Eve sighed. She turned to the first suitcase and opened it.
Inside were layers and layers of fine cambric women’s underwear. Chemises, pantaloons, and petticoats, mostly in white. When she touched the delicate fabric, Eve shivered. Women long dead had worn these garments next to their skin.
She moved to a steamer trunk. Opening it, the first thing she saw was a man’s suit of clothes, almost exactly like the one House wore except made of brown fabric instead of gray. She removed the clothing and laid it reverently to the side.
Underneath the suit she found more clothes. Strange ones. They looked a little like nightshirts or Medieval tunics, except they were embroidered with unfamiliar symbols. Eve laid them over the uniform one by one, until she’d reached a lower level of the trunk.
Here she found a collection of plates in different metals. One was copper, one silver, another gold—or more likely gold plate. There was even one made of wood. On top of the wooden plate sat an ornate incense burner on a chain and some kind of wooden rod.
Eve lifted the rod. It was slender, made of dark wood and polished to a satiny gleam. One end had been carved into a pine-cone shape, which gave the thing a vaguely phallic appearance. As she held it, an unsettling sense of unease came over her. Her fingers tingled wherever they came in contact with it, and she had the weirdest notion that the piece was evil.
Don’t be silly. It’s just an inanimate object.
She held it in one hand, lifting it up so the light from the overhead bulb hit the wood. Then she knew. It was a wand. A wizard’s magic wand.
She almost laughed out loud. People didn’t find magic wands hidden in their attics. But what about those night-shirt thingies with the symbols on them? They could be wizard’s robes. And what about the plates and the incense burner? And the occult books in the library? Crouch had said the original owner was an occultist, after all.
She’d stumbled on a trunk full of wizard paraphernalia.
Eve moved the plates into a stack on the floor. Beneath them were several leather-bound books. She picked up the first one. The cover was plain red leather. It had no title, and when she opened it she found it was filled with pages of handwritten script of a type she’d never seen before. The letters were completely alien in appearance.
It must be a blank book, the kind meant as a journal. Whoever had owned it had used this foreign language to make his entries. Perhaps he’d used it like a code.
How do you know it was a man?
She didn’t know, not for sure. She just felt it. Anyway, hadn’t Crouch said the owner was male?
Eve flipped through the book. Some pages had diagrams and charts that looked like the talismans and magic squares in The Magus.
See? It is a wizard’s trunk.
And then she found the pictures.
They were sepia-toned—tintypes or lithographs, or whatever people used back then. The first picture showed a man in a rumpled, loose-fitting suit that resembled the one House wore, and the one in the trunk. He was hatless and sported wild muttonchop whiskers. His deep-set eyes seemed to glower at her, as if he could see her somehow through the medium of the photograph, and disliked her.
The second was a young woman in a full-skirted dress, her hair pulled smoothly over her ears. She kept her hands folded demurely in her lap. The tension on her face suggested something worse than mere boredom at having to sit still for a portrait. She looked sad.
Eve turned the page to the next picture and saw Mr. House.
She gasped, her fingers tightening on the book. It was him. He wore clothes that looked the same as what he wore when he appeared to her, except he had a top hat on his head. He was clean-shaven and smiling. You didn’t see people smile much in these old photos. House’s dimples were even showing.
A line of that same alien script labeled the picture. Two words. His name? She was willing to bet that was his name, and if she could translate it, it would probably read Michael Benedict. No. It couldn’t be Benedict if it was House.
That makes less than no sense. Why would Tony Crouch be looking for a man who died one hundred and fifty years ago? He obviously thinks Benedict is alive.
Eve stroked the picture gently with her fingertips. This book held clues that could explain why Mr. House was trapped here. She needed to translate it. But how? She didn’t even know in what language it was written.
The people at Thorn and Blossom might recognize it.
The store probably closed early on Sundays, but there was still a little daylight left. They might be open a little longer. Eve replaced the items in the trunk, all except for the book, which she tucked under her arm.
She’d just reached the bottom of the stairs when someone rang the doorbell. Damn. Not Tony Crouch again. This time she was going to block the way with her body in order to keep him out. Eve set the book on the stair and trotted over to the door, wishing it had a peephole so she could find out who was there without being seen herself. With a sigh, she opened the door.
The only thing better than family is a lover. The only thing better than a lover is family.
Her visitor wasn’t Crouch. This man was quite tall, with golden hair that reached his shoulders and almond-shaped green eyes, dark, like the water in a forest lake. Except one eye seemed a little brighter than the other. Other than the mismatched eyes, his features were remarkably even and beautiful.
“Miss Eve Jeremy?”
She blushed. Caught staring. “Uh. Yeah, that’s me.”
“My name is Thorn Sakirian. I’m an investigator.” He spoke with an unusual, lyrical accent.
“An investigator? You mean like a P.I.?”
He smiled. “Exactly like a P.I. I’m looking for a man named Michael Benedict.”
Whoa. This day just got weirder and weirder. She opened her mouth to say that she knew Michael. But she didn’t know this Sakirian guy. Eve closed her mouth. What if he was House’s enemy? But then, House couldn’t be Benedict. Could he? God, this was confusing.
“Can I see some i.d., please?”
“Of course.” Sakirian reached in his back jeans pocket and brought out a wallet. He produced a driver’s license with his name on it and a business card that read Thorn Sakirian, Sakirian Investigations.
“Okay.” But anyone could have business cards printed. “Why do you want this Benedict guy?”
“His family is searching for him. He went missing some years ago. They hired me to help find him and I have reason to believe he once lived in this house.”
“I have a photo.” Sakirian pulled a picture out of his inside breast pocket and handed it to her.
Eve blinked. It was a modern color photo of Mr. House, dressed in dark pants and jacket but looking modern enough to match the technology that had produced the picture. She looked up to see Thorn Sakirian watching her.
“Do you recognize him, Miss Jeremy?”
Eve looked him in the eye. “I’ve seen a man who looks like this.” She paused for effect. “But he’s a ghost.”
Sakirian’s eyes widened. “A ghost?”
“Yeah. You know, an apparition? My house is haunted, and the ghost looks just like this Michael Benedict.”
Sakirian stared at her for a minute, apparently at a loss for words. Then he cleared his throat. “Would it be alright if I came in?”
“Okay.” She held the door open to let him enter.
He looked around the dimly lit central hall with interest. “Did you furnish the house with Victorian reproductions?”
“No. It came this way.”
Sakirian raised his brows. “It did? That seems unusual.”
“Yeah. I thought the same thing. Come to the kitchen and I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Why did I invite this guy in? He could be an axe-murderer, for God’s sake. But he didn’t seem like an axe-murderer. He gave off what Eve’s mom would call really good vibes.
“It looks like hardly any time has passed in here,” he remarked, following her to the kitchen.
“I know. It’s pretty amazing, huh?” She put the kettle on the stove.
“The owners must have maintained it perfectly.”
They chatted for a few minutes while Eve prepared the tea. He was strangely easy to talk to. She found herself telling him all about her lottery win and how she’d found the house and made up her mind to have it. When she handed him his cup, he smiled at her. If she wasn’t already crushing on House, that smile would have knocked her on her ass.
“Thank you, Miss Jeremy.”
“Please, call me Eve.” The only other person who calls me Miss Jeremy is House.
“Then you must call me Thorn.”
“Alright.” She took a sip of tea. “Why do you think Benedict lived here?”
“Basically rumor. I heard he was renting a room from the man who used to own the house.”
“I don’t think he could be the same person as my ghost.”
“The ghost wears old-fashioned clothes. Like nineteenth-century old-fashioned.”
Thorn studied her face. “Perhaps the two are related.”
“You mean Benedict is a descendant of my ghost?”
“Something like that.”
“Huh.” Eve rubbed her forehead. “That’s quite a coincidence, him living in the same house his ancestor haunts.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“It’s weird you would come here today. I had another man come to the door asking for Michael Benedict.”
Thorn sat up straighter. “Did you? What was his name?”
“Tony Crouch. He came around once before, trying to bully me into selling the house to him. Today he claimed Benedict had broken in. Maybe he saw my ghost and mistook him for Benedict.”
“Maybe he did,” Thorn said, giving her an odd look. “I’ll see what I can find out about him.”
“Will you let me know your results? He’s been pretty obnoxious.”
“Of course. You have my card. Don’t hesitate to call me if you feel like you need some help.”
“Okay. I’ll do that.”
“I should probably be going. Let me know if you hear anything about Benedict or see him. His family is very worried about him.” He moved toward the door.
Eve escorted him to the front of the house and locked up after him. It was too late now to visit the book store. She’d have to do it after work tomorrow.
She should have asked Thorn more questions about Benedict. Like why he thought the man was missing. What might have happened to him. When he’d last been seen.
She jumped. When she turned, House was standing there in the hall. The sadness was back on his face.
“You startled me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I called for you earlier. Why didn’t you come?”
House shook his head. “I need to stay away from you. I’m dangerous.”
“I don’t believe that.” She walked toward him.
He moved backward. “Don’t come too close. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Why are you talking like this? What’s wrong?”
A look of anguish passed over his face, so quickly she wasn’t sure she’d seen it. “I’d rather not talk about it. It would be best for us to stay some distance apart.”
“Alright. I was going to make some dinner. Will you come to the kitchen with me?”
House nodded slowly. He stood back against the wall to let her pass before him. Then he followed her into the kitchen and stood in the corner with his arms folded across his chest.
Eve pulled some ground beef out of the fridge.
“Who was that man who just left?” he said, watching her.
“His name is Thorn Sakirian. He’s looking for a missing man named Michael Benedict.”
House pinched his eyes shut. “I know that name. But I don’t know why it’s important to me.”
She pulled a frying pan from a hook on the wall and turned on the stove. “He showed me a picture. Benedict looks exactly like you. I think maybe he’s your descendant.”
“How can he be my descendant when I was never human?”
“I don’t know how you can be so sure you were never human.” Eve unwrapped the beef and put it in the pan. “You look human to me.”
“But I’m a part of this house. Part of the structure. When I’m not in this form, I experience the house as my body. How could that be human?”
“I don’t know, House. I wish I did.” Eve broke up the beef with a slotted spoon.
She glanced over her shoulder at him. He seemed so lost. He was strong, able to beat a creature like Grundle, yet he was vulnerable too. If he would let her near, she’d take him in her arms and kiss him senseless, kiss him until he didn’t have any room inside him for loneliness.
“I don’t have any memories,” he said.
She tilted her head. “No memories?”
“Nothing of a human life. Just this.” He spread his arms to the sides.
“Do you know how old you are?”
House considered the question. “One hundred and sixty-one.”
“Wow. You’re older than I thought.”
“That’s the age of the house.”
Eve frowned. “It is? I thought the house was built in eighteen-seventy. That would make it one hundred forty-one years old.”
“The main house structure was built in that year, but there’s an older structure contained within it. The original building on the property was a cabin built in eighteen fifty. In fact, this kitchen is where the cabin stood.”
“Huh. So the owner just built around the cabin?”
“Yes.” House looked up at the ceiling. “He raised the ceiling in here to make it conform with the rest of the house. It used to be just this high.” He lifted his hand a couple of inches above his head.
“And you remember all this?”
“I do. But nothing before that. When I first became aware, it was the day they began construction on the new house. They hurt me when they tore off my roof.”
“That sounds like it must have been frightening.”
House frowned at her. “I wasn’t afraid. It made me angry.”
She turned to her cooking to hide her smile. Just like a man, refusing to acknowledge fear. Tearing open a packet of seasoning, she dumped it in with the browned beef and stirred. House seemed awfully human in his behavior, even if he had melded somehow with the building.
“What is that machine on the desk in the library? The one with the glowing screen.”
“You mean the one right next to the printer you used to send me messages?”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“Yep. The other one is my computer. I use it for writing. And I waste way too much time playing around on the Web.”
“Playing on the Web? What do you mean by that?”
She paused in her stirring. How did you explain the Web to someone who didn’t even know what a computer was? “It’s—I guess it’s kind of like a phone system where everyone has their own identifying number, except on the Internet you have e-mail addresses and website addresses. And if you know someone’s address, you can send them messages or go to their website and look at what they have.”
He looked at her like she was speaking a foreign language. “Website addresses.”
“Uh huh. Websites are like collections of pictures and essays that people put together. If you know the address, you can call up the pictures and essays on your computer screen.”
“Like a book or newspaper?”
“Yeah, sort of. Except you don’t have to pay, usually. The only thing you pay for is Internet access. Everything else is usually free.”
Boy, he was behind in his modern vocab. “Yeah. The Internet is all the computers that are hooked up together to create the Web.”
Michael narrowed his eyes. “So, a lot of these machines are connected somehow, and that connection makes it possible to view these . . . websites?”
“Exactly.” She grinned at him. “You’re pretty quick. I think it took me a couple of hours to explain it to my grandpa.”
“It sounds like magic to me.”
Eve laughed. “A lot of people feel that way.”
“What kind of things do you write on your computer?”
She bent her head toward the pan. “Oh, nothing special, really.”
“Is it a diary?”
“No. It’s—you’ll think it’s silly.”
“No, I won’t.”
Eve sighed. She peeked at him. “Okay. I write fiction, but I’m not published.”
House’s face brightened. “You do? I love fiction. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“How could you love fiction if you’re just a house?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just do. I’ve read all the books in the library.”
“I looked at those. It seemed like the owners just stopped buying books some time in the eighties.”
“They did. They stopped doing most things.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “They weren’t very happy.”
Eve finished the sloppy Joes she was making. She put one sandwich on a plate along with a salad and brought it to the table. House stayed where he was, back against the wall, arms crossed in front of him like a shield.
She looked up at him with an inviting smile. “You don’t have to stand. Why don’t you join me?”
“I don’t want to get that close to you.”
“Why? Do I smell bad?”
He scowled. “It isn’t safe for you.”
“Please? I feel weird when you’re standing over me like that.”
House pushed his fingers through his hair. “It’s best if I go.”
“No. Don’t go.” She went over to him.
House put his hands out in front of his body. “Don’t come any closer,” he barked.
Eve looked at his face. He was breathing hard, like he was holding something dangerous inside. She reached up and took his hands in hers. “See? You won’t hurt me.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said between gritted teeth.
“The fact that you care so much tells me you won’t do anything bad.”
House closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall behind him. “What if I can’t control it?”
“What is it you think you can’t control?”
He only shook his head without speaking. “I can’t. I can’t talk about it.” He disappeared right from under her hands.
Eve stood and stared at the place where he’d been. What had he done that was so horrible he couldn’t even talk about it? House was a good man, even if he wasn’t exactly human. She knew he wouldn’t do anything to harm her.
He obviously believes he would.
Her hand strayed to the latest bite marks on her neck. Maybe. Maybe they were really vampire bites, and House was the vampire. If so, it seemed he was biting her against his will. And if the vampire part of the dream was real, the sex part might be real too. Did he believe he was hurting her by making love to her?
He was a man of the nineteenth century. A house of the nineteenth century, you mean. Whatever. He seemed to have some very old-fashioned values. God, maybe he thought she was a slut for wanting him so much.
He didn’t seem to be standing in judgment of her, though. Only of himself.
Either way, he needed her.
If she wanted to help him, she had to find out more about him and the history of the building. She had to find out about the man who’d built this place. And the first thing she needed to do was get more information on the code in the wizard’s book.
Oh, shit! I could have shown that to House.
What would he do if he saw that old photograph of himself? Would it convince him that he was human after all? Eve glanced around at the walls, wondering whether he’d hear if she spoke out loud.
No. He wasn’t listening. She could feel it. He’d deliberately turned his attention elsewhere. Stubborn man.
She ate her supper without enthusiasm. Afterward, she fetched the book from the stairs and went to her computer. There were all kinds of strange things on the Web, so maybe she could find out what script the wizard had used.
First, she looked up code languages, but all she found was information on pig Latin and its ilk. Then she tried “secret language”, but that didn’t turn up anything either. Wizard language just brought up online role-playing games. Finally, she tried magic language. And there it was, on a website dedicated to magic.
People were actually studying this stuff in the twenty-first century. Who knew?
The script was called Theban, and corresponded one-to-one with the Latin alphabet. She stared at the bizarre squiggly letters until her head hurt. Deciphering the book was going to be a pain in the ass. She could hardly wait to get started.
Morality is for the small-minded.
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
House woke up in the dark place. There was no room to move in the dark place. No light. Nothing for his eyes to see. Yet he could sense what lay above him, feel the weight of the earth pressing down on the top of the cramped box that contained him, the solid chill of even more earth beneath him.
The dark place was a place of screams. He often awoke there.
Why did he need to sleep when he wasn’t alive in the first place? It was just another fact of his existence that made no sense. Pondering this question sometimes kept the screams at bay.
A scuffing sound came from the interior of the house. Above him, someone moved about, then banged a chair against the kitchen table. There was an intruder in the kitchen, and he hadn’t even noticed the person’s entry because he’d been sleeping.
House pushed his consciousness upward, into the floorboards of the kitchen. From here, he could get a better sense of who this person was. Male. The intruder was male and standing directly above House. He concentrated on sensing the man’s identity. Tony Crouch.
House growled. What did Crouch think he was doing? He pushed his consciousness out from the floorboards and into its walls where he could see what was going on. The back door stood open, letting damp autumn air inside. Crouch had a mallet in his hand and was tapping the walls with it. What did he expect to find?
Behind the plaster and lath were the original logs Van Orton had used to build his cabin. Maybe Crouch thought there was a hollow space in the logs. Perhaps he was looking for treasure. Fool. Van Orton had kept his financial treasure in the bank like most other people.
His important treasures were in the attic. And under the kitchen floor.
House’s mind hurt. These thoughts came to him without any memories attached to them. He didn’t know where they originated or how he knew any of it.
He continued to observe Crouch as the man moved methodically through the room, trying every wall he could reach and even going inside the cupboards to tap their back boards. When he’d exhausted all the wall possibilities, he started on the floor.
First he would lean close to the tiles, then he’d tap with his mallet while listening. He was definitely looking for hollows. But if he expected to find them, he’d need more sophisticated equipment than a hammer. The floorboards were too thick to sound hollow to a human like Crouch. Van Orton had disguised his work well.
Crouch sat back on his haunches with a discouraged sigh. He glanced around the room. Maybe he was hoping House would appear and give him some pointers.
The human got to his feet, shook his head, and went out the back door. House poured himself into the wall on that side and watched as Crouch crossed the yard. There was a dark figure partly concealed by the overgrown hydrangeas in the border near the sidewalk.
Crouch approached this other person. They stood conferring with each other, but House couldn’t hear what they were saying or see the other person’s face. It was a man, he thought. And it—or he—must have something to do with Crouch’s obsession with getting into the house, or he wouldn’t be waiting for a report.
I have to find out what they’re saying.
He projected himself into his astral human form and set out across the yard. When he was on the astral, he was invisible to all but the most psychic of humans, which meant he could get right up next to them and they wouldn’t know he was there. Crouch had his back to House, and he was busy talking to his companion anyway. House probably could have snuck up on him on the physical plane and he wouldn’t have noticed.
The other man, though, seemed uneasy. And that made House uneasy. The stranger was an unknown quantity. He paused under some lilacs and waited.
“So you found nothing,” the stranger said.
“That’s right. I think you’ve got the wrong house.”
“It isn’t the wrong house,” the stranger snarled.
“Okay. Well, if it’s there, I don’t have the means to find it. Maybe you should have a look yourself.”
“If I could do that, I wouldn’t have to hire you.”
There was something familiar about the man’s voice, something that made House clench his fists at his sides. He edged closer, pushing through the lilacs until he could see the two men clearly. Tony Crouch scratched his head as he made subtle sideways movements toward the sidewalk. He looked like he wanted to escape. And he was blocking House’s view of his employer.
Move aside, Crouch. Just for a moment.
Crouch moved, almost as if he’d heard House’s voice. The stranger lifted his head and looked straight at House, his pale eyes like chips of ice in an equally pale face. House froze. That face—he knew that face. And the man had seen him; he’d looked right at him with the comprehension of an accomplished psychic.
No. There was a screen of lilac leaves between him and the pale man. The fellow couldn’t see him at all. He took a steadying breath as Crouch and the stranger turned toward the sidewalk. The way the stranger carried himself, the way he turned his head to look at Crouch, everything about him screamed at House. But he couldn’t understand the message.
The men strolled along the sidewalk and passed beyond the edge of the property, their voices receding as they continued to argue. House returned to the building. The stranger had been involved in a crime, a terrible crime for which he should have been punished. And House had been involved, too.
He pressed the heel of his right hand against his forehead. What crime? Damn it, he couldn’t remember. His ability to focus vanished with the ache of his frustration, and his body re-formed on the physical plane. He went into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Eve had left her tea mug there when she’d gone to work. House reached out and touched it.
His body was becoming more solid. Now he was almost always physical unless he concentrated on remaining on the astral plane. That wasn’t right. He shouldn’t be able to pick up the mug or even to feel its cold, smooth surface under his fingers.
There was a girl. A young woman with pale blond hair in many slender braids piled on her head. She was holding a cup in her hands, turning it over and over as she spoke. And crying. Tears ran in rivers down her face no matter how many times she wiped them away. He wanted to hold her, but he was afraid of touching her. Afraid that, by touching her, he would damage her beyond repair.
He set down Eve’s cup, but misjudged the distance and slammed it onto the wood. A savage pain like an invisible darning needle stabbed him through the eye. House rubbed at the pain, trying at the same time to hold onto that memory. Who was the woman? Why was she crying?
Was he the reason for her distress?
If he’d done something awful to that young woman, there was nothing to stop him from doing it again. To Eve.
No. I’m not going to hurt Eve. I’ll do whatever I must to keep her safe.
Eve found an out-of-the-way break room where she could eat lunch and work on deciphering the book at the same time. She’d printed out a copy of the Theban script the night before. She set it on the table next to her food, with the grimoire weighted open next to it with a couple of software manuals, and a blank page to write the translation on.
The first thing she translated was the caption under Mr. House’s picture. Sure enough, it said Michael Benedict. So this Benedict person that Thorn and Tony Crouch were looking for was actually a man of the nineteenth century. Clearly they hadn’t shared all their information with her.
The young woman with the sad face was labeled Nettie Van Orton, and the scowling man had no identification. Perhaps he was the man who’d written the book. He wouldn’t have thought it necessary to label his own image if it was his book.
One of her coworkers came in, smiling at her as he walked by. She smiled back. If she hid her work, it would look suspicious, but jeez it wouldn’t be good if people found out what she was doing. People around here were severely lacking in imagination.
Eve laid her blank page over the book and the page of script. Then she opened a bag of almonds and popped a couple in her mouth.
Just eating lunch here. Nothing special to see.
Her coworker got a diet cola from the soda machine and left.
She turned back to the first page and started decoding that, working one letter at a time. At the end of her lunch hour, she had one page finished, except for some extra symbols she couldn’t decipher. The page read This is the grimoire of Gerald Van Orton, a record of his study of and experiments in the occult arts. He who looks upon this book without the proper protections will know only despair.
Hmm. It sounded like Van Orton was something of a drama queen. He must have been related to Nettie. Her husband, maybe? That poor, poor woman. Eve stuck the book in her tote bag and went back to her desk.
When she got home, House was standing in the central hall, waiting for her. His hair looked more tousled than usual, as if he’d been pulling it all day. Eve smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back.
“Tony Crouch broke in today,” he said.
She dropped her tote. “What?”
“He broke in through the back door. I didn’t even know it until he was already inside.”
“What the hell did he want?”
“I don’t know. He was tapping the walls and floor with a mallet.”
Eve frowned. “Is he looking for buried treasure or something?”
“Maybe he was. There was another man with him. The other fellow waited on the sidewalk for Crouch to finish. He behaved as if he couldn’t come into the house. He said he wouldn’t have had to hire Crouch if he could get in here himself.”
“Bizarre.” She picked up her bag. “It sounds like he doesn’t really want the house. He wants something in it. I wonder if it has anything to do with Van Orton’s book.”
“I found a handwritten book in the attic the other day.” She fished it out of her tote. “I meant to show it to you, but I got distracted. It has a picture of you in it.”
House gave her a look of disbelief. “A picture of me?”
“Look.” She opened the book to the correct page and held it out to him.
“I’d rather not come that close to you.”
“House, you won’t hurt me. Just come here and have a look.”
He stared at her, his large body tense. He pressed his lips together until his mouth was a flat line. Then he took a deep breath and walked toward her, hands clasped behind his back. Eve held the book up so he could see it.
I don’t think I believe in true love. I think it’s a fairy tale.
—from Eve’s journal
House came only as close to Eve as he had to in order to see the book. Her scent came to his nose, something sweet like vanilla that made him want to lick her skin. He was a barbarian. An inhuman monster. He couldn’t be trusted near her. If he kept as much distance as possible, then it would be more difficult for him to attack her. The only reason he was allowing her to see him at all was that he’d wanted to tell her about Crouch’s appearance.
So he stopped a few feet away from her and leaned forward to look at the page, while that vanilla scent teased him with thoughts of tasting her. These old photographs and lithographs could be very grainy and indistinct. Eve was probably indulging in wishful thinking, but it wouldn’t do any harm for him to look. His gaze fell on the picture.
The sepia-toned image showed him a man who looked exactly like the one he saw in the mirror when he was in physical form. House went cold all over his body. There was a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, and what felt like a lump of ice-cold lead in his gut.
His eyes narrowed as he bent even closer to the page. “It looks exactly like me.”
“Yes, it does.”
“What is this writing at the bottom?”
“It’s in a special alphabet. I translated it on my lunch break. It says Michael Benedict.”
Michael Benedict. Could that be his name after all? House reached for the book. “May I hold it?”
She gave it to him. “I’m pretty sure it’s you, House.”
Dread slithered down his spine when he took it in his hands. The book felt evil. House suppressed a shudder. It was only a book and couldn’t hurt anyone. He touched the picture with his fingertip. “My God. I think you’re right. Those are even the same clothes I have on now.”
I’ve been human all along. Does that make me a ghost after all?
“Yeah. I wonder what happened to the hat?”
He shook his head. Michael Benedict. Michael Benedict. The image of the sobbing girl reappeared in his mind.
She lifted her gaze to his. Her eyes were red and puffy with tears. “Michael, what should I do?”
Another image. The blond girl, collapsed on the ground, her pale hair crimson with her own blood. A gaping wound in her throat. Blood on his hands. Oh, God, her blood was on his hands.
“House? Are you okay?”
House started. He blinked and he was back in the hall with Eve, the book still in his hands. “I remembered something.”
“What was it?”
“I’m not sure. A woman. She called me Michael. She was crying.” She was dead.
Eve looked uncertain. “Oh.”
He gave her the book and rubbed his face. It had been easier not remembering. But he had to know who the girl was and what had happened to her. Who had killed her.
What if it was me? I think I cared for her. But what if I murdered her? He couldn’t live with himself if he’d done it.
The girl reminded him of someone. But who? He cast his mind over all the faces he could remember, and then he knew. She looked like the pale faced man he’d seen today.
“I think the man Crouch was with had something to do with the girl,” he said.
“Why do you say that?”
He shook his head. “I can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling.”
Eve took a step toward him and then stopped. She looked up at him.
“House, I’m going to make dinner and I want you to stay with me. Will you do that? Will you stay while I cook and eat? I’ll be glad to feed you if you’d like.”
House stared at Eve. Ideas and memories were banging around in his brain like squirrels in the attic. He couldn’t seem to string two coherent thoughts together.
“House? Will you stay with me?”
He frowned. It would be dangerous for her. “I shouldn’t do that.”
“We need to figure out what’s going on and for that we have to talk to each other.”
She reached out slowly and laid her hand on his arm. The slight weight and warmth of her made his groin tighten. Everything in him wanted to grab her and pull off her clothes, lay her down on the floor and take her. Everything except his conscience.
“When I’m with you, I want things,” he said.
“What kind of things?”
His face grew hot. He glanced at her but couldn’t hold her gaze. “I want to touch you. I want to make love to you.” He probably already had made love to her, and she simply didn’t know it.
House waited for her to answer. He imagined he could hear her heart beating in the quiet of the hall. Eve’s hand was still on his arm. That seemed wrong. Shouldn’t she be afraid of him now?
“I want you, too.” Her voice sounded husky.
Now he looked at her. “You do?”
She smiled. “Yeah. Couldn’t you tell the first time we kissed?”
“That was my first kiss. I didn’t know what to think.”
Her smile broadened. “You’re an awful good kisser for someone with no experience. I think you’ve kissed a lot of women and you just don’t remember.”
That made his face burn again. He was behaving like a bashful boy, not a man. And he couldn’t even explain how he knew that.
There is more in me. There’s more to me than I have realized.
His normal view of himself was only a tiny part of who and what he really was. The rest of him was hidden, waiting to be discovered, and Eve wanted to help him discover it.
“Yes. I’ll come with you. I’ll stay while you eat.”
She rose up on her toes and kissed him lightly. “Thank you.” Then she slipped her arm through his.
A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Eve.”
She smiled. “I’m not afraid of you.
“What are you making for dinner?”
“Hmm. I think I’ll be daring and open a can of chili.”
He tilted his head. “I’ve never had chilly. Is it cold?”
Eve laughed. “No, it’s hot. It’s called chili because it has chili peppers in it. You have to taste it.”
In the kitchen, she pulled a can from the cupboard and showed it to him. There was a picture on the label that showed a kind of stew with beans in it. He must have looked dubious, because she laughed again.
“It tastes pretty good, but you won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like it.”
She pulled a saucepan off a hook on the wall. The doorbell rang. House and Eve looked at each other as the bell rang a second time.
“Are you expecting anyone?”
Eve shook her head. “No.” She moved toward the hall. “Will you wait for me, please?”
“Yes. I’ll wait.”
She left him standing in the kitchen. Her feet made hardly any noise as she walked down the hall. House heard the front door open, and the deep tones of a man’s voice. If that was Tony Crouch, he’d like to confront him, and perhaps bash his head against the door frame. No-one came inside without House’s permission.
The deep voice came closer. Had Eve let the visitor in the house? He edged toward the kitchen door. Strangers shouldn’t be allowed to see him. They might try to interfere or make him leave the property, like the former owner’s aunt who’d threatened to call in an exorcist. But he’d promised Eve he would wait for her. Maybe the visitor wouldn’t be able to see him. Most people didn’t, even when he was trying to manifest physically.
Now he could hear the man’s footsteps. House gripped the back of the nearest chair. Eve and her guest came through the doorway. The guest was tall and blond, dressed in worn jeans, a denim jacket and a white silk shirt that looked out of place with the denim.
He wasn’t the pale stranger. He had dark-green eyes. Yet he was similar in some indefinable way to the other man, and that made the hair on House’s neck stand on end.
The blond stopped in the doorway and stared at him. His mouth opened and then closed. “Michael Benedict?”
“My name is House.”
“No. No, you’re Benedict.” The blond came closer.
House backed away from him. “Don’t come near me.”
“House, it’s okay. He just wants to help you.” Eve came to stand next to him. She touched him on the arm. “This is Thorn Sakirian, the man I told you about the other day.”
“I came to tell Eve what I’ve discovered about Tony Crouch,” Sakirian said.
“And what is that?” House sounded more belligerent than he’d intended.
“He operates an Internet business buying and selling vintage toys.”
An Internet business? What in creation was that? House looked down at Eve. “Does that make any sense to you?”
“Yeah, it does, more or less. What I don’t get is why anyone would hire a man like that to break into my house and steal stuff.”
“It does seem odd,” Sakirian said. “Maybe they knew each other in some other capacity.”
This fellow was slick. He’d gotten Eve to trust him after just one encounter. “Why are you letting him in on our problems? We don’t really know if he is who he says he is.”
Eve glanced at Sakirian. “I just—he seems trustworthy. Why are you so suspicious?”
“He reminds me of Crouch’s friend.” House glowered.
Sakirian raised his brows. “I remind you of Crouch’s friend? The one who is paying him to break in?”
“Yes. You do. The two of you move the same way.”
“I assure you, I have nothing to do with him. I didn’t know he existed until Eve told me about him.” Sakirian gazed at him as if nothing House had said had penetrated his brain. He seemed completely at ease, when he should be properly intimidated. House’s jaw tightened.
“You really don’t remember who you are, do you?” the blond said.
“What I do or don’t remember is none of your business, Sakirian. I can see you’ve hoodwinked Eve, and since it’s my job to protect her, I’m asking you to leave.”
The man grinned. “Spoken like a gentleman of the nineteenth century.”
“I want you to leave. Now.”
“Eve, shall I go?” Sakirian looked at her.
“House, I want him to stay. We need any help we can get. Please, sit down and try to relax.”
She was going to let this handsome weasel sit in their—her—kitchen and tell lies to her. They had only Sakirian’s word that he wasn’t involved with Crouch. Eve gave him a pleading look and he had to turn away. Damnation, he couldn’t say no to her.
“Alright,” he said gruffly. “But just because I agree to listen doesn’t mean I trust him.”
Sakirian nodded. “Good enough. First, do I have your permission to touch you?”
House jerked his head back. “Touch me? Why?”
“I’ll explain. All I have to do is touch your hand.” The blond walked slowly toward him, as if he thought House an unruly stallion who might bite or kick.
“For the love of God.” House extended his hands. “Get on with it.”
Sakirian took both his hands. The touch of his skin made House’s flesh crawl. The blond closed his eyes. What was this exercise supposed to prove? Perhaps he imagined himself a psychic. House suddenly pictured himself biting the fool, and had to grit his teeth to keep from laughing.
The blond’s eyes flew open. They were the most compelling eyes he’d ever seen on a man, strange eyes that made him want to stare into their depths. That in itself was reason for unease.
“I was right,” Sakirian told him. “You are Michael Benedict. You’re one of us.”
“Eve, I want him to go,” he growled.
“Settle down.” The blond released his hands. “I’m not going to do anything to you. However, I think you ought to know the truth about yourself.”
This time he didn’t even have to think of it. He simply vanished. One minute he was standing in front of the intruder, the next he was a part of the roof beams two stories above in the attic. He couldn’t even hear what Eve and Sakirian were saying to each other.
Christ, I’m a coward. I shouldn’t have run away. What if Eve needs me?
He must get down there and make sure she was safe. He needed to return to the kitchen immediately. Yet his mind wouldn’t obey its own commands. He stayed stubbornly inside the rafters, as inhuman as he’d ever been. Just an object. A thing.
His roar of frustration and rage caused the frame of the house to groan.
‘Tis better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. (Milton, Paradise Lost)
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Everything went black for a moment and then he was standing in the kitchen again. Eve and Sakirian were gone. House tried to run for the hall and staggered into the refrigerator instead. He leaned against the green appliance, swearing under his breath. Something was wrong with him.
The front door shut. House moved unsteadily to the doorway and leaned against the jamb so he could look down the hall and see the foyer. Eve came through the foyer door. She stopped and looked at him. Her mouth was pinched together, and so were her brows.
“Why were you so difficult with Thorn?” she said as she started walking.
“You’re on a first-name basis with the fellow already?”
Her brows lifted. “You’re jealous.”
House straightened. “Maybe. But that’s not the point. You shouldn’t trust that man. There’s something very odd about him.”
“I think he has good vibes.”
“Good vibes?” he said, lifting his own brows.
“Yeah. Good energy. Crouch gives me the creeps. Thorn makes me feel good.”
His jaw went so tight it hurt.
She slapped him playfully on the arm. “Not like that. I just like him as a friend.”
“Don’t expect me to become his blood brother.”
Eve laughed. Then she looked at him more closely. “Are you alright?”
“I feel strange.”
“Let’s get you into a chair.” She took his arm. “Lean on me.”
House looked down at her and grinned. “I don’t think you’re strong enough to hold me up. I might fall on you and squash you.”
“Very funny, ghost man. Come on, I’m worried about you.” She tugged at him until he cooperated.
They hobbled back into the kitchen. Eve pulled out a chair using her foot. He had to cling to her in order to lower himself to the chair without falling on the floor.
He felt weak all through his muscles. Even his bones felt soft, if that were possible. House put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands.
Michael. My name is Michael. “My name is Michael.”
“Is that what you’d like me to call you from now on?” Eve said.
“Yes. I believe it is my name.”
She took the chair next to him. “You know what’s weird? When I first moved in, I felt like the house had a personality of its own and thought about naming it. I was going to call it Benedict.”
He lifted his head and gave her a sideways glance. “That is weird. I think you must have been picking up some of my thoughts.”
“I must have been.”
“Crouch seemed to do the same thing. He knew I was on the other side of the door, even though he couldn’t see me.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that Crouch talked to you? I mean, that he called you Benedict? He obviously thinks you’re alive—in the usual way—so he must think you’re a man of this century. Why would he think that?”
House—Michael—pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead and groaned. “I don’t know.”
“You’re in pain.” She put her hand on the top of his head. “Tilt your head up so I can see if you have a fever.”
“You don’t have to mother me.”
“I’m not mothering you. Someone has to take care of you, though.”
He gave her a look. Eve laid her palm lightly on his forehead. The touch of her skin on his face was both soothing and exciting, although he couldn’t do anything about the excitement in his current state.
“You don’t feel feverish. Would you like me to get you some medicine for the pain?”
Michael shrugged. “Alright. I suppose it couldn’t do any harm.”
“I’ll be right back.” She bustled off to some other part of the house.
He bent forward and laid his head on the table top. That table had been in the house for the better part of a century. He remembered when Edwin Van Orton had brought it home to replace the one Gerald, the original owner, had bought when the house was built.
Gerald Van Orton had built this house, and the cabin it replaced. What had he looked like? Michael closed his eyes, trying to summon a memory of the man. Nothing came. That was strange. Why couldn’t he remember that? Thinking about it made his head hurt.
“Aspirin ought to do it,” Eve said, coming back into the kitchen.
He looked up, bleary-eyed. She handed him two small, white tablets. Michael gazed at them dubiously. He shouldn’t even be able to manifest this way, so what would happen if he put medicine in the human form he shouldn’t have?
She filled a glass with water and set it in front of him. “Go ahead. I’ll give you some food, too.”
What the hell, it was worth a try. He put the tablets in his mouth and took a swig of water. The pills stuck in his throat. They’d melted a little on his tongue, and they tasted so bitter he made a gagging sound. He drank down the rest of the water in the glass trying to get rid of the awful flavor.
Eve handed him a thin, sweet-smelling cracker. “Eat that. It’ll get rid of the taste.”
He took a bite of it. “Thank you.”
“Thorn is coming back, you know. He’s really concerned about you.”
“I thought we were done talking about him.”
“He’s not going to give up on you. I think you need to talk to him.”
Michael sighed. “Fine. When he comes back, I’ll talk. I still don’t trust him, though.”
She returned to the stove, where she opened the can of chili she’d gotten earlier and dumped it into the saucepan. Michael watched the muscles in her beautiful ass flex under her jeans as she moved around in front of the stove. Her skin would be so soft and smooth under the fabric. So warm. His cock hardened as he thought of driving it into her.
You’re one of us.
The flash of memory felt like a plunge in ice-cold water. He lost his cockstand.
“Sakirian said I was one of them. Remember, when he was touching my hand? What do you think he meant by that?”
Maybe Sakirian is a vampire, too. Christ, maybe I’m exposing Eve to a whole pack of vampires just by living in the house with her.
“He did say that, didn’t he? It didn’t really register with me at the time.” She stirred the chili. “This whole situation is so bizarre I don’t know what to think about any of it. Until I moved in here, I didn’t even believe in ghosts.”
“Don’t believe in ghosts because of me.”
“You’re a smart-mouth, aren’t you?” she said lightly, and flicked her hair over her shoulder.
He smiled. “I think your aspirin may have helped. I’m feeling better already.”
“Good.” Eve turned back to the stove and dished some chili into a bowl, which she set in front of him. “Eat this. You’ll feel even better with some food in your stomach.”
Michael picked up the spoon she’d provided and poked at the chili. “It looks strange.”
She grinned. “Didn’t anyone in this house eat chili? Go ahead and try it.”
He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so he dipped up a spoonful and put it in his mouth. It was so hot it burned his tongue and he almost spit it out again. But that would probably hurt her feelings, too. Michael picked up his water glass and drank the last drops that were left in the bottom.
The water cooled the chili enough that he was able to chew and swallow it. The taste was . . . not unpleasant. But it was too salty and had an off flavor that probably came from the can in which it had been stored. He was accustomed to fresh food with much less salt in it.
Where in hell did that come from? I’m not accustomed to food at all.
Michael Benedict was, though. Or at least, he had been at one time. Was Benedict really one hundred and sixty one years old?
“Well? Do you think you’ll survive my cooking?” Eve said.
He nodded. “I think so.”
“Be careful with that flattery. I might get a big head.”
“I apologize,” he said, flushing. “I was rude.”
Eve flashed a smile. “That’s alright, Michael. I know you’re not used to having a body yet. Besides, all I did was warm it up. It’s just from a can.”
“It was still rude. I’m afraid I’m a bit muddled right now.”
She brought a second bowl of chili to the table, along with a fresh glass of water for him and one for herself. “Anyone would be.”
He watched her take a bite of chili. “Do you have a family?”
Eve nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got both parents and a brother.”
He knew from listening to the television that many people nowadays rarely saw their family members. “Do they live nearby?”
“Not really. They’re in Idaho. I came here to go to college, and I decided to stay.”
That seemed sad. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I talk to my parents once a week. It’s not like the nineteenth century, where you had to rely on letters that took weeks to get to their destination.”
“That’s true.” It still seemed sad to him. People should be surrounded by family and friends, not isolated. Of course, Eve did seem to have plenty of friends.
“I think we should work on deciphering the rest of Van Orton’s book. There were more volumes in the attic, too. I only brought down the one.”
“The book felt unclean to me.” He forced another bite of chili into his mouth.
“Did it? I handled some of his other things and I had the same reaction. I wonder what he was doing with them?”
“I don’t know. I have no memory of Gerald, only of his son Edwin and Edwin’s descendants.”
“Who were the last Van Ortons?”
“Pete and his wife, Dorothy. Pete died in nineteen ninety-five. I don’t think he knew much about Gerald either. He and Dorothy stayed out of the attic for the most part.”
“That drawing of you must have been done by one of their children.” Eve stirred her chili thoughtfully. “I don’t think the kid was all that afraid of you. It didn’t look like a drawing of a monster.”
“Yes, but you’re an adult. You might be surprised by what a child thinks is monstrous.”
She gave him a sad smile. “I’m sorry. That must have been hard.”
“I suppose it was.” Michael turned his attention to his chili. “I don’t know which of the children liked to draw the most. I guess they all did.”
“You know you’re not a monster, right?”
He responded with another shrug. She was wrong about that, however this wasn’t a good time to argue about it.
His belly began to feel full and warm. What an odd sensation. He couldn’t ever remember having felt that before. It was very pleasant, but not as good as kissing Eve. He gave her a surreptitious glance from under his lashes. She’d finished her chili and was idly crumbling a saltine into the bowl with her graceful, slender fingers.
“I’m going to clean up,” she said, “and start working on Van Orton’s book. Would you like to help me? I have a cipher we can use.”
“Alright.” Anything for an excuse to stay with her a little longer.
They cleared away the dishes and brought out the book. The alphabet Van Orton had used reminded Michael of something, except he didn’t know what it was. He simply had the sense he’d seen it before. They were odd letters, overly elaborate and full of extra curlicues.
“This is a translation of the first page.” Eve slid a piece of paper to him.
He chuckled as he read it. “He certainly didn’t suffer from excess modesty.”
“Look upon my writings and despair,” Eve intoned.
Michael laughed, which made her laugh. She leaned down and kissed him before handing him the cipher sheet. His arms slid around her waist as if they had a mind of their own.
He leaned his head against her chest and closed his eyes. “I can’t seem to stay away from you.”
“I don’t want you to stay away.” She ran her fingers through his hair and he sighed at the pleasure of her touch.
“I’m not good for you. I’m not safe.”
“Safety is overrated.”
Did she really mean that? She didn’t know he’d bitten her, sucked her blood. If she ever discovered it, she would recoil from him in horror. He never wanted to see such an expression on her face, yet he couldn’t stop wanting her either.
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.
The doorbell rang. Eve pulled away from him, still smiling. “I’ll get that.”
“I’ll be here,” he said. But some day soon, he would have to give her up for her own safety. He dreaded that day.
Don’t cry for the Dead, or they may cry for you.
Josie was shivering on the porch when Eve opened the door. Her blond hair was darkened and dripping with rain, her woolen coat soaked. Water droplets coated the lenses of her glasses so thickly it was a wonder she could see at all.
“Good grief, what happened to you?”
“I w-was on my w-way to the mall and m-my c-car broke down.”
“Come in. Don’t you have your cell phone?”
Josie came inside and dripped on the floor. “The b-battery is dead.” She removed her coat. Her shoes were soaked through as well, and her jeans were wet to the knees. She kicked off her clogs.
“So you walked how far?”
“I don’t know. Felt like miles.” She wrapped her arms around her torso.
“I’ll give you some dry clothes.” She hoped Michael would still be in the kitchen when she got done. “Where is your car?”
“It’s in a school p-parking lot on Burnside. I just m-made it in there before it died.”
“Well, at least it’s not in the middle of the road. Do you want me to drive you back there?”
“Hell, no. Not unless you kick me out.” Josie gave her a sideways glance.
“You want to crash here tonight?”
“If you don’t mind, that would be great.”
“Sure, you can stay. I thought you were afraid of the house, though.”
“I’m too cold to be afraid.”
Eve chuckled. “There’s nothing to be afraid of anyway.” She led the way into her bedroom and found some micro-fleece pants and a top for Josie. Some thick woolen socks finished the ensemble.
“I’ll put these in the dryer,” she said, dangling the sopping jeans a foot away from her body.
“Thanks. You’re a life saver.”
“You probably need some hot tea after that drenching. Come down to the kitchen.”
“You know,” Josie said as they descended the stairs, “tea doesn’t cure everything.”
“What? How dare you insult my life’s work.”
“Don’t be surprised when you go in there,” Eve told her. “Michael is visiting.”
Josie’s eyebrows went up. “Who’s Michael? Are you dating somebody?”
“Michael is Mr. House.”
Josie stopped, clutching the handrail. “The ghost?” she whispered.
“He’s not a ghost. Come and meet him. You’ll like him.”
The more flesh-and-blood people who met Michael, the easier it would be to reassure herself that she hadn’t completely lost her mind. Because she had wondered now and then if he wasn’t all in her imagination. She only hoped he wouldn’t mind being introduced to her friend.
Josie grabbed Eve’s elbow when they neared the kitchen doorway. Eve gave her friend what she hoped was a reassuring smile. They walked into the kitchen. Michael’s head was bent over the cipher sheet, his dark hair sliding forward to partially shield his face. He was so absorbed he didn’t seem to notice their entry.
“Michael, this is my friend Josie.”
He looked up with a quick, startled movement of his head.
Josie’s eyes were so round it looked painful. “Um. Hi?” She twisted her fingers together.
He stood up and extended a hand. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Josie.”
Josie stared at his hand. She gave Eve a questioning glance and returned to regarding his hand as if it might bite her.
“Go ahead. Shake his hand,” Eve said.
Josie put her hand in Michael’s. “You’re solid!” She glared at Eve. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“What? No, of course not.”
Josie turned her glare on Michael. “How much did she pay you? Aren’t you a little old for a prank like this? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“It’s not a prank,” Michael said.
“Well, you’re certainly not a ghost.”
“No, I’m not.”
“What are you, then?”
“Eve and I are trying to figure that out.” Michael gestured toward the book. “We’re doing some research right now.”
“Show her the picture,” Eve said.
He picked up the book and turned to the page with his photograph, then handed it to Josie.
“Oh. Oh my God, he looks just like you.”
“We think it is him,” Eve told her.
“But that’s—” Josie looked up, first at Eve and then at Michael. “That’s incredible. And you’re not pulling my leg? You swear it?”
“I swear,” Eve said.
“Shall I demonstrate?” As soon as the words were out of Michael’s mouth, he disappeared.
Josie gave a little scream.
Human sacrifice has its uses; however, it is prudent to remain silent on this matter when in company.
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Michael reappeared in the same spot. “I’m not a ghost. But I’m not a regular human either.”
“Holy shit. You’re real. I mean, you’re really not human.” Josie looked down at the book in her hands. “What kind of book is this? Can I look at it?”
“Sure,” Eve said.
“You may.” Michael spoke at the same time. They looked at each other and grinned.
Josie thumbed through the pages. “Eve, this is written in Theban. Where did you find it?”
“I can’t believe you recognized that mumbo-jumbo.”
Her friend rolled her eyes. “You know it’s an avocation of mine.” She brandished the book. “This is a grimoire. A real, honest-to-God grimoire.”
“What does that mean?” Eve said.
“It’s a record of a magician’s magical experiments and contains instructions for rituals and spells.” Josie thumbed a few more pages. “Where did you say you found it?”
“In the attic. There are more of them up there.”
“Wow. Incredible. I’ll bet these are worth some money on the collectors’ market. You should get a rider on your insurance policy. Come to my office and I’ll get it set up for you.”
“Josie’s an insurance agent,” Eve explained to Michael.
“Can you read Theban?” Michael said.
“A little. Not very well.”
“You’re probably faster than we are. Would you like to help us decipher the book?”
Josie grinned at him, clearly won over. “I’d love to. What do you have so far?”
“I started with the pages near my picture.” He displayed his sheet of translation. “He refers to me as his partner and says he has a plan for me.”
“To do what? Was he training you?” Eve peered around Josie’s shoulder at the pages.
“I haven’t figured that part out yet.”
“Who is this guy?” Josie pointed at the picture of the man with mutton chop whiskers. “He looks like a jerk.”
“I think that’s Gerald Van Orton.” Eve looked at Michael. “What do you think?”
He glanced at the picture and grimaced. “I agree. And my head feels like it’s going to split open every time I look at him.”
“The book has some really nasty energy, too.” Josie gave the thing back to Eve and rubbed her hands on her hips. “I’d say Gerry was working some very negative magic.”
Eve tapped her fingers on the book’s cover. “You don’t suppose he could have done something to Michael?”
“How could he have done something to me?” Michael rubbed his temples. “I’m just a house.”
“Michael, you’re a man. Don’t you believe your own picture?” Eve turned to the page with his photograph and displayed it to him.
He stared at it for a moment, a troubled frown pinching his brows. “I’m so accustomed to thinking of myself as the house that I forgot.”
“We’ve got to get this damn book deciphered,” Eve said. “I just know there’s important information in it.”
“Ply me with tea and chocolate chip cookies and I’m all yours,” Josie told her.
“You’re easy. And you’re in luck. I just bought some refrigerated cookie dough.”
Once they got to work, the banter died down and everyone focused on translating under the inadequate light of the kitchen’s vintage fixture. Josie used the original book, while Eve and Michael copied out pages to work on. When they needed a break, Eve baked the cookies and they ate them, hot, with milk or tea.
Michael had heard of chocolate chip cookies, of course, and had even watched several of the women of the house baking them. He’d never had them until now, and the only thing that kept him from devouring them all himself was he didn’t want to be a boor to Eve and her friend. When they had the book sorted out, he planned to ask her to bake some more, because unlike the chili, they were instantly his favorite food.
Hours later, his neck and shoulders were sore from bending over the table. The cookie plate was empty except for a few lonely crumbs.
Eve groaned. She leaned back in her chair, her arms over her head for a luxurious catlike stretch that lifted her breasts up in the most entrancing way. Michael’s cock stiffened, ready for adventure. He told it to stand down, but it refused to listen.
“Holy shit,” Josie said.
“What?” Eve and Michael spoke simultaneously again.
“It says on this page that Van Orton used Michael in a sacrifice.” Josie looked up from her pages with a round-eyed stare. “He murdered him.”
Michael lost his cockstand. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I checked it twice. In the paragraph before that, it says Michael is something called Amaki. Do you guys know what that means?”
“No. What?” Eve said.
“I don’t know. But it makes him a better sacrifice. Van Orton says he’s stronger than a human.”
Michael rubbed his temples again. “You’re saying I was never human?” Thorn Sakirian had implied it, but Michael had been inclined to dismiss his words as nonsense.
“That’s what Van Orton believed. And here’s the other thing. He claims that Michael will sort of wear out after one hundred and fifty years.”
“That can’t be right,” Eve said. “He’s already over one hundred sixty.”
The three of them exchanged worried glances. “What happens after one hundred fifty years?” Michael wondered.
“I’m not sure. I don’t think Van Orton knew for sure. He just says the sacrifice will lose its efficacy at around that time.” Josie examined the pages. “Wait. Here’s some more. True death will occur. That’s what he wrote.”
“True death,” Michael mused. “Maybe that’s why I’ve been so tired lately. Until Eve moved in, I’d taken to sleeping most of the time.”
Eve gave him a puzzled look. “How do you sleep? Where do you go?”
“I’m not sure. It feels like sleep, though. I even have dreams.”
“But . . . if you’re dying, then . . . . “ She looked at him with sad eyes. “I don’t want you to die.”
And he didn’t want to go. After so many decades alone, he’d found someone he cared about. “I don’t want to die either.”
She took his hand. “We have to do something to stop it.”
“Like what?” Josie tapped the book. “It sounds like Van Orton already killed him.”
“If that were true, then Michael would be an ordinary ghost. And he’s not. I think there’s something else going on that we can’t see. Maybe it has to do with this Amaki thing.” Eve’s eyes rounded as she turned to him. “Thorn. He said you were one of them. Could he be Amaki?”
Before Michael could answer, they heard the front door open with a squeal of unoiled hinges. It shut again with an answering squeal. Eve and Josie looked at each other, and then at him. Soft footsteps came from the central hall, and the sound of male whispers. Michael put his finger to his lips. The two women nodded.
He eased his chair back and stood, crossing the kitchen in a few quiet strides. He flicked off the light to avoid revealing himself. It was lucky the kitchen door was closed. Otherwise, the intruders would already know he and the women were awake and downstairs.
Michael put his hand on the door knob. Slowly he turned it. None of his doors squealed because he kept the house in perfect condition at all times. Except for the front one and that infernal exterior paint. Those had always been problems for him.
From the sound of things, the intruders had gone into the library or the formal dining room. Michael slipped from the kitchen and slunk down the dark central hall. They were about to get a most unpleasant surprise.
When he reached the elk head, he realized by the sound of their voices that they were in the library. He paused in the library doorframe. Tony Crouch was talking in low tones to his blond companion as they surveyed the books. The man was the same one he’d met the day he’d broken in to the kitchen.
“What makes you so sure Van Orton kept diaries?” Crouch said.
“Most sorcerers do,” his companion replied.
“I doubt he would have them on his library shelves.”
“Where do you think he would have put them?” the other man mocked.
Michael took a step toward the two. “Trespassing is against the law, gentlemen.”
Their heads snapped around. For an instant, they gaped at him. Tony backed up against the book shelves, his hands working nervously.
The pale one smirked. “Benedict. This is a piece of luck.”
“For me, perhaps. Not so much for you. Get out of my house or I’ll break every bone in your body.”
The intruder laughed. “I don’t think so. Haven’t you heard? You’re dead.”
“And I’m an angry ghost.” He closed the remaining distance between them.
The pale man took a swing at Michael’s face. He blocked the punch, delivering a solid hit of his own to the fellow’s jaw. Pale Face’s head flew back, crunching against the book case behind him.
Crouch was sidling away from the fight. Michael reached out and grabbed him by the jacket, yanked him in close and clobbered him in the head. Crouch’s eyes rolled up and he slumped. Michael dropped him on the floor.
Pale Face threw another punch, hitting Michael in the solar plexus. Michael grunted at the pain. The intruder stumbled away and began muttering something under his breath, his voice becoming more agitated the longer he spoke. Michael stalked after him.
The pale one gave up his muttering and charged Michael, grabbing him around the middle and taking him to the floor. They banged against one of the armchairs, overturning it, and landed on the floorboards with a crash. Michael wheezed, his breath knocked out of him.
Long life, long memory, much forgiveness.
His opponent slammed him in the jaw. Pain exploded in his face. The pale man delivered a punch like a sledgehammer to Michael’s shoulder. The jaw again. Michael brought his arms up to protect his face. He locked his leg around Pale Face’s lower back, clamping him so he couldn’t move.
The intruder had once again begun to mutter. The words were foreign, but their cadence made it sound like an incantation. Michael reached up to pin the man’s arms. Pale Face pounded him in the jaw. The pain was so bad he wondered if the asshole had broken the bone. His arms shot around the man and squeezed, immobilizing him.
“You can’t win this fight,” Pale Face panted.
“Looks to me like I already did.”
“You’re dead. Go back to your grave.”
Michael squeezed a little harder. “I won easily for a dead man, don’t you think?”
“You can’t let go of me because if you do, I’ll kill you.”
“I thought you said I was already dead.”
Pale Face growled, throwing himself from side to side in an effort to break Michael’s grip. All he accomplished was a slight rocking motion.
“Who are you?” Michael said. “What do you want here?”
“No, thank you. I prefer women.”
“I’ll bet you do, you sick bastard. You raped and murdered my sister.”
Michael froze. “What?”
“You raped and murdered her. And now you’re out of your grave, wandering around free instead of being in the ground where you belong.”
The blood. Her blood was all over my hands.
No. He wouldn’t have done such a thing. Besides, how could he have been the murderer when he’d been trapped in this house all these years? “How could I have murdered your sister? I’ve been buried for over one hundred and sixty years.”
Pale Face went still in Michael’s grasp. Then he roared, putting every muscle in his body into an effort to break free. Michael shifted his grip slightly, inching his hands up so he could put pressure on the asshole’s carotid artery and make him pass out.
That was all Pale Face needed to slip out of Michael’s hold. He scuttled backward, off of Michael’s body, and got to his feet. He grabbed a bronze statue from the sidetable next to the overturned armchair and hefted it like a club.
Michael leaped off the floor. His right leg whipped out, his foot crunching into the asshole’s ribcage. There was a loud crack. Pale Face dropped the statue.
He threw another punch at Michael, but it was weak. Michael caught his arm and spun him around, cranking the arm up behind Pale Face’s back. He wrenched it higher. His opponent gasped.
Michael twisted the captive arm until he heard another loud crack. Pale Face shrieked.
“I should cut your throat,” Michael snarled.
“No! You can’t kill him,” Eve cried from the doorway.
He glanced up at her. She was staring at the two men, her face pale and strained. Her body trembled. “Please, Michael. I don’t want you to kill anyone.”
“They deserve it.”
“You’re going to have to let them go.”
She really wanted him to tolerate this scum breaking into the house? Michael studied her face. He didn’t want her to look at him as a murderer, but these damned lowlifes needed to be stopped. If he let them go, they might only try it again.
Eve nodded slowly. “Please.”
“Get out and don’t come back,” Michael growled in Pale Face’s ear. “Understand?”
“Eve, open the front door.”
She hurried down the hall to do as he asked. Michael frog-marched Pale Face through the central hall and the foyer, through the front door, across the porch. The man was breathing hard, and the part of his face Michael could see was covered in a sheen of sweat. Maybe pain would teach the asshole to stay away from the house.
He forced Pale Face into the rain all the way down the concrete path to the sidewalk and gave him a shove through the old gate. The asshole staggered through the opening. He lurched against the iron fence, hissing when his hand touched the metal.
“Stay the hell off my property,” Michael told him. “Next time I won’t be so lenient.”
“What about Crouch?” Pale Face gasped.
“He’ll join you later.”
A thumping sound drew Michael’s attention to the porch. Josie and Eve were dragging Tony Crouch’s unconscious form down the steps. Michael turned back to Pale Face, who had begun to stumble away down the sidewalk. Good. He looked like he wasn’t in any shape to try another round.
Michael stepped aside to give the women room. They heaved Crouch onto the wet sidewalk, allowing his head to crack against the pavement.
“I still think we should call the police,” Josie said.
“How would we explain Michael to them?” Eve shook her head. “Let’s let it go for now. If they come back, though, I’m going to sic everything I can think of on them.”
“Let’s go inside,” he said. His nose began to bleed. Damnation. He pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it against his nose, tipping his head back to stop the blood flow.
“Are you alright?” Eve said, watching him anxiously.
In the house, she locked the door. “Obviously, this lock isn’t good enough. I’m going to get a deadbolt in the morning.”
“Get three or four,” Josie told her. “And a dog. A really loud dog.”
“Good idea. For now, maybe we could push a piece of furniture in front of it.” She turned to Michael, her face sober. “Was that man telling the truth about his sister?”
He shook his head. “No. I’d never force myself on a woman.” He hoped. What if he were wrong about himself? There was so much he couldn’t remember.
“You couldn’t have done it, anyway. She’d have to be almost two hundred now.”
“I’m not saying Michael did it,” Josie put in. “But if that guy is another like Michael, then maybe he and his sister could actually be two hundred years old.”
“Holy shit,” Eve said.
“Exactly.” Josie slung an arm around her shoulders.
Michael frowned. Josie was right. If Pale Face was like him, then the whole story made a lot more sense. And Michael had been ready to cut the asshole’s throat rather than allow him to threaten Eve again. Maybe he was capable of rape and murder.
The thought of it made his stomach rebel. If he’d been such a monster in his past, he wasn’t that way anymore.
Are you sure about that?
He hated his inner voice.
“Josie, I’m going to put sheets on the guest room bed.” Eve laid her hand on his arm at the crook of his elbow. “Michael, you can have my bed if you’d like.”
He frowned. “Where would you sleep?”
She colored. “I could share with you. If you want. Or I can sleep on that couch in the upstairs hall.”
“No. I won’t turn you out of your own bed. And I don’t think it’s safe for me to sleep with you.” Michael studiously avoided looking at Josie, who was watching them with interest.
“Then where will you sleep?” Eve looked worried.
“I’m going to stay up and work on the book.”
“You need sleep.”
“I don’t. I slept most of the day.”
She seemed doubtful, but she nodded. “Okay. If that’s what you want. You can eat any of my food. There’s bread and peanut butter in the cupboard if you want an easy sandwich.”
Michael took her hand in his. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
After the women went upstairs, he pushed the hall tree up against the front door. Then he sent out a call to any stray dogs in the area. There had to be one with a deep voice and an affectionate nature who could live here and protect Eve. Because apparently he wouldn’t be around much longer to do it himself.
In the early hours of the morning, Michael found himself in Eve’s room. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. The last thing he clearly remembered was standing up from the translation he was working on and stretching his arms. Then he was standing over her bed, watching her sleep.
Her hair looked black in the low light, her bare arms white above her blanket. He could smell her scent, even from several feet away. His groin tightened, his whole body tingling with the anticipation of having her hands on him. God. He just wanted to touch her.
Slowly Michael sat on the edge of the bed. She murmured in her sleep but didn’t awaken. He reached out and brushed his fingertips across her cheek. Her skin was so soft and smooth.
He was a damned blackguard for coming into her room like this. Perhaps women today weren’t as vulnerable as they’d been in his time, but they still didn’t want men standing over them and—and—
Her eyes opened. She blinked. Then a smile spread across her face. She reached up and touched his arm. “Hi.”
“I shouldn’t be here.” But he didn’t leave.
“Stay.” Eve sat up. “I’m glad you came.”
He caressed her face again. It was as if his hand obeyed some dictate that came not from his conscious mind but from his animal self. She leaned into the caress, then turned her head and kissed his palm.
Michael’s heart beat fast. He leaned toward her, and she leaned toward him. Their lips met, and his arms went around her, pinning her to him as his mouth devoured hers. Desire lanced his belly, made him ache for her and moan against her mouth.
She ran her hands up and down his back. “Your coat is in the way. Will you take it off for me?”
I think I’ve found the perfect house.
—from Eve’s journal
He pulled back enough to unbutton the jacket. His hands were trembling, for God’s sake. This woman was doing something to him he’d never experienced before. Finally he got the damn thing open and shrugged it off his shoulders.
Eve began to unbutton his shirt before he could do it himself. She smiled up at him as her fingers nimbly worked the buttons. He threw the shirt on the floor after the jacket. Then it was time for his trousers.
He stopped and looked at her. “I beg your pardon. Is this what you want? I mean—I don’t wish to force myself on you.”
“Take them off, or I’ll do it and I might tear them.”
Michael gave a short laugh. He unbuttoned the pants, shoved them down, and removed his drawers. His cock was so hard it stuck out like a signpost and he put his hand over it so he wouldn’t scare her.
But Eve took his hand, moving it to the side. “I want to see.”
It struck him that he couldn’t remember ever being with a woman. He didn’t really know how to please her. Even that thought couldn’t deflate his raging cockstand, however.
Eve took his sex in her hand. The sudden pleasure made his breath catch. “You’re gorgeous. And huge.” She smiled up at him.
“If you keep touching me there, I won’t last long.”
She stripped off her nightgown, revealing firm rounded breasts and a tight waist. Michael’s breath caught again. He cupped one soft mound, feeling its weight, its curves. Then he rubbed his thumb across the straining pink nipple. She gasped.
Michael rolled her breast, lifting it, molding it, until she began to moan softly. Then he bent his head and took her nipple in his mouth and sucked. Eve clutched his head, her fingers digging into his hair, as he suckled her.
He moved his attentions to her other breast. She began to move one hand across his skin, touching his back, his shoulders, his arms, his neck. The gentle caresses penetrated him, sinking into his soul and filling up the emptiness there.
She leaned back on the bed. He wanted to touch her everywhere, taste her everywhere. Michael pressed his lips to her breastbone, then worked his way down her belly while his hands restlessly explored her arms, her legs, between her thighs.
Her legs parted. So willingly. He kissed the tender skin of her inner thighs, moving higher, toward the part of her he longed to lose himself in. She smelled of vanilla and woman.
Michael parted the lips of her sex. Eve quivered, but she didn’t protest or move away. He lowered his face to her and gently licked the smooth, moist skin. She gave another little gasp, so he did it again. Eve spread her legs for him, wide enough for him to have unobstructed access to her.
He teased her, toying with the little nub at the front of her sex, lapping her cream, plunging his tongue into her until she cried out, shuddering with her release. And then he couldn’t wait any longer. He needed her, had to be inside her.
Rising over her, Michael positioned his cock at her opening. She moaned again. He pushed it into her. God, yes! His head fell back as he groaned. So hot, so tight and wet.
“Michael. Oh, Michael.” Eve pushed her hips against his.
The friction felt like heaven. He flexed his hips. “God, Eve. I don’t think I can hold back.”
“Fuck me. Please.” She grabbed his waist and demonstrated her eagerness by shoving against him once again.
Her coarse language excited him. Michael thrust into her again and again, moaning his pleasure as she gasped and cried out beneath him. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her nails dug into his back. The slight pain made him even wilder for her.
Soon he was pounding like an animal, his hair sliding into his eyes so he couldn’t see her face. But he could hear her voice, her little moans and cries. He could smell her intimate scent on his face where he’d licked her. It smelled so good he wanted to rub it all over his body.
Eve opened her eyes wide, tilting her head back, her mouth open in a scream of ecstasy. And he felt his own climax rising up in him, pulling together in a blissful point of hard pain and he exploded in her, emptying himself in her body, his boundaries dissolving as, for a moment, he fell apart, lost everything inside her.
His arms were shaking but he kept himself propped on his elbows as he panted above her. That orgasm had left him almost limp with pleasure. Eve put her arms around him, tugging him down toward her.
“I don’t want to squash you,” he said hoarsely.
Instead of laying on top of her, Michael rolled to the side, keeping her pressed against his body. Skin to skin, belly to belly, chest to chest. It felt better than anything he could have imagined. She rubbed his back, holding him.
He kissed her forehead. “Thank you.”
Eve smiled into his eyes. “The pleasure was mine.”
“None. Why? Do you have regrets?”
“God, no. I just don’t want to hurt you.”
She kissed him on the lips. “You worry too much about that. I’m a big girl. I can handle it.”
“You’re a wonderful girl.” And he loved her. But he couldn’t say it, because how could she love him in return? If he spoke the words, she might feel obligated to return them, obligated to tie herself to him when he had nothing to give her.
“You’re not so bad yourself.” She ruffled his hair. “And you’re a great lover. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t your first kiss.”
He grinned. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I am.”
“I don’t want to leave you,” he said, his smile fading.
“Then don’t. Sleep with me.”
He shouldn’t. But Eve stroked the side of his face and his resolve crumbled. “Alright. Just for a little while.”
Michael began to rub her back. She nestled into his embrace and they talked, about everything and nothing, about Eve’s writing ambitions, their favorite books and music, the improvements they wanted to make to the house, until their remarks become more and more sporadic and they both drifted into sleep.
Eve’s alarm clock began its unholy buzzing at six o’clock in the morning. She’d forgotten to turn it off for the weekend. Groaning, she slapped it on its head. Next shopping day, she was getting a new one with an alarm that didn’t buzz like ten hives of homicidal bees.
“God. Do I have to get up?” she muttered.
A dog barked. From inside the house.
Eve jumped out of bed and ran into the upstairs hall in her nightshirt. At the top of the stairs she paused. There was a very large, painfully thin dog in the central hall. It looked like a black lab except for its ears, which stood up part of the way with only the tips folded over.
The dog cocked its head at her, its tail wagging at half mast. Its mouth opened in a big doggy grin and its hind end began to wiggle.
Eve smiled. “How did you get in here?”
“I let him in,” Michael said, coming to the bottom of the stairs.
Eve put a hand to her hair, combing it with her fingers so she didn’t scare him.
The dog trotted to him and pushed its head under his hand. He fondled its ears. “I put out a call, and this fellow showed up a few hours ago. He needs someone to take care of him.”
“You put out a call? How does that work?”
He shrugged. “I just think very loudly. It’s how I got you and your real estate agent here.”
“Really? I thought she had the printout from the listing.”
“She would have skipped it if it weren’t for my call.”
“Huh. Well, she was reluctant. She tried to tell me not to take it.”
Eve walked down the stairs and the dog met her half way. She held out her hand to let him sniff, which he did with enthusiasm. “What’s your name, big boy?”
“He says it’s Taz.” Michael climbed the stairs after the dog.
“Taz? Like the Tasmanian devil?”
“I suppose. His people lost him on a car trip and he’s been on his own for months.”
She crouched down at dog height. Taz’s coat was full of burrs. The black fur had no shine, and was thin in places. Eve ran her hands over his body. There were sores on his belly.
“There’s something wrong with his skin. I’m going to have to take him to the vet.”
Taz pushed his face up to hers and gave her a big, sloppy dog kiss. She spluttered, laughing.
“Do you like him?” Michael said.
“I love him.”
“Good. He can bark whenever someone comes to the door. Won’t you, boy?”
Taz looked at Michael and wagged his tail as if he understood Michael’s words.
“I didn’t know you could understand dogs so well,” Eve said.
He winked at her. “I’m a man of many hidden talents.”
His flirtation was such a change from his usual reserve that Eve reached up and drew his head down for a quick kiss. “Did you have any success with the book?”
Michael sobered instantly. “I found out what Van Orton used me for. He wanted someone to power his magic and the household. I was put here to provide an energy source, mainly for luck and success and household maintenance.”
“Weird. So you weren’t sacrificed to a god?”
“Not unless you’re referring to Van Orton’s sense of self-importance.”
She laughed. “He was some piece of work, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, he was. And I sincerely hope he’s rotting in hell.” He spoke lightly, but there was a dark undercurrent in his voice.
Eve put her arms around him again. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
Michael stood unresponsive in her embrace. Almost as if he couldn’t bear to touch her. She ought to let him go, to quit forcing herself on him, but she couldn’t do it. She wanted to feel his body pressed to hers for a moment longer.
His arms slowly encircled her. “There’s nothing for you to be sorry for. It happened a long time ago. I just wish—”
“Me, too.” She rested her cheek against his chest.
“I don’t want to die before I’ve had a chance to really know you.” He pushed his fingers gently through her hair.
“Maybe there’s a way we can help you.”
“Eve, it’s too late for me.”
“You don’t know that.” She tilted her head back and gazed at him. “Let’s call Thorn. Maybe he knows something that we can use.”
“What if our unwanted guest was telling the truth last night? What if I really am a murderer?” His eyes were dark and troubled.
“I don’t believe that. There were so many times you could have taken advantage of me, but you didn’t. You protected me. You fought Grundle for me, and those guys last night. Would a rapist and murderer do that?”
“I don’t know. There are things about me that you don’t understand.” He shut his eyes. “I shouldn’t even be touching you.”
“Don’t say that.” She wished there was something she could do to reassure him.
“If you knew, Eve. If you knew about me . . .”
“Then tell me.”
“I can’t,” he said in an anguished growl. He dropped his hold on her. “Don’t ask me that.”
“Why don’t you let me decide? Tell me what’s bothering you and I’ll tell you what I think of it. Otherwise, you’re making the decisions for me.”
“Modern women.” He gave her a lopsided smile.
“That’s right. Come on, out with it.”
Taz made a snuffling noise and nudged Michael’s hand. Michael smiled a little more warmly as he petted the dog, scratching behind the velvety ears. Taz closed his eyes, pressing his big body against Michael’s leg.
“He’s a good dog,” he said.
“Yeah. But you’re not going to distract me that easily. I want to know what’s going on with you.”
Michael glanced up the stairs behind Eve. “Good morning, Josie.”
Do unto others whatever you can manage without being found out.
—from Gerald Van Orton’s grimoire
Damn it. He was going to use Josie as an excuse not to talk to her. She turned with a pasted-on smile. “Hi, Josie. Ready for some breakfast?”
“Sure. Where’d you get the dog?” Josie came bounding down the stairs in p.j.s she’d borrowed from Eve.
“I called him,” Michael said. “He needs a home and Eve needs a watchdog.”
Josie stopped to croon to the dog and pet his broad, dark head. “He’s really sweet.”
“He tells me that he always barks very loudly whenever anyone comes around the house.”
Josie looked at him as if trying to decide whether or not he was pulling her leg.
“Apparently Michael can understand dog language,” Eve told her.
Josie blinked. “Oh.”
“I need to get a bunch of supplies for him,” Eve continued. “I need a collar and leash, dog food and some bowls at the least.”
“Maybe we should get a restaurant breakfast, get the dog stuff and then pick up my car. We’ll probably have to call a tow truck for that part.”
“We could do that.” Eve glanced at Michael. “Do you mind if we leave you for awhile?”
“Not at all.”
She and Josie went back upstairs to get showered and dressed, while Michael took Taz out for a walk around the property. Eve peeked out the bathroom window at them. The dog danced around his new best friend, his tail wagging frantically. Every so often he broke off to sniff enthusiastically at something on the ground. Michael appeared to be talking to him the whole time.
How could he believe himself to be a murderer and rapist? He was a good man, honorable and loving. She couldn’t even imagine him doing something so awful. The pale-faced man had made that stuff up just to hurt him because Michael had beaten him in a fight.
She knew he wasn’t capable of that level of betrayal and violence.
The two women had their breakfast at a local pancake house, then bought dog supplies and drove over to Rose City Middle School, where Josie had left her car. The traffic on Burnside made a steady rushing sound, like a fast-running river. Eve dug out her cell and called a tow truck.
“He’ll be here within forty-five minutes,” she said, closing the phone.
“Forty-five minutes?” Josie put her hands on her hips. “Can’t they make it any faster?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they’re busy. Let’s take a walk around the parking lot to pass the time.”
The sun had finally come out, and she didn’t want to waste a minute of it, since they weren’t likely to see it much for the next few months. Josie grumbled, but she followed Eve out of the car. They set out across the nearly-empty parking lot of the old brick school.
“I’m surprised somebody hasn’t made a brewpub-slash-inn out of this place yet,” Josie said.
Brewpubs and funky inns housed in oddball old properties were becoming commonplace in the Portland area. “Yeah, really.” She glanced up at the vintage building. “They’re still using it as a school, though. It looks like it could be haunted.”
“Now you think buildings can be haunted?”
“Did I ever say they couldn’t be?”
“You implied it.” Josie nudged her with an elbow.
“I admit I was skeptical, but not anymore.”
Their cars were the only ones in the lot, giving the place a deserted air. Eve took another look at the building. Maybe it really was haunted. There was something lonely and watchful about it that reminded her of Michael’s house. Of course, during the weekdays it would be so full of middle-schoolers that no-one would notice its heavy atmosphere.
A large black SUV with tinted windows turned in from Burnside. Josie and Eve watched as it drove around their cars. It was probably a teacher come in for a little weekend catching up. But the vehicle didn’t park. After circling their cars, it came straight toward them.
They exchanged glances.
“I think it’s time to head to the car.” Eve fished her key out of her pocket.
They strode back toward their vehicles. The SUV followed. Eve quickened her pace until she was almost running. The SUV sped up to keep pace with them. Then its engine roared as it lumbered around them and stopped between them and their cars.
Eve tore around the black monstrosity. The driver’s side door opened. She and Josie bumped into the side of her sedan. Eve clicked the lock to open it.
“Get in,” she said.
The SUV’s driver came around his vehicle. It was the pale haired man from the night before. Josie ran around the car and began to fumble with the passenger side door.
“Eve Jeremy,” the man said, walking toward her. His body seemed to be functioning just fine in spite of the beating Michael had delivered.
“Who are you?”
He smiled. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Why isn’t your arm in a cast?” She reached behind her back and grasped the door handle.
“I’d rather discuss Michael Benedict.”
“There’s nothing to discuss.”
The blond loomed over her. “I think there is. I have some questions for you, Miss Jeremy.”
“I hate to disappoint you, but I haven’t got any answers.”
He laughed. “You’re a clever girl.”
Eve hated being called a girl, except by Michael. She’d make all kinds of exceptions for him. She unlatched the door and eased away from it enough so that she could open it. “Don’t break into my house again. Next time I’ll shoot you.”
“There isn’t going to be a next time.” His hand shot out and clamped around her upper arm.
The movement was so quick she hardly even saw it, and his grasp felt tight enough to cut off her circulation.
“You’re coming home with me,” he said.
“No!” Eve put all her weight and strength into pulling backward.
He yanked at her. She flew toward him, jerked off balance by his tug. Her hand was still on the car’s door handle. The door swung open and smacked him in the hip.
He lost his grip on her arm. Eve scuttled for the car and scrambled into the driver’s seat. The blond pushed himself off the pavement with a groan. She slammed the door just as he reached for it.
Her hand trembled so badly she could hardly get the key into the ignition. She started the engine. The blond’s hand was on her door handle. Eve put the car in gear and drove away, forcing his hand off the car.
He yelled something incomprehensible after them.
“Holy shit,” Josie said. “He tried to kidnap you.”
“Uh huh.” Eve tore out of the parking lot, shoving her way into Burnside traffic. Horns honked all around them.
“What am I going to do about my car?”
“I don’t know.” She glanced at her friend, who seemed to be shaking also. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave it there.”
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t sacrifice you for a car.”
For some reason, that struck Eve as hysterically funny. She burst into laughter and then found she couldn’t stop.
“I think we’d better go back to your house.” Josie gave her a worried look.
Eve drove home, laughing all the way.
Michael stood on the front lawn, throwing a stick for Taz. She pulled up to the carriage house and killed the engine. He walked toward her, the dog following, long pink tongue dangling happily. Eve opened the door and got out. She had to stifle another giggle.
Michael frowned as he studied her. “What happened to you?”
“H-how do you know something h-happened?” she said, still laughing.
He gave her a look. “You’re behaving very strangely.”
“That blond weirdo from last night tried to grab her and force her into his car,” Josie said.
“He did what?” Michael growled. He took Eve by the arms. “Are you alright? Did he hurt you?”
“No.” She took a deep, steadying breath. “He only grabbed my arm.”
Michael pulled her into a crushing embrace. “Damn him. Damn him.”
“Michael?” she wheezed. “I can’t breathe.”
He loosened his hold. “I don’t want you to go anywhere by yourself. In fact, I don’t want you to go anywhere at all until we get this settled.”
“I’m going to have to go to work on Monday.”
“Can’t you stay home for a few days?”
She winced. “Maybe one or two. But my boss is pretty strict.”
Michael pressed his hand to his forehead. “I need to sit down. Come inside and we’ll talk more.”
They walked hand in hand to the house, Josie following with Taz. Michael moved more slowly than she was accustomed to. Was he already feeling the effects of that one hundred and fifty year time limit? Maybe the fight had taken more out of him than they’d realized.
As he opened the door, she looked up at him. “Michael, I think it’s time we called Thorn. We should find out what he has to say.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You do?”
“Yes. I’m willing to listen.”
“You weren’t before.”
He grimaced. “I felt better then. I don’t think we have much time left.”
“Who is Thorn?” Josie said.
“He claims to be looking for me on behalf of my relatives,” Michael told her.
“That’s what we thought,” Eve said.
Michael waited while Eve rummaged through the kitchen looking for Sakirian’s phone number. She finally found it in a pile of papers on the table. Sakirian had evidently left a calling card with her. He was a sneaky bastard and Michael didn’t like having him around, but if he had information that would be useful to them, he was willing to put up with him for awhile.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. “Have you ever talked on a phone?”
“No.” He shrugged. “It can’t be that hard.”
Eve gave him the card, along with her cell phone. “This is his business card.”
Michael examined the tiny phone. It looked nothing like the old rotary-dial clunker the Van Ortons had used. “How does this thing work?”
She showed him how to use it. He punched in Sakirian’s number and listened to the bell sound the phone made.
He hesitated. “This is . . . Michael Benedict.”
“Benedict! I’m glad you called.”
“What did you mean when you said ‘you’re one of us’?”
“It’s hard to explain over a phone. I’d rather do it in person.”
Michael frowned. “How do I know I can trust you? How do I know you won’t hurt Eve?”
“I was commissioned by your family to find you. The last thing I want to do is hurt either you or Eve.”
“I don’t have a family.”
“Yes, you do. Look, you don’t have to let me in the house. I’ll stand on the porch or even on the sidewalk and talk to you. It makes no difference to me. We can meet at a public place, if that would be more comfortable for you.”
He shook his head, even though Sakirian couldn’t see him. “No. I can’t leave the grounds of the house.”
“Alright. Will the porch work for you?”
“Yes. That will be acceptable.”
“I’ll be there. But Eve’s friend must leave. There are certain things I can’t reveal to her.”
“How do you know Eve has a friend over?”
“I just do. If I give all this information to Josie, there are going to be complications. Get her away from the house for now, and afterward you can decide for yourself what to tell her.”
“Alright. We’ll be waiting.”
Eve had stopped to listen to his side of the conversation. He held the phone to her. She tapped a button and slid the device back into her pocket.
“Is he coming back?”
“Yes. I’m going to talk to him on the porch.”
“Do you mind if I come with you?”
“No. Of course not.”
“What about me?” Josie said.
Michael shrugged. “He doesn’t want to talk to you. I’m sorry.”
Josie looked disappointed. “That’s okay. I’ll walk up to Hawthorne and go shopping or something.”
Eve and Michael went out to the porch to await Sakirian. The brief sunny interlude was over. Bruise-colored clouds had moved in and rain fell in a steady drizzle, turning the afternoon to wet dusk. Under the porch roof they were dry. The porch lamp shed stark white light over the enclosure and made the gloominess of the day beyond seem even gloomier.
The weakness he’d felt in his muscles that morning was gone, and a jumpy nervous energy had taken its place. He felt a headache coming on, and waves of nausea periodically rolled over him. Michael began to walk up and down the length of the porch to take the edge off his nerves and distract himself from his body.
Whatever story Sakirian was planning to tell them would have to be very strange. How could Michael Benedict’s family be looking for him after he’d been dead or missing for over one hundred and sixty years? Either he had some unusual people in his family or Sakirian was talking about his descendants. Neither option made any sense.
Sakirian appeared out of nowhere on the concrete path just below the porch steps. Michael gave a start of surprise. Eve jumped, gasping loudly, and Taz barked, his voice deep and strong. They stared at Sakirian and he looked back at them steadily, as if he’d done the stunt as some kind of message.
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