“Are all the cameras on the third floor in place?” Alana asked.
“Oh, yeah. And check out this view.”
Alana leaned forward, staring at the massive computer screen over Tray’s shoulder. He was her best tech and always got her the best angles.
“Looks perfect,” she mumbled as she studied the third-floor landing through the eyes of her infrared camera with a cynical gaze.
Alana James, paranormal-romance author and ghost-hunter extraordinaire, was nothing if not skeptical. She’d become fascinated with ghosts while investigating her first paranormal romance. So fascinated, in fact, ghost hunting had become her second job after writing. Upon the success of her books, she’d approached one of the cable networks and now had one of the highest-rated ghost-hunting shows on television.
But Alana wasn’t easily convinced. She debunked a lot of stuff just by looking at it logically, which more often than not pissed off their flashy tech guy, Tray. Now there was a man who saw ghosts everywhere he looked.
Tray glanced at her sideways and frowned. His impatience to begin this latest investigation was evident in the anxious drumming of his fingers on the makeshift desk that took up the back of the small box truck that held all their equipment.
“Is our contact here yet?” he asked.
Sighing, Alana straightened and tapped the edge of her walkie-talkie against her upper arm with growing impatience. “Nope.”
“Well…damn,” he snipped.
Alana’s lips twisted with impatience. She knew how he felt. She was just as ready to get this started as the others were. They’d spent weeks investigating this house and just as many weeks playing phone and e-mail tag with their contact for this project, Councilman Aiden Barns.
Truthfully, she wasn’t sure if her excitement was over the house or finally seeing Aiden in person. She knew what he looked like. She’d Googled him almost as soon as he’d contacted her about investigating the house. For one, she liked to know who she would be working for, especially long-term, which this project could prove to be. But also his voice had sent a ripple of pleasure through her she hadn’t felt in…well, ever.
Tray snapped his fingers in front of her face, getting her attention. “You’re thinking about that politician again. I can see it on your face.”
Alana snorted. “He’s not a politician. He’s a councilman.”
Tray’s lips twisted. “Same thing. When did he say he’d be here? It will be dark soon, and I want as much time in that house as possible.”
“It will take us at least a week, possibly two to go through this house, Tray. It’s what? Thirty-five, forty thousand square feet? You can wait until he gets here.”
She jumped from the back of the truck and glanced again toward the end of the long, tree-lined drive. What was taking him so long? He’d texted her earlier saying he had a last-minute meeting, but he’d promised he’d be no later than six. It was now six thirty.
“I hate waiting on people,” she grumbled under her breath. She spun around and smiled at Tray. To hell with waiting. “You know what? He’s running late, so go ahead and send Lisa with one of the cameramen up to the second floor.”
Tray grinned. “I already did.”
“When?” she asked.
“About ten minutes ago.”
She leaned forward and hissed. “You’re supposed to wait for me, you ass.” Then she grinned wickedly. “But off the record, good job.”
They both high-fived with a laugh as Alana lifted the walkie and hit the Talk button. “Lisa, where are you?”
“I’m on the second floor, heading toward the tower,” her friend’s voice came back.
“Anything going on so far?”
“God, yeah. Tell Tray he’s gonna love this place.”
Alana smiled. Lisa was one of the senior members of her investigating team. Lisa and Tray had been with her since the beginning, before Alana had her ghost-hunting show, even before she had her first paranormal romance published. Lisa and Tray went with her everywhere.
In the distance, she noticed a set of headlights and sighed in relief. Finally.
“Be careful up there. Looks like our contact has finally arrived.”
“Careful’s no fun,” Lisa replied, and Alan could just see her sticking out her lower lip in a playful pout.
Lisa made her way down the dark hallway with a broad smile, the show’s cameraman, Keith, just a few steps behind her. This house was amazing. It was huge, dark, spooky, and -- if all the crap she’d seen in the last ten minutes was any indication -- haunted to boot.
Unfortunately, it would take a little more than shadows and a few EVPs -- or electronic voice phenomenon -- to convince her friend and business partner, Alana.
Lisa heard the slamming of a car door and quickly made her way to one of the windows overlooking the front drive. A tall, gorgeous man climbed from the truck, and Lisa grinned, knowing Alana would be creaming her jeans standing that close to the hunk.
“That the guy you were telling me about?” Keith asked as he looked over her shoulder to see out the window.
“Maybe. If he is, Alana is probably having a cow right about now.”
“Because he’s gorgeous.”
The cameraman shrugged. “If you say so. You said the other day Alana needed to get laid. Maybe now’s her chance.”
“She does need to get laid, but not by the guy who hired us. Are you crazy? Even I know not to do that. If we were out of here in a couple of days, I would say go for it, but he wants us to stay through Halloween and host the spook fest. That would be plenty of time for Alana to fall head over heels and get her heart broken. Not a good combination when the man is writing the checks.”
Lisa looked over her shoulder toward Keith and narrowed her eyes. “If you repeat that, I’ll cut off your penis, and you can forget about reattaching it because there won’t be enough pieces left that are big enough.”
Keith laughed. “You’re brutal, do you know that?”
“How do you think I got as far as I did in life?” she countered, smiling. “Now let’s hit that room Tray was telling us about.”
“I’m right behind you,” he said as she headed back down the hall.
Lisa opened the door to the large bedroom at the far end of the hall by the tower. It was dark inside, darker than she expected, so she pushed the button at the bottom of her flashlight to turn it on. For a fleeting moment, light penetrated the corners before it faded, leaving her in darkness once again.
“Damn,” she said, shaking the flashlight. “I had a battery drain. How’s yours?”
“Mine are okay. No, wait… Damn. I just lost battery power too.”
She glanced at the small camera she had in her hand. “This one is okay, so far.”
Just as she was about to turn, the door slammed shut between her and Keith. She gasped and dropped the camera onto the floor. “What the hell?”
The hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up, and cold air encompassed her entire body. She shivered and crossed her arms over her chest. The sensation of being watched made goose bumps rise along her flesh. “Who’s there?”
“Lisa?” Keith called from the other side of the door.
Through the darkness her gaze caught a brief glimpse of a horribly deformed face, its skin ghostly white, its eyes a ghoulish shade of red. She’d never seen anything like it and screamed just as sharp claws caught the side of her face, knocking her off her feet.
Alana slowly walked away from the truck holding their equipment, moving to greet the oversize pickup as it sped down the drive and came to a gravel-grinding halt next to her SUV.
She held her breath as a man opened the door and climbed from behind the steering wheel, a warm smile of welcome across his handsome face. Black hair teased the edge of his shirt collar, the thick strands outlining a rugged, tan face. His lips were full and kissable, and his eyes were the most startling shade of blue-gray.
Her gaze dropped to his chest, and she swallowed at the width. The expanse had been hidden under his jacket in the picture, but without it, the fact he worked out was glaringly obvious.
God, he is so out of my league.
Alana had been out with her share of men. She enjoyed being around them, sometimes more so than women. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the beauty-queen type, so guys tended to pass her by, seeing her as more of a friend or “one of the guys” than a girlfriend. Guys like Aiden wanted eye candy, not tomboy.
“I see you made it. I’m so sorry I’m late,” he added as he extended his hand to her in greeting.
Alana took it, almost gasping out loud at the tingling warmth that traveled up her arm. She quickly jerked her hand free and tried to cover up her surprise by talking. “It’s not a problem. All the cameras are in place, and I just sent one of our investigators to the second floor to begin.”
“Excellent,” he said with a smile as he rubbed his hands together. “Mind if I watch? I would love to know how one of these shows is done.”
With a shrug, Alana turned, expecting him to follow. “Sure. Just don’t get in the cameramen’s way. They tend to get a little bitchy when too many people get underfoot.”
He chuckled softly, and the deep sound made her stomach tighten. Why did he have to be so hot?
“I can certainly understand that,” he replied.
“I think we all could,” Alana said, smiling at him over her shoulder.
Their eyes met, and she’d swear she felt a jolt clear to her toes. Turning back to the front, she led Aiden to the truck. Tray spun around in his chair to greet them.
“Aiden, this is my tech guy, Tray Sharp. Tray, this is Councilman Aiden Barns.”
Aiden extended his hand to Tray, but all Alana could see was the way the moonlight reflected in his black hair. “Just Aiden, please.”
Tray grinned and took his hand. “Just Tray.”
Aiden chuckled. “Nice to meet you, Tray.”
Her tech guy shot her a sideways knowing grin. Her eyes narrowed in warning. She knew Tray, and Tray knew her, which meant he knew she was attracted to Aiden. Hell, who wouldn’t be?
“Not so bad for a politician,” Tray said, and Alana rolled her eyes.
“You’ll have to excuse him. He spends too much time working with computers and not enough time with humans, so he lacks manners.”
Aiden’s lips twitched in amusement. “There’re days I would give my eyeteeth to trade places with him, I think.” He looked at her with those heavenly eyes, and her knees weakened. “Have you given any thought to what we talked about?”
She swallowed, trying her best to remember. “The haunted house deal?”
Aiden wanted to do a month-long Halloweenfest in his town, with this haunted monstrosity at the center and her and her team as the hosts. It was an intriguing idea, one that had never been done, but she still hadn’t made up her mind. As she continued to stare at him, she couldn’t for the life of her come up with a reason why she shouldn’t do it.
“I’ll decide after we investigate the house,” she replied, a little more breathlessly than she’d intended.
His gaze bored into her, and her heart skipped a beat at the heat she couldn’t help but see directed at her. He blinked, and it was instantly gone.
“Fair enough,” he replied.
“Don’t worry,” Tray offered from inside the truck. “The team loves the idea. We’ll wear her down.”
“Oh, shut up,” he interrupted, making Aiden chuckle.
“Our town could really use something like this to boost the local economy. Most everyone is for it.”
“And who’s not?” she asked in curiosity.
“The usual uptight characters.”
She grinned. “Why, Councilman, surely you’re not talking disparagingly about your constituents.”
Aiden snorted. “Don’t get me started.”
Alana couldn’t help but laugh at the thoroughly disgusted look on his face. From the sound of things, he’d apparently had more than his fair share of run-ins with those uptight characters.
Another member of her team, Jordan Sanders, stuck his head around the back of the truck, practically jumping in place to get inside. “Can we go in now?” he asked.
Alana nodded, and he waved toward his partner and the cameraman assigned to follow him. “We can go.”
“Take the third floor,” Alana called out as they headed toward the massive wraparound front porch.
“Who’s taking the first?” Jordan asked.
“Tray and I will shortly.”
“Can I tag along?” Aiden asked.
Alana looked at him in surprise. She wasn’t sure she could have him close to her and still concentrate on what she needed to do.
Suddenly a scream came from the house that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She jerked around, glancing toward the second-floor window where the scream seemed to have come from.
“Was that Lisa?” Alana waved her hand at Tray, who had stood and walked to the end of the truck bed. “See what you can find on the cameras.”
“I don’t have anything pointed in that direction. Lisa was supposed to take care of that when she want up there.”
Tray jumped from the back of the van while Alana lifted the walkie and pressed the Talk button. “Lisa.”
“Damn it, Lisa. Answer me!” she cried anxiously into the walkie.
More screams filled the air, and Alana took off toward the house at a full run, fear for her friend overriding everything else. Behind her, she could hear Tray calling for her, but she ignored him and headed into the double-door entry to the house.
All the lights were out, but there was enough moonlight coming through the windows to light her way. She sprinted up the grand staircase and turned right down the long dark hallway heading toward the room where she believed Lisa had gone.
Keith was up ahead; the soft glow from his LED headlight cast a soft blue light against the wall and helped to guide her to them as he kicked relentlessly at the immobile bedroom door. Behind her, she could hear numerous footsteps as other members of her team ran to Lisa’s aid.
Lisa’s screams echoed through the halls, and Alana tried not to think too much about what might be happening. Maybe something had just spooked her.
Keith shoved at the door with his shoulder, cussing and yelling, “What the hell is the matter with this damn door!” He looked at her in desperation as she came up. “I can’t get it. What the hell is going on in there?”
A loud bang shook the entire wall, as though Lisa had been thrown against it. Alana gasped and pounded her fist against the heavy door.
“Lisa!” She could hear screams and reached for the handle, shaking it as though that would open it. “Lisa!”
“Was anyone in there?” she asked Keith as Tray, Aiden, and a few others joined them in the hall.
Keith shook his head. “I didn’t see anyone. Lisa went in first, then the door slammed shut between us, locking me out. That’s when the screams started.”
“Move,” Aiden said as he pushed Alana out of the way.
He turned sideways slightly and rammed the door with his shoulder. The door didn’t move. “Son of a bitch.” He reached up to rub his shoulder and step back to study the door.
“You okay?” Alana asked, concerned.
Aiden nodded. “Oak. Serves me right.”
Alana stepped forward to slap her hand against the wood. “Lisa!”
The room went silent, and everyone froze, listening. Alana could swear they could all hear her beating heart as it slammed out a rhythm within her chest.
“Lisa,” she called out, pressing her ear against the wood. “Please.”
A moan sounded from the other side, and Alana breathed a short sigh of relief. “We have to get this door open,” she said as she again tried the knob.
Aiden moved her out of the way and waved for Keith to join him. “Let’s see if the two of us can kick this thing open.”
On three, they both kicked, and the door swung open with a loud crack as the lock gave way under the force. Alana’s worried gaze landed on her friend, huddled in the corner. She rushed forward, oblivious to the men cautioning her.
Deep gouges in Lisa’s skin oozed blood over her face, chest, and arms. Alana gasped as she tried to wipe some of the blood from her friend’s face. “Lisa,” she whispered. “Can you hear me?”
Lisa just continued to stare straight ahead, her eyes glassy and fearful, her hands trembling. Aiden squatted next to her and wiped a strand of blood-soaked hair from Lisa’s brow.
“My God,” he whispered. “Someone call an ambulance.” He turned and stared at several stunned faces. “Now!”
Three members of the team pulled cell phones from their pockets to do his bidding while Tray began to walk a circle around the room, studying the walls. The window was shut, not to mention the fact they were at least twenty feet off the ground, so it was doubtful whoever it was had gone that way.
“Do you see anything?” Alana asked.
“Nothing,” he said in exasperation.
She turned to Aiden. “How the hell would whoever did this get out of here? Where did they go?”
Aiden sighed. “This house is full of secret passages.”
“Oh, come on,” Tray exploded. “The two of you don’t really believe that whatever did this was human?”
“Not now, Tray!” Alana snapped.
She glanced back at Lisa, who continued to stare off in the distance as though in a trance, her body shaking from head to toe.
“She’s in shock,” Aiden said softly.
Alana looked around the floor. “Where’s her camera?” Lisa always carried a small handheld with her. It had to be there.
“It’s here.” Tray bent down to retrieve the small camera from the far corner. “I’ll take this down to the van and see what’s on it.”
Lisa grasped Alana’s wrist with a hard grip. Alana met her friend’s fearful gaze. Tears sprang to her eyes as she studied the deep scratches over Lisa’s face and neck.
“Not,” Lisa whispered through chattering teeth. “Not human.”