Something wicked this way comes…
When her aunt died, level-headed accountant Clare Cermak inherited a fortune—as well as a phantom dog and the power to help ghosts move on. Her new gift led her to Zach Slade, a sexy private investigator with a unique psychic gift of his own, and the man who’s slowly opening her heart. But as they work toward building a future together, a sinister threat emerges.
An evil ghost is ravaging Creede, Colorado, threatening to devour the spirit of an innocent boy. Inexperienced in facing such a powerful ghost—and knowing her spirit, too, could be ripped away—Clare still can't refuse to help. With Zach’s support she uncovers the ghost’s identity, and the ancestral weapon required to slay it. But does Clare dare to use that weapon before the ghost destroys the man she loves—and her own spirit?
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COUNTING CROWS RHYME
DANGER COMES, ENZO howled, running through the bedroom door. Not the doorway, the door. Even a ghost Labrador should not have all the hair on his body standing out.
Clare Cermak’s heartbeat kicked fast and she shuddered in the bed of her lover. She pulled the sheet high, even though the room was—had been—warm and sunny this morning.
Enzo leapt for the bed and landed on her, in her, sending the coldness of his being into her legs. His dark doggy eyes showed fear. Before she could say anything, those “eyes” began to morph into bottomless black mist with jagged white streaks . . . signifying that the Other spirit who took over her happy companion would be speaking to her. Enzo was her spirit guide; she hadn’t quite figured out what the Other was, but when he/it came, she felt like an expendable pawn in an unknown chess game.
You are not, quite, expendable, the Other “said.” The words reverberated in her head, but more, seemed to knock heavy molecules of air together in soundless explosions through the room. Zach, facedown beside her, began to stir and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted him to hear what the Other said or not. This was the first time she’d been to his apartment, the first night she’d spent. She cherished the togetherness that the Other could splinter.
Judgmental eyes fixed upon her. Not, quite, expendable, the Other repeated. Your work has been . . . adequate . . . for your first two projects, since you accepted your gift.
Clare had heard her psychic ability to help ghosts pass on to the hereafter called a gift, but she considered it a curse.
We have paid you well for your gift, the Other, still standing face-to-face with her, said.
Yes, she’d inherited millions, and for each major ghost she’d aided, had received income. But she’d also lost her previous life as an accountant, which she’d loved.
You are ungrateful. The Other’s skin of his muzzle pulled back and showed the teeth bigger than what she saw, supernatural teeth.
Beside her, Zach groaned and rolled over, pushed away his dark hair from his forehead and opened blue green eyes. The Other stepped to put a paw square on his chest and Zach grunted.
It is well you are together, Clare Cermak and Zach Slade, the Other said dispassionately. One of you might survive, should you walk into this danger.
A rapping came on the door between Zach’s former-housekeeper’s apartment and the rest of the mansion. The Other and Enzo vanished and Zach sat up, put his warm, muscular, and solid, arm around Clare. He looked down at her. “I heard the Other. You will survive.”
Clare realized she trembled. Mostly with cold, she assured herself.
“What did the bastard say?”
She shook her head in denial of the fear spearing through her, swallowed so she found more spit in her dry mouth to speak. “Danger comes.”
Zach grunted, rolled off the bed and pulled on some sweat pants, yelled to the person still pounding on the door, “Just a damn— Just a minute!”
“Probably Mrs. Flinton,” Clare said, speaking of his landlady, the very wealthy owner of the mansion. She’d offered the apartment to Zach the first day he’d been in Denver and interviewed with Rickman Security and Investigations.
Clare dragged on her bra, turned yesterday’s panties inside out for now and put them on, slipped into her sundress. She had no clothes here.
Zach had already snagged his cane and left the bedroom. He’d gone to the door in the little hallway just outside and perpendicular to the bedroom. Clare heard him open the door slightly. “Mrs. Flinton?”
“I’m so sorry to disturb you. So, sorry,” her voice quavered. Usually the woman exuded vim and vigor.
“Sorry to disturb me? That’s a first,” Zach teased. “Come on in. I think you need to talk to Clare, right?” he said in a casual tone that amazed Clare. She still had trouble breathing steadily. But he’d been a deputy sheriff and was used to adrenaline dumps. That didn’t happen often when you were a certified public accountant at a nice, safe job for a prestigious, maybe stodgy, firm.
“Yes. There’s trouble.” A drawn-in breath. “An evil ghost.”
The last three words stopped Clare in her tracks, to take a breath. She’d only been a ghost seer for seventeen days and didn’t have the experience to handle an evil ghost.
But Mrs. Flinton continued to talk in a whisper. “I have tea and pastries in the breakfast room, if you wish to join me.”
Clare didn’t want to pretend this discussion would be pleasant over tea and pastries. She stomped her fear into the carpet as she joined Zach and Mrs. Flinton in the hallway.
He slanted a look at Clare, stepped back, then opened the door wide for his landlady. For the first time since Clare had met her, Mrs. Flinton actually looked and acted elderly, face sagging with worry, mouth quivering.
“The tea—” Mrs. Flinton protested.
“I have food. I’m a P.I. and I discuss cases in my apartment. We can talk in the living room.” He turned and stalked the few steps to where the short hall opened into the main living space.
He sounded more accepting of his change of career from a deputy sheriff in Montana to a P.I. in Denver, due to a gunshot wound, than he had when Clare had first met him.
His living room was a manly room for speaking of danger, as opposed to the parlor, which was decorated in cheerful yellow chintz with filmy white curtains.
The woman pushed a roller walker into the room, leaning on it. She crossed to one of the big brown leather chairs, leaving the sofa and the other chair on this side of the room for Zach and Clare.
Clare felt too nervy to sit. “I’ll put coffee on, why don’t I?” She crossed to the small pullman kitchen that was separated from the living room by a half wall that was a counter with stools in the main space.
Mrs. Flinton, who’d unaccustomedly slumped, perked up, her pink-lipsticked mouth smiling. “Coffee!”
Clare angled back to her. “Are you supposed to have coffee?”
“I would love some.” Mrs. Flinton tried a wobbly smile.
Since the older woman evaded the question, she probably wasn’t supposed to have coffee. But Clare needed it and thought Zach did, too. She sent Mrs. Flinton a stern look over the counter. “You’ll be having herbal tea.”
Mrs. Flinton pouted, then sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Though what I really need is a martini.”
Zach chuckled as he lounged on the couch. “Not going to have that, either.”
“Bloody Mary?” Mrs. Flinton raised penciled-on brows.
“Nope. No alcohol here.”
Sniffing, Mrs. Flinton said, “You are wrong. We stocked your liquor cabinet, and I know my housekeeper has given you wine from my cellar with your meals.” Another sniff. “Wine my doctor says I can’t have.”
The return of her upbeat personality and the dripping of the coffee as it filled the pot soothed Clare enough for her to slide into the living room with a pleasant expression and sit next to Zach.
Mrs. Flinton’s face crumpled when she saw Clare and tears began to roll down her cheeks. There was nothing for it; Clare rose and moved over to perch on the arm of the woman’s chair, patted her on the shoulder. “Maybe you’d better tell us what’s wrong, Mrs. Flinton.”
“Please call me Barbara, especially since I’ll be imposing on you so much.” She whisked out a lace-edged hanky and dabbed her eyes and her cheeks.
Zach said, “Just tell us, Barbara.”
Straightening to ramrod stiff, not looking at Clare, Barbara said, “Yes, I suppose I must. It’s about another ghost seer.”
Clare drew in a small breath. Maybe she’d have help in dealing with this evil ghost. Any help would be great. “Another ghost seer?”
Mrs. Flinton continued, “Yes, I have a little bit of several psychic gifts, but Caden has just one, like you, and we’re thinking it must be ghost seeing.” Her fingers crushed the handkerchief until the delicate linen disappeared into her fist.
Clare’s gaze met Zach’s. He nodded, as if confirming he was in this with her. As he always had been. She was lucky.
“Caden?” she asked, her voice a little higher than usual. “And who is ‘we’?”
“We are me, his great grandmother, and my daughter, Caden’s grandmother, who believe in psychic gifts, but not his parents.”
“Parents,” said Zach neutrally.
“Caden is seven.” A quivery sigh followed by a rush of words. “It seems his gift is coming too fast and too soon.”
Clare recalled when her own gift descended—freezing in the hottest summer of Denver, the weird going-insane feeling, and, yes, people who didn’t think she saw ghosts, including herself. Terrible stress. “Oh my God,” Clare breathed. Despite any danger, she could not refuse to help.
“Yes, dear.” Mrs. Flinton cleared her throat. She sniffed wetly, raised big, blue eyes to Clare. “Even though in our family we don’t have the effects that seem to apply to yours—the lethal coldness and threat of insanity, it’s not good. There’s a powerful and bad ghost out there, and he’s young.”
Clare flinched. The tea kettle shrieked. Avoiding Zach’s gaze, she went behind the counter to the stove on the far wall and turned off the burner. She fussed with the loose leaf tea of twigs and blossoms in a little basket. Grabbed a half minute to lean discreetly against the fridge.
“Pour your coffees first, dear,” Mrs. Flinton instructed. “Otherwise the water will be too hot for the herbs and ruin their efficacy.”
Waiting until her hands were steady, Clare poured mugs of coffee for Zach and herself. Just the smell of rich, dark caffeine strengthened her. He always took black, and she added a little sugar from the bowl on the counter, and real cream from the fridge to hers. With her chin high, she took a mug to him.
He looked at her straight, all acceptance of life-threatening trouble, and as if judging whether she could also face that up front. She firmed her lips and dipped her head. As much as she’d bobbed and ducked in the past, trying to evade her gift, now was not the time to drag her feet.
The bottom line was that an endangered child wouldn’t let her ignore her power to move ghosts on. Hopefully she had enough mojo-whatever to kick an evil one out of this world.
Giving them all time to think about what should be said next, what plans had to be made, Clare put her own mug on a magazine on the coffee table, went back for Mrs. Flinton’s tea, then handed the delicate china cup to her.
“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Flinton said, and cradled the cup in both hands as if cherishing the warmth.
Clare sat next to Zach and even leaned against him a little. He was much nicer than the fridge, and knew about trouble and danger. Leaning against him, accepting his expertise, didn’t automatically mean she was dependent on him.
Putting down his mug, he took the lead, as she’d expected.
“Trouble,” Zach prompted.
Mrs. Flinton’s hand holding the teacup shook and she put it down. “Yes. I know Caden’s in trouble and my granddaughter and her husband don’t believe that. They are good, solid—”
“Unimaginative—” Zach said.
“Rational—” Clare began herself.
“Yes. Both of those.” Mrs. Flinton blinked rapidly as if to keep more tears from falling. Her eyes appeared even bluer and she whispered, “I’ve heard . . . that an evil ghost is very dangerous, even to the living.” She stared into the distance, turning so pale that her carefully blended makeup stood out on her face.
Clare shivered. Zach slid his arm from the sofa behind her to wrap around her shoulders.
Since Mrs. Flinton already knew about Enzo, Clare called him. “Enzo?”
The ghost Labrador simply appeared, sitting between Mrs. Flinton and Clare, angled to watch them both.
Oh, no! Enzo whimpered. This is bad. This is VERY bad. He shuddered, straightened, and turned his eyes on Clare. But we will do it! I will help. I . . . I am SURE we can kill the bad ghost!
Her formerly staunch phantom dog didn’t sound sure.
“Yeah,” Zach said. He didn’t sound too alarmed and rubbed Clare’s shoulder.
Clare was alarmed. Enzo had spoken of evil ghosts before. She knew she wasn’t experienced enough to fight one.
Mrs. Flinton began to hiccup in distress. Clare stood and walked around the coffee table to pick up her teacup and hand it back to her. “Drink it down, Mrs. Flinton,” Clare said. Luckily her voice didn’t betray her inner qualms.
Nodding, Mrs. Flinton sipped, then gestured to the elegant Hermès bag attached to her walker. “Please retrieve my phone. I have something I want you to view.”
The cell in a sparkly lavender case was easy to find.
“I recorded a call from Caden on SeeAndTalk. Please take the phone over to Zach so you can both watch.”
Clare did, sitting thigh-to-thigh with Zach. She thumbed on the app and held it so they could both see.
“Hi, Great-Gram,” a blond-haired boy with Mrs. Flinton’s eyes whispered.
“Hello, Caden,” Mrs. Flinton’s voice came.
The boy glanced around. “I gotta be fast.” His expression tightened, pinching his features. “They don’t believe me, Gram! I tell them, and tell them, but they won’t believe. They say I’m making it up.” He gulped. “I’m not, Gram.”
“What’s wrong, Caden?”
“There’s a ghost here in town. A real bad one. I think it was lurking or . . . you know that scary place where East Willow and West Willow Creeks meet? Near the bottom of the dirt Bachelor Loop road? The place where Mrs. Treedy killed her husband and herself last month—”
“How do you know about that, Caden?”
“I know I wasn’t s’posed to hear, but all the kids did. That scary spot isn’t sitting there no more. I think it mighta been a crazy ghost and got stirred up.” He shivered. “I went there and now it’s like a nasty old oily spot and feels like dirt and gravel in the wind.” He began hyperventilating.
“Calm down, Caden, and tell me.”
“I’m sorry, Gram. There’s a ghost! A big, bad ghost and it’s out to get me!”
“Get you how?”
The thin boy shuddered. “Suck my soul out of my body and eat it.”
A harsh breath from Mrs. Flinton. “Caden, love?”
His lower lip thrust out, his brows came down. “I can too see ghosts. I told you. And you said you believed me!”
“I said that, and I meant it,” the woman assured.
“Well, I do see ghosts, though usually not old, old ones like this one. And I don’t see this one as much as feel it, and it feels really awful. As if it has teeth, crunch, crunch, crunch, and wants to eat me. My bones, crunch, crunch, crunch. And my, my inside spirit or . . . the rest of me.”
Clare jerked. Zach’s arm came around her and Enzo trotted over and laid chill on her feet.
“All right, Caden—” Mrs. Flinton began to soothe.
“Shh, Caden,” Mrs. Flinton said. “Listen to me. Are you listening?”
The boy bobbed his head.
“You can’t live in fear. And the best way to stop doing that is to live moment to moment. Just concentrate on getting as much joy out of every minute you can. Do you understand me?”
“Don’t worry about the future?”
“That’s only making you more afraid, so don’t do that now. I’ll be sending you help. I promise.”
That is good advice, Enzo sent to Clare mentally. We must remember it.
Yes, it fit in with Enzo’s character well, and Mrs. Flinton’s, not so much with Clare’s. But with all the situations she’d been experiencing in her new career, she should consider it a motto to strive for.
“Caden?” called a young woman’s voice on the recording.
“Gram, Mommy and Daddy don’t believe me.” Tears began to trickle down his face. “It comes most at night. I’m afraid to sleep. Help me, Gram.”
“Caden, where are you and what are you doing?” called the younger woman.
The screen went black. Clare glanced up to see Mrs. Flinton’s shoulders hunched and shaking as she wept into her handkerchief. Her muffled voice came. “It’s hard to enjoy every moment when you fear, but I do fear. I did my best so Caden wouldn’t.” She uncurled, dabbed at her nose. “He trusts me, I must take care of him.”
Zach cleared his throat. “When did Caden’s call come in?”
Mrs. Flinton wiped her eyes and blew her nose and her spine straightened to ramrod. “This morning. I checked with my granddaughter, Caden’s fine and at school.” Her breath rasped in and out. “I knew I could count on you, Zach, and on Clare”—Mrs. Flinton sent her a look of appeal—“to help me. So I waited for you. As long as I could. I have a favor to ask you—” Mrs. Flinton began in a shaky voice.
The door from the mansion opened and Tony Rickman, Zach’s boss at Rickman Security and Investigations, walked in carrying a large tray holding covered dishes. Clare smelled bacon and eggs.
“I’ll take care of this, Godmama Barbara,” Mr. Rickman said, striding the few paces to the coffee table and lowering the tray. He then turned to Zach and Clare. “I have a case for you both.”
“WHEN I CALLED you, Tony, I didn’t mean for you to interrupt your workday and come over,” Mrs. Flinton said with starch in her tone.
Mr. Rickman went to her and kissed her cheek. “I’m here to take charge—take care of my godmama.” His mouth flattened. “And young Caden. We don’t know all the particulars,” the man stated flatly. “This case could include a physical threat as well as . . . ah . . . non-physical. As your other cases have, Clare.”
She nodded but wasn’t reassured. Her insides continued to tremble with the thought of facing an evil spirit.
Zach raised his brows at Clare, his expression calm. She’d always been wishy-washy about “consulting” for Rickman Security and Investigations and using her psychic gift. Was a little wary of Tony Rickman, too. Bad enough that The Powers That Be, the universe, whatever, dropped cases of ghosts that needed to move on in her lap, let alone another, human source. She also didn’t want her name to get out as a medium. The more people who knew she could communicate with ghosts, the less a secret it was.
“Do we accept this case?” Zach asked.
Clare shrugged then said, “You don’t have to pay us—me—Mrs. Flinton. You saved my life . . . or at least my sanity.”
“I agree,” Zach said.
“You work for me, you get paid,” Mr. Rickman said. “And you will both work for me on this.”
Zach leaned down to whisper to Clare, “He’s a control freak.”
Thinking back to the few things she’d read in her great-aunt Sandra’s journals—the previous holder of the “gift”—Clare said, “I’m not sure there will be a physical element to this . . . or . . . whether regular people are in danger.” She rubbed Enzo’s back with her foot.
Enzo thumped his tail. Bad ghosts CAN hurt people! Especially people who can see them, like you and Caden. It will try to get your spirit and eat you first.
An image from him brushed against her mind—that she didn’t think he meant her to see—of some screaming clawed being ripping the spirit from her body, and, yes, eating her with dozens of razor-like teeth.
She shuddered, swallowed hard, then swigged some coffee to wet her mouth that had gone dry. “So bad ghosts can hurt people,” Clare repeated aloud. “But that doesn’t mean there’s a human villain, does it, a physical threat?”
Enzo sat up. Ghosts can influence people.
“Ghosts can influence people,” Zach repeated. So he heard Enzo.
“We need you to go to Creede, Colorado, today,” Mr. Rickman said, taking control of the conversation again.
“That’s where Caden is?” Clare asked.
“Yes,” both Mrs. Flinton and Mr. Rickman said in unison.
Mrs. Flinton sniffled.
Mr. Rickman pulled out a big, square handkerchief from his trousers pocket and handed it to her, shot a glance at Clare and Zach. “Eat,” he ordered.
Zach leaned over and took off the silver domes. Sure enough, thick bacon, soft scrambled cheesy eggs, and buttered English muffins sat on two plates. Zach lifted one and shoveled the eggs in his mouth.
That was a man of action for you, ready to fuel up at a moment’s notice while her throat was still dry and closed from fear. Clare savored her coffee.
Tony Rickman arranged his big body in the chair near them.
Mrs. Flinton said, “I called my granddaughter and asked if Caden could spend some time with me, get him out of the town, and was politely told to keep my nose out of their business.” She sighed and didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “They have serious ideas about how to raise their son, and it doesn’t include any ‘fancies or fantasies’ I might ‘put in his head,’” Mrs. Flinton stated calmly, though her hand trembled a little bit as she drank her tea.
Beside Clare, Zach stiffened. He had a marine general for a father who probably held the same beliefs. Those Clare herself had recently cherished until she’d been violently shown that psychic powers, and ghosts, existed.
“Godmama Barbara’s right.” Tony Rickman stared at Clare and Zach. “The LuCettes won’t send Caden here to be influenced by her without supervision.” Now Mr. Rickman gave a wintry smile. “And they won’t send Caden to me because they don’t want him around a military man, and they distrust my wife Desiree, thinking she’s a flake.”
Clare rather thought that, too.
“If I go down there, I’ll only alienate them . . . more,” Mrs. Flinton said. The older woman’s mouth pursed, showing fine lines. “They wouldn’t welcome me.” Her lips pressed together and she shook her head as she gazed at Clare. “My own psychic power is not strong enough to help.”
Tony Rickman grunted, “Good.”
Placing her teacup on a side table, Mrs. Flinton said, “Caden is right.” She sighed. “His parents won’t believe him. Will only think he’s having nightmares, which is how they explain his gift. I do believe him about a threatening ghost. Do you?”
“Yes,” Clare and Zach said at the same time.
Yes! Enzo hopped to his feet, paced and circled the room, tail thwapping the air, sending a chilly draft through the room. Mrs. Flinton and Clare watched him, Zach ate, and Tony Rickman crossed his arms over his chest and studiously avoided looking at the spectral Labrador.
Enzo came back and sat near Clare’s feet, but mostly in the coffee table, looked sorrowfully at the food, then back at her. This is dangerous, Clare. Every spirit the bad ghost eats makes it bigger and eviler. I don’t want it to eat a boy. We must protect him.
“I don’t want it to eat a boy, either,” Clare said.
Zach crunched down his bacon. “We won’t let that happen,” he said with complete assurance.
Clare didn’t know how they could prevent it, didn’t know enough, but Zach was used to acting fast, thinking on his feet, and solving problems. She sent a thought to Enzo. I don’t know how to MAKE an evil ghost move on. Do you?
His color cycled from substantial grays to nearly translucent. Maybe. He looked up at her earnestly. We will try and we will do it!
She blew a breath out, glanced around the room. Zach was totally on her side, she knew that, and he might be able to come up with scenarios that would work if—when—she shared what she knew. Her shoulders had tensed when she realized she didn’t think she could do this without him.
Keeping her tones light, she asked, “Mrs. Flinton, can you give me any tips for sending a ghost on?”
The older lady shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I see ghosts, of course, and communicate with them occasionally if they please, but I can’t help them transition to their next life.”
Clare nodded. She hadn’t thought so. Her gaze swung to Mr. Rickman, who looked sterner than ever. His jaw flexed and his gaze drilled into hers. “Terminate it with extreme prejudice,” he said.
Even she knew that meant “kill.”
“I’ve never done that,” she said.
He jerked a nod, but from his attitude he expected her to learn how to do so.
They locked stares until Mrs. Flinton said, “Creede is a four-and-a-half-hour drive. If you leave now, you could reach it mid-afternoon, well before dark.” Her chin set. “That’s important. I want Caden protected, and they won’t let me take him, and they won’t come visit me as a family. My granddaughter and grandson-in-law have a motel in town, and they live on the premises. This is a busy time of year for them.”
“Major hunting season’s coming up,” Zach said.
“Yes. And Michael also has a business for processing game. They make a good bit of money this time of year.”
“And not so much during the winter,” Clare said. “When the tourists are mostly gone.”
“No. Many businesses close during the winter. But Michael and Jessica are stubborn about self-sufficiency, among other things.”
“Self-sufficiency is important. Even for those who have family money or trust funds,” Clare said.
“They love their life,” Mrs. Flinton said.
“And that’s important.” Mrs. Flinton managed a slight smile. “Loving your live and living each minute.”
Rickman stretched his big body and stood and Zach rose a millisecond after his boss, still holding his coffee mug. “We’ll get right on this,” Zach said.
Clare got to her feet, too. “I need to go home and pack.”
Mrs. Flinton pressed her hands together. “How long do you think it will take for you to . . . move this thing on?”
Destroy it, Enzo said.
“Destroy it,” Clare muttered, tensing all over again. “I don’t know. You know I have very limited experience.”
“This ghost is probably subtly affecting the whole town, Clare, influencing people to more violence. More sensitive folks will have nightmares and hear . . . experience . . . things. Awful,” Mrs. Flinton said.
Mr. Rickman rolled his hand. “Give me a shot at how long this will take, Clare.”
“It shouldn’t take more than”—she looked at Enzo—“two weeks.”
The dog’s forehead wrinkled but he didn’t contradict her.
Clearing his throat, and looking out the front window, Mr. Rickman said, “There’s a big tourist event, car show—Cruisin’ the Canyon—Friday through Sunday in Creede.” He rolled a shoulder. “I have a classic car, thought about attending. Gonna be a lot of tourists in the town this weekend . . . to be influenced by this monster, maybe in danger.”
So soon! All the blood drained from Clare’s face. She felt it going, along with her knees that wobbled, then gave out, so she plunked back down on the couch.
Zach lowered his coffee mug. “If a supernatural murderer is anything like a regular one and looking for a big score—” He shrugged.
“A lot of people to play with.” Her lips had gone cold. “Maybe even deaths to feed him,” she whispered.
This is not good, Enzo said, then steeled himself and gave a determined bark. We are a TEAM, we will do this. We will stop the ghost and be HEROES! He hopped up and down.
His cheer overcame her fear . . . for a few seconds.
“How soon can you leave?” Rickman asked. “Or do you want us to charter a flight, arrange a car?”
“I can do that.” Mrs. Flinton’s chin lifted. “Money can’t buy everything, but it can make things a whole lot easier. And it sounds as if every hour might count.”
Mr. Rickman grunted, looked at his highly engineered watch. “It will take a little time to set everything up, make all your travel arrangements.”
“Creede has an airport?” Zach asked.
“Yeah,” Tony Rickman said.
Zach narrowed his eyes. “How populous is the town?”
“About four hundred full-time residents,” Mrs. Flinton said.
Angling his head at his boss, Zach said, “A private charter arriving and the people on it would be news for a small town.” He looked at Mrs. Flinton. “News that would reach the ears of your granddaughter and her husband, would let them know we’re coming and piss them off. Better if we went undercover, at least at first while we get the lay of the land.”
“You’re right,” Tony Rickman said. His mouth flattened. “Alamosa is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Creede. We can fly you into Alamosa and rent you a car there.”
“Sounds good,” Zach said.
Mr. Rickman turned on his heel. “I’ll have my assistant set it up: the flight, the car, the stay at the motel. Hopefully they aren’t booked for the weekend.”
“I must finish this by Friday, the weekend at the latest,” Clare said through cold lips. All of her was cold. Again. As usual. She’d had eight days to help her first ghost transition . . . on. Then had helped her second in five days.
Yes. She’d kept track. Three and a half days to destroy a ghost-seer-eating ghost. The process of which, the whys and wherefores, the hows she knew nothing about.
“Clare, how soon can you leave?” Tony Rickman repeated.
She jerked from dread-filled thoughts. Blinking, she shrugged, looked at Zach. “An hour?”
He gave a quick negative shake of his head, a motion she thought Mr. Rickman and Mrs. Flinton missed. Since Zach didn’t want to speak up, she trusted him and amended her answer. “Sorry, more like two hours.”
“Right. We’ll send a car to pick you up at your place in, say, two-and-a-half hours.”
Mr. Rickman’s hand went to his inside suit jacket pocket and he pulled out a wallet and a platinum credit card, and offered it to Zach, who put both of his hands on the curved handle of his old-fashioned wooden cane. “Sorry, can’t take that.”
“It’s a business card for you and your expenses,” Rickman bit off.
“So it has ‘Rickman Security and Investigations’ on it,” Zach pointed out. “Which the family—what’s their names?—would recognize. All the locals might.”
“All right.” The card went back into wallet and pocket. “The family is—”
“Jessica and Michael LuCette,” Mrs. Flinton said as she rose and moved toward them with her walker. Now she appeared calmer, close to her old sprightliness. She angled her head at Tony for a kiss on the cheek. He bent and complied, put an arm around her thin shoulders and squeezed. “We’ll handle this,” he said in a grim tone, meeting Zach’s gaze.
It occurred to Clare that that shared male look might mean Rickman would send out his security force. Zach had told her most of Rickman’s employees were ex-military special operations kind of men. She wondered what they thought they could do about a spirit-eating ghost. She had no illusions whatsoever that she would be on the front line of this battle. A battle she didn’t know how to fight, let alone win.
She drank down the rest of her tepid coffee.
Mrs. Flinton said, “Thank you, Clare. I have full faith that you can . . . destroy this evil revenant.”
Great. Clare put her empty cup on the coffee table, stood, and kissed the woman’s cheek. “I will do my best.” She said it quietly, but it was a vow. Zach moved around her and kissed Mrs. Flinton, too. “We’ll do our best and we’ll save Caden.”
“And Creede,” Tony Rickman said, putting on his sunglasses. “My take on evil is that it doesn’t like to limit itself to one person or one town or one valley, even.”
Zach smiled and put his arm around Clare’s shoulders. “Clare saves the world.” He sounded completely confident she could do it.
Clare saves the world! Enzo echoed, wagging his tale and grinning, like he thought she could do that, too.
She thought her spirit would be torn from her, shredded, and eaten by a ghost.
WHEN MRS. FLINTON and Mr. Rickman left, the atmosphere of the apartment continued to buzz with tension. Though Zach appeared casual, and that might have fooled Mrs. Flinton, the second the door closed behind the others he strode to his bedroom and hauled out a suitcase. Clare followed him, but Enzo vanished.
Zach packed clothes for autumn and the fast-arriving mountain winter quickly and efficiently.
Since Clare didn’t want to deal with all the dreadful questions in her head, she asked one of the least important. “Why do you need more time?” It appeared like he’d be done packing and ready to go in under a half hour.
“I need to see my mother.” His mouth twisted. “Say good-bye to her if this is going to be such a dangerous mission.”
Clare swallowed hard. “Of course. Do you want me to come with you?” They’d just visited Geneva in the mental health facility the night before—to discover more information about Zach’s psychic abilities that had passed down through his mother.
Now Zach slanted Clare a sardonic look. “Yeah. Of course I’d like you to come with me, but it’s more efficient if you go pack. I think this is something I’ve got to do myself.”
She shifted from foot to foot, swallowed, and took his hand. “I consider us a couple, Zach, an exclusive couple.”
His brows lifted. “Yeah, we’re a couple. A couple of what, I don’t know, but an exclusive couple. We’re in this together.” He glanced away, rubbed the back of his neck.
Tilting her head, Clare spoke a thought that just surfaced. “Have you gone to her before when you’ve taken on dangerous cases?”
He winced. “Yeah.” He withdrew his hand from Clare’s and she reluctantly let him. Stretching his arms high, he worked his shoulders. Clare heard a couple of pops. “I don’t like doing it because she always seems to know—” He stopped.
“A touch of precognition, like yours?” Clare asked.
“I guess.” His brows remained lowered. “It’s never good. If I brought you, and she thought you were in danger, too . . . I don’t know what she’d do. She likes you and she remembered previously meeting you. That’s a big deal. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be one of her good days.”
Straightening her spine, Clare said, “Since my cases haven’t been . . . easy, I’ve made my will. It’s the responsible thing to do. What about you?”
“God.” Zach turned, stripped, and headed for the shower.
All thought drained from Clare’s brain as she watched him. “God,” she murmured herself.
Zach turned with irritation on his face, but she wasn’t much looking at his expression. Yes, he remained lean from his wounding months ago, but the sheer sight of him had her tingling. She admired his frame, his sleek muscles slowly filling out.
Essentially male. Especially since his body reacted to her gaze, becoming erect. She wavered unsteadily on her feet, her breath catching, her breasts plumping, her own body responding to his. Hot, she was so hot! She whipped off her dress, flung off her bra and panties. Wetting her lips, she curled a finger. “Come on over here, Zach.”
His eyes lit and he grinned, sauntered toward her. His limp did nothing but squeeze her heart, remind her that she was his first lover after his injury, and something special spun between them.
Something sizzling, needy . . . and more than passion.
As he drew close her head tilted back so she could see him better, wait for him . . . this once . . . soon she’d pounce on him and be wild . . . follow her gypsy blood and show him how she wanted him. How she wanted him to take her.
His right arm came around her waist, jerked her to him and, my God, they were skin to skin. Sensation ruled, the roughness of his lightly haired body rubbing against hers as she lifted her arms to clasp them around his neck. Her breasts rose, her nipples rasped from his chest, the feel of his arousal hot and hard, long and thick against her stomach, that part of him as smooth as she. Her blood pounded through her, so she thought nothing, only experienced. Only craved.
Her vision went blurry. She smelled his breath as his mouth touched hers, tasted him as he thrust his tongue through her lips, probed her mouth. She moaned with desire.
He bent her back and back, arching her, his body over hers, then he released her and she lay on the bed. She widened her eyes, staring. Now his flushed face showed wild triumph and he gazed at the apex of her thighs, her sex revealed to him, damp, needy.
Yanking a drawer open, he sheathed himself with protection, and she blinked, trying to draw in the sight of all of him, struggled through the flood of sensations to even speak, and could only find one word: his name. “Zach.”
She raised her arms, formed the sound again. “Zach.” This time a plea.
A chuckle ripped from him, a grin, then he grabbed her, positioned her, plunged into her, and the sunshine around her dimmed with the veil of red lust.
God, he felt good! Better than last night, than early this morning. The looming threat in the back of her mind making this joining incredible.
Now his expression became strained as he surged and withdrew, focused on her . . . himself . . . them. Sexual need clawed at her, demanding the spiraling, gasping climb, the arching of her own body for more, more, more. She whimpered each breath, clutched him, set her fingernails into his back, needing the thrust of his body, the withdrawal, the pounding back into her.
Yet her climax caught her by surprise, between one breath and the next, exploding through her, scattering her to the stars and the universe beyond, flashing brilliant colors behind her closed eyelids.
He shouted, lunged into her and stayed, then collapsed on her and they held each other.
She lay there, her mind spinning, her breath rasping. As her arms encircling him went limp, she trailed them down his heaving body, then let them lie on the bed.
After long minutes, and too soon, he rose from her. She managed to focus her eyes before he disappeared into the bathroom, saw the strong lines of his back, his muscular butt. Gorgeous man. Virile. More man than she’d ever had before, more than she’d have been able to handle before her gift had dropped into her. Not a man she’d have wanted before—too rough, too many shadows. He’d have scared her and challenged her, and she’d been happy in her rut.
Now she couldn’t bear the thought of not knowing him. Her heart gave a massive thump as more of her mind cleared from the amazing sex and reminded her of the morning events and the deadly situation they’d become entangled in.
She could lose—not him, she hoped, never him. Lose her life, that would be more acceptable than losing him, and now she knew how very much she cared for him. More than sweet and sweaty passion, more than affection, slipping too easily into love.
An awful mewling sound came from her, thankfully covered from Zach’s hearing by the pulsing of hard, noisy water streams.
Sitting up gingerly as she shoved the frightening thoughts from her brain so she could simply function, she stood and turned her mind back to the logical thread of conversation and the point she’d been trying to make before lust had swamped her. The accountant in her came to the front. She couldn’t let this important conversation go.
Slowly she walked into the bathroom. She liked showers with Zach, and she did need one, but though their sexual interlude had been relatively quick, they had a deadline to meet.
The frosted glass of the enclosure revealed only the bronze color of his body and the shape of it. She took a wet maroon washcloth he’d left on the sink for her and cleaned up, figuring angles.
Zach shampooed, and the scent of tea tree oil wafted out. She wondered if that had been his choice, or if the bathroom had come stocked like the furnished apartment and liquor cabinet.
Finally deciding to be blunt, she cleared her throat and projected her voice. “Having a will is important.”
He flinched but said nothing. She rinsed the washcloth, wrung it, and hung it on the towel rack, then tried initiating the discussion again. “Zach,” she called. “A will?”
Without looking at her, he began scrubbing and her body took notice, so she turned her back away from the vision of him.
His voice raised over the pounding water. “My mother will get my disability and retirement funds. Not that she needs the money.”
“Did you note her as your beneficiary?”
He grunted. “I don’t recall. Probably.”
“If not, your assets would be inherited by both your parents, and considering your mother is in a mental health facility, no doubt your father would receive them on her behalf.”
“No. I don’t want the General to have control of my money and dole it out to her.”
“Who else would you like to manage your funds for her?” Clare asked.
“Goddammit to hell.” The sound of water stopped abruptly. “Distant cousins on Mom’s side, I guess, as trustees for her. Though I haven’t checked any of them out lately. Not for a couple of years.” The door opened and she heard towel-rubbing. Then he walked around to face her and his blue green gaze lasered to her and latched on.
She raised her hands. “No. Absolutely not. Don’t make me responsible for your mother.” She bit her lower lip when he continued to stare. “What about Mr. Rickman?”
“I’d trust him with her life. He isn’t a money man. You’re a money woman.”
“If you must,” Clare said, “go to my old firm, Burgess, Sturgis, and Heaps.”
He stared at her. “Seriously? They’re named that?”
She gritted her teeth, loosened her jaw, then said, “It’s an old, traditional firm. They are very well thought of in the financial community.”
Zach smiled at her, a simple, sincere smile that made her heart squeeze in her chest. “They must be tops if they hired you.”
He flung the towel over the bar and strode from the bathroom.
Clare couldn’t leave the thick cotton that way and folded and straightened it. When she entered his bedroom, he was dressing in nice slacks and a linen shirt.
She made the bed. It would be better to strip it and remake it, but she didn’t know where the extra sheets were and it was his bed, not hers, and time ticked down.
Zach went to a hidden wall safe and opened it, put a gun in his bag. Not the weapon he usually carried, which was on the table on his side of the bed, not even the second one that he called his clutch piece, but a third weapon. He swung the bag to the floor. “Take that with you, and I’ll meet you at your place as soon as possible. Can I park my truck in your garage?”
“Of course.” But she stared at the piece of luggage. “I don’t have a concealed weapon permit. What if I get stopped by the police?”
“Clare, you never go over the speed limit,” he said with condescension.
“I do, too!”
“What, by two miles an hour? And you live close to here, not more than fifteen minutes away.”
“Oh, all right.”
“Gotta go. C’mere.” He’d finished dressing, including his ankle and leg brace, his holster at the small of his back, gun, and a sports jacket.
She walked into his embrace, felt his strong arms close around her, and felt safe. For all too short a time. Tilting her face for his kiss, she enjoyed the press of his lips on hers, his tongue sweeping along her lips, leaving his taste on them.
Though he’d been gone from the plains of Montana for a week, the tang of sage remained. A smell and taste she’d always associate with Zach. She became aware of his slight arousal, again, how satisfying, and her own inner muscles clenched. How soon she’d become accustomed to frequent, excellent sex.
He rubbed her back up and down with his big hands, caressing her, soothing her, murmuring in her ear. “We’ll get through this.”
Her stomach tightened, but she tried not to reveal her nerves. “I’m sure,” she lied.
With a stare under lowered brows, he said, “Later.” One side of his mouth lifted. “Use your new keys on the way out. The alarm code is one-two-four-three-five-seven-six.”
“All right. An easy sequence to remember.”
He picked up the curved-handled old-fashioned wooden cane and twirled it, smiled, and turned away. She saw his shoulders tense and he marched from the bedroom and out of the apartment. She wanted to go with him, but since he thought that would upset his mother, she wouldn’t.
Though he was wrong if he thought to spare his mother pain, because he wouldn’t. Geneva Slade had never gotten over the death of one son; Clare could only imagine how another dark loss might overwhelm her.
* * *
Enzo awaited her when she got home. He sat in the large entryway next to the stairs with cocked ears, though his cheerfulness subdued. His tail wagged a couple of times, but she heard no swish, just felt the standard chill radiating from her ghostly pet.
You are really going to do this, Clare? he asked.
She inhaled a quick breath, let it out choppily. “I am not going to let a boy be eaten by an evil ghost.”
Her phantom dog rose and trotted up the stairs. You will need the big knife, then. I will show it to you.
“Knife!” For one brief instant, courage blazed inside of her. A weapon, she’d have a weapon! Then her stomach jolted and her throat closed again. She had no clue how to use a big knife.
But Zach would. If the knife was, say, a long dagger, it might be used as a sword. Zach used his cane as a weapon; he could teach her cane moves, couldn’t he? She was sure he knew how to use a regular knife.
“Is the knife . . . supernatural?” she asked Enzo, following him up the stairs, turning right toward her bedroom. Perhaps if the weapon was supernatural, all she’d have to do was hold it and let it lead her to the evil ghost and dispatch it. Like the fairy tales Great-Aunt Sandra had told her as a small child. Fairy tales. Fiction.
Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. And in fairy tales, the prince or princess had to overcome great obstacles. And if you weren’t the right princess, you could die. Clare bit her lip.
Her gift passed through the family, too. And her successor to the awful thing was her niece, Dora, who wasn’t quite as young as Caden LuCette. Like him, Dora was untrained and, unlike Caden, Dora would experience the Cermak’s gift—deadly cold, the threat of insanity and death if she didn’t accept her psychic power. Though her parents, Clare’s brother and sister-in-law, would probably accept Dora and her gift.
Clare! Focus! You can’t daydream! We can do this. The knife will help!
Clare shook herself to find she stood in the tiny office she used for her ghost seer cases. Atop the battered desk lay her old laptop from two years ago. She’d framed maps on the walls: a huge one of Denver on which she’d shaded the worst areas for ghosts of her time period; one of Colorado; and one of the United States. Some smaller maps were reproductions of old ones, Denver in 1887, 1890, 1893, 1903. Those last three years were later than the time period she was sensitive to, 1850–1900, and ghosts, the American West . . .
CLARE! You MUST pay attention. Enzo had hunkered down near Great-Aunt Sandra’s large carved chest, a gorgeous piece of various woods fanning out on the front around a small half-circle that had always seemed like the sun and rays to Clare.
Enzo pointed his paw at the chest. His eyes appeared to be more liquid . . . and he hadn’t been as much of a cheerleader this morning.
He seemed to have recognized the danger and mixed in a too-real determination with his optimism. That was so not a good sign. He’d always been a happy dog, even when she’d been going insane . . . even when she’d been dying because she refused her gift.
After drawing a big breath in through her nose, she went to the chest. Once she opened it, incense would waft from the box and more grief would come at the sight of the colorful cut-velvet scarves and caftans of her dead great-aunt.
She lifted the top, saw the richest of Sandra’s “working” clothes, smelled incense and the spicy perfume that both Sandra and Clare herself loved, and tears backed behind her eyes.
Sandra had been a ghost seer like Clare. Unlike her, Sandra had had a psychic medium business. The portion of the fortune Sandra had inherited from the previous ghost seer, and the riches she’d made herself from her work, the gifts of the universe after a successful closed case—transitioned ghost—and investments, had gone to Clare, along with the family psychic gift.
On the whole, Clare would rather have remained a midlevel certified public accountant in a solid Denver firm.
Excerpted from "Ghost Killer"
Copyright © 2015 Robin D. Owens.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Owens knows just how to press her readers’ buttons.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Ghost Seer
“Hot, but grounded romance, paranormal action, and a narration that just won’t let you put the book down.”—Fresh Fiction
“A nonstop romantic whirl. A spectacular start to what promises to be a terrific series.”—Library Journal