From her earliest memories, Ashley Pearce has been drawn to Ruby Hill Lunatic Asylum, and she's not the only one. Decades after the abandoned hospital ended its institutional reign of torture and neglect, something lurks in the shadows. Since she's a paranormal investigator, it's Ashley's job to find out what.
Crime scene expert Corbin Malone doesn't believe in ghosts. A born skeptic, he has no interest in entertaining the hype surrounding the mysterious deaths at Ruby Hill, but he won't turn his back while more women die. He agrees to an overnight investigation, never expecting his first encounter would be with the woman he pushed away a year ago. But when he discovers Ashley is a target, he learns his greatest fear isn't living with his own demons, but losing her for good.
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About the Author
Sarah and her husband of what he calls "many long, long years" live on the mid-Atlantic coast with their six young children, all of whom are perfectly adorable when they're asleep. She never dreamed of becoming an author, but as a homeschooling mom, she often jokes she writes fiction because if she wants anyone to listen to her, she has to make them up. (As it turns out, her characters aren't much better than the kids). Though she adores romantic suspense, she writes in many genres.
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House of Horrors
By Sarah Ballance, Kerri-Leigh Grady
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Sarah Ballance
All rights reserved.
Death had a flavor. Equal parts bitter and bland, the damnable taste was more sickening than the stickiness in Corbin Malone's throat. It soured his gut, leaving him with an unease he couldn't quite swallow, and the deeper they drove into the countryside — the closer the car brought him to Ruby Hill Lunatic Asylum — the more potent the flavor. Five years a cop, he'd neatly sidestepped the ugly aftertaste until things got personal.
Until the body belonged to his brother, Cash.
Nearly six months had passed since Cash Malone fought for his last breath inside the dismal, abandoned halls of Ruby Hill. Though his body now rested six feet under a distant patch of cemetery grass, Ruby Hill remained his tomb — a giant, crouching headstone marring acres of otherwise beautiful, rolling hills. And for Corbin, a visage of murder.
Death had a flavor: metallic and bitter.
A quick glance at his superior, Joe Ellison, made clear Corbin didn't have a choice. "You're a sonofabitch, you know that?"
Joe's attention shifted momentarily from the windshield, his expression tainted with bemusement. "Play nice, Malone. You'll scare the civilians."
Not just civilians, but ghost hunters. Crazies, as far as Corbin was concerned. People who boasted of hearing voices from thin air and seeing apparitions in the dark definitely belonged in an insane asylum, but he sure as hell didn't want to babysit them.
And why were the ghostbusters there to begin with? Granted, blaming a ghost made for a good headline — Ruby Hill Deaths Attributed to Phantom Killer — but since when did the department fuel media hysteria?
"We've got bodies stacking up," Corbin said. "Why the hell would you bring in ghost hunters to contaminate the crime scene?"
"People are dying, and there's no clear reason why. The public wants answers, and there's not enough money in the budget for the stuff we actually need, let alone to waste training our guys to hunt ghosts. Since there's a line of paranormal investigators willing to get in there for free, we'll let 'em. Problem solved. Besides —" Joe shot another look Corbin's way, longer this time. " — you need this."
A brush with acknowledgment. It was likely all Corbin would get. Emotions weren't allowed in this game. Feelings of guilt got people killed.
You did not kill your brother.
The well-practiced and seldom-heeded mantra didn't have time to infiltrate Corbin's shell. One last bend in the road, and Ruby Hill Asylum loomed. It had a way of doing that — looming — even washed in the fading sunlight. With a thick overgrowth of vines on the walls and an army of saplings standing at attention on the neglected lawn, nature had long marched to reclaim the facility. But despite the greenery, a sense of evil seethed. The waning sunlight seemed wary of bathing the storied institution. The few windows still glinting with intact glass reflected the sky's deepening orange, giving the impression of eyes peering through the brush, yet the grounds were notably absent of wildlife. Even the wind seemed to steer clear, leaving damp, stale air clinging heavily to the latent heat. With the deepening shadows the only sign of life, Corbin realized he didn't have to believe in ghosts for at least one portion of the asylum's reputation to ring true: Ruby Hill was vile.
Joe steered the unmarked patrol car onto the drive and stopped at the gate. He flashed his badge for the benefit of the rented security guard, then followed the broken asphalt to Ruby Hill's main entrance. A steady tap-tap-tap rattled the floorboard. Joe cut the engine, then stared pointedly at the source of the noise.
Corbin's right boot.
Damn. Corbin threw open the car door and took a deep, trying breath of the stifling air. The effort didn't work. Feeling no less anxious, he twisted in the seat and grounded the offending foot. The twitch moved to his calf. He set his jaw. "Where are the real cops?" he asked. "The old man at the gate won't cut it."
Joe opened his door. "He's not supposed to. Our guys are waiting to see who wants in."
Heat blasted away the last traces of conditioned air. God, but it was hot. Too hot for October. "Two murders in as many weeks and you think this guy is entering through the front gate?"
"Nah. But I don't mind if he thinks we think that." Joe climbed out of the car. His stance left Corbin with an unwelcome view of his almighty ass.
Corbin averted his eyes and ended up with a windshield full of Ruby Hill.
You did not kill your brother.
Joe was talking, the words muffled by the car's roof and thick air.
Corbin forced himself out of the vehicle. When the second foot hit the ground, the knot in his chest traveled to his stomach.
"... in one room. We've been over it for evidence, just in case, but we can't go over the whole asylum. Just keep them in and everyone else out, and everything should be fine."
Joe deserved some credit. The room he'd rented the ghostbusters for the night was on the wrong side of the enormous complex, not that they'd ever know the difference. The exact location of the crime scene hadn't been released to the media. Still ... "And if it isn't fine?"
Joe shrugged. "They signed waivers. Your job is to make sure they don't leave that room. It's nowhere near the crime scene area, but don't let that particular cat out of the bag. It's an interior room and the walls are concrete. It'll be secure. Any questions?"
"Yeah. Why are you humoring these morons?"
Joe sighed with a heaviness that suggested he'd heard the question one time too many. "They can collect evidence we can't. Maybe our ghost is in the mood for a confession. That's the official answer, anyway."
"What's the unofficial version?"
"They want to prove it's not a ghost. I don't believe in what they're doing, but they're in a unique position to put a damper on the hysteria. It's much more effective to let them discredit the ghost theory, however they think they can. People are more likely to listen to them say it isn't true."
Joe turned his back. Case closed. Only, it wasn't.
"Why am I here?" Corbin asked.
Without turning around, Joe replied, "You'll find out soon enough."
* * *
From Ruby Hill's front entrance, Ashley Pearce watched Corbin Malone step out of an unmarked car. The distance didn't hide the familiar stance of his body, nor did it hurt the view of the tee stretched decadently over his chest. Jet-black hair illuminated pale blue eyes, crystalline against the pallor he'd worn since his brother's death.
A chill broke through the oppressive heat, sweeping over Ashley's skin. She shivered. For as long as she could remember, she'd been drawn to Ruby Hill — to its dark past. In a hundred years of operation, tens of thousands of residents called the asylum home. Most never left alive.
Hundreds, dumped anonymously in unmarked graves, never left at all.
Despite the scars left on so many lives — and by extension, the community as a whole — Ruby Hill was an astonishingly beautiful piece of history. The building boasted the trademark Kirkbride design so closely associated with institutionalized care. Though long neglected, the complex could not shed the remnants of its past glory. Ashley wasn't blind to the horrors that took place within its walls, but she could not look at the building without seeing what it must have once been before abuse and abandonment took its toll.
Stately. Breathtaking. Desecrated.
The media, with its claims of a phantom killer, had turned it into a circus.
When the local PD's Joe Ellison asked if she'd bring her team to collect evidence of the haunting, she'd been stunned — police departments didn't typically make sanctioned agreements with paranormal investigators — but she'd agreed. She didn't want to demonize the asylum. She wanted to defend it. Ashley didn't care what the media reported. Whoever committed the murders inside Ruby Hill was no ghost.
That single point was probably the only one on which she and Corbin would agree.
He didn't believe in ghosts. And after Cash's death, he stopped believing in her. In fact, she was the only person Corbin blamed more than himself. Because when Corbin couldn't stop Cash, Ashley should have.
She shook her head, biting down a flare of anger until her teeth hurt. She didn't deserve his blame, but that didn't stop her from carrying it around for the past few months. A slew of profane sentiments, each laced with Corbin's name, grazed her lips, but she didn't release them into the damp air.
Ruby Hill felt different this night. The air vibrated with a dark intensity, setting forth a chill untouched by the unseasonal heat. She could easily blame Corbin, but the feeling had been there from the start — long before he'd unfolded himself from the passenger seat and shifted her already unsteady axis.
Something wasn't right in this, her place of solace.
Behind her, the concrete walls whispered discord. On the weedy, derelict lawn, shadows grew long with the encroaching eve. The wrought iron gate marking the asylum entrance sent elongated threats, sharp fingers pointing away from the imposing batwing complex.
Lunatics. Ghosts. Murder.
The media grabbed the story like rabid dogs, shredding and tearing the meat of the so-called facts until nothing was left but gristle and hyped-up gore. Rumors took flight. Poltergeists, demons, a portal to hell, and all because torture had to leave a mark. Ruby Hill certainly had.
So had Corbin Malone.
From the drive, Corbin twisted his head her way. The moment his eyes met hers left a scar on her heart.
Either he hid his emotion well or he lacked any. Not a flicker of reaction crossed his face. He simply turned to watch the car retreat through the gate, a security guard stepping over to shut and lock the leggy ten-foot barrier as soon as the vehicle's rear bumper cleared.
Then, in a move so painstakingly slow it had to be deliberate, Corbin found her again. Blue eyes pierced her with such force she took a step backward. As she stumbled, the slowest of smiles crept across his face.
But he was not the threat.
She heard the asylum's whispers. This was personal.
She hugged herself tightly.
Yer gonna die.CHAPTER 2
That filthy bastard.
Corbin stared ahead, feet rooted to the ground and hackles raised. He'd signed up — albeit with venom-laden reluctance — to spend the night in an asylum. He'd agreed to a night with the purported ghosts of Ruby Hill. But this — this unholy clusterfuck that started and ended with Ashley Pearce — had not been on his radar.
Joe had done a fine job of leaving out that detail.
Corbin bared his teeth, and not out of giddiness. He'd screwed things up with Ashley by blaming then shutting her out when his brother died. His nagging conscience hadn't let him forget the gravity of that mistake, but in the midst of all of his thrashing from grief, turning to her hadn't been an option. It wasn't until she stopped calling that he realized how empty he was without her, and by then it was too late. She was gone, and he was left to deal with yet another loss.
And now irony had bitten him in the ass. The one point of contention he and Ashley ever shared was over the paranormal — not only did she believe in ghosts ... she claimed she communicated with them. They'd joked about it, though she maintained a short fuse on the topic, and by his estimate he'd taken an axe to the majority of said fuse when he shut her out.
Screw the murderous ghosts. The real monster inside Ruby Hill would be him.
He glanced toward the rented security guard, whose sole job was to remain visible at the gate. The real cops were tucked in all over the place, although two hundred acres made a hell of an area to cover. And for how long? The PD couldn't afford the manpower — especially not for a crime with hype existing primarily in lore. As far as Corbin was concerned, the throngs of thrill-seekers and ghost junkies pounding on the gates would keep anyone with a brain from sneaking inside to commit another crime, but expecting common sense was assuming a lot of a murderer.
He turned his attention to Ruby Hill's imposing stature. The center section rose at least four stories above the crumbling entry. A narrower structure, reminiscent of a bell tower, lorded higher still. With the vee shape extending away from him and the light failing, Corbin couldn't clearly see either end of the complex. From past experience, however, he knew each wing to extend several hundred feet from the center. Thus far, two bodies — both women — had been found in the east wing, which had once been reserved for female patients. Clearly, the Ruby Hill killer had done his homework.
Motion in the entry caught Corbin's eye. Ashley. He dug his hands in his pockets, wondering for the first time what she must think of him. Was she angry? If she held a grudge, spending the night in the dark with her wouldn't be the smartest thing he'd ever done. Of course, it couldn't compete with his dumbest, which had been letting her go.
Corbin approached the front steps, hesitating slightly for a final glance overhead. The dark clouds spun, the building appearing to waver in their shuffle.
Dizzied and unsure whether to blame the setting or his company, he picked his way up the crumbling concrete steps and joined Ashley inside the asylum. "I didn't know you'd be here."
It took her a few unbearable seconds to formulate a response. "I didn't expect you, either. Joe must have a real talent for — "
"Leaving out major details."
Her mouth quirked. Her smile was so pretty. It didn't belong in that concrete hell. "Oh?"
"You know I don't believe in this," he said needlessly. Maybe he just wanted to herd the elephant out of the room. Or maybe it was an easier topic than that of their relationship, which he knew he couldn't avoid for long.
Her brow lifted. "In what? Asylums?"
"This ghost bullshit."
She blew her bangs out of her eyes. "What do you know of the murders?"
His jaw clenched, spiking the dull ache at the base of his skull into all-too-familiar pain. So much for getting rid of that elephant. "Two bodies the last month. Late teens or early twenties. Same general body type, but nothing else stands out in terms of a pattern or a blatant attempt to avoid one. Both had significant others with alibis. No one knows why or how they were here, and neither one had a known fascination for the paranormal." He paused, meeting her eyes, hard as it was. "As for the COD, they've got nothing."
She lifted an eyebrow. "Nothing?"
Visions of the crime scene photos made an unwelcome reappearance in his mind's eye. Young women — beautiful young women. Death hadn't changed that. "In both cases, heart stopped. Sudden cardiac arrest. No known cause. No family history. No leads."
She nodded, unimpressed. But then again, she subscribed to the boogieman camp. "So a ghost did it."
He expected her to claim victory with that sentiment, but instead her words harbored bitter undertones. The shift threw him off balance. The whole damn place had that effect on him. The air felt as if it bred illness rather than oxygen — darkness gathering like rain clouds, too fat with their wares to find the sky.
He'd choke on the toxicity.
Is that what Cash had done?
Though the air boiled, inexplicable cold sluiced Corbin's spine. He glanced toward a window. Dusty and broken, it had a morbid effect on the sunshine attempting to filter through from outside, where the world lazed deep orange. The thought of darkness on the other side made him shudder. When he turned to shut the front door, he realized the darkness on the inside was far worse.
"They lifted a fingerprint," he said. "In the dust near one of the bodies. It doesn't match anyone. They're running it, but that can take days. Where's your team?" he asked.
"I guess we should join them." Babysitting duty. The thought was almost as foul as the decaying air. He took a step toward the men's wing where Ashley's team waited.
Where Cash took his last breath.
The fact hit him like a wooden plank to the forehead. His knees locked. In the eerie stillness, he heard only his own ragged breath. The entrance to the wing stretched out before him, the first of the corridor's dozens of right angles shrouded in shadows. One. Two. Three ... Seven. He mentally ticked off the turns to the spot where, six months ago, he knelt in an inch-thick litter of decay and rat droppings, begging for his brother's life. The sudden ache in Corbin's head spread to his heart, then infected his limbs.
He froze. He shook.
A glint of light caught his eye, drawing his attention to something on the wall. Plaques. Such a terribly normal thing to find in such a horrid place, the display humanized the asylum. Those were real names — real people — and from the looks of them, staff. He scanned the list, much of which was illegible after decades of abandonment. A swipe over the otherwise undisturbed dust uncovered a few names. Winston Madison, Behavior Analyst. George Freeman, Commissioner of Lunacy. Harvey Osgood, Lobotomist. Near the top, one caught his eye.
Excerpted from Ruby Hill by Sarah Ballance, Kerri-Leigh Grady. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Ballance. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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