“What a dump.”
Noah Harper turned to peer at his cousin over the roof of his rented silver Altima and arched a brow as he shook his head. “What the hell happened to the house?” he asked as he closed the door to the pearl white car and made his way to Kai’s side.
Kai Pearce was often confused for Noah’s brother they were that similar. Both men standing over six feet tall, though Kai had a couple of inches on Noah. They shared a similar muscular build, Noah’s formed on the decks of boats while Kai grudgingly spent hours in a gym. They both sported the same dark blond hair and piercing blue eyes that all the men in their family were born with. The only difference between the two men at a glance was while Kai preferred to be clean-shaven, Noah enjoyed wearing the slight shadow of a beard making him appear like the pirate rogue he told Kai all those years ago he would one day become.
Kai tilted his head as he examined the magnificent three-story Victorian and sighed. Located on the outskirts of the town proper, it sat atop a hill overlooking Chatwick in the north and its ancient cemetery to the south. The once vibrant yellow paint, now dull and dirty had chipped in several places and peeled away from the wood in others, the railings on the wraparound veranda had become slanted and broken in places, and several windows were cracked. It truly had the appearance of the haunted house rumors always pegged it as.
“Got me,” he shrugged. “Uncle Robert became more reclusive after you left, and you know how nasty he could get. In the last couple of years, no one ever came by to visit, and when your mom moved to Seattle, I think he just gave up.”
Noah turned to consider the dilapidated home. He regretted not having visited in the last ten years. In a family filled with eccentrics, Robert had been the only one to try to understand Noah like no one else did, and now he was gone.
“Should we go in? Check out what the inside is like?” Noah asked.
“I’m a little afraid the roof might cave in on us if we try to open the door,” Kai’s weak laugh as he spoke punctuated his nervousness.
Noah shook his head as he took a step toward the house. Clutching the keys tightly he made his way up the crumbling concrete path from the driveway eyeing the front steps cautiously before gingerly putting his foot on the bottom one. With a small prayer, he hefted his six-foot-one-inch frame up the first step, then the second and finally the last two. The porch itself seemed to sink slightly under his weight, but it all held together. He gave his cousin a crooked smile as he hopped up and down a couple of times.
“I think it might be okay.”
Kai exhaled slowly following him up, “If I die in there, I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Noah chuckled while putting the old fashioned skeleton key in the rusty lock but struggled to turn the latch. Each time it gave slightly, it would shift back. He released it flexing his fingers before trying again.
“Come on, let me in,” he whispered as he turned the key. This time, the latch gave way with no trouble, and he swung open the door.
The dark interior of the house greeted them as they stepped inside. The late afternoon light coming in through the drab sheer curtains not doing much to brighten the area. The musty odor of sealed-up rooms assaulted Noah’s nose while the dust kicked up by the breeze entering the house caused him to sneeze. Stepping over the threshold, Noah paused as a shiver ran down his spine. Rubbing the nape of his neck, he remembered the first time his mother happily told him this was the feeling you got when someone walked over your grave. He was only six at the time. Noah shook his head. He’d been born into a family of ghouls who loved anything and everything paranormal. He never got the same rush they did, could never quite understand the draw. Even Kai had a prized collection of books about witches. It didn’t help that Chatwick Village where they’d grown up had been just as susceptible to the beliefs of the occult and magic as its neighbor Salem. It seemed witches were a dime a dozen in this area of Massachusetts.
Behind him, Kai whistled softly, “This place looks like it’s been abandoned since the 1900s. Uncle Robert’s only been gone a couple of weeks. What the hell happened?”
Noah turned to see his cousin smiling broadly, his excitement palpable. “Seriously, dude?”
“What? C’mon, admit it, this is kind of cool.”
“It’s like something out of a Vincent Price movie.”
Noah groaned as he tried the light switch. The bulbs in the old chandelier above them flickered slightly before turning on. Illuminating the area didn’t do much to improve the sight. A lone side table covered by a dusty cloth guarded the foyer beside the front door. The stairs going to the bedrooms upstairs stood immediately to their left, the hall leading to the tiny powder room and the kitchen at the rear of the house beside it. The entrances to two rooms flanked them on either side of the entryway. Noah moved to peek into the formal parlor on the right. In the dim light coming through the large bay windows, he could see more covered furniture and the massive marble fireplace standing sentinel in the back of the room.
Kai brushed past him on his way to the kitchen, pausing only to poke his head into the powder room. “I don’t think anything’s leaking in here,” he shouted back before retreating into the darkness.
Noah walked into the family room doorway opposite the parlor, pausing as he remembered the days and nights spent inside with his uncle and Kai watching football or hockey while his mom disappeared with his aunt to luncheons or meetings with other ladies from town. Flipping the light switch on, he let his gaze dance around the room. Everything remained the same right down to the faded wallpaper on the walls. Noah reached out to touch the filigree design on the gold and maroon paper and smiled sadly.
“Hey, there’s food in the fridge.” Kai’s voice echoed down the hall.
“Food. In the refrigerator. It’s all fresh too.”
“Who left food?”
“Got me. Everything in the kitchen still works. The stove and oven are operational, but I’d check with an electrician before using anything in there for more than a few minutes at a time, Robert wasn’t the handiest person so who knows what the wiring is like between these walls. The water pressure is still good though.” Kai said meeting Noah in the living room. “Wow, I haven’t been in here in years.”
Noah arched a brow. “Did you really not visit here at all? Ever?”
Kai shrugged, “Robert cut himself off from everybody after you left town. I came by a few times, but he demanded to be left alone. There’s only so many times you can hear ‘Get out,’ before you stop trying, besides it’s not like you ever stepped on dry land to see him.”
Noah couldn’t argue the point. “I had my reasons to stay away.”
“Yeah, yeah, you had that big argument with your mom and Robert, lots of stuff said in anger. Still, after your mom moved, you should have come back. Robert wasn’t the only family you had here.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. Life just got busy.”
“Right. Life on the high seas. Maybe I should start calling you Ahab.”
“It’s a charter boat, Kai, not a whaler.”
“Skipper then? Or maybe Captain Stubing?”
Noah glared at him.
Kai laughed, “Now you have a real house to live in. You don’t have to stay on that accident waiting to happen you call a boat.”
Noah held a hand up, “Not so fast there. I don’t think I’m going to keep this money pit. I’m not even sure why Robert left it to me.”
“Because you’re his favorite.”
Noah rolled his eyes.
Kai snorted, “Don’t act like you didn’t know. You needed a father figure, and he needed someone to look after. Having you around softened him.” He scanned the room as a crooked smile spread. “I’m glad he left this to you and didn’t put it up for sale. This house is our legacy, Noah, it needs to have a Harper living in it. It’s been in the family since they helped found this town.”
“If it’s about legacy, then he should have left it to you. You’re a historian just like him.”
“I own a bookstore,” Kai shrugged. “I dabble in researching historical texts, but Uncle Robert was the professor.”
“Maybe it’s time for a change. I don’t think I want to come back to Chatwick permanently.”
An ice-cold breeze swept through the room causing both men to shiver, and they searched for the source. “Maybe you should reconsider,” Kai said as he looked around.
Noah sneered and pointed up to the vent. “It’s the A/C kicking on, not a message from beyond.”
“No? Who turned on the A/C? It’s the middle of October, Noah. Maybe you should open up to the possibilities that sometimes a sign is a sign.”
“Do not start this crap again.”
“It’s your heritage too.”
“No. It’s not. All those stories your mom and mine told us about witches in Chatwick is bullshit, Kai. Don’t tell me you believe it.”
Kai held his hands up in surrender. “Fine, I won’t mention it again.”
The fact his cousin didn’t deny it brought Noah up short, and he eyed Kai skeptically. What the hell is it about this town that made the citizens susceptible to these stories? Noah was glad he’d gotten out ten years ago, there was no telling what he’d be doing today had he stayed. Ghost Tours of the local cemetery probably, or a recluse like his uncle, buried behind huge books researching who knows what. Leaving town meant he finally found some happiness. Portland, Maine is as far removed from Chatwick as one could get, no signs of ghosts, witches, warlocks or curses and that’s all Noah could ask for, well that and sometime in the future a family of his own, preferably one that didn’t find such pleasure in ghost stories or the mystic.
“Are you going to stay here or are you coming back to my place?” Kai asked, breaking into Noah’s thoughts.
“I think I might spend the night here if the upstairs is livable. The house is going to need a lot of work before I can put it on the market. I might as well start checking and making a list of everything that needs to get fixed.”
“Okay, but if you need anything, just call, I’m fifteen minutes away.”
Noah smiled, “I will. Tell Aunt Emma I said hello and I’ll visit before I go back to Portland.”
“Will do. Oh listen, I’m meeting Abigail and Emily later for drinks if you get bored. Do you remember them from high school?”
Noah tried to put the names to faces, “Emily was the one who dated Greyson, right? Whatever happened to that guy?”
“Like you, he left town, he joined the navy and became a SEAL. His grandmother told me he’s leaving the service and thinking about coming back to Chatwick.”
“You still see his sister?”
“On and off.” He shot his cousin a wolfish grin. “She’s sort of seeing someone else.”
“So you’re friends with benefits?”
“You could say that.”
“Abigail Rosemont. Emily’s best friend,” he held his hands cupped over his pecs, “The really hot redhead with the big boo—?”
“That’s the one,” Kai said, cutting him off before he could finish.
Noah considered it a moment, “Maybe I will meet up with you. Are you going to O’Donnells?”
“That’s the plan. We should be there at about nine.” Kai held his hand out, but Noah grabbed it and pulled him in for a hug.
Slapping him on the back Kai pulled away, “If you decide not to keep this place, try not to be such a stranger, okay? Come visit once in a while.”
Noah nodded as he walked him to the door and swung it open. Kai paused on the threshold contemplating the darkening sky. “Storm’s moving in. I’ll text you if anything changes tonight.”
“Thanks. Need a ride?”
“No, Em doesn’t live too far from here. I’m going to walk over to her place and catch a ride with her to O’Donnells.”
Noah followed him onto the wraparound porch and watched as a beat-up red Toyota slowed and pulled into his driveway, parking behind his car.
Kai turned to him, “Expecting company?”
“No.” Noah frowned as he crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
A moment later, a vaguely familiar woman stepped out of the rusted vehicle with a broad smile, a large purse slung over her right shoulder. “Hi!” she waved as she approached the house. “Sorry, I’m late.”
Kai returned her grin then glanced at his cousin. “She’s late.”
“Who is she?”
Kai shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ll talk to you later.”
She paused at the bottom of the steps watching Kai walk down the street for a few moments before turning her attention to Noah, “Hi, I’m here to see Robert Harper. Is he inside?”
Noah stepped off the veranda and met her on the walkway, “No. I’m sorry, Robert isn’t here. You are?”
“Oh,” she held her hand out. “I’m Max.”
He shook her hand and waited.
Her smile faltered, “Umm Maxine Davis. Max.”
He arched a brow. “Sorry.”
She bit her lip an action drawing Noah’s gaze to her mouth. He lingered on it for a moment before searching her face. Something familiar about her teased at his memory, but he could not put his finger on it. Her voice didn’t have the familiar clipped resonance of a New England accent. Instead, it held a lyrical lilt to it. English? Not quite, he thought. She wasn’t tall, standing about a head shorter than him. She wore a floral print maxi dress and a light leather jacket. Loose shoulder-length brown hair whipped around her face every time the breeze blew through. A smattering of freckles crossed the bridge of her nose and continued onto her cheeks. Her long-lashed hazel eyes met his and narrowed. He’d been silently watching her for longer than most people would consider polite.
She took a step back, putting space between them but didn’t meet his gaze. “Umm, may I wait for him? Robert is expecting me.”
“Right.” He put his hands in his pockets. “He passed away.”
She studied the house. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. A moment later, she frowned and murmured, “When?”
“Almost two weeks ago.” He said and watched the color drain from her face.
A dark blue van pulled up and backed in beside her Toyota in his driveway, causing her to release a soft sigh. A man dressed in khaki pants and an old-school Ghostbusters tee-shirt jumped out of the driver’s seat and waved at Max flashing a wide grin. “Hey, sorry I’m late, where do we set up?” he opened the back of the van as he pushed his long, shaggy brown hair out of his eyes. Inside the vehicle, Noah could see several pieces of video equipment.
“Set up?” Noah asked.
Her eyes darting from one man to the other she grimaced. “Yes, Robert said we could spend the weekend here.”
“What kind of research?”
Max rummaged in her purse for a minute before pulling out a business card. She handed it over and waited.
Noah read the card and cursed under his breath, he should have known. “Paranormal investigators. Seriously?”
Max nodded. “Yes, my investigative partner, Jerry and I, are with Montgomery College in New Hampshire. Robert and I have been corresponding for months trying to get this weekend set up.”
Noah handed the card back. “Sorry, you wasted your time.”
He turned back to the house and heard her coming up behind him. “Wait, you can’t just turn me away.”
“Yeah, I can. The last thing I want is some kook inside my family’s house snooping around for things that go bump in the night.”
“She’s not a kook,” Jerry said as he joined them. “Max is a highly sought-after medium.”
Noah’s brows shot up, “Oh no, that’s not kooky at all.”
Max rolled her eyes at her friend, “Go back to the van, Jerry.”
“Please.” She waved him away with her hand and plastered a broad smile on her face. “Look, umm, Mr.?”
“Harper.” He offered, deep-seated politeness refusing to allow him not to provide the courtesy of an introduction. “I’m Robert’s nephew and apparently the heir to all this grandeur, Noah.”
“You’re Noah Harper.”
“Did you go to Chatwick High School?”
Noah’s brows drew together, “Yeah.”
Her shoulders dropped, “You were on the lacrosse team. That must have been your cousin Kai that I saw earlier.”
“Do I know you?”
She cleared her throat and wrapped her arms around her waist self-consciously. “Not really. I mean, I went to CHS too, I was under you, I mean behind, I was two years behind. We had chemistry together. I mean, we had a chemistry class together.”
His brow arched as she stumbled over her words, and he smiled. “I thought you seemed familiar.”
“You remember me?”
“No. Not really.”
Her expression fell, “Oh. We didn’t really hang out in the same circles, so I’m not surprised.”
“Listen, Max, I’m sorry you had to make the trek down here with your friend for nothing, but I don’t want any visitors right now.”
“Of course. I understand. It’s just that I’ve always wanted to see the inside of the house and Robert offered me this opportunity, so I changed all of my plans to come this weekend.”
Noah glanced over his shoulder at the wrecked façade, “Unfortunately, it’s seen better days. I’m afraid the inside isn’t fit for company right now. Maybe come back in a few weeks for the open house.”
“You’re going to sell it?”
“Yeah, I think so.” A strong gust of wind whipped around them, causing them both to note the gathering clouds above. “There’s a wicked storm brewing, you really should go if you want to beat it.”
Her shoulders dropped as she nodded and turned away to walk back to her colleague. Noah watched her and felt a sense of disappointment run through him but unsure as to why. Maybe in another time and under different circumstances, he would have enjoyed flirting with her, but not today.
He pulled his car keys out of his pocket, unlocking the vehicle as he approached it to get his bags. From the corner of his eye, Noah could see Max talking with her friend and nodding as she pointed to the house. The doors to the van slammed shut with Jerry grumbling as he stomped over to the driver’s side and yanked the door open. Noah watched silently as the other man pushed his hair off his forehead and met his gaze. Noah waited to see if he would speak, but after about a minute, Max reached up to cup his cheek drawing his attention back to her. Jerry took a deep breath and smiled down at Max flashing deep dimples before speaking quietly. He caught Noah staring and said something else before hopping into the van as she stepped back.
Max turned and jumped when she saw Noah standing by his car. Clutching the strap of her purse, she sighed softly and approached him. “I’m sorry again for your loss and for bothering you.”
Noah nodded. “And I’m sorry you came all the way down here for nothing.”
She shrugged, and her lips quirked up into a small smile. “It’s not completely for nothing. I suppose I could go visit my parents in town.”
“Good luck.” He said his voice flat.
She frowned at his manner but said nothing, instead reaching into her bag to hand him her card again. “If you change your mind, my cell number is on there.”
Noah took it and slipped it into his back pocket as he felt a raindrop fall onto his cheek. “You drive safe.”
Summarily dismissed, she nodded and gave him a small wave as she turned back to the Toyota. Noah didn’t wait as the rain began to fall steadily. In the distance, a flash of lightning lit up the darkening sky. A crash of thunder quickly followed. He entered the house tossing the door closed behind him. Removing his jacket, he flung it on the staircase newel post before jogging up to the second floor. There were three bedrooms, including the massive master. Later he’d go upstairs to the top level where Robert could often be found in the room he used as a combination library and office.
Noah flicked the light switch as he stepped onto the landing. The door to the bathroom he shared with his uncle faced him while his former bedroom stood to his left. The old wood door’s hinges squeaked loudly as Noah pushed it open. He turned on the lights as he entered surprised to see nothing had changed in the ten years since he’d left. His rickety twin bed remained in the center of the room, a modest chest of drawers to its right below the window and his small closet now empty. As he entered, he saw his desk on the right beside the other window in the room. He grinned as he scanned the light gray painted walls with the posters of Linkin Park, Paramore, and Fall Out Boy intermingled with more revealing posters of Fergie still tacked on the walls. Turning off the light, he backed out of the room. Since he would be spending the weekend here, he decided it wasn’t going to be in a twin-sized bed surrounded by the bands of his youth. Striding past the bathroom, Noah turned to go down the hall. The door to the master bedroom was located midway down the corridor. He flicked the light on and entered the room. Dropping his bags onto the floor, he whistled softly. He’d forgotten how large the bedroom was. His uncle had left it for his mother saying he didn’t need all the space a woman did.
The walls were covered in rose-colored wallpaper with a floral design in pink. The room contained a sitting area and an en-suite bathroom and took up this half of the house. Noah was surprised to see his mother had left all her furniture behind. Though covered by thick curtains, the sitting area had a large bay window like the one in the living room downstairs. A chaise lounge and two winged-backed chairs bordered a low circular table in the area surrounded by the windows. The huge king-sized four-poster bed dominated the center of the room. Noah couldn’t imagine having so much space to sleep in every night, but it would be better than the barely full-sized bed on his boat. He turned and saw the fireplace; he’d forgotten this room had one as well. Passing it, he continued into the bathroom and again stopped short to marvel at its size. The vanity contained two sinks and had been built into the foyer with the actual bath to his right. In front of him were two enormous walk-in closets, he remembered his mother had filled both with shoes, purses and all kinds of clothing. He swung open the door to the one on the left and saw there were still clothes hanging in it. He supposed there had been just too much for her to take with her, or she planned to keep some things here for the times she’d visit. He went into the bath where the claw-foot tub caught his attention, beside it was the water closet and the two-person sized shower beside it. Noah sighed softly. The rooms appeared to be in good condition considering they hadn’t been used in years. Still, he needed to check on his uncle’s bedroom to be sure he could skip any renovations on this floor.
As he exited the room, another flash of lightning lit up the interior of the house followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder. Rain began to pelt the windows hard, the storm promising to be a gusher. Noah paused as he thought he heard the front door and strained to listen, but heard nothing. As he passed the stairs leading to the third floor and entered the bedroom his uncle had occupied, he caught the unmistakable sound of movement downstairs. Noah ran out and down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. Hitting the ground floor, he barreled into a small, frightened figure.