The ghost hunter a paran.., p.27
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       The Ghost Hunter, a Paranormal Romance (The Hunter Series), p.27

           Lori Brighton
 

  There was a moment of stunned silence. He didn’t dare look at her, afraid the expression on her face would change his mind.

  She clasped onto his bicep. “Cristian, no! I promised I’d keep her safe.”

  He shrugged off her hold, hardening his heart to her pleas. She didn’t understand, she couldn’t. She had a human’s heart, a human’s emotions. “Aye, and to keep her safe, she needs to go onto the other side.”

  He started up the steps to the front door.

  “I swear I won’t talk to you again if you do this.”

  His steps faltered, damn it all. He didn’t doubt that at the moment, she meant those words. She’d change her mind when she realized what they were up against; when she realized everything he was doing was to protect her. At least he had to believe that she would. His jaw clenched and unclenched. “Then so be it.” With his sword still in hand, he pushed open the front door and stepped inside.

  Chapter 30

  Ashley raced down the steps to the basement, practically tripping over her own feet. She hadn’t even dressed when she’d returned to the cottage for the key to Devon’s shackles, but still wore Cristian’s muddied t-shirt. The jerk had a huge head start, but if Kipps had been right…he wouldn’t be able to find Maggie without her.

  “Devon!” she cried out, jumping over the railing and landing with a thud that jarred her spine.

  He bolted upright on his cot, his chains rattling with the movement. “Dear God, what is it?”

  “Devon.” She stumbled toward him. “It’s Cristian, he’s going to kill Maggie. You have to stop him.”

  Her hands were trembling so badly, she almost dropped the key. She reached for his manacle, but he held up his hands and scooted away from her. Exasperated, she stared hard at him. His mouth had flattened, his gaze leery.

  “And how do I stop him?” he asked.

  He swiped a hand over his pale face, sweat glistening on his skin like the condensation on the stone walls. Guilt ate her gut. He could barely stand and she expected him to stop Cristian. She felt bad for bugging him, at the same time she was a little surprised at his reluctance. Devon was usually eager to take her side.

  “I don’t know,” Ashley said. Surely Devon would understand more than she would. “Talk to him. He can’t find her without me, right?”

  Devon sighed. “He can, will just take him longer.”

  Any hope diminished with those words. “Great.” She raked her hands through her hair and paced in front of him. How would she stop Cristian? Physically, she was no match. “Oh God. I won’t be able to take the guilt. She’s so scared; she has no desire to go. Maybe if I had time with her, time to explain that it will be okay—”

  “You smell like him.”

  Confused, she paused. “What?”

  Devon’s gaze pierced her, those blue eyes flashing. “Cristian. You smell like him.”

  Heat shot to her cheeks. How the hell did she respond to that? “I…I was almost killed out in the woods by evil Maggie. He saved me.” As if that would explain the scent or the heat creeping into her cheeks. Dear God, how did he know? Then again, the fact that she was only wearing a t-shirt probably provided a big clue. She pulled at the hem, shifting in unease.

  “What were you doing in the woods?” He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, the chains rattling. He was like a child who’d been told he had to share his toys.

  Her mouth opened, but she didn’t know how to respond without damning herself.

  “His aura is all over you.” His lips curled in disgust.

  His aura? Ashley dropped her gaze to her body. She had no idea a person could imprint their aura onto another and she wasn’t sure she liked it, or believed him. She felt branded, like a cow. But she saw nothing out of the ordinary. Rumpled and damp, but other than that, pretty normal.

  She shook her head. “Devon, about Maggie—”

  “You slept with him.”

  Her cheeks caught fire. She wished that door would open and the demon would kill her on the spot. Did he really want to discuss her sex life, or rather, lack thereof? “No. Well, technically…”

  He looked away, as if he couldn’t stand to stare directly at her. “I guess you really are a whore.”

  Pain shot through her chest like a stake to the heart. The worst part was that she wasn’t sure if this was Devon speaking or the demon. As tempting as it was, she wasn’t about to get close enough to find out.

  Ashley stepped back. “Devon, you don’t mean that.”

  His head whipped toward her. “Don’t I?”

  “It’s the demon talking.”

  He laughed. “Yes, he’d be a convenient excuse at the moment. But I’m afraid this is just me.”

  She hesitated. The urge to move closer, to feel his chill breath and reassure herself that it was indeed the demon, overwhelmed. But she wasn’t that stupid. Tears stung. She refused to cry in front of him. Without a word, she turned and started up the steps. She was on her own. Devon was too far gone. Cristian had his own agenda.

  “Ask Cristian about your father,” Devon called out.

  Ashley paused, her hand resting on the railing, her heart thundering in her chest. Was the mention of her father merely another trick?

  “I’m sure he’d love to tell you what really happened to him.” She could practically hear the smirk in Devon’s voice. A smirk that made her stomach drop to her toes. It wasn’t Devon, it was the demon. But his words and the memories they produced hurt all the same.

  Digging down deep into her soul, she clenched onto her anger and raced up the steps. She would see that demon destroyed even if it cost her life. She slammed the door shut and leaned back, closing her eyes. Devon wouldn’t say such cruel words and if Cristian knew something about her father, he would have told her. The demon was trying to cause friction between them.

  “Where is she?”

  Cristian’s voice jerked her from her depressing thoughts. He still only wore those shorts, his muscled chest beautifully bare. His hair had dried since last night, leaving it mussed with a slight curl. So boyish looking and if he hadn’t been holding that sword, she supposed she would have found him endearing.

  Instead, panic flared its icy fingers through her body. “I won’t let you.”

  Something resembling compassion flashed through his gaze. “I have to send her on for her own good.”

  She held onto that compassion she’d seen and pushed away from the door. She’d beg if she had to. “She’s just a child!”

  He stepped closer to her, his body tense. “She’ll be slowly destroyed. Don’t ye get that? He’ll suck the energy from her until she’s no more.”

  His words twisted deep within her gut. She knew he was right, but she didn’t find it any easier to agree. Frantic to make him understand, she reached out, clinging to his empty hand. “But she’s scared. Please, just give me a few minutes with her.”

  A few minutes to figure out a plan.

  He sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “Fine.”

  She didn’t hesitate, knowing he wouldn’t wait long, but raced down the hall and up the stairs. She knew where Maggie was. Call it instinct, call it her powers, but she knew Maggie was in her bedroom. She pushed the door wide. Sure enough, Maggie glowed softly in the corner of her bedroom, half-hidden behind her bed.

  “Maggie.” Ashley shut the door and walked slowly toward the child ghost, afraid of frightening her off. The child had her knees tucked to her chest, her head down. “Maggie, I know it wasn’t you in those woods. It’s okay.”

  Slowly, Maggie lifted her head. Large eyes in a skeletal face stared at Ashley.

  The shock sent her stumbling back, falling to her ass. “Maggie?”

  “I don’t feel right,” the child whispered. Her usually chubby cheeks jutted out in sharp angles. She was more skull than round, flushed face. No longer a child, but a wasted remain. “Help me, please.” She started crawling forward.

  Ashley had to resist the urge to shrink back.
“What happened?” The closer Maggie got, the more Ashley wanted to recoil. The room seemed to grow uncomfortably warm. Ashley started shaking; perspiration clinging to her back.

  “I don’t know,” Maggie cried. “He was in me, so cold. He wouldn’t leave.”

  Ashley’s stomach churned, sending bile to her throat. For the demon to take control of Maggie seemed perverted in some way. Ashley swallowed hard, forcing the panic to remain firmly in the background. “It’s okay Maggie. We’ll get you help.”

  “It’s time,” Cristian said from the doorway.

  At the sound of his voice, Maggie shrunk back. “No,” she murmured in a pitiful voice that was barely her own. Her thin arms reached out to Ashley, her face panicked with need and desperation. At the same time there was trust there, trust that Ashley would save her.

  Her heart clenched, her emotions a whirlwind that swirled inside her. How badly she wanted to help the child, to tell her to run, hide. Instead, Ashley stumbled to her feet and moved back until her shoulder blades pressed to the wall. Cristian started forward. Even though she knew what he was doing was necessary, she hated him at that moment.

  “You knew all along she’d be like this.”

  He didn’t respond to her snide comment, but his grim face told her the truth.

  “Why didn’t you tell me?” If only he’d warned her she could have been better prepared. If he’d told her, she wouldn’t have to blame him because deep down, she didn’t want to hate Cristian.

  He faced her, his features set stoic. “I didn’t tell ye because I knew ye had to see it for yerself. Ye wouldn’t have believed me.”

  Maybe he was right, but it didn’t make it any easier.

  “Ashley, please,” Maggie cried out, crawling toward her in a desperate last attempt.

  Cristian stepped between them.

  Maggie whimpered and moved back into the corner, curling into a tight ball. “No, no, no,” she whispered. “Please.”

  “Please, Cristian,” Ashley cried.

  Cristian raised his sword. Ashley squeezed her eyes shut. For a split second she prayed that a miracle would happen…that Cristian would change his mind…that God would intervene. A soft swoosh rent the air and then there was silence. Ashley kept her eyes closed in a desperate attempt to keep the truth at bay.

  “Tis done.”

  Her lashes lifted. Maggie was gone.

  No pink dress. No bow. No pouting lips. As if the child had never been.

  “She’ll be fine on the other side,” Cristian said. “It’s not a terrible place. It’s heaven, remember?”

  She knew that wasn’t true, didn’t she? And who knew what Maggie would really face. Ashley jerked her gaze from the spot where Maggie had been to where Cristian stood. There was something about him that seemed…defeated. Her heart softened against her will. He hadn’t wanted to send Maggie to the other side, she could see that in his eyes. He’d done what he’d had to do, and he would continue to do what he had to do for years, decades, centuries with or without her.

  He started toward the door.

  “Cristian,” she said.

  He paused and glanced back, his look guarded.

  “Where’s my father?”

  Surprised flashed across those stormy eyes. Surprise that quickly turned to leeriness. A long silence stretched between them, a damning silence. “Devon?”

  She nodded, swallowing hard. Cristian knew Devon had told her, who else would have?

  With a sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck. “I wondered when ye were going to uncover the truth.”

  Shock slammed into her, hitting directly into the chest. She could barely form a coherent thought. “You know?” She shook her head, her mind spinning with the realization. “All this time you’ve known?”

  He raked his hands through his hair, leaving it ruffled. “It’s a bit difficult to explain.”

  “Try,” she snapped.

  He focused on her, his jaw tight. The hard, unflinching Cristian was back. “Sometimes it’s best if we don’t know.”

  She stared into his stormy eyes, wondering if she’d ever really known the true Cristian. Hurt and anger swirled low in her gut. She stabbed her finger into his hard chest. “Don’t give me that bullshit. Tell me. Now.”

  There was a moment’s pause and she knew he was weighing his options, what to admit and what to omit. “I want all of it.”

  He didn’t answer, just peered into her eyes as if judging her worth. Damn him, why wouldn’t he answer? They weren’t discussing the demon. They weren’t discussing the ghosts. They were discussing her father, for God’s sake. He had no right to keep information from her.

  Just as soon as the anger had arrived, it moved aside and sadness settled heavily on her shoulders. She knew, without a doubt, what he had to say was not going to be good. Her breath trembled. “I just want the truth for once, please.”

  He exhaled, long and loud. “My father is in that basement, in a vault, ready to break free any moment.”

  “I know.” But the way he said the words, so sure, made her shiver. For some reason, it felt too real. Perhaps, after everything that had happened, she still didn’t really believe there was a demon in her basement. It was a bit farfetched. Then again, so were fallen angels and vampires.

  “The vault isn’t the only thing holding him in there.”

  She frowned confused. “What do you mean?”

  He paced to the windows and she was left to wait impatiently for his response. After what seemed like an eternity he faced her. “The only way to keep an evil spirit contained, one as powerful as my da, was to bind a pure spirit to him.”

  Dread sank into the pit of her stomach. She didn’t need to hear anymore; she knew where he was going with this story. She shook her head, taking a step back, away from him, away from the truth. She wouldn’t believe it. She couldn’t

  He nodded. “Yer da is in that vault. His spirit.”

  The room spun. Her mind and heart refused to believe anymore. Vaguely she was aware of Cristian coming toward her. She couldn’t let him touch her. No, because then she might fold.

  She moved back a step…then another. “No!”

  Cristian paused.

  She spun around and raced through the door. She wouldn’t hear anymore lies, she wouldn’t hear his ridiculous stories. She’d open that damn vault herself. She’d tear it open and show them there was nothing in there. No demon, no dad.

  Strong fingers bit into her upper arms, jerking her to a stop. Cristian spun her around and pushed her up against the wall, holding her immobile. His face was set, stoic, slightly furious. “He wanted it. Binding him was the only way.”

  Ashley’s throat went dry.

  “I’m not lying,” he said, his face softening. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

  His silver gaze was hard, but underneath there was something there…a truth she was forced to accept. “I couldn’t stop him. I tried.”

  He wasn’t lying. Her legs gave out and she sank into his hard body, choking on a breath. Her lungs seemed to have shrunk. His strong arms wrapped around her, holding her upright.

  “His spirit?” she whispered against his chest.

  “Aye.”

  The blood rushed to her feet and her body grew numb. “Which means…he’s…dead.”

  Chapter 31

  Camile opened the cottage door, took one look at Ashley and frowned. “Balls, Ashley, what’s wrong? You look like shite.”

  Ashley laughed, a sort of deranged strangled laugh that spoke of insanity. Hell, maybe she was finally going off the deep end. Her mom would be thrilled, knowing she’d been right all along and Ashley was crazy.

  “Sorry,” Camile mumbled.

  Ashley shook her head, and moved to Rose’s wicker chair. She’d run most of the way. Emotionally and physically, she was exhausted. She felt like shite. She sank onto the weathered seat with a thud. Around them, birds and insects chirped their goodnights. A sweet sound that spoke of beauty, of life. Even the sun seem
ed reluctant to leave, hovering on the horizon and spreading its pastel fingers across the sky. She usually loved sunsets; today the splendor was lost on her. Perhaps it would be forever.

  “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered.

  Camile stuffed her hands into her short pockets and started down the steps. “What is it? You need me to get my aunt?”

  Ashley shook her head. What could Rose do? What could anyone do? Besides, Rose was on Cristian’s side. “They’re gone. All my ghosts, gone.” She’d always hated ghosts, so why did she feel like she’d lost her family? She hugged herself, feeling small, alone.

  Camile knelt in front of her, the woman’s wide eyes showing her surprise. “How? Why?”

  “Cristian sent them back. The demon was infecting my ghosts and he said he had to send them back or they’d be destroyed.”

  “Oh.” She rested her hand on Ashley’s arm. “I’m sorry.”

  Ashley nodded, knowing by the sound of her voice that she wasn’t sorry. She agreed with Cristian’s decision. Deep down, Ashley knew she did as well. What she couldn’t accept was why Cristian had kept the death of her father a secret. “That’s not the worst.”

  Looking weary, Camile lowered herself into the wicker chair across from Ashley. “Okay.”

  Camile was patiently waiting for her to continue. She wasn’t sure how to continue. Ashley stared at the sunset, willing her body to react to the beauty, willing her mind to understand how a world that could be so wonderful, could be so evil as well. How badly she wanted to enjoy life, to see the glass half full. “My Dad… he’s dead.”

  Camile flushed and dropped her gaze to her lap.

  Suspicion sent a sharp pain through Ashley’s gut. “Did you…did you know?”

  Camile lifted her gaze. “No, I didn’t know. I mean…I laid out cards the other night and…well…I thought…maybe.”

  Ashley should have been mad. She should have been crying. Why wasn’t she crying? Instead, she felt this odd numbing buzz in her brain. Of course Camile knew about her dad. It seemed everyone knew but Ashley.

 

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