“Fuck. Shit, shit, shit!” Teeth gritted, Quinn drove into the skid, his foot pumping the brake pedal of his rattletrap Mazda. Time slowed. Terror jolted down his spine. The screech of the car, the rumble of thunder from the torrential storm, and even the musical clamor from his iPod faded. Only the quickening thud of his heartbeat echoed in his ears as he wrestled the steering wheel. He screamed when his wipers cleared the flood of rain from his windshield long enough to reveal a cluster of thick sturdy oaks in his path, but then he was spinning… spinning… spinning…
Between one blink and the next, his car straightened out on the single lane blacktop. Still gliding on water sluicing off the hill. Quinn fought to point the car down the road. He shook, hands trembling despite his tight grip on the steering wheel. His nuts crawled inside his body, but miraculously, astoundingly, his tires gripped asphalt. The Mazda shot down the deserted country road like a bullet.
The laws governing motion and centripetal force pushed Quinn’s body against the driver’s side door when he cornered the next curve and he prayed he wouldn’t hydroplane again. Pulse racing, he glanced through the late afternoon’s stormy gloom in the rearview mirror to try to catch a glimpse of the slick stretch that had almost cost him his life, but between the downpour, tree limbs whipping in the wind, and the mountain the road curled around, he couldn’t make out anything. Blowing out a shaky breath, he eased off the gas and slowed the hell down. Delayed by bad weather or not, Patrick wouldn’t be pleased at Quinn risking an accident to reach the manse faster.
The wide turn-off Patrick had described in his directions to Warner House appeared through the sheeting rain a couple miles after Quinn’s near-catastrophe. He edged the Mazda off the road, hoping the tall grasses his fender mowed down were a promising sign he wouldn’t need a tow from the muck later. Climbing from the car, he grabbed his bulging backpack and pulled on a disposable poncho he’d picked up when he’d stopped for gas. Frigid rain drenched him before he’d finished unfolding the cheap plastic, long before he pulled the rain gear over his head, but keeping the contents of his pack dry was more important. He reached into the Mazda for the scrap of paper upon which Patrick had neatly printed the directions. He tucked that under the poncho too.
Spying the trail Patrick had mentioned, Quinn took off into the woods. Wet, dripping vegetation swallowed him. Mud caked Quinn’s boots, the path as slick as the road had been, but the hike settled nerves that still jangled from almost hitting the trees head-on.
Quinn loved the woods. The slow incline of the flat valley creeping up and into the mountains got his blood pumping, warming him despite the arctic rain. Forest critters stayed in their burrows during storms and mist shrouded wild greenery the farther up Warner Hill he climbed, but it was still a pretty hike.
In the year and a half since he’d moved in with Aunt Betsy, he’d never explored past the city limits on this side of town, only going as far as the ruins of the old covered bridge—replaced by an ugly, though sturdier, steel bridge decades ago. Why come out here when spooky riches filled the western woods? He’d liked the derelict one-room schoolhouse where a teacher had murdered her lover and then hung herself from the rafters. He’d spent weeks in an abandoned cemetery where many swore another murder victim, this one headless, roamed. Quinn had never seen the ghost, no matter how much time and sweat he’d invested in righting the disintegrating tombstones and clearing weedy overgrowth. He hadn’t seen the school marm’s corpse swinging from a noose at the schoolhouse, either. That failure hadn’t stopped him from climbing into the burned-out shell of a home—bricks scarred with black soot—where a mentally disturbed young man had nailed the doors shut one night and set fire to the place, killing his entire family including an aunt, two nieces, and his grandfather. That time, he’d experienced something. He’d heard the creaks and groans of the wrecked house and sly whispers that could have only come from the murdered young girls—just as the locals of Mill Valley had reported.
Mill Valley, with a population of a scant few thousand, hadn’t been overrun with ghost hunting teams and paranormal adventure tours because locals shunned outsiders. Plus, the valley was prone to flooding and a deluge in 1984 had destroyed most of the town’s historical records. Residents of Mill Valley alone knew the old stories now and they didn’t talk to anyone they didn’t consider one of their own.
Luckily, Aunt Betsy had gone to bat for him these past weeks. Quinn hadn’t been raised in Mill Valley, hadn’t even been born in Pennsylvania, but when his single and childless aunt had been diagnosed with lung cancer, he’d moved to the rural isolated town to help in whatever way he could. His job as a medical transcriptionist allowed a flexible work-at-home schedule, which had adapted to appointments for chemo treatments and to otherwise tending to his aunt’s needs. The valley had become home to him. He’d learned to love his compassionate yet stubbornly independent neighbors and the beauty of the mountains. After Betsy’s lung cancer went into remission, neither one of them had talked about him returning to the city.
Instead, Quinn had shifted the hours he’d once spent caring for his aunt to exploring the haunted places the townspeople had started mentioning to him once he’d met Patrick.
His heart thudded, and though Quinn panted a little, the sprint of his pulse had little to do with exertion from the steep path up Warner Hill. His blood heated. His cock hardened. The cold rain stopped annoying him and he quickened his pace.
Because Patrick waited at the end of this hike.
Patrick had saved Quinn’s life when Quinn had gone to the old covered bridge on his first hike in Mill Valley. Sure, the state had put in a new bridge after the historic landmark had washed away during a flood in the 1970s, but stubby remnants of wood buttresses, which had made the Valley Bridge an historical oddity, still speared from the shores of the creek if you knew where to look.
How was Quinn supposed to know the hillside to the creek was prone to sliding?
Patrick had grabbed him and pulled Quinn from a perilous tumble into the rushing water. Patrick’s camera had dangled from a strap around his neck and had repeatedly clocked Quinn while Patrick had hauled him from danger. When they both had reached the safety of the road, Patrick pointed an angry finger at a triangle-shaped caution sign that had escaped Quinn’s notice, as well as the extra sign bolted beneath: Slide Area.
“It’s rained for the last three days and the creek is at flood stage. The bank’s eroding. You can see it crumbling and falling into the water! And you, genius, decided to climb down?” He planted his hands on his hips and glared at Quinn. “Are you suicidal? Or stupid?”
Rubbing his abused head, Quinn had peered up at him. “Er…stupid?”
A shaken and distraught Patrick had berated Quinn for a solid ten minutes—Patrick could be the king of paranoia when it came to safety and taking every precaution—but they’d become friends.
Patrick had told him about the legend of the covered bridge over a thermos of coffee fetched from Quinn’s pack. “They probably told you in town the bridge washed out in the seventies,” he’d said, arching a devilish eyebrow while his lips curled in a hint of a smile, “but I bet they didn’t mention the two men driving across the bridge when it let go.”
Quinn had felt like his eyes would bug out of his head as he’d gulped his coffee. “No shit?”
Patrick had nodded. “One of the men is said to haunt the road here.” His lips had quirked. “Sightings are sometimes reported after storms, while the creek is flooding.”
Nobody loved spooky stories more than Quinn did so he’d angled his head and squinted at the buttresses he’d glimpsed from afar. “To warn other drivers?” He glanced up and down the road. “Maybe if I hang around, I’ll catch a glimpse of him.” He returned his attention to his goal: the buttresses.
“You’d better hope not. Only those who have been marked for death can see him …or so the story goes.” Nose wrinkling, Patrick had lifted the camera strap over his head and passed the camera to Quinn. “Here. Use the zoom lens to look.” When Quinn reached for the camera, Patrick held on. Tight. “No climbing down to see the buttresses yourself until the weather dries out and the ground stabilizes. I mean it. You could’ve been hurt. Maybe killed.”
Quinn had liked Patrick’s hand beneath his on the camera, the strength and warmth of his grip. “All right,” Quinn had said in immediate agreement. Whatever Patrick wanted was okay by him. Without letting go of the camera, Quinn had thrust out his other hand and introduced himself. “Quinn Laramie, medical transcriptionist and newly-intrigued paranormal investigator.”
“I’m Patrick.” He’d shaken Quinn’s hand, his grip neither weak nor crushing. Patrick’s chin had lifted toward the camera. “Photographer.” He’d grinned. “And paranormal expert. Are you genuinely interested in ghosts and hauntings?”
Before that moment, Quinn would’ve said no. He’d seen the shows on TV and thought they were bullshit. People with questionable acting skills scrambled around abandoned prisons, condemned mental hospitals, and other predictable sites of urban decay with video cameras and various whacky gizmos. If Quinn were a ghost, he’d stay the fuck away from rude intruders and their unwelcome spotlights, thanks. With Patrick staring at him with eyes the color of jade, though, Quinn had decided he wanted another ghostbusting day with Patrick and if he had to lie to get it? Oh well.
“Yeah, I like ghosts.”
Patrick had chuckled. “Okay.”
That had been four weeks ago—four perfect, arousing, frustrating, and ultimately romantic weeks. Quinn hadn’t known for sure Patrick was gay at first. The valley could be as good as time traveling back a few decades—discretion was smart, but even the day Patrick had yelled at Quinn at the bridge, Quinn had caught him staring at Quinn’s mouth. Patrick hadn’t kissed him at the bridge and Quinn hadn’t worked up the nerve to try. Their first magical kiss hadn’t happened until Patrick had met Quinn to show him where to find the schoolhouse later in the week.
“She shot him,” Patrick had said inside the grayed wreckage. The door had been gone as well as all the glass in the window frames, but aside from spots of splintering wood and a few missing floorboards, the structure had seemed basically sound when Patrick had insisted both he and Quinn stomp on the stairs and floor to test them. “After she killed him, she returned here and hung herself from the rafters.”
When Patrick had shone his flashlight beam toward the decaying ceiling, Quinn had shuddered.
Patrick cocked his head at a curious angle. “Can you see her?”
Squinting at the darkness inside the ruined schoolhouse, Quinn shuffled to the front of the single room, where Patrick’s flashlight beam shone.
“Careful.” Patrick had grabbed Quinn with a steadying hand. “We didn’t check that part of the floor. You could fall through.”
“I thought a shadow shifted in the rafters—Probably just a bat.” His shoulders had slumped with disappointment. “No ghosts. I don’t see anything.”
“You will. One day.” Patrick had wrapped his arms around Quinn. He’d pulled Quinn against him. “I promise.”
When Patrick’s lips had brushed Quinn’s, something beautiful and right had settled deep in Quinn’s bones. Patrick’s warmth had seeped into Quinn’s body where their chests had brushed. The softness of Patrick’s kisses had dizzied him. Patrick had tasted of cinnamon and the coffee they’d shared from Quinn’s thermos. He’d tasted like home.
Quinn hadn’t been able to get enough of Patrick’s kisses since.
In his old life in the city, Quinn would’ve assumed a man who hadn’t touched his cock in a month of dating—and the spooky jaunts were dates—was either a tease or disinterested. Moving to Pennsylvania must have changed Quinn, though, because he’d realized from the moment their mouths had first met, Patrick was definitely interested and he wasn’t a tease. He was just shy. Painfully shy and awkward. When he had his hands on his camera or spoke of the histories behind the haunted places they visited, Patrick stood tall, his broad shoulders squared with unshakeable confidence. The man was very much in his comfort zone when he discussed his area of expertise, Mill Valley’s ghosts, but the moment Quinn caressed him, Patrick’s self-assurance evaporated. Instead of boldly meeting Quinn’s gaze, he glanced under his lashes. His fair, freckled face colored a bewitching pink that highlighted copper streaks in his choppy brown hair. He trembled when Quinn twined his fingers with Patrick’s. Patrick topped Quinn’s six foot height by a couple inches, but when Quinn kissed him, Patrick seemed more delicate somehow. Fragile.
The hunger in Patrick’s returning kisses might be nervous, but Patrick had been far from disinterested these past weeks. Shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders, Quinn hurried up the slippery path in renewed determination to faster reach Warner House—and Patrick.
They’d planned the daring trip after they’d finished cleaning up the forgotten cemetery on the other side of town. Warner House wasn’t abandoned. Though no one lived in the manse, fully paid property taxes year after year proved its continual private ownership. Not by locals. A wealthy family from Philadelphia had bought the land and built the place as a vacation home ages ago. The parents had left the house, clothes still hanging in the closets and a teacup allegedly resting on a table in the sitting room, the day their child had disappeared. Neither they nor their son had ever returned. Like Mill Valley’s version of the Mary Celeste, the eerie manse squatted empty and derelict atop Warner Hill and peered down onto the town, which was why Quinn had to sneak up the back of the property. If he and Patrick were caught inside the house, the cops wouldn’t be amused.
Patrick had sworn the house wasn’t in ruins. Aside from dust easily wiped away, he’d said the place was comfortable if a little spooky, still outfitted with furniture, kitchenware, linens, and everything else a family might need.
“Warner House is a popular trysting spot for brave teenagers from the Valley,” he’d said, blushing tomato red when he’d suggested the manse for their next ghost adventure.
Quinn had been pushing for a real date. Well, a more traditional one anyway. Dinner at the steakhouse by the highway, maybe a movie. He wanted Patrick on every level. He’d enjoyed crawling around the woods with him, gleaning details about the reticent Patrick along with the tales of doom and death crowding this patch of ground. He’d loved Patrick’s shy kisses too, the tentative dance of Patrick’s fingers over Quinn’s stomach, and the salty flavor of Patrick’s neck. But he wanted more.
“The manse has… b-beds,” Patrick had stammered, staring at the leaf-strewn ground rather than Quinn as he spoke. “I can change the linens.” He’d gulped. “The candles are all gone, though. Kids steal them.”
Quinn had stuffed his backpack with candles. Wine. An army of his aunt’s Tupperware filled with what he hoped Patrick would consider a romantic dinner as well as one of Betsy’s handmade quilts, in case his skittish soon-to-be lover was wrong about the sheets. Nothing could keep Patrick from Quinn tonight. Not the presence or absence of furniture at the manse. Not the wild storm that had blown into the valley the night before and lingered, swelling the creek and pouring rain down in torrents. Nothing. Patrick was his.
Rounding a bend in the path, Quinn marched from the tree line and into an overgrown yard. He’d made it to Warner House.
The place truly was a mansion. Despite the downpour from the storm, he slowed to assess the place—he hadn’t studied architecture, but he thought the style might be Tudor? The house rose three floors high at the crest of Warner Hill, a pair of gables from the steeply pitched slate roof vanishing into the stormy mist at both ends of the structure. The long stretch between featured a wattle and daub pattern of crisscrossing wooden beams that might be teak, interspersed with tall windows, each’s small diamond panes glinting off distant flashes of lightning. As Quinn neared the back of the house, he frowned in consternation at the windows, or rather the very intact windows. None of the panes appeared to have been broken during what must have been decades of neglect. Wild grasses grew up to Quinn’s waist in the backyard, and he’d circled around a cement birdbath and a stone bench hidden by the overgrowth. Ivy grew up the side of the manse, smothering half of the house. When he drew closer, he crossed from the jungle of the yard onto a brick patio with spongy moss growing between the stones under his hiking boots. He passed a rusted wrought iron table, chairs still gathered around it. A shiver ran up Quinn’s spine.
The place looked and felt hollow, vacant, like a dried out husk. Yet, not one pane of window glass had even cracked.
“The kids alone…” Quinn muttered under his breath. Partying kids would’ve broken something, torn up a lot probably, but as Quinn walked around the ivy-covered right wing of the house, examining the house instead of making for a surprisingly undamaged back door, he recalled Patrick had mentioned teenage lovers. Not parties.
Stepping close, Quinn pushed heavy vines aside to peer into one of the many windows and shuddered at hulking shadows of furniture draped by filmy sheets. No debris marred the room, though. No mold or water stains defaced its pristine walls. With a little cleaning, the house would be habitable once the dust cloths were removed.
Why wouldn’t local kids take advantage of a dry place to drink and get into trouble? For that matter, why wouldn’t vagrants strip the copper wiring for extra money?
The manse was empty, felt almost skeletal, but the house, if not the yard, had been maintained. Cared for. Someone had made sure the roof didn’t leak and the unbroken windowpanes continued to keep out the elements.
Mindful of the mud, Quinn worked his way around the house, goose bumps that had little to do with the storm’s chill raising on his skin under his wet clothes. Something was wrong, very wrong about this place. Quinn couldn’t put his finger on what. If he hadn’t spotted a flicker of light through a window, inside where Patrick waited, Quinn might’ve boosted his pack higher on his shoulders and hiked back to his Mazda. The sense of utter wrongness was that disconcerting. The light beckoned him, though, called to him. If Quinn concentrated, he could almost hear Patrick whispering to him and feel Patrick’s shy fingers exploring Quinn’s body.
Spooky house or not, Patrick was in there. Waiting. Wanting him.
Stiffening his spine, Quinn stalked to the front door. He reached for the knob… and screamed when the door jerked open.
The old woman inside screamed, too.
# # #