Find our ghost, and we’ll help save Kipp.
One statement took my already upside down world, spun it in a new warped direction, and sent hot slivers of frustration through my veins. Another mystery didn’t interest me. My to-do list toppled with one important checkbox to mark off: find my ghost lover, Kipp McGowen, and return him to his comatose body.
I glanced sideways at my friend, Gretchen. Her cinnamon-colored hair swept over the side of her face, deepening the grayish tones in her blue eyes. “Did I hear that right?”
She nodded tightly. “You did, and they’re waiting for your answer.”
What if I didn’t want to answer? What if I didn’t want to help anyone else? Hadn’t the time for someone to assist me—without my having to return the favor—been earned? Yet, here I stood in White Castle, Louisiana, presently cornered to use my gifts to communicate with the dead.
Couldn’t someone cut me a damn break?
Blowing out a frustrated breath, I scanned the mansion. Its fancy furniture, dating to the nineteenth century, had an overall charm with gothic detail and rich crimson fabrics. Even the scent of a spicy potpourri portrayed comfort. Sadly, the two people—excluding Gretchen—who currently awaited my answer, didn’t look friendly. Especially the crotchety man in his early forties, sitting in the dark wood antique wingback chair.
I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t ignore them. “Sorry, can you repeat the question?”
Wayde Hagen’s light brown eyes blazed with a bottomless irritation I wouldn’t dare agitate. His thick, six-five frame put me on edge since next to him, I was a tiny woman. Though I attempted to hide the fact that he intimidated me, the coldness in his features, the sharp contours of his face, and his thin hard lips unnerved me.
“I don’t need to repeat myself.” His low voice echoed off the high ceilings. “Answer the question.”
I could only gawk at him. Were all the others so chilling?
Truth be told, I had no idea what to expect when I first heard of the others from Gretchen. The entire airplane ride to White Castle, I drilled her on the group she belonged to. She explained some were mediums, others psychics, and a few more were witches. But tonight, only two of the group greeted me—if you could even call it that.
While I sensed energy in the room, much like an elevated awareness, and assumed it meant all those present held some level of supernatural power, none held my abilities. Perhaps they might create a kick-ass spell, predict the future, or sense ghosts, but no one except me could see and talk to spirits.
Some might think I’d impress them, but Wayde’s ice-cold gaze declared otherwise. To him, I was an outsider, and well, I’d prefer to be outside than near him. “Let me get this straight. You want me to find a ghost, and if I do, you’ll help me locate Kipp?”
Wayde inclined his head. “That’s the offer.”
I restrained my snappy response, considering a morgue would’ve been friendlier than talking to Wayde. He wasn’t the first to disapprove of my loving a ghost and I doubted he’d be the last. But I didn’t much give a shit what he thought. “Why do you need me to find your ghost?”
Turning from the towering hand-carved marble fireplace with the blazing fire, the other woman, Amelia, smiled at me. She settled in next to Wayde and her crystal blue eyes warmed. Her shoulder-length honey-colored hair looked soft, leaving me to wonder what shampoo she used. Everything about this woman screamed gentle…and maybe a slight undertone of weakness. “Someone killed my father.”
Perhaps that explained why she welcomed me so easily, since the matter was personal. “Your father?”
Her voice trembled. “Or I should say, our Grand Master.”
My lip arched as I glimpsed Gretchen, and she chuckled. “Alexander was our Grand Master. He ruled us for the last fifteen years.”
“Oh.” What else could I say? You’re strange. Or, why am I here?
Gretchen told me the secret society, known as Animus, was established in the eighteenth century. A group of supernaturally gifted had come together and formed the organization. Many of the founding members’ descendants remained.
To me, it sounded like an unfriendly cult, since I hadn’t received the warmest of welcomes. Not like I would call Gretchen a cult member to her face. She’d bailed my ass out of trouble only days ago. When a demon had come to Memphis to feed on innocent souls, I had been given the task to rid the world of it. Thus, Gretchen’s teachings of witchcraft. Her assistance had led to the demon’s banishment back to Hell.
Trust in Gretchen had been forged out of the weirdest circumstances, but it held strong. Perhaps I could see some logic in knowing others who lived a similar lifestyle, since without her, the demon incident might have turned out very differently, and not in my favor.
“I know we’re asking a lot of you,” Amelia continued, leaning her hip against the chair Wayde sat in. “My husband sensed my father, tried to make contact, and failed.” Tears welled in her eyes. “I don’t know why my father can’t get through. Or why he’s hiding from us.”
I gazed over her from head-to-toe. “Aren’t you a medium, too?”
“No, I’m a witch.” She glanced down at the hardwood floors, drawing in a long breath. “I’ve tried spells to grab his energy so my husband could read him, but something is wrong.” She lifted her head, and a tear slid down her cheek. “At first, we thought the feeling of my father’s presence was residue of his energy, but my husband has told me it feels stronger than that. Almost as if he lingers and can’t break through.”
“So, as we see it,” Wayde interjected, turning his hard stare to me. “You need our help and we need yours. It’s a fair trade.”
Nibbling my lip, I considered the proposition and glimpsed at the crackling fire, focusing on the bright orange flicker in the flame. I’d give my pinky finger to find a way to locate Kipp. Not only did I miss him, but his disappearance made no sense. By all appearances, he’d just up and vanished without a single trace or a solid reason. I needed answers, not theories or heartbreak.
The Animus had the power to find a solution. I wouldn’t sit around and pity myself any longer. If I didn’t agree, there’d be no moving forward.
Looking from the fire, I focused on Wayde. “Find Alexander, ask him who killed him, and that’s it? No catch or read-the-fine-print hidden secrets?”
Wayde snorted, and sat up a little straighter in his seat. “Precisely.”
I found ghosts all the time—or they found me—and Amelia’s sadness proved this one recently died. The task didn’t seem overly difficult, but as the thought crossed my mind, I knew better. Usually easy turned out to be some hazardous mission I never should’ve accepted. “Before I agree, tell me how you can help me.”
No hint of deception showed in Wayde’s gaze. “I’ll show you the way to cross through the veil into the Netherworld.”
While hearing Wayde might hold such knowledge elated me, since Gretchen had zero answers and I was fresh out of ideas, believing him was another matter. I turned to the witch I did trust. “Possible, or a lie?”
Gretchen studied me a moment, her brows drawn together, before she finally said, “The Animus possess witchcraft that dates to the very beginning of its creation. Anything is possible with the right spell.” Her head tilted, and her expression became knowing. “A spell I don’t have access to.”
Perhaps before, I’d doubted her, since all this witchcraft stuff seemed bogus. Now, I couldn’t reject the idea that anything was possible. Since meeting Kipp, everything had been something upward of bizarre.
The list was endless—Kipp was a ghost, but actually wasn’t dead, and in fact, lay comatose in a hospital; my recent experience with magical spells, and banishing a demon back to Hell; and the most implausible of all, I had fallen madly and deeply in love with a spirit.
When Gretchen told me coming to the Animus was our best shot at helping Kipp, I figured we’d pull him out of the Netherworld, not send me into it. “How do you know—without a doubt—that you can help me cross into the Netherworld to search for Kipp, and I won’t get killed in the process?”
Wayde’s eyes twinkled. “I know.”
“Yes, good and all,” I retorted. “But how do you know?”
Running a hand through his jet-black slicked hair, Wayde shifted in his seat and crossed an ankle over his knee. “We are the Animus. The knowledge you need is within our reach. I promise to share it, if you help us.”
At my snort, since that reassured me about as much as someone holding a dagger at my throat saying they weren’t going to slice my head off, Gretchen interjected. “A promise by a Grand Master is exactly that, Tess. You can trust him.”
Something she said interested me, though. I turned to Wayde. “You’re the new leader of this…bunch?”
He nodded. “In his will, Alexander requested I take over. This home always belongs to the Grand Master, so when he passed, the house was gifted to me.”
I scanned the, more or less, American Castle in slight awe. Gretchen said it had sixty-four rooms within the three stories. From what I’d seen already, the mansion had ornamental iron railings, fifteen-foot ceilings, and innovative features. Wayde was a lucky man. “Fair enough.” I glanced at him. “But you need to do better. I won’t help unless I know, without a doubt, you’re telling me the truth.”
“A binding spell might be the best choice,” Gretchen offered. “It’s a solution to the problem. Not only will you,” she looked at me, “feel the truth behind his promise when he does the spell, but you’ll also know he has to uphold it.” She glanced at Wayde. “And this will ensure Tess holds up her end of the deal.”
Wayde hesitated, then gave a firm nod. “I’m in agreement.” He stared me down. “Will that suffice for you?”
As Gretchen had told me once, magic had to be conjured in truth, honesty, and full belief or it wouldn’t work, which left me hopeful. If Wayde agreed to the binding spell, that meant he did have the answer I needed to get to Kipp. “Possibly,” I answered Wayde, then said to Gretchen. “But first, how does the binding spell work?”
“Exactly as it sounds,” she replied in her sweet, soft voice. “Wayde will be bound to uphold his promise to help you cross into the Netherworld, as you are bound to find and talk to Alexander.”
Another positive, but my non-magical brain needed more answers. “What will happen to him if he breaks his promise?”
“His soul will become tainted.” Gretchen’s eyes darkened, voice thickened. “He’ll grow sick and eventually die.”
“Meaning I could grow sick and die, too?” At her tight nod, I groaned and considered the pact. Did I want to enter into an agreement that could kill me if I reneged on it?
Did I even have a choice?
At my silence and obvious hesitation, Gretchen smiled. She hadn’t guided me wrong yet. I firmly believed she never would. Besides, if I didn’t help them, I’d lose my ride into the Netherworld. I didn’t even need to think it over. “All right. I’m in.” I hesitated. “Wait. This isn’t a blood promise, is it?”