Madeline Smith didn’t believe in ghosts--not until the night Jon Barnett walked into her life, anyway. Maddie drew her legs up to her chest and held them close. Maybe walked was the wrong word to use; his method of movement seemed more like floating.
Outside her bedroom, the branches of an old elm scraped back and forth across the tin roofing. The wind howled around the old house--an eerie cry that matched her mood of anticipation and fear. Snow scurried past the windows, a stark contrast against the blackness of the night.
It felt oddly fitting to be sitting on her bed, waiting for the arrival of a ghost while an early winter storm raged outside.
Only he insisted he wasn’t a ghost at all.
She tugged the blankets over her knees and wondered if she should stoke the fire with a little more wood. Maybe the heat would keep him away. Or maybe he’d gotten tired of his game and simply forgotten about her. She believed that the desperation in his eyes was real enough; she just didn’t believe that he was real.
Perhaps he was just a figment of her imagination--a last, desperate escape from the loneliness of her life.
The clock on the mantel began to chime quietly, and she turned to look at the time. One-thirty. Maybe he had forgotten about her . . .
She closed her eyes, uncertain whether fear or the unexpected pleasure of hearing the low velvet voice one more time had caused the sudden leap of her heart.
“Madeline,” he repeated. This time a hint of urgency touched the warmth of his voice.
He stood in the shadows to the left of her window. Despite the storm that raged outside, he wore only a short-sleeved black shirt and dark jeans--the same clothes he’d worn when he had first appeared last night.
Tonight there was something different about him, though.
Tonight he looked afraid.
But he wasn’t real, damn it! How could a ghost feel fear?
“Madeline, you must help me.”
She closed her heart to the desperate plea in his voice. What he was asking her to do was impossible.
“I can’t.” She avoided his gaze and fiddled with the fraying edge of the blanket. “I don’t know you. I don’t even believe that you exist. How can you expect me to leave everything I have on the word of a ghost?”
“You must!” The sudden sharpness of his voice made her look up. “All I’m asking is for you to travel across the state, not to another country. Why are you so afraid to leave your retreat?”
Maddie stared at him. He seemed to understand altogether too much about her. No one else had seen her fear--not even her sister, who was as close to her as Maddie ever allowed anyone to get these days.
“There’s nothing wrong with being cautious,” she said after a moment.
He studied her, amusement flickering briefly in the diamond-bright depths of his blue eyes. “I never said there was. But life has to be lived. You cannot hide forever.”
She ignored the sliver of alarm in her heart, ignored the whispers that demanded she ask how he knew so much about her, and raised an eyebrow. “And what does a ghost know about such things?”
He sighed, running a hand through his overly long hair. In the light of the fire, slivers of gold seemed to flow through his fingers. “I’m no ghost, Madeline. But I will be if you don’t help me soon.”
Alarm danced through her heart. “What do you mean?”
He walked across to the fire and held out his hands, as if to capture the warmth of the flames. Hair dusted his arms, golden strands that gleamed in the firelight. His fingers were long and smooth and tanned. Lord, he seemed real--and yet, if she looked closely enough, she could see the glow of the fire through his body.
“I mean that I’m stuck down this damn well, and I can’t get out. I will die, Madeline, unless you help me.”
Maddie closed her eyes and tried to stifle the rising spiral of fear. Not for her safety, because she sensed this was one ghost who would cause her no harm. It was just fear of . . . what? She didn’t know, but there was something about this apparition that made her wary.
Perhaps she should play along with him. Surely he’d eventually tire of his game and leave her alone. Or perhaps she was just going mad, as most of her so-called friends had insisted she would.
Yet those same friends had never understood what she was, or what she was capable of doing. Nor had they ever tried to help her.
“Why can’t someone else rescue you? You must have friends. Why don’t you go haunt them?”
“Believe me, I would if I could.”
His tone was dry and left no doubt that he would rather be anywhere else than with her. Bad news when even a damn ghost doesn’t want your company. “So why can’t you?”
He frowned. “I don’t know. Some force keeps driving me toward you. I have no choice in the matter, Madeline. You’re all I have.”
And you refuse to help me. The unspoken rebuke was in his eyes when he glanced at her. Maddie bit her lip and looked away, watching the snow continue its dance past her window. Maybe she was going mad. She was beginning to feel sorry for a ghost.
“Why would you be able to reach a complete stranger and not anyone of real use to you?”
“I don’t know.”
He hesitated, so she quickly said, “If you want my help, you at least owe me the truth.”
“Fair enough.” He turned his back to the fire but kept his hands behind him, as if still trying to warm them. “Whatever this force is, it brings with it a sense of danger. And it’s connected with you somehow.”
He seemed to say an awful lot without actually saying anything, Maddie noted. Maybe her ghost had been a politician in a former life.
“That made everything so much clearer,” she said dryly.
He shot her a look that was half amusement, half frustration. “Someone close to you is in danger and, somehow, they’re drawing me to you.”
Besides her sister Jayne, the only other person who qualified was Jayne’s son, Evan. And if he did have that sort of power, it would be a recent development, meaning it was highly unlikely he’d have the sort of control Jon was suggesting. No, she thought grimly, there was only one uncontrolled misfit left in their small family unit.
“So how did you end up in the well?”
“Someone shot me when I was out exploring.” He shrugged. “I must have fallen in.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. From what she could see of him, there was remarkably little evidence of a bullet wound. “Then you are dead.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. “I was hit in the arm. The fall could have killed me, but I was . . . lucky.”
The arm closer to her was a suntanned brown, well muscled and remarkably free of wounds. His hands were still firmly clasped together, which surely wouldn’t be possible if the other arm had a bullet wound. Maybe it was her ghost who was mad, not she.
“Why can’t I see any sort of wound, then?”
“Because I’m here astrally.”
“That doesn’t really explain why you’re standing there with no wound.” Or why she could see him. From the little she knew of astral travel, she shouldn’t have been able to do that, let alone interact with him.
“You’re not seeing the wound because I don’t want you to.”
Which was probably a good thing, given that she did want to get some sleep tonight. “Why don’t you just shout for help?”
“As I explained before, I can’t take the risk. Someone is out to get me. If they think I’m still alive, they’ll just find me and finish the job.”
A chill ran through her. “It could have been an accident.”
She closed her eyes at the soft certainty in his voice. “Then if I come to help you, my life could be in danger.”
“How would they know you’re there to help me? You’d just be another tourist passing by.”
The sudden weariness in his voice made her look at him. His form had faded slightly, merging with the night. Something was wrong, something more than the fact that he’d been shot. And she sensed that he wouldn’t tell her what. “Who do you mean by they?”
“I’m not exactly sure. But someone in this town knew why I was here, and they moved pretty swiftly to get rid of me.”
“Then tell me again what town you’re in, and why you’re there.” If he was going to continue haunting her, she should at least try to understand a little more about him. And last night she’d been too busy trying to convince herself that he was nothing more than a vivid dream to really listen to anything he said.
He stared at her, then shook his head. “How many times do I have to repeat myself before you believe me?”
His voice held an edge of desperation that made her wince. “You mentioned some town--Sherbrook, wasn’t it?”
He closed his eyes for a moment, as if battling to remain calm. “Sherbrook is the name of the inn. The place is Taurin Bay.”
An odd sense of foreboding ran through her. Evan had attended a school camp in Taurin Bay only a month ago. Jayne had gone along as cook and chief pot-washer. “That force you said was driving you to me--was it male or female?”
“Male.” He paused, eyes narrowing. “Why?”
Evan--something told her it was Evan. Maddie licked her lips and wondered if she should call her sister--or was she just worrying over nothing again?
“Maddie, what’s wrong?”
She stared at him blankly for a moment. “My sister has a thirteen-year-old son named Evan. Both of them were in Taurin Bay last month.”
“Damn!” Jon ran a hand through his hair, then abruptly walked forward, stopping only when his knees touched the side of her bed.
He was close, so close. She could see the rise and fall of his chest, feel the whisper of his breath wash across her skin. Could smell him--a faint scent of cologne mixed with hints of earth and sweat. But he wasn’t real, damn it!
“Over the last two years, sixteen teenagers have been taken from their homes and haven’t been seen alive again. In each case, no locks or windows were disturbed. And each time, the teenager was taken on the next full moon after their families returned from Taurin Bay.”
Her heart leaped. She raised a hand to her throat and tried to remain calm. “Evan is safe at home. This is ridiculous.”
“Someone is drawing me here, Madeline. Someone who knows he’s in danger. You’re the connection between us. Tonight is a full moon. Go call your sister.”
She scrambled off the bed and ran to the bedroom door. Then she hesitated, looking back at Jon. He hadn’t moved, but his body had faded, losing its shape to the darkness. Only his blue eyes were still bright.
“Go call her,” he said. “Then come to me. Save me.”
Maddie turned away from his plea, though she knew he wouldn’t be there when she returned. She ran down the hall to the phone in the kitchen, turning on lights as she went. Somehow, the darkness seemed too intense to face alone.
Fingers trembling, she picked up the phone and dialed Jayne’s number. It seemed to ring forever. Maddie bit her lip, hoping nothing had happened, hoping that Evan was in bed and safe.
“Hello?” a croaky, half-asleep voice said eventually.
“Jayne, it’s me,” she said without preamble. “Is Evan there? Is he all right?”
There was a slight pause, and Maddie could hear the rustle of blankets as her sister shifted around in her bed. “Of course he is. Why?”
Because I’m a fool; because a ghost told me he may be in danger. “Humor your little sister and just go check, will you?”
Jayne sighed. “Maddie, have you been drinking again?”
Maddie closed her eyes. Whenever Jayne thought she had a problem, she asked the same question--even though it had been six years and ten days since Maddie had last had a drink. She hadn’t touched alcohol since the fire that had taken her husband’s life. The experts had never found an explanation for that fire, though they had theories aplenty. Maddie knew the truth, but she wasn’t about to tell anyone--not even her sister.
She cleared her throat. “No. I had a dream, and I want to reassure myself he’s all right.”
“For God’s sake, it’s almost two.” Annoyance ran through Jayne’s voice, but at least she was still listening. She hadn’t yet slammed the phone down.
“I’m well aware of the time. It will only take a minute to check on Evan. Please.”
“I guess I’d better,” her sister muttered, “or you’ll be calling all night again.”
Maddie heard Steve, Jayne’s husband, murmur something disparaging, then the squeak of springs as Jayne got out of bed. Maddie grimaced, hoping she was overreacting. Hoping Jon wasn’t right. She stared out the kitchen window as she waited, watching the snow flurries dance across her yard. Then she heard the sound of returning footsteps and felt her stomach knot. Please let Evan be safe.
“Evan’s sound asleep in bed, Maddie.” Jayne’s voice was a mix of exasperation and annoyance. “And so should you be.”
This time Jayne did hang up on her, but Maddie didn’t mind. Jon had been wrong. Evan was okay. She replaced the receiver, then thrust a shaking hand through her hair as she sagged back against the wall in relief. Maybe Jayne was right. Maybe all she needed was a good night’s sleep--something that had eluded her ever since her world had disappeared into flames.
She closed her eyes, fighting the memories, fighting the sudden need to wash the pain into oblivion with a drink. That chapter of her life was over. She would not return to it, even through memories. And if Jon did come back, she’d tell him to go find someone else to haunt. She wasn’t interested--not if the cost was to make her sister think she was stranger than ever.
His only chance of survival was a woman afraid of life. Jon shook his head at the irony of it and leaned wearily against the cold stone wall of the well. He’d seen the fear in the amber flame of her eyes, in the tremor in her hands as she ran her fingers through her chestnut-colored hair. She was afraid to move from the safety of her home.
And he would die if she didn’t.
Excerpted from Circle of Fire by Keri Arthur. Copyright © 2014 by Keri Arthur. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.