Excerpt – Whispers on the Wind

Chapter 1

Era walked deeper into the vaulted room in the back of the Nelson mansion and eyed the exposed support post her contractor had uncovered. The beautiful old wood glowed in the natural light pouring through the multitude of windows that made up the back wall of the great room.

“What do you think?” Jason asked, gesturing at the area where he’d pulled down the dark paneling that covered the walls in most of this nineteenth-century home.

“Who the hell puts paneling over something like that?” She stared at the huge—was that cherry?—support post.

Jason reached out and laid a hand on the thick post, then closed his eyes. “There are forks near the ceiling. It once held matching beams that ran across the room.”

Era eyed the sheetrock ceiling with its modern track lighting. “And that’s gone now?”

“The roof has been replaced.” He took his hand from the post and opened his eyes.

“Damn.”

“However, I have another surprise for you.”

She smiled. “Is it a good one?”

“I believe you’ll approve.” He stepped away from the wall. “The floor we’re standing on isn’t vintage. The original floor is stone.”

“Are you serious?”

He grinned, crinkling the laugh lines in the corners of eyes.

Era looked down at the glossy black tile beneath her feet. “May I?”

“Please.” He waved for her to proceed.

She selected an area a few feet from them and reached down to the pocket of air beneath the tiled floor. Oxygen, nitrogen, and traces of several other gases. “No radon,” she said.

“That’s good,” Jason answered, sounding faintly amused though she didn’t look over to see.

Concentrating the gases into a dense ball over two feet in diameter, she slammed it into the underside of the false floor. With a crack, the floor exploded upward. Chunks of tile, plywood, and two-by-fours flew up before clattering down onto the tile around the jagged hole in the floor.

Jason wordlessly handed her a flashlight.

Era walked over to the hole she had created and shined the light inside. Dusty gray stone was visible in the light of the beam. “Limestone?” she asked him.

“That would be my guess. It is local to the area, just like the cherry.” He nodded toward the support post. “Ironically, the high-end materials we pay so much for now were everyday building materials then.”

“Perhaps, but I still think the necromancer who built this place had good taste.”

“Are you suggesting that we no longer do?” a familiar voice asked.

Era’s pulse leaped, but it wasn’t because he had startled her. Chiding herself for her foolish reaction, she turned to face Doug Nelson.

“That depends on where you go with this renovation,” she answered. She couldn’t criticize his taste in regard to his attire. His light gray suit fit him perfectly, and the powder-blue tie was a hue just different enough to set off his vibrant blue eyes.

“But that’s why I hired you.” His cheeks dimpled as he smiled. “That shows good taste, right?”

“Obviously,” she answered, keeping her tone cool. She was here to renovate his home, not to swoon every time he grinned at her.

His smile faded. “So why are you blowing holes in my floor?”

“Jason noticed that it was originally stone.”

Doug looked around the room. “Noticed?” The hole Era had created was the only place where the original floor was exposed. Doug’s gaze shifted to the older man standing beside her. “New Magic?”

Jason glanced at her before giving Doug an affirmative answer.

“And what is your talent?” Doug walked over to join them.

“He can see what a structure looked like originally,” Era answered for him.

“I assume the contractor van out front is yours,” Doug continued to Jason. “Do you get a lot of renovation work?”

“A fair amount. I specialize in damage repair and renovations, rather than new construction,” Jason answered, his tone a little hesitant. Era had told him up front whose home they would be renovating, but this was the first time he had come face to face with the Deacon, the leader of the Old Magic community. It might even be the first time he’d come face to face with a necromancer. Their respective magics didn’t mix much.

“Huh.” Doug rubbed his chin. “What else do you see about this old place?”

“It used to have slate roofs and a turret on the east wing.”

“I seem to recall that.” Doug smiled. “I’m impressed.”

“Those changes were made while you lived here?” Era asked.

“No. There are old photos. Would you like to see them? Well, you. Obviously Jason here doesn’t need to.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing them.” Jason smiled, clearly at ease now. Era had noticed that Doug was good at that, or at least making people like him.

“They’re upstairs in the library,” Doug said. “If you’ll follow me?”

Jason readily agreed, and they followed Doug to the front of the house. After climbing the wide staircase to the second floor, they turned left. Era eyed the decor as they walked along. Even up here, an effort had been made to keep everything dark and foreboding.

“You lived here as a child?” she asked Doug as they walked.

“Yes.” He glanced back. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just hoping your room was more cheerfully decorated.”

“The walls were painted black, and I had a Satanic altar in one corner.”

Jason stumbled.

“He’s kidding,” she told Jason.

Doug glanced back with a grin. “Hey, I’ve got an image to maintain.” He stopped before a beautifully carved oak door and pushed it open. “The walls of my room were off-white and tastefully decorated with Cincinnati Reds memorabilia and my high school chess championship plaques.”

Era stopped just inside the room and looked up at him. “You played chess in high school?”

“Yes. You look surprised.”

“I expected you to a be jock.” He certainly had the physique to be a successful athlete.

“Father frowned on sports. He saw them as barbaric. I was expected to outthink my opponent.”

Or charm them, Era thought.

“I never told my father that I boxed while in college.”

Jason chucked. “I’m guessing you didn’t come home much. Black eyes would be hard to explain.”

“I was required to be home often. So I made it a point to hit the other guy first. You don’t get punched much when your opponent is lying on the mat.”

Era rolled her eyes and walked past him into the room. Addie was right. Doug’s arrogance was stunning.

“What?” Doug asked, catching the gesture. “It’s just physics.”

Era didn’t answer. She had stopped inside the door and stared at the vaulted room before them. A large fireplace dominated one corner with a pair of comfortable-looking leather chairs set in front of it. The other walls held floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with books. Offset windows created a pair of window seats and made a cozy place to curl up with a good book. How often had young Doug done just that?

But the most amazing aspect of the room was that it lacked the ubiquitous black tile and dark paneling in the rest of the house. Here, the age of the house shined through with the naturally darkened hardwood and the ornately carved crown moldings that matched the door.

“Era?” Doug prompted.

“Now this is what I’m talking about,” she answered. “This is what the rest of the house should look like instead of that pseudo-gothic crap.”

A corner of Doug’s mouth twitched. “Pseudo-gothic crap. Is that an official decorating style?”

Era met his amused gaze with a flat stare.

“Am I about to be tossed against the wall?” he asked.

“No.” She continued to hold his gaze, refusing to let his charm influence her. “I would hate to damage the decor in this room.”

The dimples in his cheeks deepened as his smirk became a full-blown grin. One of these times, she needed to toss him against the wall. That would knock the smile off his handsome face.

Still smiling, he turned and started across the room. “This is the oldest photo we have.”

Jason glanced at her as Doug walked away. He lifted his eyebrows, his expression uncertain.

Era winked, letting him know that she was only teasing about tossing Doug against the wall. Mostly.

She walked over to join Doug in front of the framed photo hanging on the wall beside one of the windows.

“This was taken—” Doug began.

“In the 1860s or later,” Era answered, moving closer to study the photo. “It’s a tintype—or the original was. This is obviously a copy since it’s on paper.”

“Very good. Bartholomew Nelson had the carriage house built in 1874, and it’s absent here.”

She leaned closer, studying the building. It was surprising how little it had changed since this photo was taken. The only major difference was the turret at the end of the east wing. Like all photographs of this age, the picture was fuzzy and faded, making it difficult to make out details, so she couldn’t clearly see the blurry form in the turret’s upper window. It had the shape of a person, but it could be a curtain.

“The next photo was taken sometime after 1874—you can now see the carriage house—but prior to June of 1910.” Doug stepped past the window to the wall on the other side. “Lightning struck the large oak in front of the east parlor on June 12, 1910, so we know the photo predates that.”

“How do you know the exact date of the lightning strike?”

“The tree fell through the front parlor, killing Jacob Harris Nelson, my great-great-great grandfather.”

“Bad luck.”

“Or karma. They called him Heartless Harry. He wasn’t a good person, as legend has it—which, considering my family history, is saying something.”

Era frowned but didn’t comment. She’d met one of his distant relatives and— She stopped herself, consciously pushing away the memories of the time Alexander Nelson had held her captive. It was only in the last week that the nightmares had stopped. She wasn’t going to give them a reason to start again.

Era stepped closer and looked at the photo. The house hadn’t changed. The turret was still there, and even the shape in the upper window was the same. Perhaps it was an interior door or something. Once again, the old photo was too faded to see the finer points of the house.

“Over here is the last photo with the turret still present,” Doug said, moving to the final photograph. “This photo was taken in 1921. If you look closely in the upper left corner, you can see where the date written on the back bled through.”

Era stepped closer and looked where he indicated. He was right. She could make out the date, written in an elegant cursive, though it was backward from this side of the black and white photo. This photo was much clearer. The tree Doug had pointed out was gone, but the turret was still there. Her gaze was once more drawn to the top window. This time, she could clearly see what it was. She pulled in a breath.

“What is it?” Doug asked.

She left his side to study the previous photos. “Dear God,” she whispered. The shape was exactly the same in each one, though fuzzy and out of focus in all but the last. She returned to the 1921 picture.

“Have you never noticed that?” She pointed at the man standing at the top window of the turret. The distance made it difficult to see him well, but he was clearly fair haired and tall. It might be her imagination, but it seemed his light-colored eyes were looking directly at the camera.

Doug leaned closer to the photo. “Looks like someone was looking out the window when the picture was taken.”

“He’s in all the pictures,” she said.

“Really?” Doug walked back to examine each of the older pictures as she’d just done. He chuckled. “You’re right.”

Era stared at him. “You have photographic proof of an apparition and you’re laughing?”

“Yes. It’s funny.”

“This place is haunted?” Jason cut in.

“Of course,” Doug answered.

Jason’s expression turned wry. “Is this another image thing? A necromancer would live in a haunted house, right?”

“Not by choice,” Doug answered. “We attract ghosts. Era thinks it’s cool, but it’s more of an annoyance than anything.”

Era ignored that, looking closer at the sheen of the black and white photo. “Is this the original?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“May I?” She reached up to take down the picture.

“May you what?”

“I want to see how difficult it would be to remove the photo from the frame.”

“Why? Do you think someone doctored the photo—all the photos?”

“No. If this is the original, there are ways to validate that it hasn’t been doctored.”

“You’re not using pictures of my home to validate anything. I’ll have every ghost hunter in the country wanting to spend the night here to investigate.”

Era crossed her arms. He was very aware of her ghost-hunting hobby.

“Don’t give me that,” he said. “You know it’s true.”

“Of course. This would be an amazing location. It has age, a dark past, and mystery.” She gestured at the photo.

“And don’t forget the pseudo-gothic decorating scheme.”

She sighed. It was pointless to argue this with him. He would never understand. She turned to Jason. “Shall we get back to work?”

“Era—” Doug began.

“No, I get it,” she cut him off. “You’ve made it abundantly clear how you feel about my ghost-hunting hobby.”

“It’s dangerous.”

“So you’ve told me. Repeatedly.”

“Good advice bears repeating.”

“I don’t understand why you aren’t more curious about this.” She waved at the photos.

“You know what that did to the cat.”

“You’re exasperating.”

“It’s part of my charm.” He grinned, a twinkle in those amazing eyes.

Era shook her head. “We’re going to finish going over the house, then I’ll draw up a plan and cost estimate for the project.”

Doug’s smile didn’t falter. “Looking forward to it. But before you start spending my money, I wanted to give you a key and the code for the security system.”

“I thought you were moving back in.”

“I decided to wait until the renovations are complete, plus I’ll be flying to Baltimore to meet with the heads of house there. Relations with my East Coast cousins have been intermittent at best over the last century. I thought it time to change that.”

“Ah.” Era knew that Doug was instituting a lot of changes in the Old Magic community. It was one of the reasons he was remodeling his family home.

Doug smiled, apparently catching the lack of enthusiasm in her response. “I’ll go get that key and meet you downstairs.” He left them to find their way back, and headed off toward the east wing where she knew the family rooms were.

It suddenly occurred to her that Doug was the only remaining member of his family. The only direct descendant of Ian Nelson. Though it was just a few months ago that Doug had learned that Ian was his ancestor and not Alexander—

Era stopped again and pushed the thought of Alexander from her mind. She really needed to get over that, especially if she was going to be working here.

“Guess we’d better get back to it,” she said to Jason, then led him from the room.

“The Deacon is not what I imagined,” Jason said as they walked along. “He’s so…amiable.”

“Not what you expected from someone who plays with dead people?”

Jason laughed. “No, not at all.” He glanced over, lowering his voice as he continued. “Does he really play with the dead?”

“I’m not sure play is the right word, but all necromancers must animate the dead from time to time, otherwise their magic builds up and causes them pain.”

“Really?” Jason sounded surprised. Apparently, he’d been unaware of how a necromancer’s magic affected him.

“It’s why so many of them find employment in the funeral industry. Doug is a forensic pathologist.”

“Huh.” He glanced over again, a glint in his dark eyes. “He seems especially amiable toward you.”

“That’s just Doug,” she said quickly. “He’s a good-looking guy and he knows it.” More like smoking hot. “I genuinely believe he’s a good person, but he’s a charmer. If he can smile and get his way, he will.”

Jason seemed to consider that.

“He comes by it honestly,” she continued. “Every member of his family that I’ve met was the same.” His father, Ian, Alexander—

Damn it. Why did she keep going there today? It must be the house. Doug was right. The place was haunted—by the ghost of her past.

They reached the first floor, and Era turned toward the back of the house and the great room she and Jason had been examining before Doug’s arrival. It was time to get to work.

She pulled her small notebook from the pocket of her blazer. “Let’s lay the renovation out in phases,” she said to Jason. “The first phase will be the public areas.” Her heels clacked on the black tile as they walked into the great room.

“Hang on.” Jason stopped on the threshold. “Let me grab my tape measure.” He hurried away, heading for the foyer and presumably, his truck.

Era turned back to the room and pulled up short. A man stood with his back to her, examining the hole in the floor. It wasn’t Doug, though this man’s longer hair was the same golden shade. Unlike Doug, he wore a hoodie and a nice-fitting pair of jeans.

He must have heard her, because he turned. “Renovations?” he demanded. His vibrant blue eyes met hers.

Era pulled in a breath. Alexander’s name rose to her lips, but he spoke before she could.

“Who’s renovating my family home?”

 

Chapter 2

Era stared at the man before her. She knew it wasn’t Alexander—she had watched him die—but dear God, this guy could pass for him at a glance.

“The renovations were my idea,” Doug answered, entering the room from the hall to the kitchen.

The man faced him. “You weren’t going to consult me?”

“You’re not talking to me. Remember?”

The other man crossed his arms. “I was grieving, Doug. Cut me some slack.”

“You didn’t come to Father’s memorial.”

“Come on. You know I would only have come if I’d been invited to dance on his grave.”

Era tensed, knowing how much Doug cared for his father.

Doug studied the other man for one long moment, then abruptly smiled. “I’ve seen you dance, Dec.”

The other man—Dec?—returned the smile, those familiar dimples forming in his cheeks.

Laughing, the pair embraced.

Era wasn’t sure what to make of the exchange. For a moment, she’d been certain they would come to blows.

The men pulled apart and Doug glanced over, seeming to remember she was there.

“Sorry,” Doug apologized to her. “Allow me to introduce my brother, Declan Nelson. Dec, this is my…decorator, Era Brant.”

Era wondered at his hesitation. Had he considered introducing her as an Element? Perhaps his brother wasn’t that fond of New Magic.

“Ms. Brant.” Declan dipped his head in greeting, then turned back to Doug.

Era suspected that as the hired help, she had just been dismissed. Judging by Doug’s frown, he had noticed the same thing.

“What’s with the renovations?” Declan asked him. He either didn’t catch the frown or he ignored it. “Are you already putting your stamp on the old place?”

“I consider it more a restoration than a renovation. I want to bring out the beauty of the building’s origins such as this stone floor.” He gestured at the hole. “And the original woodwork.”

“Since when do you care about things like that?”

“My eyes have been opened.” Doug’s gaze met hers, a twinkle in his newly opened eyes.

Declan’s gaze moved to her, as well.

“I should mention that Era is New Magic.”

Declan’s eyes narrowed as he studied her. “And does that make her more desirable over others of her profession?”

Era spoke before Doug could answer. “There isn’t a strong correlation between my magic and profession, unless you consider interior design as the flow of a building or the space between the walls.”

Declan didn’t look enlightened.

Era smiled. “I’m an Element.”

“Lady of the Wind,” Doug added.

She rolled her eyes. “God, that’s corny. It sounds like I should be a character in a fantasy novel.”

Declan blinked, then turned a frown on Doug. “She’s an Element, and you introduce her as your decorator.”

“She is my decorator, and the nature of her talent is her secret to reveal.”

“I thought we were all out in the open now,” Declan said. “No more robes.”

“Not by choice,” Era said. “Your crazy ancestor revealed my brother’s identity.”

“I caught some of that.” He turned to Doug. “And you?”

“I got tired of our crazy ancestor ruining my life,” Doug answered. “What can I do for you, Declan?”

“I thought you might have need of me. Deacon.”

Doug studied him a moment. “Join me in the den?” He turned back to Era and offered her the key he promised. “Would you excuse us, my lady?”

“Of course. I’ll never get anything done standing here talking to you.”

Doug smiled, then led his brother away.

Era watched them go, wondering what they had to discuss. Had Declan been estranged from the family? Was that why she hadn’t even known that Doug had a brother? Judging by Declan’s disdain for their father, she could certainly see him being estranged. She couldn’t help but wonder if Doug was pleased to have him back.

Era looked up from her dinner plate to study Rowan. “You knew Doug had a brother?”

“I knew of him,” Rowan answered. “With the exception of Doug, who was his named heir, Xander never involved his family in his interactions with me.”

Era hadn’t been involved with the running of the magical world, but she did remember a few of Xander’s visits to the Elemental Offices. Camera crews were usually involved—camped out on the front lawn in hopes of getting a shot of the Flame Lord and the Deacon together.

“I only met Declan once, when he brought his son to be tested for a blood gift,” Elysia spoke up from her place further down the table.

Era’s family of four had grown in the last few months. First James had moved in, then he married Elysia. Shortly after that, Addie had joined them.

“Oh right,” Addie spoke up from her place beside Rowan. “Declan’s son was the one Neil killed—with my bullets.”

Addie’s alchemically altered bullets had the nasty side effect of killing the magical instantly, no matter how minor the bullet wound.

“I never met Declan,” Addie continued, “but Doug was pretty upset over his nephew’s death. I guess he was with him at the time.”

Era hadn’t realized that.

“Neil probably had him killed to remove another contender for Deacon,” Elysia said. “Alec was showing a lot of promise.”

“Declan named his son Alec?” Era asked.

Addie shook her head. “The Nelson family sure does like that name. I noticed there was an Alexander in every generation when I was researching the family. How did Doug avoid it?”

“The name was already taken by his brother,” Elysia answered. “Declan Alexander Nelson.”

“Doug’s the younger?” Era asked. “How did he get to be heir?”

“The usual way. He’s a stronger necromancer.” Elysia gave her a wink. As a necromancer herself, she knew all about Old Magic politics. She also knew all about Doug’s family. At one time, she had been his fiancée. Of course at that time, they’d not known they were distantly related.

“So how go the renovations at the Nelson place?” Donovan asked Era. “Will you be needing the services of a good carpenter?”

“Absolutely.” She gave her brother a smile. Donovan was a talented carpenter besides being an Earth Element. “But I’m still drawing up the plans.”

“Don’t forget to send me a copy when they are complete,” Cora said. As a lawyer, Cora tended to be the most pragmatic. Cool, composed, and placid, like the water that was her Element.

“Of course,” Era agreed. She couldn’t have gotten her interior decorating business off the ground without Cora—without the support of her whole family. The Nelson mansion was her first job, and she was determined to prove to everyone that she could do this—and do it well. Doug’s gothic nightmare would be a showplace when she was done with it.

Era retreated to her room after dinner, and spreading the floor plans for the Nelson mansion across her carpet, she got out her notebook and set to work. To make the most of her resources, she needed to focus on sections of the house, rather than choosing rooms at random.

The core of the house was a priority. The foyer, the twin parlors, and the great room would get her attention first. A recent fire in the east wing had required repairs, so that section wasn’t in need of work. Yet as she studied the plans, her gaze kept drifting to that end of the house. The lost turret had been such a defining feature that it saddened her to see it gone.

She rubbed her forehead, attempting to dispel that foolish thought. It would take a huge chunk of her budget to work it into her plans, and aside from the exterior aesthetics, it was a waste. Visitors wouldn’t even see the interior of the turret, and it would add little in terms of functional floor space.

“Stop being silly and get to work,” she told herself, opening her laptop. She needed to get Doug’s approval on a finalized plan before he left to visit those East Coast cousins.

The blaring of her alarm clock woke Era, and she rolled over to swat the offending device. Something hard pressed against her stomach, and once the clock was silenced, she discovered her laptop on the bed with her. She was also still dressed.

With a groan, she flopped back against the pillow. She didn’t remember falling asleep at the keyboard, but she did remember bizarre dreams in which she chased an elusive blond man through the halls of Doug’s family home. It was an auspicious start to the first project of her career.

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she sat up and opened the computer. She couldn’t seem to differentiate between when her actual work had ceased and when the dreams had begun.

The proposal was still on the screen. There were detailed notes about changes to the core of the house, including a return to the great room’s cathedral ceiling per its original design, just as Jason had described it to her.

Moving to the next page of the proposal revealed the computer-generated drawing of what the exterior of the house would look like when the renovations were complete.

Era pulled in a breath as her gaze settled on the turret at the end of the east wing. It looked identical to the one in the photo in Doug’s library. In fact, the entire elevation was an exact match to how the home looked in 1921. But the craziest thing was that she had no memory of doing this.

“What the hell?” she whispered.

The following pages had floor plans of each of the three stories of the home. The first floor had no significant changes to the existing layout. Turning to the plans for the second floor, she noted the change to the corner room of the east wing now reflected a rounded outer wall, allowing it to support the new turret above, and a notation for a hatch door that permitted access to the attic room. Then she moved to the third floor, which was mostly attic. The turret space was again clearly delineated and had a label to the side, naming the space.

Alec’s Room.

Era was on her feet in an instant. She pulled the air around her close, a gesture of comfort and protection. Yet a cold finger of unease slid down her spine, the sensation so real, she spun to face the perpetrator. There was no one there.

“Stop this,” she whispered.

She stared at her laptop, still open on her bed. She was too far away to actually make out the words, but her gaze locked on the block of text naming the attic room.

“You started dreaming before you finished working,” she told herself. It wasn’t the first time she’d done that. Though usually, those occasions had only produced a few random words or a senseless sentence or two.

She rubbed a shaky hand over her face. Perhaps that ghostly image in those old photographs had seeped into her unconscious mind, then merged with the sad story of Doug’s deceased nephew, Alec. Nothing more.

But what if there was more to it, a part of her wondered. The part of her that loved to explore the dark with just a voice recorder and a night-vision camera.

What if someone really was trying to get her attention?

She raked a hand through her tangled hair. “No,” she whispered. Doug didn’t want any ghost hunting at his family home—and that probably included her.

She eyed her computer. But she really needed to talk to someone about this. Someone who would understand.

Blake leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin as he studied the plans on Era’s laptop screen.

“That’s really bizarre,” he agreed, “but I’m not getting anything.”

Era sighed and took another cookie from the plate in the center of Blake’s kitchen table. She was surprised that his mother hadn’t returned to fill their milk glasses. Blake’s mom didn’t seem to have noticed that her son was nearly seventeen. Though she was surprisingly accepting that he was a medium.

“What if I brought you the photograph?” She knew he wouldn’t want to visit Doug’s house. He didn’t trust Doug. There was some bad blood between the Nelson family and the local mediums.

“Photos usually aren’t all that helpful unless the deceased once held it. Although, if I’ve seen the spirit, a photo would help me identify if it’s the same ghost.”

“This one wouldn’t. It’s taken at a distance, and you can barely make out the face.”

Blake studied her. “You want me to visit this place you’re remodeling?”

“It’s Doug’s family home.”

Blake straightened. “The Deacon’s house?”

“I knew you wouldn’t be keen on the idea. That’s why I didn’t ask.”

“I’ll go if you want me to.”

She could tell he didn’t like the idea. “Thank you.” She leaned forward and gave his forearm a brief squeeze. “But I don’t think that’s necessary at this time. Maybe it was some kind of intense sleepwalking thing.”

She closed the laptop.

“It sounds more like possession.”

Her hands tightened on the computer.

“I’ve possessed you. Made you mine.” Alexander’s cold breath brushed the side of her neck. “Shall I demonstrate?”

“Era?” Blake’s warm hand settled on her wrist and she jumped. Almost knocking her laptop off the table.

“Are you okay?” He watched her, his hazel eyes dilating a little. “I don’t sense any spiritual attachments.”

“It’s nothing.” She picked up her laptop and shoved it into her briefcase. “I’ve wasted enough time on this silliness. I need to get to work.” She got to her feet.

“It’s Saturday.” Blake stood as well.

“No rest for the wicked. Tell your mom thanks for the cookies.” She started for the door.

“Era?”

She stopped and looked back at him.

“You need to talk to someone about this.”

“My ghostly design assistant?”

“No.” He held her gaze. He knew what had happened with Alexander. Well, as much as anyone knew.

“Blake, I’m fine. Really. Are you still allowed to go tonight?” she asked, trying to change the subject.

He sighed, but let the topic go. “Yes. Mom’s fine with a spiritual haunting. It’s the demonic stuff she won’t let me go to.”

Era smiled. “That works.” Blake’s parents were finally letting him join them on her group’s ghost hunts. They always got the best evidence when Blake came along.

“Do you want me to pick you up or do you plan to drive over?”

“No need for you to drive way over here, again. I’ll drive.”

“Oliver said he’s bringing his younger sister. She might be cute.”

“Not if she looks like Oliver.”

Era laughed. Oliver was their instrument tech. He worked at a local electronics store and could fix—or build—anything. He also fit the stereotype with his taped-together glasses and pocket protector.

“But if she is cute,” Blake continued, “I can use my I see dead people line. Ghost-hunter chicks love that one.”

Era groaned. “What is it with Old Magic and the warped sense of humor?”

“I’m not Old Magic,” Blake insisted. “I’m just sensitive to the spirit world.”

“Uh-huh.” They stepped out onto the front porch.

“Besides,” Blake continued, “if I were Old Magic, we couldn’t be friends.”

“Of course we could. We all get along just fine.” She knew Blake was still coming to terms with her being magical. “Come on. I live with a necromancer, and the Deacon hired me to remodel his home.”

Blake frowned at the mention of the Deacon.

“And speaking of that, I need to get going. See you this evening.” She waved a hand and hurried away before Blake could broach any more topics she’d rather not discuss.

“Don’t forget your voice recorder,” he reminded her. She’d forgotten it last time.

“I’ve got it.” She gave him a wave, then slid in behind the wheel of her little Audi two-seater.

Blake remained on the porch until she pulled safely out onto the road, then waved again. He was such a sweetheart. She really hoped Oliver’s sister was hot—and liked guys who saw dead people. Blake needed someone understanding. He never willingly admitted he was a medium—at least not among the mundane—but his gift often got the better of him. Perhaps she should start inviting him to magical functions. A girl with magic of her own would be more understanding.

Era parked her car in the drive before the Nelson mansion and stared at the stone building through her windshield. She had teased Doug about the pseudo-gothic interior, but the exterior had a neo-gothic flavor with its steep roof and narrow windows. The turret would have certainly complemented the look.

“You’re obsessing,” she muttered and grabbed her briefcase.

Climbing from her car, she looked around, but didn’t see Doug’s Mercedes—unless he’d parked in the garage. He wasn’t supposed to meet her here until this afternoon, and she was counting on that.

Taking a deep breath, she walked to the front door and rang the bell.

The elderly man who served as the butler opened the door. “My lady.” He stepped back, holding the door open for her. “Please come in.”

“Thank you.” She stepped inside and waited while he closed the door. “Is Mr. Nelson home?”

“Which Mr. Nelson, ma’am?”

Oh right. Doug’s brother was back. Was he staying here? “Doug Nelson,” she answered.

“No, ma’am. He’s not at home.”

“He did say he’d meet me this afternoon. Do you mind if I wait for him?”

“I have been instructed that you are welcome at anytime, whether the family is home or not.”

“In that case, I’ll go set up in the library.”

He dipped his head but asked no questions about what she was setting up. She started to explain, but stopped herself. Her presence had already been cleared, and he probably didn’t care.

Thanking him, she turned and headed up the stairs. She eyed her surroundings as she walked, mentally noting what decor she would keep and what she wouldn’t.

She reached the library and once again, stopped just inside the door to admire the room. Yes, this was what the rest of the house should look like.

Crossing to the heavy oak table across the room from the fireplace, she set her briefcase on the polished surface and began to unpack it. She kept her head down, intent on her work, and made a conscious effort not to glance at the photos on the wall. She set up her laptop and pulled out the printed plans, spreading them on the table.

Once everything was laid out and ready for her presentation to Doug, she reached in her briefcase and pulled out the small black voice recorder. For the first time, she lifted her gaze to the photographs on the far wall.

From across the room, the details were indistinct, but she could see the figure in that window, even from here.

Depressing the record button on her recorder, she crossed the room to stand before the oldest photo.

“Nelson residence, library,” she said aloud, marking the recording for future reference. She added the date and time, then took a breath.

“I see you there, in the photograph. All the photographs. Are you the one who…helped me last night?”

She paused, giving any spiritual listeners a chance to respond in the silence. She heard nothing now, but later, when she played the recording back, there might be an EVP. Electronic voice phenomena had proven to be a valuable tool in her ghost-hunting excursions.

“Do you want me to rebuild the turret so you can stand at the window once more?”

A loud thump against the window beside her made Era jump. She turned toward the thick-paned window, but she saw nothing out of place.

“That was a thump from the window on my right,” she said. Resting a knee on the wooden window seat, she leaned in to examine the area closer.

“I see no cause for the noise,” she continued, “but I can’t rule out a bird flying into the glass.” She would go out and check the ground beneath the window when she finished.

Straightening, she turned back to the photo. “Was that you?”

She eyed the fuzzy figure in the portrait, waiting a moment to allow him to answer—if he would. Spiritual voices always seemed to be a bit delayed.

Era cleared her throat. “What’s your name?”

“His name is Alec,” a voice said from the doorway.

 

Chapter 3

Era turned with a gasp and saw Declan standing just inside the door.

“Declan.” She pressed a hand to her pounding heart. “You startled me.”

He smiled, and dimples so much like Doug’s formed in his cheeks. The brothers certainly favored each other, though Declan was a little taller and leaner than Doug.

“My apologies,” he said with that easy smile and walked toward her.

Era found herself continuing her comparison of the brothers, noting both their similarities and differences. Both were strikingly handsome, but where Doug favored more rugged good looks, Declan was borderline beautiful—not unlike his ancestor, Ian, and thus, Ian’s identical twin, Alexander. He stopped before her, and his smile grew.

Chill bumps rose on her arms. There was just something about his smile that reminded her of Alexander. She had to be imagining that touch of cruelty beneath that beautiful facade.

Stop it. Yes, he favored Alexander, but that didn’t mean he shared his temperament.

Pushing all that from her mind, she abruptly realized that Declan had answered her question.

“You said his name was Alec?” she asked.

“I assumed you referred to the ghostly visitor in each of these pictures.”

“You noticed?”

“Technically, I was shown.”

“By whom?” she asked. “Doug was surprised to see the image in the photos.”

“I’m sure he was. My little brother would never notice that.” A wry smile twisted Declan’s lips. “Alec showed me.”

“The one in the pictures?”

“Yes.”

She stared at him. “You communicate with ghosts. Willingly?” She knew necromancers could be sensitive to spirits.

“Well, they speak to me.” He shrugged, and once again, chill bumps rose on her arms. Declan pulled off Alexander’s oddly elegant shrug perfectly.

She forced her mind back to their conversation. “I thought necromancers frowned on the whole ghost communication thing.”

Declan gave her a knowing look. “Someone has been hanging out with my little brother.”

He was right. Doug was the most adamant, but she knew Elysia was opposed to it. Ian had been strongly against it, as well.”

“You feel differently?” she asked Declan.

“I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise.” He moved closer to the table, eyeing the plans she’d laid out. “Is this what you have in mind for the old place?”

“Yes.” She walked over to join him, her step hesitant. He’d seemed upset when he first learned of the renovations.

Bracing a hand on the table, he leaned closer to study the plans. “Hmm, yes. I see that,” he muttered.

She waited for him to elaborate, but he remained silent. “What do you see?”

“That you intend to return the old place to its former glory.” He tapped the exterior view—his finger right over the turret.

“I suppose that is an option, but…”

He looked up at her hesitation. “But?”

“I’m not sure who decided that.”

He straightened and faced her. “You’ve had a little input from the other side.”

She moved closer, pleased that he’d jumped to that conclusion. “I had fallen asleep, working on this.” She waved at the plans. “When I woke, there it was.”

Declan nodded, his earnest gaze holding hers. “You thought you were going crazy.”

“No. I knew what it was. But I did visit a medium to make certain I didn’t have any attachments. Once a spirit forms an attachment, it can follow you home—or anywhere.”

His brows rose. “You’re no novice.”

She reached in her briefcase and pulled out a business card. “No, I’m not.” She offered him the card.

He took it from her fingers, then read it aloud. “Whispers on the Wind, Paranormal Investigators.” He lifted his gaze to hers, amusement dancing in his blue eyes. “You?”

“My group.” She lifted her chin, waiting for him to poke fun.

“A delightful pun. Is everyone in the group New Magic?” He continued to smile, but he didn’t seem to be making fun of her.

“No, just me. Actually, they don’t know that I’m magical.”

“Ah. You fear it’ll hurt your credibility.”

“That and the fewer people who know I’m an Element, the easier it is to hold on to my privacy.”

“I understand. The mundanes do tend to take their fascination too far.” He held up the business card. “Is this mine to keep?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

He pulled out his wallet and tucked it inside.

She suddenly wanted to ask for it back, though she couldn’t define why. Maybe she felt a bit foolish about admitting she was a ghost hunter to someone as experienced as he seemed to be.

Foolishness aside, she couldn’t pass up this opportunity to learn more about the mysterious ghost in the photos.

“Can you tell me more about this Alec?” She gestured at the photographs on the far wall.

“I can do you one better. I can show you.” He waved toward the door. “Join me?”

“Where to?”

“The west side of the house. My father’s office.” He hesitated. “Well, Doug’s office now.”

She followed Declan from the room and fell in beside him as they walked down the hall.

“Does it…bother you that Doug was named Deacon?” she asked. “He’s younger, right?”

Declan glanced over, his expression one of amusement. “The position isn’t exactly hereditary. My cousin, Carl Dunstan, was originally chosen to follow my father, but when he died, the nod was given to his brother, Neil.”

“I’ve had the misfortune to meet Neil.”

“Sorry to hear that. He was an unpleasant fellow—and stunted. Once it became clear that he would remain so, Doug was chosen as heir.”

“But not you.”

“Doug’s the stronger necromancer.” Another elegant shrug followed. “Why the interest?”

“I haven’t seen you around. In fact, I didn’t even know you existed. So I thought you might be estranged from your family.”

“You assumed I was envious of my little brother.”

“It’s a logical assumption,” she insisted.

“I suppose, but it’s also a false one. I get along with my family just fine. I lived in Maryland to placate my wife who wished to be closer to her family—at least until the boys came of age.”

“Boys?”

“My sons, Alexander and Jacob.” Declan’s voice softened as he continued. “I lost Alec last fall.”

“I heard about that. I’m sorry.”

“I should have come home with him, but—” He stopped and shook his head. “My wife—or I should say my ex-wife—got custody of Jake.”

Era wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but Declan continued before she could speak.

“When I told Doug, he came up with this crazy scheme. He thinks he can charm her family. I told him it was pointless, but he believes he can change the world.”

“That’s why he’s flying to Baltimore? He told me he was meeting with the heads of house there.”

“Her father leads their heads of house. Doug’s just killing two birds with one stone.” Declan led her past the double doors that led to the large room where Era and her siblings had once faced some of Neil’s infectious zombies. This house seemed to harbor nothing but bad memories for her. Maybe she could change that by making it the location of her first renovation.

Declan stopped at the next door down the hall and pushed it open. Era followed him inside. This room, like so much of the house, sported the same dark paneling, but the floors were at least the original hardwood.

Era stopped inside the door, but Declan crossed to the large dark cherry desk that dominated the space. Turning on a lamp that sat on one corner, he circled behind the desk to stop before a loaded bookshelf. After a moment searching for the volume he wanted, he selected a worn leather-bound book and laid it on the desk.

He opened the front cover, but went no further. “Here.”

Era circled the desk to stand beside him. On the yellowed first page, a portrait had been mounted. A seated man and woman were surrounded by four children, ranging in age from their early teens to the toddler on the woman’s lap. The period clothing and the fact that this was a painting and not a photograph suggested early- to mid-nineteenth century.

“You are looking at a portrait of Deacon Bartholomew Nelson,” Declan said. “The eldest boy is Alec.”

Era’s gaze moved to the youth standing at the man’s shoulder. The golden hair and blue eyes marked him a Nelson, but it was difficult to judge if it was the same person she’d seen in the photos.

“He’s younger here,” she noted.

“He’s probably thirteen here. He died in his late twenties, I believe.”

Era looked up. “Was he ever Deacon?”

“No, he was locked away by his brother.” Declan tapped his finger on the second eldest child, another blond boy. “Jacob Harris Nelson. He followed their father as Deacon.”

“Heartless Harry. Doug mentioned him. He told me that a tree fell through the front parlor and killed him.”

Declan gave her a knowing smile.

“Are you suggesting that Alec had something to do with that?”

“He said he did.”

Era stared at him.

“I have no way of verifying it,” Declan continued. “But there is a newspaper article and photos of the downed tree in Harry’s book.”

“His book?”

Declan turned to the bookshelf and pulled down a second, thicker volume. On the cover, the name Deacon Jacob Harris Nelson had been embossed in the leather.

“Each Deacon has a book?” she asked.

“Yes.” Declan opened the new book and turned to the back.

“Why is his so much thicker? Did he live longer?”

“No. He was just a little more zealous in his duties.”

“What do you mean?”

Declan didn’t look up from the yellowed, handwritten pages he was thumbing through. It had the appearance of a ledger.

“Harry enjoyed making liches,” Declan answered. “Ah. Here we are.” He stopped on a page that had a newspaper clipping mounted to it.

“You’re saying this book is a record of the people he killed?” she asked.

“Not all of it. There are also records of decisions he made, functions he attended, along with marriages and births within the Community.”

Era stared at the three-inch volume, wondering how much of it was a record of the liches he’d made. Declan, on the other hand, didn’t seem a bit disturbed by the notion. Just when she was getting comfortable around necromancers, something like this would come up.

“You’re welcome to read the article,” Declan continued, not seeming to notice her silence. “But I think the pictures are the most telling.” He gripped the edge of the page and looked up. “They’re a bit graphic. You’re not squeamish, are you?”

“No.”

“Excellent.” He smiled his approval, then turned the page.

Era’s gaze dropped to the page, and she pulled in a breath.

“Era?”

“Dear God,” she whispered, staring at the horrifying image—photographed from three different angles.

“I did warn you.” Declan sounded concerned, though she didn’t look up to see it.

“How the hell did a falling tree do that?”

In the photos, a middle-aged man had been impaled on a thick tree branch. The bizarre part was that the branch was vertical, rising from the tree trunk just visible along the bottom of the picture.

“Maybe if the tree landed on him,” she thought aloud, “then rolled over…”

“Was he doing a headstand at the time?” Declan asked. “There’s no autopsy report, of course, but I’d wager the branch entered through the groin and exited the shoulder.”

“What if he was upstairs and the floor gave way, dropping him onto the branch?”

“More plausible, but it’s a vaulted room. There’s only an attic above the parlor.”

“Then how—”

“You’re overlooking one possibility,” Doug said from the doorway.

Once again, Era’s heart jumped in her chest. Damn it. She wished she would quit doing that.

“What possibility?” she asked, trying to hide her reaction.

“He was murdered,” Doug said. “He had a lot of enemies.”

She glanced up at Declan, and he offered her a slight smile.

“Who uses a tree as a murder weapon?” she asked.

“An opportunist with the undead at his disposal.” Doug walked over to join them. Whatever he’d had to do this morning must not have been as formal as yesterday. He wore khakis and a polo shirt—both fit extremely well. Did he have his clothes altered? No way he could buy off the rack and find clothes that fit that well.

Era returned her gaze to the gory photos. “However it transpired, that’s one horrifying way to die.”

“He was found still alive,” Declan offered. “Almost a day later. But he died before he could be cut down.”

Era stared at him.

“Declan.” Doug frowned at his brother.

“It’s in the article on the preceding page,” Declan told her.

Doug reached over and closed the book. “Why are you showing her this?”

“The photos in the library—” Era began.

Declan cut her off. “She mentioned that you told her about Harry and the tree. I thought she might want to learn more.”

“By looking at pictures of an impaled dead man?”

Declan shrugged.

Era noticed that Declan had skirted any mention of the ghost in the photos. Did Doug not know about Declan’s ghostly conversations? Considering Doug’s view on the topic, she could understand why Declan didn’t share.

Doug studied his brother a moment, then picked up the two books and returned them to the bookcase.

Era’s gaze traveled along the shelf to the far end and the considerably newer volumes. Did the one on the end belong to Xander, or had Doug started one already? She longed to look inside.

Doug turned to face her, and she gave up trying to make out any lettering on the spines of those books. “I stopped in the library before I came looking for you,” he told her. “It looks like you’ve been busy.”

“I wanted to get things finalized before you left for Baltimore,” she answered. “Shall I show you my ideas?”

Doug smiled, then gestured toward the door. “Please.”

“Do I get to tag along?” Declan asked.

Doug gave him a faint frown. “If you like.”

“I like.” Declan grinned, seeming unbothered by Doug’s frown.

Era sensed some undercurrents in the exchange, but she had no idea what it was all about. Perhaps Declan hadn’t told her everything about his relationship with his family.

She walked with them to the library. “Did you have a meeting or something this morning?” she asked Doug, uncomfortable with the silence.

“No, work,” he answered.

“You were at the city morgue?” She knew he did some work for the coroner’s office.

“Waylon actually,” Doug answered. “Bruner wanted to rule out necromancy on a case they were investigating.”

“Who are Waylon and Bruner?” Declan asked.

“Waylon is director of the PIA. Bruner is his pathologist.”

“You’re working for the PIA?” Declan asked, his surprise obvious in his tone.

“More like consulting,” Doug answered. “Agent Bruner is skilled in his profession, but he isn’t magical.”

Era glanced over at Declan, but if he had anything else to add, he didn’t say it. Old Magic had a tendency to keep to themselves. Working with the Paranormal Investigation Agency, at least willingly, was not something they did. Doug was making a lot of changes.

“But this afternoon,” Doug continued to her, “I do have a meeting at the Elemental Offices.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with your consultation with Waylon this morning, does it?” She hoped there wasn’t another zombie outbreak in the works.

“No, nothing like that. The corpse Bruner was examining didn’t seem as decayed as he expected, so he wanted to make certain necromancy wasn’t involved. It turned out to be a transcription error on the lab results that had led him astray. We got it sorted out.” He glanced over with a smile. “I won’t be needing you to blow any zombies apart.”

“Ah, good. That always makes such a mess.” She made a joke of it, watching Doug as she spoke. He’d actually paled when she’d been forced to eliminate a zombie that way.

Doug laughed, clearly not bothered by it now.

“Blow a zombie apart?” Declan asked.

“I was distracted and one of Neil’s animated monstrosities got the jump on me. Era came to my rescue—then ripped my ass for not paying attention.”

“Well, you almost got chewed on,” she reminded him. “Again.”

Declan sighed. “Really, brother. It doesn’t sound like you made a favorable impression.”

“He saved the day in the end,” Era said.

Doug looked over, his warm gaze catching hers. She had been ready to add a teasing remark, but the words died in her throat. She frowned instead, annoyed with the way he could sometimes leave her speechless. Fortunately, they had reached the library.

She crossed to the table where she’d laid out her drawings for the renovations. Back in her element—the nonmagical one—she felt in control once more. As Doug and Declan joined her at the table, she launched into her presentation. She mapped out the phases, timeline, and finished with the cost—well within the budget Doug had approved.

Declan dropped into a nearby chair without comment, looking up at Doug expectantly.

“Well?” Era prompted when Doug remained silent.

“Can you have it done by mid October?”

He was giving her the go-ahead? She forced down her smile. She was a professional. “Barring any unforeseen problems—like termite damage, faulty wiring, things like that—I believe early October achievable.”

Doug studied her. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you certain?”

She held his gaze. “Yes. Of course.”

“I can’t mess this up.”

“Mess what—” Then she remembered why October was important. “Halloween.” It was a big deal to necromancers.

“Technically, Samhain,” Doug corrected.

“Necromancers tend to favor the more pagan holidays,” Declan offered.

Doug ignored his brother. “And this will be my first Samhain as Deacon. It’s extremely important.”

“I won’t let you down,” she promised.

“I know that.” He turned to the plans. “But this is an old building, and there could be problems outside your control. Could we postpone the renovations on the east wing?”

The turret. She had known it was just aesthetic. Why did she want to argue to the contrary?

He held up his hands, palms toward her. “I know you think I’m doubting you, but I’m not.” He stopped. “Okay, maybe a little. But this is your first project. You will allow that there may be obstacles you’ve not considered. I mean, due to lack of experience, not—”

“Doug,” she stopped him. She couldn’t decide whether to admire his honesty or to be annoyed that he was right. “I get it, and your point is valid—even if I would like to argue to the contrary. But at the end of the day, you’re the customer. I have to do what you say.”

The corner of Doug’s mouth curled.

“With regard to the renovations, that is,” she added.

“Damn, I almost had you.” He glanced at his watch. “Is there something you want me to sign? I need to get moving if I’m going to be on time.”

“I’ll have to redo the contracts to reflect breaking up the phases, but it shouldn’t take long. Will you be back?”

“No. I’m afraid I have a full slate this afternoon. How about if I pick you up this evening. We could grab a bite and get all the paperwork finished.”

“Sorry I have plans. What time do you fly out in the morning?”

“Plans? What kind of plans?” He would ask about that.

She couldn’t tell him about the ghost hunting. She’d get a lecture. “It’s none of your concern. Your flight time?”

“One.”

“That’ll work. Do you want to meet at the Elemental Offices? It’s closer to the airport than here or the manor.” It still amazed her that Rowan had brought Doug home during the trouble with Neil. Her siblings were very protective of their private lives.

He looked like he wanted to ask more questions. Did he suspect she was going ghost hunting? He seemed to get his curiosity in check and gave her a stiff nod. “Shall we say nine a.m.?”

“That’s fine.” She turned to the table and began gathering the papers scattered across the surface.

“All right,” Doug said after a moment. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You got it,” she agreed without looking up.

“Declan, can I have a word?” Doug asked. His brother rose from the chair and the pair left the room.

Era glanced toward the doorway, but only the low rumble of male voices carried to her. She returned to gathering her things and noticed the voice recorder sitting by her briefcase. She’d forgotten all about that.

Crossing to the door, she peeked out into the hall. It was empty.

She walked back to the table and picked up her voice recorder. Rewinding it to the beginning of her recording session, she depressed the play button.

Her first few questions went unanswered. Then Declan had joined her. She hadn’t turned off the recorder.

“Is this what you have in mind for the old place?” Declan’s voice came from the recorder.

“Yes,” she had answered. A beat of silence followed, and she remembered Declan moving over to study the plans.

“She’s rebuilding my room,” a voice whispered.

Era moved her thumb to the stop button, ready to replay that and verify—

“Hmm, yes. I see that,” Declan answered.

Era hit the stop button. “Jesus,” she whispered. Alec had spoken—and Declan had answered him.

<<<>>>

Release date: Friday, August 11th