Authors: Sarah Gilman
Tags: #happily ever after, #Entangled Publishing, #Ever After, #short story, #Sarah Gilman, #romance series, #paranormal, #exorcism, #romance, #exorcist, #ghosts, #genre romance, #Maine
Ghosts of the Falls
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Gilman. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Edited by Marie Loggia-Kee
Cover design by L.J. Anderson
Photography by Gemma Wright Photography
Ebook ISBN 978-1-62266-246-3
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition October 2013
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction: Tinker Bell; Chevy; The Exorcist (movie).
This story was inspired in part by a real logging tragedy on the Connecticut River in the 1800s. This HEA is for you, Charles.
Titles Also written
by Sarah gilman
Out in Blue
Wings of Redemption
Deep in Crimson
What an odd place for an exorcism
Jade Clarence walked along a dirt road through lush, green woods, her legs stiff after the three-hour drive into Maine. During her career, she’d exorcised malicious spirits from unwilling human hosts, houses, schools, cemeteries, even a grocery store, but never from a remote state park.
The trees formed a cathedral ceiling of green overhead, and the wide Quinnetukut River rushed over the rocky riverbed to her left before narrowing and plunging into a gorge. Such a vibrant place, so full of life. It should have been immune to a haunting.
Perhaps the man who had called about the ghost was a smart-ass prankster? He’d sounded sincere, according to her brother Jeremy’s notes. Besides, there had been other witnesses to the unusual Hutchinson Park Motel haunting and the fire that followed.
Shattering windows. Levitating furniture. Water turning red. If the description of the haunting turned out to be accurate, a spirit more powerful than any her family had encountered in decades, since her grandfather’s time, inhabited the area.
That said a lot about how much her younger brother Jeremy still trusted her, despite all the mistakes she’d made recently. This was her chance to prove herself, to earn her brothers’ respect and to convince them not to cast her out of the family business.
Unclenching her fisted hands, she forced herself to relax. She held too much stress in her body these days. Grinding her teeth in her sleep. Tension headaches. Sometimes a muscle ticked next to her eye. After she removed this ghost, she should spend a few extra days here, breathing the air, watching the trees sway in the breeze. Perhaps she could find a nice swimming spot where she could relax in the sun. Then she could go home refreshed, to resume her normal workload.
The road led, supposedly, to the grave of the ghost blamed for the incidents. Nearing the gorge, Jade picked up her pace. The burial site was, in her experience, the best place to start.
Hutchinson’s Falls, read a faded, wooden sign mounted on a tree. The roar of the rushing water drowned out the bird songs of the forest. Mist from the falls moistened both her face and her inappropriate-for-hiking-in-the-woods black cotton dress. When she’d first arrived, she hadn’t thought she’d have to venture this far. Shivering, she kept walking, alert for any signs of a spirit presence.
“Hello there, ma’am,” a male voice called.
Jade’s breath caught in her throat and she pivoted. Several yards away, a man lifted his hands and showed her his palms. He appeared about her age—mid-twenties. He wore heavy boots and dark pants. The toasted skin tone of his bare torso and his physical condition suggested he spent all day, each day, laboring in the sun.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said in a warm, pleasant voice. “I live nearby. Not many of the park visitors venture all the way out here, so I thought maybe you’d gotten lost.”
She held out her hand as he approached, hoping he turned out as friendly as he sounded. More nervous of a man—and a handsome one at that—on a public trail than of a possible ghost in the area? That was her life, having grown up around spirits but never having much luck socializing with the living. “I’m Jade Clarence. I’m not lost. I was just looking around.”
“They call me Dutch.” He shook her hand, his eyebrows raised. “Clarence. So, you’re the exorcist? I wasn’t expecting you. No one returned my call.”
Ah, so he was the client. Dutch Vernon, according to the file. She swallowed, forced a neutral expression, and hoped he wouldn’t take offense at the truth. “I wanted to visit the site firsthand before we spoke. We get many prank calls.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do. No worries.” Dutch rubbed the back of his neck and glanced toward the falls. “So, can you sense the ghost?”
“I haven’t noticed anything yet, but I just got here.”
“You will.” His eyes, dark brown with flecks of green, shifted back in her direction. Her heart sped up under the force of his intense, honest stare. “I swear.”
Let’s hope so
. She wouldn’t mind sticking around to see those eyes again. “Tell you what, Mr. Vernon, I’m staying in the park’s campground. Tomorrow I’ll have a better idea what I’m dealing with. Would you be willing to give me a tour in the morning? I need to see the burial site you mentioned when you called.”
“Of course. The grave is on the other side of the gorge. It’s tricky to find but not impossible to reach.” He paused, his gaze wandering over her face. “And you can call me Dutch. See you then, Jade.”
He walked away along the road, and the corners of Jade’s mouth grew heavy. If only there’d been something to talk to him about besides the haunting. When had she last had a conversation with a good-looking man?
She shook her head. Her regular schedule left no time for dating or romance. Though far from either of those, spending the morning with Dutch would be a welcome change of pace.
With a sigh, she returned to her car, checked her scribbled directions, and headed for the campground.
Dutch’s corporeal body dissolved into the breeze like a wisp of fog. All physical sensation faded, leaving him with only his thoughts and his disappointment.
Despite the reputation of the Clarence family he’d gleaned from the computer in the park’s office, Jade hadn’t picked up on what he was even after looking him in the eye and shaking his hand. Hopefully, his physical body had simply masked him from whatever senses she relied on.
He drifted through the trees, moving like a gust of wind toward the campground on the far side of the ten-thousand-acre park. Beyond the gorge, the river calmed and widened. A cluster of colorful tents lined one side of the rock-strewn bank. He skimmed the ground, passing through the trunks of pine and oak trees. A Labrador sitting in front of a red tent lifted its head and growled.
Rustic cabins sat on a cleared knoll with a view of the river. A black Chevy sedan sat in front of the park office, a Tinker Bell doll hanging from the rearview mirror—Dutch had seen the character many times on the tiny, fascinating computers children carried around these days.
He hovered at the base of a flagpole and waited.
Jade emerged from the office, clutching paperwork, and eased the screen door shut. Her earthy coloring reminded him of the Abenaki Native Americans who owned the land north of the park.
She froze halfway to her car and shivered, despite the sun that lit up her features. She scanned her surroundings, her eyes half-closed as if paying more attention to senses other than sight.
That’s more like it
. Dutch drifted closer and stopped a foot in front of her.
Her gaze didn’t focus on him. She closed her eyes and inhaled a slow, deep breath. “Hello, Spirit.”
Dutch stayed silent. By focusing energy behind his thoughts, he could manifest his voice without his physical body, but she would recognize him. They had a date in the morning, and he longed for the opportunity for a normal conversation, absent of the “I’m a ghost and I want to be exorcised” topic.
Seeking company every so often, he would assume his corporeal body and speak with fishermen about trout and the weather, but he hadn’t spoken to a woman since his death. None of the female tourists who visited the park over the years had been worth the trouble, and most came with their husbands and children, anyway. In his non-corporeal form, he spent most days hovering among the guests so loneliness didn’t drive him out of his incorporeal skull.
A date, even if it wasn’t really a date, would be a good note on which to end his dead-end existence.
“Can you hear me?” Jade’s voice jerked him from his thoughts.
He lacked hands, but he reached toward her face with the concentrated energy that comprised his self and stroked her cheek.
A shiver shook her body and she stepped back. Her voice firmed, revealing the power of the exorcist that lay just out of sight beneath her sweet face. “Don’t touch me.”
Dutch retreated skyward, startling a flock of ravens out of the pine trees. After a long moment, Jade got in her car and drove to the cabin at the far end of the knoll. She dragged three large bags from her trunk—did women really need that much luggage?—and went inside.
He hovered above the park as the sun set in a vibrant display of gold. If the exorcism proved successful, he wouldn’t be around to see another sunset. Better to embrace oblivion than to spend endless years alone, and what better way to go out than in the hands of a beautiful woman?
Waiting for water to boil for tea, Jade called Dutch and told him in which cabin to find her. She hung up, carried a steaming mug of raspberry tea onto the porch, and breathed in the crisp morning air.
She’d gotten her first restful night’s sleep since she’d learned of an old woman’s death a week ago, a murder committed by a ghost Jade had refused to exorcise. Prior to the murder, the ghost had harmed no one and damaged no property—he wasn’t even powerful. He’d haunted a rarely used barn, for goodness’ sake. Jade made the decision not to destroy the spirit, despite family policy to deal with all ghosts encountered.
Exorcisms caused so much pain. The horrific screams didn’t bother her when they came from dangerous spirits, but in that barn, she’d faced the scared, confused form of a teenager.
Damn it, he’d conned her and managed to command enough power to wield a knife. It wasn’t just embarrassing, it was tragic. Tears swelled in Jade’s eyes, and her trembling hand made the spoon clatter against the ceramic mug. The elderly property owner’s death was her fault. Aaron, her older brother, had wanted to fire her on the spot and still hadn’t relented. Jeremy, the youngest but the most natural leader of the three of them, had given her this opportunity to prove she still had the grit and desire to perform a full exorcism. If she failed here, Jeremy would support her removal from the family business; not as a punishment, but out of concern for her happiness.
Thank goodness for the rest. She needed her strength and her wits to take on a spirit. Part of her had wanted to jump right in the previous evening, but one of the first lessons Aaron had taught her was to work during the day when spirits were at their weakest and the living at their strongest.
The breeze shifted and the scent of burnt sugar invaded her lungs. Her skin buzzed as if she’d brushed against an electric fence, and the tiny hairs on her arms stood on end.
Well, at least the ghost wasn’t shy.
“Good morning, spirit.” She set her tea down on a plastic table, covered in dust and pine needles. “Do you know what I am and why I’m here?”
The presence didn’t answer.
“Why did you burn down the motel?”
The scent of burnt sugar strengthened: an emotional reaction. Anger? Regret?
She folded her arms. Even if he regretted his actions, she needed to do her job, not repeat previous mistakes. “If you have something to say, now is the time.”
A frigid gale slammed the cabin. The plastic table flipped over, spilling the tea. She jumped back and opened her mouth to speak the words that would force the spirit back, but the presence had vanished on its own, leaving abrupt stillness in its wake.
Holy shit. A spirit who could manipulate the elements like that was a powerful entity, for certain. She had to put her job as priority, even though a strong part of her wanted to spend time with Dutch. This ghost would fight back, hard.
Maybe she could ask Dutch out for coffee after the fact?
Jeremy might be right. Despite her gut-knotting need to prove herself to her brothers, she longed for simpler things. Normal things, such as a gaze from rich brown eyes with green flecks. Warm, confident hands on her skin. A smile pulled at her lips as she straightened the table. Yes, Dutch had the look of a man who knew how to touch a woman.
She went inside for more tea and to finish getting ready. Trekking in the woods called for jeans and a tank top, the light-tan one that made her plain brown eyes look rich and deep, her dark skin darker.
Not that it mattered what she looked like. This was work, not a date. She sighed and braided her mahogany hair.
A knock sounded on the door just as she slipped a band around her braid.
Dutch’s voice called, “Jade?”
“You got the right place.” She slung the tan canvas bag with her materials over her shoulder and joined him on the porch. Like yesterday, he wore dark brown pants and work boots, but he’d covered his upper body with a brown T-shirt.
“Morning.” They spoke in unison, and a flush crept up Jade’s cheeks.
“Did you sense the ghost last night?” He leaned against the lacquered logs of the cabin’s exterior.
“Yes. This morning, too. I’ve never encountered a spirit this strong, and he’s definitely hostile. He could hurt a lot of people.”
“There’s a big fair this weekend, and hundreds are expected to visit the park. Best if he’s dealt with before then.” He straightened, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I’m glad you came. So, you want to see the grave?”
His forehead creased. “Why?”
“Access to a subject’s grave is a boon during an exorcism. I won’t need the spirit’s presence to bind him.” She led him off the porch, the creaky boards of the cabin giving way to packed dirt and pine needles that imbued their scent into the air. “You seem nervous.”
He scratched behind his ear with a sheepish expression. “Graves are creepy. Especially haunted ones.”
She laughed. “Well, if it’s any consolation, spirits tend to avoid their own graves. They find it disconcerting.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I don’t blame them. The grave is up by the falls, on the opposite side of where we met yesterday. I meant to pick you up, but I should apologize. My car wouldn’t start this morning.”
His gaze drifted down and to the left as he spoke. Jade paused, recognizing the telltale sign of lying. Why lie about something like that? Maybe it was simple embarrassment? Hard to say.
“I’ll drive us.” She jingled her keys. “How did you get here?”
He shrugged one shoulder and met her gaze—the latter motion a sign of telling the truth. “I walked. No big deal. I walk every day, anyway.”
Maybe he didn’t own a car and refused to admit it. Keeping her curiosity to herself, she unlocked the doors and they got in her car.
“Seatbelt,” she said when Dutch didn’t buckle immediately.
“There’ll be a hike to the gravesite,” Dutch said, fidgeting with the seatbelt for a moment as if he’d forgotten how it worked.
Was he that nervous? Jade could hardly imagine that she’d cause any guy to have the jitters. Must be he really disliked the idea of visiting a grave.
“There’s no road on the other side of the river. We’ll have to park at the bridge and walk from there.”
“No problem. It’s worth it.” Jade pulled out of the campground and made a sharp right onto the dirt road that traversed the sprawling park.
“Why Tinker Bell?” Dutch poked at the doll swinging from her rearview mirror.
“Because Tink is a feisty girl who puts up with a bunch of boys, like me. At least, I like to think of myself as feisty.” She made what she hoped was a mischievous smile, not a silly face. “My mother left when I was young, and I grew up with my father and two brothers. My three cousins Ryan, James, and Richard hang around quite a bit, too. And Uncle Frank.”
“Aha.” He pursed his lips in exaggerated consideration. “Yes, I can picture you as feisty as Tink. It suits you well.”
“Thank you.” Her smile widened, an unstoppable force pulling the corners of her mouth up, even though she tried to keep her happiness at his comment contained. “So, Dutch, how did you come to be the one to call in an exorcist?”
He rolled down the window and stuck his arm out. “Unlike the owners of the motel, I believe in spirits, and we’ve had a well-known ghost in the area for a long time. The people who were in the motel when the fire started say they saw furniture levitate and windows shatter, so I couldn’t believe the report that the fire was electrical in origin.”
She nodded. “It’s fortunate for the motel guests that the spirit decided to go for theatrics.”
“Judging from the article I read, they fled because of the haunting, which likely saved their lives from the fire that consumed the motel moments later.” She ground her teeth. “A few weeks ago, I would have asked myself if the spirit did that on purpose and I would have bet he didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
A minute of silence passed, and he tilted his head. “What happened a few weeks ago?”
“Well…” This was not a conversation to have with a stranger, especially a client.
“Sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”
She cleared her throat and steered around a series of potholes and a suicidal chipmunk. “Tell me about the ghost. Why is someone buried out here in the first place?”
Dutch frowned and the wind from the open window teased his brown hair. “The Hutchinson ghost is quite the legend around here. Over a hundred years ago, a logger got knocked into the river by a falling tree and fell into the gorge. Park visitors have reported numerous sightings, usually along the river below the falls, where the body is said to have been recovered.”
“Sightings? Ghosts can’t be seen, except for the most powerful individuals, who are few and far between. Ghost sightings are most often pranks.” She swallowed. They did have a strong spirit on their hands. But that strong?
He shrugged. “Local fishermen report having spoken with a young man, and out-of-state tourists have said the same thing. None of them thought they were talking to a ghost at the time.”
“If they were able to see him at all, he’d be transparent.”
“Not according to the stories. Solid as you or me. Some report shaking hands with the guy. But later, he’d disappear.”
“Hmm.” She ran her fingers over her braided hair, trying to disguise massaging a tensing muscle in her neck. “Spirits powerful enough to assume corporeal form are the rarest kind. There have only been a couple observed by exorcists in recorded history. I would say someone was playing a prank on the park visitors, but there is a spirit here, no doubt about it. That issue aside, what else happened the day the logger died?”
“What do you mean?”
“It takes a significant event or events to bind a spirit to earth. His death must’ve been horrifying to experience, yes, but neither that nor the unusual burial can be responsible for his continued presence here.”
“Nothing else happened that I know of.” Dutch glanced down and to the left, a sure sign of another lie. Or, perhaps, he was looking at her legs?
She wiped her clammy hands on her jeans. Here she was discussing her job and he hadn’t mocked her once. Could the man get any sexier? “It’s nice to be able to talk openly about my profession. Even polite people have trouble hiding their skepticism most of the time.”
He grinned, and she couldn’t avert her gaze. Good thing she was driving slowly. She forced her attention to the road and yanked her thoughts away from Dutch. She had a problem. If the Hutchinson ghost was powerful enough to assume corporeal form, he was in a good position to try to stop them from reaching the grave and binding him.
Stay on your toes, Jade
They crossed a covered bridge, and Dutch directed Jade to pull over to the side of the dirt road. He climbed out of the car, pleased that his first trip in a motor vehicle would also be his last. Nauseated, he swallowed and took a deep gulp of forest air. The familiar scents of pine and rotting leaves eased him, as did the illusion of life the act of breathing in and out offered.
“Hard to believe this area was logged.” Jade walked around the car, a canvas satchel hanging from her shoulder, her face upturned to the trees.
“The Vernon Logging Company completely cleared this area of mature trees in the eighteen hundreds, but nature has a way of reclaiming the land.” He tapped his knuckles against the thick bark of a maple so large and gnarled it must have been a small sapling left by the loggers.
This tree has been alive as long as I’ve been dead
“Vernon Logging Company. Relations of yours?”
. He’d given his old boss’s last name when he’d spoken on the phone with her brother. “Oh, yes. I’m a descendant.”
Not entirely a lie. In the end, the company had been more like family than his blood kin.
“This way.” He pointed out a smear of orange paint on the trunk of a pine tree. “The park maintains a rough trail. It’s not heavily traveled, but the area where the grave is located is the best place to view the falls, so a few people make the trek now and then. May I carry your bag for you?”
She adjusted the strap. “Thank you, but I’m fine, both with the bag and on the trail.”
He grinned, pleased. His experience with women wasn’t what many people would think—prim and pretty ladies in their Victorian dresses, expecting men to carry everything for them and lay coats over puddles while they sat around drinking tea. Those images were far from the whole truth, at least for Vermont women. He didn’t find anything wrong with chivalry, but life in New England was a tough one for most, and the reality had been that women worked just as hard as men to survive.
These days, many of the women who visited the park lacked the grit he found attractive in women. They complained about imperfect cell service, about bugs, about building a fire, about boredom, and everyone seemed to have allergies. What they needed was a Vermont winter without electricity or vehicles, living on the food they grew and slaughtered during the summer.
Many of the women he’d observed would complain about the difficulty of this trail. Not Jade. She stepped past him and called over her shoulder, “Are you coming?”
“Of course.” He followed her off the packed dirt of the logging road and onto the layers of rotting leaves and pine needles of the forest floor. The rough path meandered around trees and granite outcrops as it guided them downhill, the terrain steep and muddy. The river rushed over a shallow, rocky bed to their right, and the ground leveled as they got closer to the gorge.
As they progressed, Jade picked wildflowers—they were abundant in the area above the falls, far more so than the rest of the park.
“What are you doing that for?”
“They have a purpose, trust me.” A feminine gasp escaped her lips when she spotted a wild rose bush, a massive beast of a plant that grew over a rocky outcrop and up a white birch tree. Palm-sized red blooms sagged a bit under the weight of morning dew. Jade stared with a hand over her mouth.