Excerpt: Ghost Girl

Book 1 : The 3rd Freak House Trilogy

Ghost Girl (Freak House) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Hertfordshire, Spring 1889

The ghosts crowded around to get a better look at my corpse. Hands skimmed over my face like feathery kisses from cold lips. A little blonde spirit girl brushed her fingers through my hair, hypnotized by the dark curls that sprang free. A fat gentleman with florid cheeks peered into my eyes, the skin on his heavy brow crumpling with concern, and a gray-haired woman wearing only a nightgown knelt at my side. She fussed over me, inspecting me for wounds. She turned to lift my skirt and I gasped in horror. One side of her face was red and puckered, the skin resembled half-cooked meat. She’d been burned to death.

“No obvious wounds,” she said, apparently unconcerned by my ill-mannered reaction. I ought to have been more prepared—I’d had a lot of experience with the dead, after all—but I was out of sorts. It seemed death could muddle one’s thoughts.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the man said. Did he mean me? “Do you hear me?” he shouted.

I winced and the girl jumped in alarm.

“Of course she can hear you,” the woman said, her voice as brittle as a dried leaf. “She’s dead, not deaf.”

“She should be in the Waiting Area.”

“Are you sure?” the little girl asked.

“About what?”

“That she’s dead. She seems so…alive.” She was still studying my hair, letting it cascade through her fingers, her big eyes intent on the strands. She suddenly stopped and sniffed it. “She doesn’t smell dead.”

Please don’t make me be dead.

I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out. The ghosts were checking me over once again for signs of injury or illness. Surely they should be able to see that I’d been sick. The fever ought to be evident in my eyes and the color of my cheeks. I’d seen people who’d died from fevers before. Their faces were perpetually damp and hot, the skin beneath their eyes bruised.

The woman was lifting my skirt again, and the gentleman was joining her to have a look. I struggled to sit up and push my skirt down, but I couldn’t seem to manage even that.

“Leave her.” The commanding voice sent the ghosts scattering to the corners of the bedroom.

I turned my head on the pillow and a breath escaped my lips in a wheeze. It rattled in my chest, yet it was definitely a breath. Perhaps I wasn’t dead. Please, God, I don’t want to die.

I would have prayed harder, but I was distracted by the bare-chested man in my bedroom. The last man I’d seen in such a state had been in spirit form. He’d died in a mine collapse. His body had been nothing like that of the fellow who stood by the door, however, arms crossed over a magnificently muscular chest just above a stomach ridged with yet more muscle. Did his arms bulge like that because of the pose or were they honed to masculine perfection from physical use? My sister-in-law, Celia, would suffer an attack of hysteria if she knew I was gazing upon a man’s bare skin. In my defense, I couldn’t very well not look. He was, after all, standing right there.

Ordinarily ghosts were a little smudged at the edges as if they were disappearing into a mist, but the large half-naked man was as fully realized as I was. Yet I didn’t think he was human either. What kind of fellow walked around in nothing but a pair of tight leather pants with a sword strapped to his hip? Certainly no Englishman would be so indecent.

I dragged my gaze from his chest, up his broad shoulders to his face. Another wheezing gasp escaped from my heavy chest. I must be dead. Surely this was some sort of angel come to take me away. No mere human could be so handsome. Dark hair framed smooth skin stretched over bold cheekbones and jaw. His face was saved from being too angular by the ends of his hair curling at his ears and nape, and the curve of his mouth. His lips were set firmly together as he studied me through a pair of eyes the same shade of blue-green as the ocean I’d crossed mere months before.

Could the afterlife really be filled with half-naked, handsome men like him? Celia would not be happy to learn that.

I giggled. Then suddenly the man and the ghosts were gone and I was once more back in the guest bedroom of Frakingham House with Sylvia Langley at my bedside. Her huge blue eyes were filled with tears and her nose was about to drip. She pressed a blessedly cool, damp cloth against my forehead.

“Oh, Cara.” The tears wobbled on the edge of her eyelids, but didn’t spill. “I thought I’d lost you that time.”

I tore my gaze away from her face to search the room for my angel. It wasn’t easy. My eyeballs felt like they were on fire, much like the rest of me, and my neck ached. A crack of light between the edges of the drawn curtains told me it was daytime, yet candles burned on the mantel and a low fire glowed all shades of orange in the grate. The smoke didn’t hide the pungent scent of illness.

“Here, try some soup.” She held out a bowl and spoon, her expression one of hope and urgency.

“I’m not hungry.” I could barely manage a whisper and certainly not a smile of thanks.

“You have to eat. Dr. Gowan said so.”

“The doctor was here?” I didn’t recall being poked and prodded.

“Yesterday morning. He’ll return today.” She held up the spoon. A drop of thick white soup splashed back into the bowl. “Cara, I’m going to send a telegram to Emily if the doctor tells me there’s been no improvement. And believe me, I don’t see any improvement. If you don’t eat…”

Sweet, demure Sylvia had quite a backbone when she set her mind to it. I sipped the soup. It wasn’t hot and had little taste, but it stayed down, unlike the piece of toast I’d nibbled last time. “How long have I been lying here?”

“Four days.”

Four! Good lord. I must have been unconscious most of that time. I remembered little. “Am I the only ill one in the house?”

She nodded and I closed my eyes in relief. It would seem I wasn’t contagious. “Samuel and Charity have returned to London permanently and Bollard came home two days ago.” Her features relaxed upon mentioning her uncle’s friend, servant and laboratory assistant. Bollard the mute had been banished from Frakingham by August Langley, but it would seem their disagreement had been resolved and he’d been welcomed home again.

I consumed more soup, but could not finish the bowl, and she set it aside. “I would still like to contact Emily,” she said.

“Please wait. She’ll only worry and I seem to be improving.” I pushed up into a sitting position to prove it. My head swam and my limbs complained, but I managed it. My niece, Emily Beaufort, was seven years older than me and had her own family to care for. I didn’t want to burden her unless absolutely necessary. “What does Dr. Gowan think is wrong with me?”

Sylvia fluffed up the pillows at my back, her blonde curls bouncing at her temples in time with her movement. “He says it’s a fever.”

“Brought on by what?”

She shrugged. “He doesn’t know. He asked me if there was something in particular you were doing when you first became ill, but I couldn’t think of anything. Can you?”

I frowned down at my hands in my lap. They were unusually pale, or as pale as my hands could ever be. My complexion was what polite people called exotic and the not-so-polite labeled dirty. My father was a Frenchman of African descent, and it was through him that I’d inherited both my coloring and my ability to see spirits. Emily too, since he was her grandfather. We were genuine mediums in a country overrun by fakes, but no longer advertised that fact.

“I was down at the ruins when I first felt ill,” I said, referring to Frakingham Abbey ruins situated on the edge of the lake just visible from my bedroom window. “It was the day we uncovered the bones of Garrett and Owens and I saw the spirit of Garrett.”

“I remember,” Sylvia said with a shudder. “But no one else fell ill and I was there, as were Charity and Mr. Myer.”

I’d been trying to converse with the spirit of Mr. Garrett but it had been nearly impossible to get any sense out of him, mad as he was. He’d been angry with Myer and shouted at him. He’d spoken ancient words in verse form, as if he were cursing him.

No. Oh no.

Had he cursed me instead? Was I under some sort of supernatural illness and not a physical one? If so, Dr. Gowan couldn’t cure me.

“It’s impossible to say what caused this,” I said lightly in an attempt to remove the frown lines from Sylvia’s pretty face. “But I seem to be improving.” There was no point in letting her think I was worsening. I was, after all, awake. That had to be a good thing, despite the dull ache pulsing through my body and the pain in my chest.

She smiled. “Indeed you are looking a little like your old self again. Now, I’m going to take these down to the kitchen and bring back fresh water.”

I returned her smile and sank down beneath the covers again with a sigh of relief. Holding myself upright was exhausting. I watched her leave then closed my eyelids. They felt heavy. Everything inside me felt heavy, and cold. I shivered and tried to snuggle deeper into the blankets, but it wasn’t enough. A chill settled under my skin and seeped into my bones. The click clack of my chattering teeth was the only sound in the room.

And then it wasn’t. The ghosts were back and their whispers seemed to surround me.

“…shouldn’t be here,” the man was saying.

“Go back,” the woman said, shooing me with her gnarled hand, crippled from the fire.

The little girl suddenly appeared at my side, bending over me. She kissed my lips. Her mouth was cool and damp like mist. “Poor you. Cursed for all eternity.”

“Cursed?” I murmured. My heart sounded a single, thundering beat in my chest. “What do you mean?”

“Leave her.” That low, masculine voice again had me turning toward it. My angel stood in the same position, arms still crossed over his chest, as if he hadn’t moved since my last…visit.

“Am I dead?” I whispered.

“Not quite.” He had an accent, but I couldn’t place it. It was similar to my father’s French one, yet different too. A little harsher perhaps. I would need to hear him say more to place it.

“The ghosts said I’m cursed.”

He nodded and lowered his arms. His right hung close to his side, but his left had to contend with the sword at his hip. It was the most enormous sword I’d ever seen, the tip almost reaching to the floor, and the man was very tall. If it were mounted on the wall, it would likely pull off the plaster it was so heavy looking. He approached the bed. He didn’t so much walk across the floor as prowl.

I should have felt afraid to have a big, armed, half-naked man in my bedroom, but I wasn’t. I felt safe with him there, as if he were protecting me.

“Are you my guardian angel?” I asked, tilting my head to follow him as he drew close to the bed.

One corner of his mouth lifted in amusement. “I’m a warrior.”

Warrior. I frowned, trying to recall why that term seemed so familiar. Through the fog of fever I could just remember the spirit of an old monk telling me that a supernatural warrior had once been summoned at the abbey ruins when a group of demons escaped in the sixteenth century. He hadn’t been seen since. If this were he, then he was older than he looked. And fiercer. Demons were strong creatures and the warrior had battled many of them to send them back to their realm.

“What are you doing in my bedroom?” I asked.

His blue-green gaze flicked over my face then did it again, slower. It lingered on my mouth and finally returned to my eyes. They focused with an intensity that had my already warm cheeks flaming.

“It is not your time,” he said. “This curse was not meant for you.” I did like the way his harsher tones blended with the lilting French ones, yet it sounded odd too. A slightly maniacal laugh bubbled out. “You find it amusing to be cursed?”

“No!” My voice squeaked. I cleared my throat. “No, of course not. I want to know more. Tell me how to break it. Do I need to speak a counter-curse?”

He nodded. “There is an ancient book. You will find the words in there.”

“I know the one. It’s been quite the topic of conversation around here.” The spirit of the monk had mentioned it and Myer desperately wanted it. “No one knows where the book is now. We have a page torn from it, though, with three spells on it.”

“Which ones?”

“The incantation to open the portal down at the abbey, another to close it, and one that summons you, the warrior. You were last here over three hundred years ago.” It seemed absurd to be talking to a supernatural creature as if he were a house guest. I was used to conversing with ghosts, but he was something else entirely. “At least, I assume it was you.”

“It was. I sent back the beasts.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if he battled packs of demons all the time. Perhaps he did.

“Is it a problem that we don’t have the book?” I asked.

He gave a single, curt nod. “You cannot survive without speaking the counter-curse within its pages.”

My heart sank. My blood trickled like ice through my veins. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my rough breathing. It was time for Sylvia to contact Emily. It was time for me to tell her goodbye and have her pass on my love to my brother and Celia all the way across the ocean in Melbourne. That book was gone. People had been searching for it for a long time. My family and friends could spend a lifetime looking for it and never find it. And I didn’t have a lifetime. I had, perhaps, hours.

“We must search for it.”

I opened my eyes and was struck once again by the beauty and strength in his face. If he were present in the afterlife, it might not be too difficult to endure. “What do you mean? For one thing, I’m too ill to search for anything, and for another, you’re…wherever you are.”

“I’m in spirit form, but this is not my natural state…or home.” His hesitation wasn’t lost one me. It would seem he didn’t think of his place of residence as his home. “You can only see me because you’re a medium, but you’re not dead. Yet.”

“That’s a relief.”

“You have the words to summon me,” he said. “Speak them and I will come to you in your realm.”

“You can’t come if I don’t?”

“No.”

“Where is your home?”

“In between.”

“So it’s another realm?”

His nostrils flared and the fingers of his sword hand curled into a ball. “It’s in between. When we’re together in your realm, you’ll be strong again.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

“I am the warrior,” he said with gentle patience I hadn’t expected from such a formidable looking man. “I battle demons here, and I can also lend you my strength. But I must be by your side, always, or you’ll become ill again.”

“Do you mean I will be able to walk around and feel entirely well if I summon you?”

“Aye. As long as we are together, my strength is your strength. You will feel well.”

“Oh. That sounds marvelous.” Being near this magnificent man and being well again seemed too good to be true. “We can search for the book together.”

He nodded. “Summon me, Cara, and I will come.” He said my name in the French way with an emphasis on the last vowel and a purring of the R. I liked it very much. “I can only come if you call me.”

I smiled up at him, but he was suddenly gone. The ghosts too. Sylvia, however, was once more by my side. She was in tears, but they stopped upon seeing me.

“You’re awake! I thought…oh, Cara, I thought…”

“That I was dead?”

Her bottom lip trembled. “I came back and you were asleep again, but so terribly hot. Hotter than last time. You were muttering something too. Something about a book. Do you want me to read to you?”

“No.” I licked dry lips and she helped me take a sip of water. “The parchment, Sylvia. Fetch it.”

She blinked slowly. “The one with the spells?”

I nodded, but even that act exhausted me. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. It hurt to fill my lungs, but I knew I had to do it. The air squeezed into my chest and rattled around like a baby’s toy. “Please,” I whispered.

Clearly Sylvia had been exposed to a great many supernatural events recently because she didn’t argue. If someone had asked me to retrieve a page of supernatural spells that had strangely come into my possession I would have fired off a hundred questions first.

She hurried out of the room and I waited. She seemed to be back in an instant and I wondered if I’d drifted into unconsciousness during her absence. There wasn’t much time left. Every breath took enormous effort, as if someone was pressing down on my chest, trying to stop the air from getting in. My mouth was dry, my tongue thick and gluey.

“You’re so hot.” She pressed a cool cloth to my forehead and blinked watery eyes back at me. There was real fear in them.

“The spell?” I whispered.

She unrolled the parchment and held it up for me to see. “Cara, I don’t understand. Opening the portal is terribly dangerous.”

“No portal. Summon…warrior.”

“Oh! I see. But are you sure there’s nothing to fear? I mean, we know nothing about such a creature. What if he’s as dangerous as the demons?”

“He’s not.” I didn’t have the energy to reassure her more than that. The blood in my veins slowed to a sluggish crawl and I felt so terribly cold. There wasn’t much time left. I shivered and she settled another blanket over me, tucking it tightly around me.

She began to read the words on the parchment.

“No. I must…”

She held the page up so I could see it and I began to read. The words were old fashioned and the text written in a flowing script, making it a difficult task. But at least it was a form of English. Still, I struggled to say the words aloud. Every syllable cost me a breath I could ill afford to expend. I only hoped the pauses between each one didn’t hinder the spell.

As soon as I uttered the last word, I felt the air in the room shift although all windows and doors were closed. I looked to the spot where I’d seen the warrior in my unconscious state and smiled at the figure standing there, arms crossed over bare chest, handsome face pinched with worry, and his intense blue-green gaze on me. The moment I saw him, I felt better, healthier. The pressure on my chest eased and I drew in a deep, quiet, breath. The fog in my head dissipated and my skin no longer felt like it was burning up while the blood froze in my veins. I sat up and my smile broadened.

He nodded with satisfaction, his jaw softening with relief. “I am here,” he announced.

Sylvia screamed and collapsed on the bed in a dead faint.

C.J. Archer is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for this website to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.