When you’ve begun to suspect your new home is haunted, and your crazy, rock-musician house guests are getting out of hand in ways you don’t even want to think about, the last person you’d choose to welcome to the party would be your mother.
Roxy May, who’d have been happier to see the police on her doorstep, let out a groan as she took in the bedraggled figure standing in the pouring rain, lit only by the pale glow of the hall lamp from the house. It was like looking at a mournful ghost. Another ghost.
Sinead O’Brien was dressed for comfort rather than elegance, in trousers, sweater, and tennis shoes, but even in the few short yards from her car to the front door, the driving rain had soaked her. Her dyed strawberry-blonde hair was plastered to her still attractive face, dripping mascara-laden water down her cheeks and nose and neck. Although it would have made a poor glamour shot for her acting career, she seemed to have made every effort to look as pitiable as possible.
Roxy was not impressed.
“Holy Mother, Mother, what the hell are you doing here?” she exclaimed.
Her mother scowled. “I’ll thank you not to swear, Roxanne, and I could ask you exactly the same question. If you want to live in a pigsty in a bog, what’s wrong with Ireland?”
It’s got you in it. Roxy didn’t say the words aloud, merely held the door wide to let the bedraggled person of Sinead O’Brien over the threshold.
“It’s not a pigsty or a bog, and I wish you’d phone first,” Roxy said as she closed the door. “This isn’t a good time. I’ve got friends staying.”
“Friends who’re too good for your old mother?” Sinead snorted. For the first time, she appeared to take in the loud music, the shouts of laughter and raised voices blasting from the big room on the right. Her lip curled. “Having a party?”
“Sort of. It’s not outlawed, and we’re hardly disturbing the neighbours.” Only because there weren’t any for five miles. “There’s a pub in the village that rents rooms—you’ll get more sleep there.”
Sinead’s lips turned down, but her eyes spat. “I am not staying at a pub when my daughter has a huge house right here! Do I have to make myself a cup of tea?”
Inevitably, Mike chose that moment to slouch into the hall. Dressed all in black with long black hair and beard, he looked incredibly dramatic and sexy. The visible pale patches of skin on his face seemed to shine in the dim light, lending him a weird, supernatural appearance which fitted in this house just fine.
“Who drinks tea at a party?” he asked, draping his arm around Roxy’s shoulders in a possessive manner that was more annoying than comforting.
“My mother does,” she said dryly, pulling away from him. “Mike—Sinead. Mother—Mike. This way, Mother, come on. I’ll get your stuff in from the car while you dry out.”
The sound of Mike’s laughter followed them down the hall to the back of the house. “Who the devil’s he?” Sinead demanded. “Your latest so-called boyfriend?”
“My latest ex,” Roxy said wryly.
“Then what’s he doing here?”
“Visiting. He’s a friend, okay? I don’t feel the need to turn my back on everyone who’s ever disappointed me.”
“If that was aimed at me, Roxanne—”
“I’m not going to fight with you,” Roxy said determinedly, striding across the kitchen to fill the kettle. “Sit down.”
“It’s warm in here,” Sinead observed.
“Good God, Mother, was that approval?”
“Appreciation,” Sinead retorted. Roxy felt her penetrating gaze as she put the kettle on and got out the teapot.
What the hell was her mother thinking of, turning up here without warning at this hour of the night? Hoping to catch her out in some misdeed, no doubt. That wouldn’t be so unusual, but Sinead, an actress by trade, seemed to be experimenting with a new technique of mournfulness. Her large eyes looked almost liquid with sadness and some mysterious, unspoken plea. Roxy was damned if she’d fall for that.
Sinead sighed and stuck with what she knew. “You’re too thin. Too much drink and drugs and not enough good food. You need a good man to look after you, not some jerk of a rock star. Pity Adam died. I liked him.”
Roxy groaned aloud. Where did she even start? She didn’t want to talk about Adam to her mother. It was too complicated, and somewhere his loss still hurt. Besides, her mother had had absolutely no time for him either until he’d dumped Roxy.
“Adam isn’t dead,” Roxy muttered. “That was a mistake in the newspaper. And anyway, you know very well we split up before I even went to America last year.”
Her mother caught her eye. “I thought he was the reason you chose to buy a house in Scotland.”
“Hardly. Adam’s with someone else now. I like her, and he’s happy.”
“Everything’s working out great for me. Milk’s in the fridge.”
“That why you bought a house in the middle of nowhere?”
“Yup,” Roxy said, splashing boiling water into the teapot with unnecessary force. “I like the house. It has character and atmosphere.”
“And a monstrous list of urgent repairs.” Sinead shivered and glanced over her shoulder. “Plus, I’ll bet you anything it’s haunted.”
Roxy glanced up at her. Sinead thought lots of places were haunted. “You might be right there,” she agreed, just as Helen, her friend and promoter, wandered into the kitchen.
“Hello, Sinead, how are you?” Helen said with her usual, easy charm.
While Sinead thawed under Helen’s friendliness, Roxy extracted her mother’s car keys and went out to collect whatever mountain of luggage she could carry. If she made up the bed on the top floor at the back of the house, maybe the racket from down here would be less disturbing.
Or she could just throw out Mike and his friends. Despite the fact they’d no transport until their van came to pick them up again on Monday. Maybe they should stay at the village pub. The vision of them turning up in that modest and old-fashioned establishment drew a rueful smile from Roxy.
Truthfully, Mike wasn’t half so much fun as he’d been in America, and neither was the rest of his band. Grimm and the Reapers were a talented and exciting rock outfit who, after years of gathering a devoted cult following, were finally getting some serious notice in the States and were now about to dip their toe into a major European tour. Roxy had sung with them a couple of times during her own American tour, and a whirlwind romance with guitarist and front man Mike had left her with fond memories of them. Which was why, when she’d heard they were in the UK, she’d asked them to help warm her new house this weekend. Helen had plans for them to do a show together.
Only they’d arrived pissed and proceeded to get stoned on stuff Roxy didn’t want to know about let alone try, and talked a lot of vaguely distasteful bollocks. Plus Mike seemed to think the invitation to her house included her pants. Truth was, when she’d first asked him, she wouldn’t have minded. But certainly not tonight, when he was being an arse and her mother was here…
She stuck her head round the door. Dread, the drummer, was drawing a huge shape on her wooden floor in chalk, and Mike and Levi were laughing. Dread’s girlfriend, Fiona, was between Mike and the bassist, Matt, holding their hands with her eyes closed. No wonder Helen had left them to it.
As Roxy closed the door on them, she heard Mike’s voice raised over the loud, thudding rock music in some weird chant. Rehearsing for a new part of his show, maybe.
Roxy closed the door, shutting out as much as she could. As she turned toward the front door, she imagined she saw a shadow on the stairs. Her heart lurched, and she spun to face it, but just as earlier in the evening, there was nothing there. And yet for some reason, her spine tingled. Although she generally discounted Sinead’s frequent claims to feel the presence of ghosts, in this house, Roxy thought she might just break the habit of a lifetime and agree with her mother. She pulled on a raincoat with a hood and headed outside.
Sinead never travelled light. The trick was to bring into the house only what she needed for the night and the morning, never so much that she took it as an invitation to stay. If Roxy put up with her for tonight, she’d find out tomorrow what she wanted, which was, no doubt, to break the news of her most recent engagement. Roxy would pretend to be fine about that, thus banishing the manipulative sadness from her mother’s expression—although in actuality, Roxy saw no reason why her mother should marry every man she had a fling with.
By lunchtime, hopefully, Roxy would be able to send her mother on to Glasgow or Edinburgh or London—or preferably back to Ireland. It would be the best outcome all round, and worth the extra few minutes rummaging in each of her mother’s bags to find those she really needed.
In this way, with her bottom half hanging out of the car into the rain, Roxy found the vital three bags and hauled them out. By the time she’d dragged them from the car to the house, she felt as sodden as her mother had looked on first arrival. The rock stars did not emerge to help.
Good thing, Roxy reminded herself. She’d spend the night keeping them as separate from her mother as she possibly could. And tomorrow, if they didn’t all bugger off, she would.
When did I become so inhospitable? she wondered. When did it become more fun to hang out with Helen for a weekend than to have wild parties with sexy rock gods?
Feck, am I getting old?
Roxy threw off the dripping coat, walked past the chanting and music blaring from the front room, and dragged her mother’s bags up two flights of stairs to the last available room with a bed in it.
Roxy was no fool. Although drawn to the age and atmosphere of the house, and careless of all the repairs her mother had already spotted were necessary, she hadn’t even considered living in the house until central heating had been installed. As a result, her mother’s room would be cosy and warm. In the depleted linen cupboard across the hall, Roxy found a sheet, a couple of pillows, and a quilt without a cover. It was the best she could do.
She was just tucking in the last corner of the sheet when her mother screamed.
It was a sound Roxy had heard all too often. Her mother screamed with surprise, with rage, with glee, and for effect; and in general, Roxy had learned to ignore it. But something about the pitch of this one seemed to pierce her brain and chill her blood. Especially when it was followed by a loud bang.
Roxy flew out of the room, leapt downstairs, yelling, “Mother?” Helen was bolting along the downstairs hall from the kitchen.
“Where is she?” Roxy shouted.
“She went in there,” Helen said, wrenching open the front room door. As if she’d triggered a switch, the music cut off.
The Reapers and Fiona were sitting in a circle with a five-pointed star drawn roughly around them. Most of their mouths were open in shock. Fiona was blinking rapidly. In the middle, beside a splatter of red on the wooden floor, stood Mike, holding one elegant female shoe in both hands. It looked like something from a fairy tale. Over it, Mike’s eyes met Roxy’s.
“What the fuck?” he said admiringly.
“Where’s my mother?” Roxy demanded.
Mike shrugged. “She disappeared.”
The ringing of the house phone dragged Jilly Kerr out of her comfortable slumber. Before she even opened one bleary eye, she knew that Adam wasn’t in bed with her. The splashing sounds from the bathroom told her exactly where he was. She smiled into the pillow before struggling with the memory of something big, awesome, and scary. Or maybe that was just anxiety caused by the constant ringing of the phone.
It was only just light. Who the hell would phone at this hour on a landline? Jilly hauled herself out of bed, dragged a cast-off shirt of Adam’s around her shoulders to cover her nakedness, and staggered into the hall to find the phone, which kept up its insistent ringing.
“Hello?” she croaked into it.
“Jilly? It’s Roxy.”
Jilly’s stomach clenched. She liked Roxy. She did. But somehow she didn’t like her phoning Adam at six in the morning.
“Hi, Roxy. Adam’s in the shower,” she managed. “I’ll get him to call you back—”
“No, no, it’s you I want to talk to.”
“Me?” Jilly took the phone away from her ear and looked at it as if she’d be able to see Roxy’s face that way. “Why?” she demanded, clamping it back to her ear.
“You know you said you worked for a psychic? She was with you the first time I met you.”
Jilly frowned. “Sera MacBride. Yes.”
“Well, I think I might need her services.” Roxy sounded unprecedentedly embarrassed. On top of anxious.
“Are you okay?” Jilly asked.
“Not really. My mother’s disappeared from my house, and it turns out my other guests were holding a black mass or something when it happened. The police won’t help me, and I’ve no idea where to start looking.”
Jilly could offer no advice there.
Roxy said, “On top of that, the house has been making weird noises all night. Am I insane?”
To be calling on Serafina’s Psychic Investigations for help? Probably. “Where are you?” Jilly asked.
“Up north. Five miles from the village of Loch Foy, near Glencoe.”
“Ah. I’ll talk to Sera and call you back.”
Oddly enough, the relief in Roxy’s voice worried Jilly more than anything else. She’d seen Roxy at a low ebb before, when she’d been grieving for Adam and maybe for what might have been between them. But never at any time had Roxy seemed anything other than self-confident and self-sufficient. To say nothing of talented. And beautiful. Stunningly beautiful. But Jilly wasn’t going there.
She put down the house phone, went back into the bedroom in search of her mobile, and called Sera, her best and oldest friend, and the owner of Serafina’s.
“It’s six o-fucking clock,” Sera grumbled into the phone.
“There, there,” Jilly said without sympathy, and dropping down on the bed, she told Sera about Roxy.
“Black mass?” Sera repeated. “Her mother probably ran screaming from the weirdos.”
“Possibly. But that was last night, and Roxy does sound…upset. Sort of end-of-your-tether upset.”
“Not in character?” Sera asked.
“Not in character.”
“Damn. We’ve got appointments all day, including this police thing, and with Jack away, I need you for that too… I don’t fancy driving up there in the dark, especially if it turns out to be a load of nonsense. Do you think she’d wait until tomorrow? We could both go up then, and it would… Hang on, isn’t Jack’s ancestral pile up in the direction of Glencoe?”
Jack Urquhart, who also worked for Serafina’s, had taken a couple of days off to head up to said ancestral pile on family business. No one talked about it, but everyone knew it was the end for Jack. He was going to be forced, finally, to stop wasting his time at Serafina’s and get a proper, highly paid job of the calibre expected of promising graduates. Or the family would disown him, cut him out of the will, or block his allowance. Or something. Jack rarely talked about his family, and it was Serafina’s policy never to pry.
On the other hand, for more than one reason, Jilly rather liked the idea of interrupting him, although she felt compelled to point out to Sera, “He did take the time off.”
“Didn’t look happy about it, though, did he?” Sera said.
“True,” Jilly agreed.
Adam sauntered into the bedroom, bollock naked apart from a towel, which he’d stretched across his back in a somewhat lazy drying motion. He paused at the sight of her sprawled on the bed in nothing but his gaping shirt. Jilly smiled at him and tried to concentrate on Jack rather than her own suddenly racing heart. Adam had that look in his eye. He had it a lot.
She said to Sera, “They probably want him to stop messing about with us and get a real job. Pity they found out he wasn’t just respectably unemployed.”
“Poor Jack,” Sera said ruefully. Adam dropped the towel and advanced purposefully toward the bed while Sera kept talking in Jilly’s ear. “And poor us, because he will go sooner or later, so we might as well make the most of him. Besides, if I know Jack, he’ll welcome the distraction right now. He can do a quick recce and still move on to the parental residence in plenty of time for cocktails on the patio. Or at least, since we’re talking the Highlands, malt whisky by a roaring fire. I’ll call him.”
“Okay,” Jilly said breathlessly and broke the connection.
Adam sank onto the bed and drew her raised knees against his chest. “Trouble in the psychic world?”
“Trouble in Roxy’s world. Her mum’s disappeared.”
“Roxy’s mum’s always disappearing. And reappearing again at the most inconvenient moments possible.”
“Yes, well, this time she did it in the middle of a black mass, and Roxy is freaked. Not to say worried sick.” She couldn’t prevent the inevitable hint of jealousy at Adam’s sudden frown. He cared for Roxy and always would. But it was Jilly he’d chosen to live with, Jilly he’d chosen against all the odds. And sometimes Jilly still couldn’t believe her luck. Her fairy tale was spiralling out of control, especially since last night.
“Where is she?” Adam asked. “We’d better see what we can do.”
“She’s in her new place up in the Highlands. Sera and I are going to head up there tomorrow, but Jack’s already in the area, so he’ll do a recce today.”
“Jack?” Adam said thoughtfully. Adam liked Jack; but then Adam liked most people. It didn’t mean he’d rely on them.
“I used to think he was an arse,” Jilly said. “Don’t ever tell him this, but he isn’t.”
Adam grinned, and Jilly added, “You’re quite safe to go to London and let us worry about Roxy.”
Adam slid his hands up her thighs and under the shirt. He leaned his forehead against hers. “While I’m gone, will you think about what I said last night?”
Jilly’s heart lurched. “I won’t be able to think of much else. We’ve only known each other three months, Adam.”
“I know. And it honestly doesn’t matter to me when—or even if—we do it. It just seems the right thing at some time. With you.”
Jilly threaded her fingers through his hair. “I love you, you know,” she said shakily, and kissed his lips.
Adam pressed her back into the pillows. “I wonder if I could catch the next flight instead?”
Jack Urquhart had left at the crack of dawn, partly to avoid the rush-hour traffic around Edinburgh and Glasgow, and partly with the vague notion of getting an unpleasant task over with as fast as possible. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see his family, but he didn’t want either to bow to the pressure they were undoubtedly going to put upon him to enter the family firm.
It was his father’s birthday tomorrow. The old man was retiring at last, and he needed someone with the family name to take his place. Someone brighter than Jack’s brother Hamish. Jack sighed and wondered if he could really pig it out.
No. He’d just have to fight and disappoint.
His phone sounded “The Last Post,” and a quick glance told him it was Sera. He answered at once, hands-free. “Sera,” he said hopefully. “Something’s come up and you need me back at the office?”
“Well. Something’s come up and I need you to drop into a house near Loch Foy on your way. House belongs to the rock singer Roxy May—who’s gorgeous, by the way. She says it’s haunted and her mother disappeared during a black mass.”
Jack grinned into the phone. “Sera, I love working for you.”
“I know you do. Go and beat up the Devil for me.”