Haunted Holidays

Sexy contemporary love stories with a Gothic twist.

ghosts of christmas past by jessica aspen

Ghosts of Christmas Past

A Haunted Holidays Novel

Jen MacNamara flees the Christmas wedding of her best friend and cheating fiancé and runs to the country to spend the holiday alone. It’s the perfect plan, until her unexpectedly sexy neighbor and landlord, Nate Pierce, insists on bringing the holiday to her—complete with a Christmas tree, hot chocolate, and an unexpected kiss. 

And that’s not Jen’s only problem.

 The cozy country farmhouse is already occupied by something evil. Now Jen’s nights are spent wrapped in sensual dreams of a past life, and her days growing closer to Nate as they solve the mystery of the malevolent ghost that haunts not only the house, but also wants Jen dead.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

chapter one

No footprints, no body, no woman…nor any sign there’d ever been one.

Her body shaking, Jen got out of the small rental car and looked again. Frigid air caught in her lungs and, for a moment, she suffocated on her own breath.

Then she exhaled. And it was okay. She could breathe again.

A chilly gust of wind blew snow down the empty road. She walked back a few feet and searched the unmarked snow crowded close under the dense brush and trees of the road’s shoulders, but couldn’t find anything. Unable to get warm she pulled her wool coat close around her, checking the steep ditches again, and again, making absolutely sure that there was no body, bleeding and tossed to the side. Or buried in the snow.

There wasn’t. Her expensive leather boots soaking wet, she stumbled back into the car. With numb fingers she turned on the heat, reclined the seat and closed her eyes. Took a moment, just to breathe.

There hadn’t been a woman, wide-eyed, white-skinned, and dripping with mud, standing in the middle of the slick, snow-covered road. It was just her nerves.

But it had been so real.

She went back through it. She’d been driving down the narrow road, heading deeper into the tangled bare branches of winter New England. She’d risked a glance at the overcast sky. Only mid-afternoon, but the heavy cloud cover and tall trees pressing in from the sides made it seem like nighttime was approaching fast.

And then, she’d looked back at the road. A woman in a long, dark dress stood dead center in the curve.

Jen screamed and turned the wheel, pushing her right foot down hard on the brake. The tires shrieked, and the car skidded, the end fishtailing around and spinning in a 360 turn.

She hung on. Trees flew by in a blur and she caught a vague impression of a frightened face.

The car slowed its spin. Her heart pounded in her throat, scratching and clawing in a race to get her somewhere, anywhere but strapped into the seat of a car she barely knew how to drive.

“Holy crap!” She turned her head from side to side, frantic and searching the empty snow-covered road.

“Turn right, now,” the smooth voice of the GPS interrupted. The car slid way too close to the gravel edge before reaching a shuddering stop.

“You are missing your turn. Turn right, now.”

Jen slammed her fist onto the dashboard. “If I turn now I’ll be stuck in the ditch.” She shook her aching hand and unbuckled her seat belt.

“You are missing your turn. Turn right, now.”

“Shut up,” she said and turned off the car. She got out. “Hello?” Her whole body quivered, adrenaline shaking her already shot nerves. “Are you hurt?”

But no one had answered.

Eyes back open, the shaking almost gone, she moved the seat back in the upright position and took a last look at the side of the road. In case she’d been wrong and there really was someone there. She’d been right, it was her over-stimulated nervous system. Not unexpected given the last few months, and especially the stress of the last week. She needed more sleep.

It was good she’d stopped, she was lost anyway. There was no right turn anywhere in sight and her GPS clearly thought there should be.

She grabbed her binder and flipped to the correct tab, sorting through the carefully constructed file of downloaded instructions the real estate agent had sent her. She had them on her laptop and her phone, but she’d printed everything out—just in case.

This was the boonies, miles away from Boston, and she’d planned every step of her first vacation by herself. Just as she’d planned every detail of her now non-existent wedding down to the customized candies she’d had to have re-printed. Lately it seemed like everything she touched fell apart. Even her vacation was going to hell and she hadn’t even gotten to her first night. She might as well face it, her life sucked.

“You have stopped in the wrong location. Back up fifteen feet and turn right.”

“Grrr.” Jen barred her teeth at the GPS and scanned her printed map. “There’s no right turn there,” she told the screen. “Just more fricking trees! I think I’m lost.”

But it didn’t answer. If her mom were here she’d be telling her, “I told you not to go on this trip. You barely know how to drive.”

Living in Boston she walked or took public transit anywhere she needed to go. Or Jason drove her. This time she was determined to drive herself, but the car had been a challenge and the snow a disaster.

Just once, couldn’t the woman get it wrong?

Jen peered at the mileage counter she’d set when she’d turned left at the last turn. If the GPS was right, this was the spot.

But it wasn’t. It was a dense tangle of pine trees and barren black shrubs. Not the rural sanctuary she was now twenty minutes late in finding. She read the careful instructions from the realtor, Mrs. Castlebury.

Turn left and drive ten point two miles, you’ll drive over the bridge and see the house on the right. It’s the first house on the drive. I’ll meet you at 2 pm, sharp.

She sagged in her seat. She was beat. The GPS and the map both showed her she was incapable of doing something so simple as taking a vacation on her own and she wanted to scream in frustration that her mom would be pleased.

The little message envelope on her phone blinked at her. Even though she didn’t want to do it she called in and listened to five messages from her mother. Every one of them telling her to get back to Boston. That she was crazy to be driving up to the country on her own in the middle of December. Every one of them telling her she should be going to the wedding, causing a ruckus, and begging Jason to take her back.

But those weren’t the worst messages.

Her pulse throbbed in her temple.

The worst ones were from her best friend, Samantha. She deleted them after listening to the first one and instead dug through the binder for Mrs. Castlebury’s phone number. She’d have to call the realtor and admit she was lost. She dialed the number. Before she could hit send the phone rang and her finger automatically picked it up. “Hello?”

“Jen? Thank God!” Samantha’s upper-class Bostonian accent cut into the car’s quiet. Jen clenched the phone and hung on through Sam’s frantic spew of words. “Where are you? The dress shop called. Why haven’t you picked up your maid-of-honor dress? Susan said you’d called and told her she’d have to handle the bachelorette party. What’s up?”

“I…”

“I need you! You’ve planned everything. Jason and I are depending on you to run the wedding for us.”

Yes they were. Her best friend and her ex-fiancé had somehow taken over all the reservations and plans for the perfect Christmas wedding. The wedding she’d planned for herself and Jason. The wedding it had taken her two years to set up, with the best church, reception hall, and caterer. The wedding where she was supposed to be the bride and Jason was supposed to be the groom.

She’d done her best to keep it all inside, but it burned.

Samantha kept talking, as if Jen were listening. “Where are you, anyway? I called your mom and she said you were driving to Timbuktu.”

She was escaping. That’s what she was doing. For the first time in her life she was standing up for herself. Okay, she was running away. But what she wasn’t doing was hosting any parties. Or overseeing a wedding that should have been hers, but instead belonged to two cheaters.

Tears welled up and she pressed her eyelids down in an attempt to keep the moisture stuffed inside, where it belonged.

“Jen? Are you there? Your mom’s worried about you.”

“She thinks anything outside of Boston is the end of the world,” Jen choked out.

“Are you crying?”

“No.”

“It sounds like you’re crying. I thought you were okay with this. You told me you were going to dump Jason anyway. You told me that he and I were perfect for each other.”

“You are,” she said.

And they were. Two backstabbing social snobs who wanted nothing more than to make money and spend it. They were perfect for each other.

“Jen?”

“Listen, I’m fine. But I’m not going to be there. Susan is taking care of everything.”

Thank God for Susan’s understanding. She’d helped Jen make the plan, and pushed her to execute it.

“You’re breaking up,” she lied to Sam, faking the crackling noises like they did on TV. “I don’t think there’ll be any reception where I’ll be. Have a great time, and congratulations.”

She hung up before Sam could get out another word. The rush of tears broke loose, pouring down her face.

She didn’t even know why she was crying. Jason hadn’t loved her and she hadn’t loved Jason. She wasn’t even sure why Samantha was her best friend, except they’d always been that way. Like everything else in Jen’s boring, follow-the-rules life she’d just gone with the flow. And it had worked. She’d had a fiancé, a wedding, a plan.

Until she’d found Jason and Sam in bed together.

Now, here she was, barely six months out of college with nothing. No wedding. No future. No plan. Her tiny job at the tiny historical museum, the job that was perfect for a rich man’s wife, would never support her in Boston. All her friends were Sam and Jason’s friends. Her whole life was now Sam and Jason’s life. She was lost, spun out on the side of a country road, seeing things. And even the GPS knew she was a loser.

Well, she’d prove the stupid technology wrong. She’d prove everyone wrong. Jen wiped her tears and searched her directory for Mrs. Castlebury’s number. She’d call for directions. Her finger hovered over the little green icon.

Her mom’s voice rang in her head, telling her she should just admit it: all women were better off with a strong, rich man to take care of them and she wasn’t any different. She couldn’t even drive a few hours away from the city by herself.

Lifting her chin she tossed the phone into the passenger seat and started the car back up.

She didn’t need any stupid directions. She could do this. Her mother, her ex-fiancé, Sam, everyone back in Boston thought she was nothing on her own. And if she gave up now she might as well turn around and admit they were right.

“You have passed your destination. You may be lost.”

“Oh, shut up!” Jen jabbed at the GPS, and shut the thing off. “I may be lost, but I’m not giving up.”

She refused to turn tail and run back to Boston—where her life was a mess and everyone knew it. She’d stay here on her own and do what she wanted to do. And while she was at it, she would prove to everyone that she didn’t need a man to survive.

Maybe she’d even prove it to herself.

***

Nate Pierce stared at his brothers as they pulled the plug on his dreams.

“We’re done, Nate.” Atticus leaned on the old wooden desk that had been their grandfather’s. With his fingers laced together and stuck with a nose that the Pierce family had carried proudly for generations, he even looked like the old man.

If the old man had had a full head of hair.

Atticus’s fraternal twin Ethan nodded from his position propped up on the wall next to the filing cabinets. “We’re pulling out, bro.” Always active, with too much energy sparking in his blue eyes, Ethan was so wired he couldn’t even sit down to chew Nate out.  “It’s time to sell the houses and pay us back.”

Pressure drummed in Nate’s ears. He stood up fast. “What the hell?” His metal folding chair clattered to the old wooden floor of the second story office, nearly hitting his dog, who scuttled out of the way. “You can’t pull out, there’s still three years on the loan. I’ll be left with nothing.”

“The loan is for five years with payments.” Atticus leaned over the desk and stabbed his finger at the papers scattered on the old blotter. “You haven’t made a payment since September, when the last tenants in the old family farm moved out. And, let’s face it, the payments before that were…sporadic.”

At nineteen, wide-eyed and crazy in lust, he’d dropped out of college and sold his brothers his share of Pierce Hardware. Instead of cash, he’d taken his share of the money in property; his family’s old farmhouse and the big Queen Anne up the hill that no one had lived in for thirty years. It had been a risk. It had been a huge opportunity. It had been a rush.

Now, at twenty-two he felt ancient. He was divorced, working two jobs, and up to his ears in renovations and debt.

The big Queen Anne sucked more of his blood, sweat, and time than his ex-wife ever had, and it seemed like it would never be finished. But it would be. Even if it killed him. He was making progress and when he sold the white elephant to some rich Bostonian he would make it all back and then they’d see. He’d have money to pay his brothers for the tide-me-over loans. Money that would make what he’d gotten from his share of the Pierce Hardware look small. He’d be rich.

If he could keep the old family homestead rented and his brothers off his back.

“Look, we tried. You tried.” At twenty-five, Atticus wasn’t much older than he was but he sighed with the weight of some middle-aged dude. “We told you that taking on something like this at nineteen was crazy, but did you listen?”

No, he hadn’t listened. He didn’t want to listen now. They’d always thought he’d been too young for everything. Too young to go to bars with them, too young to get married, too young to quit college and get a job.

“And then you fucked it up even more and married the bitch.” Ethan shook his head. He and Atticus exchanged condescending looks.

The back of Nate’s neck burned.

“Screw you, you’re only two years older than me. What the hell makes you two more responsible than me? It sure isn’t age.”

“We keep our dicks and our business separate, bro.”

Atticus shot Ethan a warning glance, then his attention switched back to Nate. “You were too caught up in whatever the hell Cherry wanted to know what you were doing. It’s time to grow up, sell the house, and pay us back.”

“Sell both houses,” Ethan added. “The big unfinished one on the hill and the old farm you can’t seem to get rented.”

“You want me to sell the old farm?” Nate couldn’t believe it. He shook his head. “We grew up there. Who’s going to buy it, some stranger?”

“Aren’t renters strangers?” Ethan snorted. “Not that you have anyone renting it.”

“I told you, I’m having trouble getting anyone new in there. I know it’s the wrong time of year, but I’ve got a new plan. I’m switching over to holiday rentals instead of yearly ones.”

“Your new plan sucks!” Ethan exploded, crossing the room and getting too close. Molly whined and pressed in between them. “You didn’t have anyone in there over the fall and everyone knows that’s high tourist time up here. Who’s going to come up to Applesett, Massachusetts in the middle of December?”

Nate resisted the urge to pop the “I’m so right, and you’re totally wrong” expression off of his brother’s face. Hitting Ethan would not convince him or Atticus their little brother was responsible and grown up. No matter how satisfying it would be to slam his fist into Ethan’s mug.

He took a step back instead, nearly tripping over Molly. The black lab whined and scooted over. “I have a tenant,” he said. “She’s driving up right now. Oh, shit.” He pulled out his phone and checked for messages.

“Gotta go. I’m late.” He shoved the phone in his jacket pocket and whistled for the dog. “I’m supposed to be meeting at the house to welcome my new guest.”

“You’re killing yourself to keep this house,” Atticus stood up and came out from around the desk to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ethan. Like they always had. “Working two jobs and doing all the renovations yourself. Fuck it, Nate, you’re only twenty-two. You should be out having fun. At your age I was balling everything I could and having a blast. Hell, Ethan still is.” He jerked his head in his twin’s direction.

Ethan snorted and gave his twin a high five.

“Why are you so stubborn?” Atticus asked. “Do you have to lose everything just because you need to prove to that bitch Cherry you’re good enough? She’s gone and she never cared anyway.”

The pity in his brother’s eyes drove Nate’s anger to boiling.

He ground his jaws together. If he didn’t get out now he was going to hit one, or both of them, and lose whatever ground he had. “Gotta go.” He righted his folding chair and backed toward the door. “I’ll have some money to you as soon as my renter’s card clears. It’ll catch me up.”

Ethan whistled. “Man, that must be some holiday rental you’re charging. Hope you can get more renters at those rates.”

Nate flipped him off and yanked open the door. “See ya.”

“Nate,” Atticus called. “Catching up isn’t enough. We need to know you’ll be able to keep it rented, and we all know you can’t.”

Nate hunched his shoulders and left without responding, Molly stuck to his heels. He pounded down the back stairs to the employee parking lot and hit the outside door hard.

He paused next to his truck and swallowed down his anger and fear. Fear that they could make him sell the houses and he’d be left with nothing but their pity. He’d done all this work for himself, for his future, hadn’t he? But somewhere in the back of his heart, he knew, he’d done it to show his brothers he wasn’t a screw-up. If he failed at this he’d lose any respect they had for him. And out of all of his losses, he didn’t know if he could take that one.

He hoped to God they were wrong. If the renter from Boston liked the house she’d tell all of her rich friends and he might just be able to dig himself out of debt. He’d done everything he could to make the old farmhouse livable. It had a new master suite, new downstairs powder room, new curtains. And even though he wasn’t religious and didn’t believe in any of this shit, he’d even had a priest in to bless the house and get rid of the ghost.

 

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