On a trip to Georgia to see her father, M. J. Holliday finds herself trapped in a haunted mansion and discovers...
THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN—FROM THE DEAD
M.J. has had a distant relationship with her father since her mother died more than two decades ago. But when M.J., her boyfriend, Heath, and BFF, Gilley, take a break from their show, Ghoul Getters, and visit her family home in Valdosta, Georgia, they find Montgomery Holliday a changed man. The source of his happiness seems to be his new fiancée, the charming Christine Bigelow.
But despite the blush of new love, Montgomery and Christine are dealing with a big problem in the form of the antebellum mansion she is having renovated. After a series of strange accidents, the work crew is convinced the place is cursed, and the contractor has walked off the job. At Christine’s request, M.J. and her pals agree to find out if they’re really dealing with some spirited saboteurs and a possessed plantation home.
Release date: January 6, 2015
Print pages: 352
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No Ghouls Allowed
“This is where you grew up?” my boyfriend, Heath, asked me as our van came to a stop.
I stared up at the large plantation home of my childhood and tried to see it through Heath’s eyes. The stately six-bedroom, five-bath home sat atop a large hill that I used to roll down when I was little. I had found such joy in rolling down that hill. And the grand, ancient sixty-foot oak tree that dominated the far right side of the yard, where I’d had a swing that I used to ride for hours. And the long wraparound porch where I’d spent lazy summer days cuddled up with a good book and glass after glass of pink lemonade.
Of course, all of that was before my mother died. Before all the joy went right out of my life and right out of that house.
Looking up at the dark redbrick manor with black shutters and a gleaming white porch, I could see that not much had changed about the house in thirty years. It still looked as grand, charming, and pristine as ever, but inside I could feel the ghosts that haunted the old Southern home. Literally.
“Are we there yet?” Gil yawned from the backseat. Gilley is my BFF. He’s been my best friend for over twenty years, so he knows my history well.
“We’re here,” Heath said, arching his back and stretching. It’d been a long drive from Boston to the southern Georgia city of Valdosta. “I didn’t know this place was gonna be so . . . big.”
Gil sat up and leaned forward. “M.J. didn’t tell you?” he asked, like I wasn’t in the van. “Her daddy’s a very wealthy man.”
I scowled. Gil made it sound like that was something to be proud of. But since my mother’s death, Daddy had always put his work before me, so I hardly thought it a positive thing. Plus, he’d never once offered to help me out in all those years Gil and I had struggled to make ends meet in Boston.
“Yeah, he’d have to be to afford this place,” Heath said. My gaze shifted to him. He looked intimidated, and I thought I knew why. Heath came from far humbler—but perhaps more honorable—circumstances.
“Hey,” I said, reaching for his hand. “It’s his money, not mine.”
Heath tore his eyes away from the house. “Yeah, but, Em, I mean . . . look at this place.”
“It’s just a house,” I said, leaning in to give him a quick peck before getting out of the van.
As we walked from the van toward the house, the front porch door opened and out stepped Daddy. My breath caught in surprise at the sight of him. I barely recognized the man standing there.
My father had always been a tall and imposing figure. Well over six feet, he’d been a big barrel of a man who’d gone gray, then silver prematurely, and whose countenance had always appeared to be tired and overworked. The man on the porch, whom I hadn’t seen in several years, was still tall and imposing, but he’d trimmed down by at least forty pounds—pounds he’d always carried around his middle and which he really had needed to lose. His hair was also darker, but it suited him and made him look ten years younger, and his face, always set in a deep frown, was actually lifted into an expression I hadn’t seen him wear since I was ten. The man actually looked happy.
“You okay?” Heath whispered, and I realized he’d taken up my hand.
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head a little. “He just looks . . .”
“Amazing,” Gil said on the other side of me. “Lord, M.J., is that really Montgomery Holliday?”
“Hey there, Mary Jane,” my father called from the porch with a wave. “I was expectin’ you a little later. Y’all must’ve made good time.”
“Hey, Daddy,” I replied as we started up the walk toward the stairs. “We did make good time.”
My father nodded and adopted something halfway between a grimace and a smile, but I couldn’t really fault him for it. If you don’t ever smile even once in twenty years, I expect you’d be out of practice.
The porch door opened again and out stepped a lovely-looking woman perhaps in her late fifties or early sixties. She had a regal quality about her with short-cropped and perfectly coiffed blond hair, bright blue eyes, and a trim figure. Her smile was brilliant and contagious and she clapped her hands at the sight of us. “Ooo!” she exclaimed. “Monty, is this your daughter?”
I had climbed the steps and now stood in front of Daddy and the woman who must be his new fiancée, Christine Bigelow. “This is her, dear,” Daddy said, stepping forward to open up his arms to me.
For a moment I just stood there confused. Daddy hadn’t hugged me since the day my mother died. In fact, that was perhaps the last time he’d ever touched me tenderly, so this open display of affection was throwing me a little and I didn’t know how to react.
Next to me I heard Gil clear his throat, then push me with his hand a little, and I sort of took two awkward steps forward and Daddy hugged me with three neat pats to the back before letting go. He continued to wear that strange half smile, half grimace.
And then I was wrapped up in another hug from Christine. She squeezed me tight and added another “Ooo!” Then she stepped back and held me at arm’s length. “Mary Jane, I have heard so many wonderful things about you! Your father simply raves about how smart and amazing his little girl is!”
“You have?” I said. “He does?” I wasn’t trying to be a brat—I was actually really surprised that Daddy would say anything even remotely kind on my behalf. He’d spent decades letting everyone else know what a disappointment I was to him.
“Well, of course!” she said, and then her bright eyes turned to the two men at my side. “Now, don’t tell me. Let me guess,” she said to them. Pointing to Heath, she said, “You must be Heath Whitefeather, Mary Jane’s boyfriend, and you,” she said next, pointing to Gil, “must be Gilley Gillespie, Mary Jane’s best friend—am I right?”
“What gave it away?” Gil said, and I wanted to roll my eyes. Gilley was actually wearing mascara and blush today, along with blue nail polish. He loved flaunting his flamboyant side in my conservative Southern Baptist father’s face.
“Your mama described her handsome son to a T,” Christine told him slyly. The tactic worked; Gil blushed and I knew she’d just claimed another ally.
“It’s very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Heath said, extending his hand to her.
Christine laughed lightly and shook her head, stepping forward to hug Heath. “Oh, none of that formal stuff for family!” she said.
I hate to admit it, but the lovely warmth and charm of the woman had an effect on me. I liked her. A lot. And I couldn’t understand what she’d first seen in my father, but looking at the dramatic change in him, I had to be grateful, because it was a world of difference.
Once she’d had her fill of hugs, Christine took up my arm and Gilley’s and said, “Now! Let’s all step inside and have ourselves a proper lunch, shall we?”
We began to follow her and Daddy inside when a pickup truck came barreling up the drive at an alarming rate of speed, honking its horn to get our attention. Daddy’s posture and countenance changed in a second and he stepped forward to the edge of the porch, ready to handle whatever came next.
Heath moved over to stand next to Daddy, and I could tell that my father approved of the move and perhaps even of Heath in that moment. The truck came to a stop and out jumped a man in jeans, a plaid shirt, a stained cowboy hat, and work boots. “Mrs. Bigelow!” he called urgently.
“Clay,” my father said, his voice full of the authority that used to send me scurrying.
Clay removed his hat and nodded to my father. He looked out of breath. “Mr. Holliday, sorry to trouble you, but we’ve had another situation at the work site.”
Daddy moved down two steps toward Clay, and Heath followed him. Next to me Christine stood rigid, biting her lip as if she knew the news was bad.
“It’s another accident,” Clay said.
“What happened?” Daddy demanded.
“The scaffolding in the ballroom gave way, sir. Two of my men were sent to the hospital.”
“Oh, no!” Christine exclaimed. “Clay, are they badly injured?”
Clay clenched and unclenched his hat. “Not real bad, ma’am, but bad enough. Boone’s got a busted ankle, and Darryl might have a broken arm.”
Christine’s posture relaxed a fraction. “Oh, that’s dreadful,” she said. “But I’m so grateful it wasn’t worse! Monty, after lunch we should go straight to the hospital to see the men. And of course I’ll cover their medical expenses.”
“Now just hold on here,” my father interjected. “Clay, that scaffolding is your responsibility. If it wasn’t properly put together, Christine ain’t gonna be responsible for no medical expenses.”
It was Clay’s turn to stiffen. “Mr. Holliday, sir, that scaffolding was put together correctly. Why, I checked it myself this morning. Just like I checked all the other equipment and rigging that’s somehow managed to come apart, or blow up, or fail on us and cause nothing but accidents at this jobsite. It ain’t us, sir.”
“Well, then who’s responsible?” Daddy snapped.
Clay fiddled with his hat and looked at the ground. “It’s like I told you last time, Mrs. Bigelow,” he said, avoiding my father’s sharp gaze. “We think your place is cursed, and, ma’am, I truly am sorry, but I’m pulling my crew.”
“You’re what?” Daddy roared loud enough for Clay to jump.
But the foreman wasn’t backing down. Donning his hat, he looked directly at Christine and said, “I’m real sorry, ma’am. But that estate has something bad creeping through those hallways. I’ve tried to tell you that I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep messing with it, and maybe you’d best to cut your losses too, before you or someone you love gets hurt same as my men. Anyway, we’re leaving. I just wanted to come tell you in person, is all.”
With that, he turned and headed back to his truck, even though Daddy called after him to come back and talk about it.
As Clay’s pickup drove away, I turned to look at Christine. She looked stricken.
I knew from the gossip mill that Daddy’s new fiancée—a wealthy widow originally from Florida—was also fairly new to our small city. She’d told folks here that she had come on a retreat to Valdosta with her then-ailing husband a few years back and had fallen in love with the place. After Mr. Bigelow’s death, she’d sold her home in Naples, which was also rumored to have been a sizably valuable property on the water, and she’d set her sights on the estate of what had once been a prominent family here, the Porters of Valdosta.
The Porters had made their money in tobacco, but as smoking declined beginning in the late 1970s, so had the family’s wealth. Through mismanagement and family greed, much of the once vast fortune had been squandered, and many of the two dozen or so Porter family members had fled Valdosta in shame.
Only one group of Porters had stayed in the area after 1985 to keep up appearances and inhabit the once proud estate, but I’d heard that the mansion had fallen into disrepair of late, ever since the only two remaining Porter family members—a brother and sister—had moved out in the early 2000s. Still, no one had ever expected the remaining Porters to put their family’s estate up for sale—the house came with over three dozen acres of gorgeous woodlands, and I think everyone in town thought that either the brother or the sister would eventually start a family and move back in, but the years went by and that never came to pass. And then there were rumors of the heavy tax burden that the Porter estate carried, and ultimately, that, and the fact that neither sibling seemed interested in moving back home, could have been the motivation for the sale.
Whatever it was, the house and its surrounding land had been put on the market, and Christine had promptly jumped on it. I’d been told that’s how she’d met Daddy, in fact. She’d hired him to handle the transaction, and he’d asked her out to coffee after she’d signed the closing documents. Gilley’s mom had said that they’d been inseparable ever since.
Still, Mrs. Gillespie also said that the Porter house needed to be gutted and completely renovated, which made me wonder if Christine had known what she was really in for when she’d purchased the place. And now there seemed to be a troublesome ghost in residence as well.
“That’s the third contractor to quit on us in as many months, Monty,” Christine said, her voice holding a slight note of panic.
Daddy turned and came back up the steps, reaching out for her hand, which was still looped with mine. “Now, now, Christy, don’t you worry. We’ll find another, better contractor. As I recall, you had half a dozen contractors bid on Porter Manor. After lunch I’ll look at the list and pick the contractor with the most experience. Someone who won’t be using any rickety scaffolding, unskilled labor, or poorly kept tools.”
I could see that Christine’s eyes were beginning to water, and she blinked rapidly to fight the tears. “But what if Clay’s right?” she whispered. “Monty, what if there really is something in that old place causing all those accidents?”
Daddy adopted a patient look, but I could see he didn’t believe a word of it. That didn’t surprise me—even though I’d shown him enough evidence through the years to convince most anybody, Daddy never admitted that he believed in ghosts. “Bah,” he said. “Christy, Clay’s just covering his tracks, is all! He’s trying to avoid gettin’ sued by his workers, honey. I’ll bet money he or his crew didn’t rig that scaffolding right, and it’s his fault it fell down.”
“We could check it out,” Heath said. “M.J. and I could go over there and tell you for sure if there’s a spook haunting the place.”
My gaze cut to him and I shook my head subtly. But he was focused on Christine, who was obviously distressed. I knew he wanted to help, but he didn’t know my father.
And just as I suspected, I saw Daddy’s eyes narrow, and his lips compress into a disapproving scowl.
But Christine had already stepped forward and reached for Heath’s hands. “Oh, would you?” she asked. “I’d be most grateful, Heath.” Turning to me, she added, “Most grateful to both of you!”
I stood there dumbstruck, not really believing what’d just happened. One minute we were headed in for a nice get-to-know-you lunch, and the next Heath was committing us to a ghostbust on our vacation. Which of course was just my luck.
“It’d be our pleasure,” Heath assured her, nodding his head and smiling encouragingly at me.
“Of . . . of course,” I stammered. Christine clapped her hands happily, then hugged first Heath, then me and showered us with thank-yous.
Daddy cleared his throat, his irritation quelled but barely below the surface. And then Christine turned to him and said, “Oh, Monty, your daughter and her beau are angels! I’ll sleep well tonight knowing a pair of experts can put all this craziness to rest!”
“I’ll go too,” Gil offered, and Heath and I both widened our eyes. Gil seemed to realize what he’d just committed himself to, because he followed that quickly with, “You know. I’ll monitor things from the van. Like usual.”
Christine put her hand on his cheek and smiled sweetly. Gil, like Daddy, seemed to melt under her charms. “Thank you, Gilley. That would be most kind of you.” Gilley blushed and Heath and I hid smiles.
Then Daddy did something most unexpected. He chuckled and gave Heath a good-natured pat on the back. “Well, now that’s settled, maybe we can all go in and enjoy our lunch. Heath, you sit next to me. I hear you like to drop the occasional fly come salmon season. It’s been a long time since I had someone to talk fly-fishing with. . . .”
As we filed into the house after Daddy, Gilley sidled up next to me, wearing a mocking grin. He was enjoying this a little too much. “Shut it,” I warned.
Gil adopted an injured expression. “I didn’t say a word!”
My eyes narrowed. “Oh, but you will.”
“Well,” Gil replied. “That’s a given, sugar.”
We entered my childhood home and I was stunned to find that so much had changed since I’d last been to see Daddy. For the past twenty years Daddy had left the home exactly as it’d been on the day my mother died. It’d been like living in the moment of her passing for most of my childhood, and I’d probably resented Daddy for making us stay in such a sad place. But now as we all stepped into the foyer, I was struck by the fresh coat of light beige on walls that had previously been a dull yellow.
Gilley widened his eyes a bit at me and nodded his head, like he had also noticed the change and approved. Daddy led the way toward the back of the house, saying, “We’ve set up on the back porch for brunch. There’s a nice cross breeze and you’ll have a chance to admire the gardens. Christine’s done wonders back there.”
As everyone trailed behind Daddy, I held back for a moment and turned to look toward the entrance of the parlor, and there too the walls and the trim had also received fresh coats of paint, in a slightly deeper shade of beige. A new set of deep brown leather sofas and cream-colored accent chairs had also replaced the dingy blue couches that’d once occupied the room. Additionally, built-in bookcases had been installed, turning the parlor into something more like a library, but I saw that Daddy’s extensive book collection had been organized and assembled in such a clean, crisp way as to beckon fellow book lovers to run their fingers along the volumes.
My head swiveled then to the left and I took in the new dining room with a gorgeous oak table and beautifully upholstered burgundy chairs. Like just about everything else, the curtains were new, replacing the dusty peacock blue window coverings from before. The look was lovely and elegant and exactly reflected the full potential of the space. I sighed and turned my attention back to the parlor, taking a few steps forward to investigate it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Christine had come up next to me. “Your father finally let me tackle this old house and bring it into the twenty-first century,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice. “I’ve let my decorators loose in every room including yours, which I hope you like, Mary Jane. I didn’t want to change too much in there, but it desperately needed some fresh paint and updated furnishings.”
I turned to face her, feeling that warmth for her at our initial greeting expand even more in the center of my chest. “Your taste is lovely. I’ve wanted Daddy to fix up this old house for decades.”
Christine wrapped an arm around my middle. “It took him a long time to get over Madelyn,” she said, almost as if she knew how truly hard it’d been for both of us. “And he sure made me use all of my charms to break through that big bleak wall of his. But when I first met him, I thought there was something so sad about Monty, and I couldn’t let him carry on like that without trying to find the good heart I knew was inside. As I got to know him, it was like someone just coming out of a deep sleep, you know? Like gently shaking someone awake from a place so dark and withdrawn that even the smallest acts of kindness worked on him like sunshine peeking through the blinds.”
I looked up at Christine and I couldn’t help the water that filled my eyes. She was radiant and beautiful and I knew exactly what she meant by the sun finally waking Daddy from that long slumber. In that moment I felt my mother’s presence so intensely that I wanted to weep, because I knew . . . I just knewshe’d been the one to place Christine Bigelow on my daddy’s path.
Thanks, Mama, I called out to her in my mind, and I felt her presence come even closer for a moment, as if she were giving me a hug before withdrawing again.
“You all right, Mary Jane?” Christine asked me, obviously noticing how emotional I was getting.
I swallowed hard and blinked a few times, but I still had to wipe at my cheeks a little. “Yes,” I said, with an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”
“Aww,” Christine said, squeezing my middle a little. “Coming home is always such an emotional thing. But we’re so glad you came for our wedding. It wouldn’t have been the same without you, honey.”
I inhaled deeply and nodded, still a little embarrassed. Trying to change the subject, I said, “So, where will you live after you’re married?” I couldn’t imagine Daddy in any house other than the one I’d grown up in, but then I also couldn’t imagine Christine spending all that money on renovations to Porter Manor if she didn’t intend to live there.
Christine seemed to know I was treading on a potentially touchy subject because she looped her arm through mine as she led the way out of the parlor and said, “Well, now, that’s something that Monty and I have talked a great deal about, and I think we’ve decided to live here until renovations are complete at the Porter house, and then he’ll go ahead and put this place up for sale.”
I nodded, and tried to tamp down the tinge of bitterness that rose inside me as I heard that my childhood home would soon be sold. “I guess it’s time Daddy moved on,” I said with a sigh.
Christine squeezed my arm. She seemed to understand. “If it helps, renovations won’t be complete for at least two years, Mary Jane. We’ll be here awhile yet.”
I smiled. That did help. “So, what’s the plan for the wedding?”
“Well, it’ll be a very small affair. Your father and I are both veterans of the big wedding, so this time around we’d like just a few very close friends and family to gather here next Saturday. Monty’s friend Judge Michaels will be doing the honors, and we’ll have a lovely catered dinner afterward. With any luck the whole thing will be over by eleven o’clock!”
I eyed her with surprise. “Really? That’s it? Just a small ceremony and a catered dinner with only a few friends and family?”
Christine laughed lightly. “Yes, that’s all! Why? Did you really think your father and I would have a big, grand affair?”
I shrugged. “Well, maybe not really big, but, I mean, between the two of you, you’ve got to know a whole lot of important people.”
She laughed again. “Well, the only important people we absolutely needed to be here were you, Heath, and Gilley, and of course my son and his family. Speaking of which, Tom will be here Saturday morning, and I just know you’ll adore his wife, Kelsey. She went to school in Boston, you know. . . .”
Christine continued to chat happily at me while we made our way out to the garden for brunch. As she spoke, all the reservations I’d had about attending the wedding melted away. For the first time in forever, it felt good to be home again.
• • •
A few hours later I was hugging Christine and Daddy good-bye. “You sure you won’t stay with us?” Christine asked me again.
“Oh, no—thank you—but we’ve already settled in at Mrs. Gillespie’s. We’ll be back in the morning, though, and we’ll let you know what we’ve discovered at the Porter house.”
Christine bit her lip. “I’m nervous about you going there alone, Mary Jane.”
Heath put a hand on my shoulder. “She won’t be alone, ma’am. I’ll be with her and we’ve done plenty of these investigations. We know what we’re doing.”
Except that we didn’t have any of our equipment or safety gear. I’d had one too many mimosas at lunch, and I’d promised Christine that I’d check out Porter Manor that very afternoon. Now that the buzz was wearing off, I was beginning to wonder if I’d done something stupid in committing to investigate without the proper equipment.
Judging from the size of Gilley’s current frown, I’d probably done something stupid.
“Well, then,” Christine said with a sad smile as she gave us a little wave. “Y’all be safe over there and come back first thing in the morning. I’ll have Ruby send over some of their croissants and Danishes.”
Daddy seemed a bit aloof as we said our good-byes for the night. I knew he and Christine were disappointed that Heath and I had decided to stay with Gilley’s mom instead of at the house with them, but I also knew that Daddy would’ve thrown a fit over Heath and me wanting to stay together in the same bedroom. He’d been pretending to overlook the fact that Heath and I were living in sin up in Boston, and as that was an argument just waiting to happen, I’d cut it off at the pass by asking Gil’s mom if we could stay with her. She’d been more than happy to host us.
As we got ready to take our leave, Christine squeezed my hands one last time and let me go, but before I could get into the van with the boys, Daddy stepped forward and gave me a buss on the cheek. My breath caught and I stood there rather stunned for a moment. I could remember exactly the last time Daddy had given my cheek a kiss. It’d been the night before Mama had been diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. From that moment on, he’d never bussed my cheek again.
While I stood there, a twinkle came into Daddy’s eyes, and he smiled like he knew he’d caught me off guard. “Y’all have a good rest of your day, Mary Jane,” he said, laying a hand on my arm to squeeze it gently. “Drive safe and we’ll see y’all tomorrow morning.”
I waved to Daddy and Christine as I got into the van, and then we were all waving at them as Gil took us back down the long drive toward the road. For several moments no one in the van spoke until Gil said, “Who was that man masquerading as your daddy, M.J.?”
I laughed. His question was so earnest that it fit exactly the train of my thoughts. “That was Daddy,” I said, and felt my voice quaver. “At least, the Daddy I remember from before Mama died.”
“I like him,” Heath said.
I sighed happily. “He likes you too, honey.”
“Oh, hell,” Gil scoffed. “He loves you, Heath. I mean, M.J., did you see the way Monty was asking Heath about the fly-fishing in New Mexico?”
“I did,” I said, my brow furrowing. Daddy had always been hard on my boyfriends, and by hard I mean awful, terrible, and despicable. “I can’t get over the change in him.”
“Was he really that bad before he met Christine?” Heath asked.
“Yes,” Gil and I said together.
“Huh. Well, he seemed nice to me. And, Em, I didn’t want to bring this up at brunch, but your mom was all over me from the minute we stepped outside for brunch. She talked me up the whole time we were eating.”
“What’d she say?” Gil asked eagerly.
I felt my stomach muscles clench. I often felt Mama close to me in spirit, but she rarely communicated directly with me the way she did with other mediums like Heath, which is a common practice for the spirit world. I think it’s because the way we hear spirits is often so subtle that it can feel as if it’s imagined, and when we hear from our own loved ones, there’s that seed of doubt that plants itself in our brains and begs the question, is this really my loved one, or me just maki
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