A haunted romance. An unsolved mystery. An ancient curse. And two people caught up in the middle of it all.
Off the rough coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Ella Simon tracks down one man–the infamous pirate Blackbeard. Her goal is to identify a shipwreck off the coast of the island, but she and her divemaster Mitch Thompson discover much more than that.
After a week of ghosts, near-drownings, surly elderly tourists, and stampeding ponies, Ella finds in Mitch the answer to a question she has never dared ask herself: Do I need anyone in my life?
Mitch, who grew up on the island on a diet of ghost stories, believes the wrecksite is haunted. At first, Ella refuses to believe him. She’s a scientist — she doesn’t believe in the supernatural.
During their time working together, Ella overcomes her bad first impression of him and falls for Mitch. And he does the same for her. Like the waters off Ocracoke Island, she finds he has hidden depths.
They just have to stay alive long enough to solve the mystery of a young girl’s killer before the ghosts of dead pirates take them down to the bottom of the ocean, forever.
You could say I wrote this novel on a dare — my wife didn’t think I could cook up a good romance. What I came up with was less a romance novel and more of a ghost story with a romance tied up inside of it.
It takes place on one of our favorite places to visit: Ocracoke Island, off the North Carolina coast.
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Ella Simon was not the kind of person who saw things that weren’t there. So when it happened for the second time on her drive south, she hit the brakes and pulled off the road. She’d seen something out there in the dark waters of the sound, on top of one of the submerged houses. Was that a person up there?
She’d been driving all day, hoping to get free from the ghosts she’d left behind in Boston. Her father. Steven. Her cold, empty apartment. Her stalled career. She needed to leave all those bad feelings and haunting memories back in the city, far from the strip of two-lane highway bordered by wind-blown sand that she was traveling on now.
Traveling, and seeing things that weren’t really there.
The sun had come out again, and she was on her way past the black-and-white Hatteras lighthouse that still lit up the North Carolina coast. She’d just driven onto the rebuilt section of the highway that had been washed out in the hurricane when she saw the movement on top of one of the flooded houses in the sound.
I’m letting my imagination get away from me, she thought, and that’s not like me. My nerves are shot from driving all day, and it’s making me see things that aren’t there.
The first time it had happened, she’d been crossing over the Oregon Inlet Bridge. The cold March wind had slammed into her car as she reached the highest section of the bridge. For an awful moment—a moment that seemed to last forever—she thought she was going to go over the side.
The dark waters of the Croatan Sound were on her right, far below her, and the whitecaps of the Atlantic Ocean were marching off in the distance on her left. The sun came out of the clouds just in time to nearly blind her with its brilliance.
The sudden blasts of wind against her car windows made her think of broken glass. When she regained control of her car a second later, she risked another look down at the water off to her left.
Flashing just under the surface of the choppy waves were faint lights, flickering orange and white. They looked like emergency beacons, or tiny explosions.
Impossible, she’d decided. It’s just the sun, reflecting off the water. Playing tricks on my fatigued eyes.
And now, half an hour later, it was happening again.
Feeling like a tightrope walker on this narrow slip of land surrounded by water, Ella left her car. Tall and slender, she wore a faded pair of jeans and a Boston University sweatshirt that hid her figure in a way that she always liked. Holding her breath, she stepped onto the sandy shoulder of the new patch of highway.
She kept her gaze locked on the drowned house surrounded by driftwood and tree limbs, and then she saw the movement again. It looked just like a shadowy figure.
The figure—if that’s what it was—moved in a strange, irregular fashion, like a beat-up flag or a tree limb blowing in the wind. But the wind had died, and none of the trees in the area were left standing.
Still squinting across the dark blue waters of the sound, she reached into the back seat and felt around for her binoculars. She found them after a few seconds of searching around her suitcases, computers, scuba gear, and other equipment. She didn’t dare take her eyes off the battered roof three hundred yards out in the sound.
There’s got to be a reasonable, logical explanation for this, she told herself. But that didn’t stop her heart from pounding out of control. She still held her breath, as if she were afraid to let the air out of her lungs.
She brought the binoculars up to her eyes in one quick movement. Even when she focused the binoculars, she still couldn’t see the figure clearly.
But it was a person, without a doubt. Whoever it was, the person was big, and covered in shadows like a robe.
The figure seemed to almost float through the air as it leapt and spun to some silent melody. Ella could barely keep up with its movements as the dark figure danced to the edge of the roof, and then danced back.
He was dancing on the roof of the drowned house. The blurry man—she was pretty sure it was a man, not a woman—looked deformed somehow, but she couldn’t focus on him long enough to figure out what was wrong with him.
And then she realized that the person out there was missing his head.
She blew out the breath that she’d been holding and almost dropped her binoculars.
“Come on,” she muttered, turning the dial on the binoculars to try to get a better look at him. She blinked to refocus her own eyes.
When she opened them again and looked back at the house, the man was gone.
Ella scanned the rest of the newly made sound, paying close attention to the pieces of wood and roofing floating in the choppy water. She saw nothing. The dancing, headless shadow was gone.
As she took one last long look at the cluttered mess of the flooded town, she heard a deep, rolling laugh. She would have run back to her car if she thought she could have kept herself from turning around and heading back to Boston.
Instead, she held her ground, determined not to be rattled for the second time that day. She sucked in a quick breath and caught a whiff of sulphur in the air, as if someone had just blown out a match.
When her pulse had gone back to normal, just as she was about to go back to her Escort, a car horn blasted at her from the highway. This time she did drop her binoculars, and she almost pitched forward into the murky water of the new inlet.
Swearing in a shaky voice, she turned as the car roared past her, its horn still blaring but fading now like a siren. It was a boxy blue Mercedes with North Carolina plates. Three white-haired people sat in the car, two in front and one in the back.
“Friendly folks ‘round here,” she said as she picked up the binoculars and walked back to her car. “At least I’ll have some company on the island after all.”
With her back to the drowned house, her face felt hot with embarrassment, even though she was all alone. She wasn’t normally so easily spooked like this; she prided herself on her independence and her emphasis on the facts, not fiction.
If I can’t prove it with facts, she’d always thought, I don’t believe in it.
“Prove it to me,” she told her students every time one of them shared a wild theory or far-fetched idea about history or the world. “Prove it to me, and I’ll believe it.”
And that determined need for the facts had always ruined the stories her father had told her as she was growing up. Tales about ghosts, water sprites, will-o-the-wisps, fairies, and angels. Ella knew, even as a child, that such stories were just a naïve diversion, a foolish waste of time. And they were certainly not something for a professor of Maritime History to enjoy.
As she looked up and down the highway behind her, watching out for more speeding senior citizens, she couldn’t dispel the image of the headless, shadowy figure she’d seen so far out in the sound. Surely it had all been a trick of the shadows.
With a half-hearted laugh, she scanned the dark waters of the sound one last time before climbing back in her car. After one last glance back at the ruined house out in the sound, she drove to the southern tip of Hatteras Island to meet the ferry that would take her to Ocracoke and the start of her expedition.
Over an hour later, Ella’s car was the last to clatter down the short metal bridge leading from the ferry that had carried her from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island. She followed four other cars, a minivan, and two couples on Harleys. The first car off the ferry was the old blue Mercedes.
She parked her car in the small lot next to the deserted ferry landing to wait for Mitch. Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, she listened to the fading engine of the ferry on its way back to Hatteras, abandoning her here on this tiny island.
Apparently her divemaster was running late today. She bit down a wave of impatience, wondering if they should’ve agreed to meet in town instead of here. At first she thought it was quaint, almost old-fashioned, that Mitch wanted to meet her at the ferry landing so he could welcome her and show her around town. Now it just looked like a bad idea.
Ten minutes later, she was still waiting.
“Where are you, Mitch?” she muttered.
Needing to stretch her legs, she got out of her car at last, letting her light brown hair out of its ponytail and shaking it loose onto her shoulders. After being in motion all day, she didn’t feel like stopping now. Stopping made her think of all those things left behind in Boston.
She’d been in such a funk since her father’s sickness and her breakup with Steven that she’d been in a mad rush to get away from the city. Away from the snow and the cold and everything else up there. Away from her apartment, which was starting to feel like someone else’s home, full of broken glass.
She stifled the urge to pull out her cell phone and call the number of Mitch’s diving company. She glanced at the sun and then looked back at all the diving gear and computer equipment in the back seat of her car. Unpacking and getting set up in her rented house was going to take forever.
I’m giving this Mitch guy ten more minutes, she thought, before I go find someone else with a boat. Someone reliable.
A familiar voice spoke up inside her head like a life preserver thrown to a tired swimmer fighting the deadly pull of a riptide.
“Relax,” the voice said with a hint of laughter in it. “Quit rushing things.”
She felt a sharp pain in her chest when she recognized the voice. Dad’s voice.
“Relax, and listen to the surf,” he’d always said.
She smiled a bittersweet smile at Dad’s memory. She had to remember that life out here was going to be much slower than city life. She’d have to learn all over again how to slow down and not rush so much. Dad had always reminded her that everything fell into place on its own. She didn’t need to force it.
If only that were true, she thought.
She leaned against the passenger side of her car and took a deep breath of salty air. She stretched like a cat and felt the fatigue and edginess from her drive begin to melt away. As she stared out at the breakers on the ocean side of the island, she thought about the swirl of events in the past week that had brought her here.
It was all about the shipwreck, of course.
Less than a week ago, she’d gotten the call. Boston had been suffering under a cold snap, and she stared out of the ice-rimmed window of her apartment, listening to her department head. She remembered wishing for winter to hurry up and end.
“What would you say,” Dr. Bramlett had said, “to a couple weeks on an island off the Outer Banks?”
Suddenly alert, Ella had felt her blues begin to melt at the prospect of going south and getting away from the cold. Outside her window, all she could see was a gray city filled with dirty snow clogging the streets.
“When do I leave?” she said. “I can be packed in an hour.”
A low chuckle came from the other end of the line.
“Don’t you even want to know what the project is going to be about?”
“If it gets me out of here for a while, I’ll do whatever research you need me to do. Even if it’s as dull as looking up tide charts.”
“Oh, I think this will be better than tide charts.”
As department head of Maritime Studies at the university, Dr. Bramlett always came through with the best research ideas and leads for her. Hopefully, this one would be another winner.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of this fellow,” he said. “Goes by the name of… Blackbeard.”
The howling wind outside suddenly picked up, throwing hard pellets of snow against the window, as if trying to get inside.
“Oh no,” she said, “don’t even joke about that. Not The Queen Anne’s Revenge? I thought they found the QAR already.”
“You’re right–they’re pretty sure the QAR‘s down in Beaufort, North Carolina. But what my contact person down in Ocracoke found may be even better.”
“Yes. You know how legend has it that Blackbeard sank the QAR so nobody else could take her treasure? Well, we’ve found what may be the remains of the actual ship that Blackbeard used after the QAR sank. The ship Blackbeard moved all his treasure onto. This ship once belonged to Stede Bonnet, who called it The Revenge. If it’s The Revenge, the historical significance would be unbelievable. Let me give you the details…”
Pacing around her apartment as Dr. Bramlett talked, she turned too quickly and knocked a framed photograph off an end table. The glass in the frame broke, leaving her ex-boyfriend Steven’s brown, puppy-dog eyes obscured by the shards. She’d been meaning to get rid of that photo anyway.
“Okay, I get it,” Ella said. She’d found the cloud in his silver lining. “You’re going to make me fly down there, aren’t you, so I can start checking out Blackbeard’s lost ship right away, huh? You know how I feel about flying.”
A harsh buzz of static ran through the connection. She winced, holding the phone away from her ear. After a few seconds, the fuzz disappeared as quickly as it had started. Dr. Bramlett was already talking.
“. . . trust me, Ella, please. I know how you are about flying. But this assignment is perfect for you. You can drive down there, catch the ferry, and spend all spring putting your scuba gear to good use once you get to the island.”
There had to be a catch. Ella stopped pacing. The late winter wind continued to rattle her windowpanes.
There was always a catch. Just like Dad’s sudden illness last year that had taken his life a month after his fiftieth birthday. Or that look in Steven’s eyes on their last date, the look that told Ella he was getting too serious, too fast. So she’d ended it. She’d been in a funk ever since.
“So,” Dr. Bramlett had said at last. “Are you interested? Or should I find someone else to go?”
Mitch’s time was up.
Still standing outside her car next to the ferry landing, Ella pushed herself away from it, surprised at how relaxed she’d been, just sitting there, not moving or doing anything.
When was the last time I’d done that? she wondered. Just sat and did nothing?
As she inhaled the tang of salt and the slightly-fishy scent of the ocean, she looked up in time to see a jagged line of pelicans fly silently past overhead, heading east into the great unknown. They were soon tiny dots against the cloudy sky.
In spite of being annoyed at this Mitch guy, she smiled, thinking of her father. Even if Dad was gone, she’d always have the gifts of the ocean and sailing that he’d given her all those years ago. Every year on her birthday he’d take her out to sea on a rented boat with her choice of half a dozen friends. Most years she’d chosen to go alone with Dad, so they could talk and watch the waves make the land disappear behind them.
Just as she was about to get back in her car and find her way around on her own, Ella heard the distant mutter of an engine.
Seconds later, a sky-blue pickup at least thirty years old flew onto the circle drive leading to the ferry landing. The truck made the turn, but just barely. She watched, waiting for it to go up on two wheels, but instead the truck turned toward her. It screeched to a stop and deposited someone from the passenger side onto the road before leaving in a puff of black smoke.
When the dark cloud of exhaust had cleared, Ella got a good look at the man who had suddenly appeared in front of her.
She certainly wasn’t expecting to see anyone like this lanky, dark-haired man wearing a form-fitting blue T-shirt and jeans. Ella caught herself admiring his tousled brown hair and the solid muscles under the cotton of his shirt. He was definitely not the salty old dog she’d been expecting to be her dive master.
Her heart was beating faster than it had in months, and she’d completely forgotten the name of the dive company. All she remembered was a first name.
She cleared her throat, her face red-hot.
“Um. Your name wouldn’t happen to be Mitch, would it?”
“Dr. Simon?” His low voice had a slight Southern accent.
“Yes. I’m Dr. Simon. Why do you look so surprised?”
His tanned face turned red and his eyes widened. Those eyes were a fascinating shade of light blue, as if all his time spent in the sun–or maybe all his time spent underwater–had faded the color. Offset by his tanned skin, they were quite striking.
Too bad, she thought, they didn’t come attached to a decent brain. This guy looked duller than a butter knife.
“Oh,” he said again. “I’d just thought you were–”
He cleared his throat and stood a little straighter.
“I mean, I thought maybe you were a tour– Um. Right.”
Ella waited, unsure if she was smiling or grimacing at him.
“I’m Mitch Thompson,” he said at last, holding out his hand. He gave her a big, genuine smile that dispelled a good bit of her doubts about him. But not all of them. “From Thompson Deep Sea Diving. Nice to meet you, uh, doctor.”
Ella shook his hand, feeling the calluses there and trying to ignore the tingling sensation his touch sent up her arm.
“Tell me, Mitch,” she said once she had control of her voice. “Did you get lost on the way here?”
“No,” he said with a sheepish look that may have been quite charming in other circumstances. If she hadn’t been so annoyed, it may have even worked on Ella. “Just running late. My truck’s in the shop, so I had to get my buddy Ben to drop me off.”
Behind his smile, Ella sensed disappointment. With a sinking heart, she realized why he looked so confused.
Mitch had been expecting a he, not a she, to lead on their dives over the next few weeks. Ella hadn’t signed her first name on the two emails she’d exchanged with him. She’d simply ended them with: “Sincerely, Dr. Simon.”
He’d probably been expecting a new drinking buddy at best, or a stuffed shirt at worst. Definitely not a woman.
“We should get going, I guess,” she said, but Mitch was already heading over to the passenger side of her car.
Back in the driver’s seat, Ella glanced at Mitch next to her. He had a smudge of what looked like black caulking on the knuckles of his right hand, and four small scratches on the back of his left that seemed relatively fresh. She caught a whiff of his scent–a mix of salt, soap, and a hint of motor oil.
She put the car in gear and aimed it toward the road leading into town. Mitch sat in silence next to her, staring out the window at the jagged sand dunes with a strange intensity. Ella wondered what was running through that head of his, if anything.
These next few weeks, she thought, are going to be quite interesting.