Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
Her condescending look made it clear she questioned my intelligence on breast feeding and possibly everything else. “It’ll cause nipple confusion for the child. You can’t switch her from one to the other.”
“That sounds like a big old bubbling crock of shit.”
Her nostrils flared out like rampaging bull but I held my ground.
“Give my niece enough credit to figure out how to eat. If a dumbass like you managed it, I’m sure she’s got it covered.”
“Maggie, this isn’t helping.” Neil held my arm in a vice grip, but I wasn’t about to let him perp walk me out of there like I’d done something wrong.
“Get out,” Southie snarled at me like a rabid dog.
“Not until you do.” My chin rose and I stared her down the way I wish I had the two homicidal maniacs I’d confronted. Both were dead, but I was still here and by God, no one was going to push my family around on my watch.
Her piggy eyes narrowed as she studied me closer. “Hey, I know you. You’re that idiot cleaning lady who blew up the Safari building a few weeks ago. You out on bail? ”
There were so many things wrong with that statement I didn’t know where to start, but rearranging her smug man-jawed face seemed like a good place. I lunged. Neil snagged me and I was airborne, my legs kicking frantically in classic
let me at her
“Maggie, calm down.” It was Marty.
I kicked harder. Neil bent, but kept me cradled against his chest. “Maggie, stop.”
Another nurse stepped into the room and moved past me to turn off the call button Penny had switched on. She was smaller and softer looking than Southie but carried herself with the same no nonsense efficiency. With one glance she took in the squalling baby, the frustrated mother and the pissed-off lactation nurse and the spitting mad laundry hag squared off over the hospital bed like it was high noon at the O.K. Corral. “Okay, everyone out now, or I’ll call security.”
Frau Badass looked triumphant until the new nurse gestured for her to go as well. She shoulder-checked me on her way past and I growled at her low in my throat the way Atlas did when he saw squirrels in the yard
. Keep on moving, sister or I’ll tree your ass
My satisfaction was short-lived though because Marty was put out in the hall with us, the entire Sampson-Phillips clan kicked to the curb like a pack of flea-bitten dogs.
My brother rounded on me. “Thanks for that, laundry hag. What the hell is your damage?”
I started, surprised at the venom in his voice. “
damage? Did you really want Frau Badass mauling Penny like she was a lump of bread dough? I was trying to help.”
Marty’s face flushed and he opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again without speaking.
Neil, frigging hero that he was, rode to the rescue. “All the stuff we brought for the baby is in the camper. We’ll see you later, at home.” He extended the keys to my brother.
Marty stared at them for a beat, still seething. After what felt like an eon, he dug into his jeans pocket and extracted the keys to my Mini and they swapped.
“Marty,” I began but didn’t know how to finish. I still thought I was in the right—didn’t he get that I’d
for Penny—but the look on my brother’s face pierced my heart. It had been a stressful day for all of us and I hadn’t even gotten a chance to hold my niece.
Marty turned and walked off without saying another word. I tried to tug my arm free of Neil’s hold but he wouldn’t let go.
“This isn’t your fight, Maggie.”
He was right. Again. God, didn’t the man ever get tired of being right all the frigging time? All the fight went out of me and I let him lead me toward the parking lot, Josh and Kenny following in our wake.
Though it was juvenile, not to mention unchristian of me, I imagined Southie storming out to the nearest Walmart to buy Rogaine and smiled. Had to take the wins where I could.
“Maggie dear, so nice to see you.” Laura did that little faux kiss thing on my cheek. Didn’t actually press her lips to my skin—for fear of smudging her nude lip gloss no doubt—but more of a weird cheek to cheek peck gesture that I supposed denoted affection in birds of prey. I stifled a shudder. It wasn’t wise to stand so close, and one hand covered my heart in case she decided to rip it free from my chest and eat it before my eyes. I could almost see the blood drip down her cashmere twinset. Corporate attorneys did things like that.
Luckily, my mother-in-law turned her attention to Sylvia, who was resplendent in her simple black cocktail dress and heels. “And Sylvia, how are you?”
“Very well, thank you.” Sylvia was too poised to shift nervously from foot to foot, so I did it for her. I smelled a rat in the elegant townhouse. Just what was Laura up to? I glanced around for Leo, my inside man. Unfortunately, he was nowhere in sight.
“Hello sweetheart.” Ralph pulled me into a hug. I still wasn’t sure if he knew my name, since he called every woman he encountered sweetheart. His hand traveled down to my ass and he gave me a little tap there. I recoiled and pressed my backside into the wall. Had I really convinced Neil that dinner with his parents was a good idea? Stupid, stupid laundry hag.
Laura glowered at her husband as he gave Sylvia the same treatment. She squeaked and backed away, too. Ralph smiled and sipped clear liquid from his highball glass. “Who wants a drink?” he asked as he headed for the drawing room.
“Honestly Ralph, I’m amazed we don’t have a slew of sexual harassment lawsuits, the way you behave.” How a sexist man-pig like Ralph and a militant feminist like Laura made a marriage work was one of life’s great mysteries. Equally mind boggling, how had their DNA managed to combine into Neil’s utter perfection?
I took a quick look at Mr. Perfect—who was still ignoring me. Usually when we suffered through dinner with his parents, we’d exchange knowing glances and small smiles. On one memorable occasion we’d played footsie under the mammoth dining room table while his mother bitched about a client. But Neil’s halo was a tad tarnished and while I wouldn’t accuse him of sulking, he was definitely giving me the cold shoulder. Fine, I’d leave him to it, as long as I could anyway. We hadn’t exchanged two words since the hospital debacle and I felt a little sick. This was more than a rough patch. He’d driven the boys separately in his truck while Sylvia and I carpooled in my Mini, so we could speculate why Laura had summoned us.
Kenny and Josh took center stage while the adults sipped martinis. Their retelling of my encounter with Frau Badass was both overblown and hilarious.
“And we saw Aunt Penny’s booby!” Kenny announced, clearly scandalized.
I wondered how much Botox my mother-in-law consumed in a year. It must be considerable, what with the amount of frowning she did. In her late fifties, Laura’s skin was still mostly smooth, so either she’d sold whatever passed for her soul to Satan or she spent the equivalent of a third world country’s GNP on the stuff.
Still no sign of Leo. I knew from experience that the dragon lady would think me rude if I just came out and asked for him. Leo was the help, not family, after all. Maybe I ought to excuse myself to the little girl’s room and then peek into the kitchen. There’d be holy hell to pay if I got caught, but better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, right?
“Maggie, did you hear me?” Laura’s tone was sharp.
“No, sorry.” I drained my martini glass for fortification.
Laura’s hazel-green eyes—so much like her son’s but oh so much colder—narrowed. “I said,” she clipped out in a brittle tone, obviously irritated that I missed the memo the first time, “that we just purchased a lovely little place on the Delaware River.”
“Oh?” I feigned interest as best I could. Laura and Ralph bought real estate for a hobby and since the Great Recession, they seemed to acquire a new place every few months. Some they renovated and sold, others they rented, still others they donated to the local municipalities as halfway houses or battered women’s shelters. They went through houses like I went through tissues, so I couldn’t get too worked up about it and not look like the poor relation.
Laura’s world was martinis and investment properties. Mine was Walmart and brawling in the maternity ward. Who was I kidding, I
the burned, leafless branch of the Phillips family tree. More of a diseased stick than an actual branch.
Laura stared at me expectantly. What the hell was I supposed to say here?
didn’t seem appropriate.
Good for you
sounded like a kiss off. “That’s great,” I said like a total goober.
Her expression soured. “Yes, it is
Had I really thought coming here was a good idea?
Sylvia, sweetheart that she was, rode to my rescue. “Is the property on the water?”
Laura rotated toward my friend, warming to her topic. “Nearby, with a terrific view and access, but no, it’s not right on the water. That’s why we got it for a song.”
“That, and it’s haunted,” Ralph put in.
“Haunted?” Josh asked skeptically, the way only a twelve year old boy can.
“Cool!” Kenny crowed. “Was there a grisly murder there or something?”
“Pish. There’s no such thing as a haunted house.” Laura dismissed the ghost with the same nonchalance she did interns at her law firm.
“Of course, pet. But the legend that surrounds the place is what kept the price down. And will be exactly the sort of story that will help sell it. Once you take care of the lost soul of course.” Ralph saluted the room with his glass.
It took me a minute to realize that I was the you he meant. “Me?” I squeaked.
Ralph and Laura both stared at me expectantly. “You and Sylvia, of course.”
Sylvia looked as poleaxed as I felt. “What?”
Laura’s perfectly sculpted brows drew together. “I thought that was what you did with your new business. Neil mentioned something about cleaning up spirits.”
I blinked. Opened my mouth, then shut it. Cleaning up spirits? That sounded like mopping the floor of a bar. But they’d purchased a haunted house, not a tavern. My head swiveled toward my husband. Heat suffused his cheeks along the path of his sharp cheekbones. Slowly, he turned and met my incredulous stare. My first thought was that this was some twisted sort of revenge for the dinner or the hospital or the lack of lovin’, but Neil wasn’t that petty.
At least I didn’t
Steam must have billowed from my nostrils, because his eyes went wide. Never one to back down from a fight, his chin went up and he met and held my gaze.
I fired the opening salvo. “You told your mother that we were
?” I asked, my tone deliberately even to counteract the ridiculous statement.
Neil shook his head with vehemence. “No.” At Laura’s sharp inhale, he hastily tagged on, “Not exactly, anyway.”
I gave him my best squinty-eyed death stare. “What do you mean, not exactly?”
A lesser man would have scrambled around until he wormed his way out of the awkward situation. Neil drummed his fingers on his knee as he picked his words with care. “I’d mentioned that you were thinking of going into business with Sylvia. And that she would specialize in a spiritual cleanse. Those were her words exactly.”
“Right,” I said slowly. “But it was just an idea. We haven’t had time to come up with a business plan or anything. And just how did we get from talking about assisting Chi to cleaning up spirits?”
Laura looked as confused as her Botox treatments would allow. “Isn’t that the same thing?”
Sylvia started to shake her head and then paused, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I guess—”
I stood up before she could utter another word. “Neil, Sylvia, could I talk to you privately for a minute?” Without waiting for a reply, I strode from the room, a ship under full sail.
My husband and my business partner followed at a more sedate pace.
“Maggie,” Neil began, but I cut him off with a sharp hand gesture.
“Is this because I won’t have sex with you?” I blurted, before I thought better of it.
A muscle jumped in his jaw. “Sylvia, give us a minute.”
She turned to go but I gripped her like a lifeline. Tired and upset and betrayed, I didn’t want to be alone with him, not in the volatile mood we were both in.
He glanced at my grip on her arm, then back to my face. “Calm down,” he said.
Oh man, he
better than to tell me to calm down. “You’re doomed,” I told him through gritted teeth. I didn’t know how or when, but that much was certain.
“If you’ll just listen—”
“Doomed,” I repeated as the fury grew into a raging inferno, the kind of crazy that ate the sanity right out of a body.
Neil stared at me for a minute as though he’d never seen me before, then turned and walked away.
The anger evaporated as suddenly as it had come on and I sank down against the wall.
“Maggie, are you all right?” Sylvia asked me.
The short answer was no, I sure as hell wasn’t all right. But the thought of putting words to something I didn’t fully comprehend….I just shook my head. “Give me a minute.”
She knelt down beside me, oblivious to her dress or the cold that seeped through the tile floor. Her quiet, undemanding presence soothed my frazzled nerves. Distantly, I heard the clanking in the kitchen, pots and pans, the low murmur of conversation, the steady bustle of feet as the drones buzzed about doing the queen bee’s bidding.
“A freaking ghost?” I said to Sylvia.
Her low chuckle made me smile. “You have to admit, it’s different. And it was sweet of her to think of us.”
Poor misguided Sylvia, always seeing the best in people. Laura would grind her bones into paste for a light evening repast. “No, it certainly wasn’t sweet. It’s a pity job.”
She squeezed my arm. “Maybe, but it’s also a
“Family wages,” I muttered. “No reward is worth the grief. Besides, you’re a life coach now, right?”
She winced. “Yeah, about that. I don’t think it’s going to work out. I don’t feel like I have the right to tell people how to live when I can’t get my own life together.”
Well, that made one of us. “Okay, but what the hell could we do about a ghost infestation? It’s not like there are humane traps for disembodied spirits at the local hardware store.”
“Fly paper?” Sylvia asked with a grin.
“Hell, we could just make one out of duct tape.” I smiled at the thought of a pissed off ghost stuck to a giant silver hag-spun web.
She nodded. “This might be a good trial run, to see if the two of us actually can work together. If we can’t, well, then we’ll know and won’t lose our shirts on a doomed experiment.”
“So, you catch them and I’ll tidy their graves? Nothing ruins the death experience like mold and mildew.”
Our laughter was interrupted by the smart click of heels. “What on earth is going on here?”
“Just a business meeting.” I hefted myself off the floor. “Laura, I’m not sure what you thought we could do about your…um….ghost, but—”
She cut me off with a sharp gesture. “Maggie, you don’t need to do anything.”
I blinked. “No? Then why—?”
“You’re the placebo.”
Laura rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter what you do there, so long as people
you are doing something worthwhile. I already have Leo working PR with the local paper. They’re going to do a story on the revitalization of a haunted house.”