Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
Well, that explained where Leo was, but I still didn’t understand what I could do about a haunted house. “So, why do you need us?”
A slow grin spread across Sylvia’s features. “To make it look like we’re doing something about the ghost, even if we can’t. That way, you can dispel the rumors and tell people the ghost has been dealt with at the same time as you get the word out. A total win-win. That’s brilliant, Laura.”
“In any case, there isn’t a ghost.” Laura’s hands went to her slim hips. “But people are seldom interested in the truth. It’s the notoriety of it all that’s the real gold mine. So. What do you say, ladies?”
Sylvia actually bounced on the balls of her feet but I put a staying hand on her arm. Being impulsive had hurt me before and I had too much at stake to make a snap decision. With a metric ton of baggage to consider, I needed to hash things out with Neil before we committed to anything.
I squared my shoulders and met my mother-in-law’s gaze, full on. “We’ll let you know.”
“Hey.” I found Neil in the miniscule back garden.
“Hey yourself.” He took a pull from his beer—God alone knew where he’d found it—but he didn’t look at me.
There was enough space on the bench for me to sit next to him, but I had to know something first. “On a scale of one to ten, one being miffed and ten being you want my guts for garters, how angry are you?”
He didn’t smile and his voice was level as he said, “Don’t have too much use for garters myself.”
Joking was good, or at least it was better than yelling or cold silence. I sat beside him, not quiet touching but close enough to share body heat. The damp spring air cooled my flushed face. Or maybe after a day full of Walmart, hospitals and my in-laws, I simply needed the reprieve a hidden garden offered.
“I used to come out here whenever it got to be too much in there.” Neil indicated the house with his beer bottle.
“Did you?” He’d never told me that before. “Did it help?”
He nodded. “Sometimes. Like if I failed a test and Mom was on the warpath. Other times, not so much. Like when Dad had a new mistress.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “Your father had an affair? Did Laura know?” I couldn’t imagine that she would know and Ralph would still have all his body parts attached.
“Not just one. Multiple women. Not constantly, but often enough. He was always discrete about it, but I could tell when the pattern started up again. Hang-up phone calls, nights when he stayed too late at the office, shit like that. And if I knew, I’m positive she did.”
“Holy frigging crap,” I muttered. My heart went out to my husband. In my mind’s eye I could see him, a scared kid, maybe the same age as Josh was now, perched all alone in the darkness and worried about what would happen with his family. And the overused organ in my chest ached for the man I’d met years before, a father with two beautiful children of his own whose first wife had cheated on him in the same par for the course, cavalier way. And for maybe the first time, I felt a pang of sympathy for my mother-in law, too.
Neil polished off his beer. “The worst part, though, was that if she did know, she didn’t do anything about it. You know my mother, she gets results. That was what I used to think about when I sat out here. Not why he did what he did, but why she didn’t put a stop to it. In the end, I don’t think it really mattered to her. They got married for my sake but as to actually being a family, well…she just wasn’t interested. ”
“God, Neil.” I took his warm hand between my cold ones and squeezed. In the dark I couldn’t see my mangled hands, but it wouldn’t matter if I could. My man needed me and I wished fervently I had more to offer him.
“I hadn’t thought about all that for a long time. Maybe because I don’t run away and hide from problems anymore. Maybe because I’m like her and I’m used to doing, to getting results, even if they aren’t the ones I intended.” His tone was rueful, but he squeezed my hand before withdrawing his own. “You used to make it so easy for me, Maggie. You never once hesitated to tell me what was on your mind or in your heart. I think I took it for granted a little bit. That you would always be you.”
“I’m still me,” I assured him, though I had my doubts. “I haven’t changed since high school.”
There was anguish in his voice as he answered—a sort of hoarse rasp that scraped along my every nerve ending. “Yes, you have. And it’s my fault. I couldn’t protect you from it, from what happened with the Klines or the Valentinos. You were hurt because I didn’t stop it and it’s affected you. How could it not? You were always so strong, so capable, and now….”
I thought, but couldn’t say it. Didn’t need to say it. The words sat there between us in the expanding gulf that kept us both from being who we were meant to be.
He turned to look at me and I could barely make out his profile in the darkness. “You’re afraid and I don’t blame you. I blame
. It was my job to keep you safe and I let you down. That will haunt me forever. I don’t know what to do to help you. And you…you don’t seem at all interested in helping me figure out how to make it right.”
Lord have mercy. Emotions warred within me, fear, anger, guilt, but most of all a wrenching tenderness for the man beside me. A man who wasn’t afraid to take the entire weight of my baggage onto his massive shoulders. He loved me that much and I owed him so much more than I’d given him lately.
And what as worse, he was right. As stupid as it was, deep down I did blame him for not protecting me. Not the way I blamed myself, but I’d had endless hours of recovery to imagine ways it all could have been different. To wonder what if. What if I hadn’t involved myself with the Klines or the Valentinos? What if Neil had fought me harder, done more to stop me, talked sense into me? It was sick and twisted, but that didn’t change the truth. He was supposed to be my hero, supposed to take on all odds and see me safely through any ordeal unscathed.
But I had been scathed, massively. Not just the healing burns, but my innate faith that good would triumph. I’d come so close to being murdered. Twice. The fact that I might be too stupid to live for getting involved in those cases in the first place was on me, but Neil was right. I’d counted on him and he hadn’t been there when I needed him most.
This wasn’t a quick fix conversation, something we could hash out in the darkened sweet scented garden with the tulips popping through the moistened ground. Not even on Dr. Bob’s Naugahyde couch with new pennies glinting in our marriage facilitator’s loafers. We had to work our way back together, to reestablish a trust we’d both taken for granted.
Decision made, I immediately felt better, more like the old Maggie somehow. Because I had a goal, a purpose, and failure was
“I am interested,” I murmured and took his hand again in a firm, no-nonsense grip. Let him try to get away. I’d hunt him like a lioness hunts a baby gazelle across the savannah and take him down to the ground and consume him.
He didn’t move or make a sound but I could feel his relief. It cascaded off of him in waves.
“Do you wanna catch a ghost with me?”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Sylvia squealed.
“Sssh,” Penny and Marty, the sleep-deprived new parents shushed her in unison.
Baby May, the blond-haired blue-eyed cherub, stirred in her bassinette. We all held our collective breaths, but she simply sighed deeply and slept on. Soft suckling sounds came from her rosebud mouth.
“What a good girl.” I grinned down at the newest addition to our family. I’d been so freaked out by hospital drama that I hadn’t appreciated my newborn niece at first. More than a week later, I couldn’t bear the thought of parting from her. There was no help for it though. A haunted fixer upper on the scenic upper Delaware didn’t exactly scream childproof. And the research Leo had done on the place made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
“It says here that most ghosts are only partially aware of the living world.” Sylvia moderated her tone to barely above a whisper. “Spooky.”
“So then they can’t hurt anybody, right?” Marty asked. He wore green plaid pajama bottoms, and one side of his shaggy dark hair stuck up straight while the other was mashed down flat. His gray T-shirt was stained with baby spit up and spilled coffee, and his red-rimmed eyes told me he’d rather be sleeping than talking turkey with the ghost hunters. But since he and Penny were in charge of Kenny and Josh, he needed to stay informed of our plans.
“Of course not,” I assured him, though I had no proof of anything. I still wasn’t sure how I’d been nominated to morph into ghost huntress extraordinaire.
“Your folks are as nutty as a bin full of used jock straps,” I’d said to Neil the night before. “Who buys a house they know nothing about?”
“That’s why it’s called a risk, Uncle Scrooge.” Neil patted my butt on his way to his sock drawer. “They might have a great place, or it could be a total pit. I’ll pack the camping gear just in case, though.”
Neil and the boys had gotten me to go camping exactly once and I’d vowed on my mother’s lemon pound cake recipe that I’d never do it again. While the idea of snuggling with the man I loved under a blanket of stars
wonderful, the reality was mud, mosquitoes and magpies trying to nest in my hair. Maybe I would have been more forgiving of the great outdoors if there were some way for me to pee and keep my backside poison ivy-free at the same time. As it was, there were certain places a girl just didn’t want to have a rash, because calamine lotion should never be used as a lubricant.
I shoved aside the unpleasant thoughts of living rough and returned to the task at hand. Namely, research. Though Laura had made it clear she didn’t really expect us to do anything about the ghost, Sylvia had prepped a ghost-be-gone kit equipped with everything from dried sage to Peter Venkman’s proto pack, which she’d procured from Craigslist. You really could get anything there.
“Don’t cross the streams,” I muttered and stared at the device, which looked like nothing more than a car battery strapped into a cradleboard with a hose attached via duct tape.
“Hmmm?” Sylvia continued to scour the internet for more mentions of our apparition.
“You know that thing isn’t real, right?” I gestured toward the pack.
“Sure it is.” She double clicked on another screen.
I was torn. Yes, it was great to see Sylvia enthusiastic about something, even if it was a ridiculous exercise in futility arranged by my mother-in-law. Her divorce had rattled her confidence and while living with Marty and company helped her make ends meet, she’d been floundering, at a loss as to what to do next. I could so relate, but the whole ghost hunting thing…I still didn’t know how I felt about it.
Neil and I had agreed to oversee the project because we needed to spend time out of our natural habitat. We needed to reconnect, to bond, and the home improvement project was just what Dr. Bob ordered. Literally. He’d told us to get away together. He probably hadn’t meant with my wacky best friend armed with ghost-busting goodness in tow, but we’d left that bit out.
I nudged the proto pack with one finger. “It looks nothing like it did in the movie. And even if it did, that was just a prop.”
“But the movie was based on a real ghost hunter’s story,” she argued without looking up.
“There was a giant marshmallow man bent on destroying New York City. How real could it be?” My incredulity came out louder than intended, and May jumped and cried.
Penny gave me the evil eye as she scooped her daughter up and rocked her in a comforting gesture. “There, there sugar booger, it’s all right.”
Worst. Nickname. Ever.
“Sorry,” I hissed, then rose from the table. “I’d better go finish loading the car.”
Penny allowed me to drop a kiss onto May’s sweet scented head. If only cleaning products came in that baby fresh aroma. On second thought, better that they didn’t because there’d be even more imbeciles huffing chemicals out of aerosol cans.
Marty walked me to the door. My brother was newly employed at the local Stop-N-Rob as a night clerk, a job that scared me out of my wits. I pulled him into a tight hug. “Promise me you won’t do anything heroic while we’re gone.”
Marty made a dismissive sound that was part nose whistle, part scoff. “Do I look like an idiot?”
Probably a rhetorical question. “I’ll send the boys over as soon as they’re done with their homework.” Our plan was to get on the road tonight, though there was no chance we’d get to the place before dark. That way we’d see it in all its spooktacular glory and get a feel for what we were dealing with.
And maybe be back by morning if it was half as bad as I feared.
“Are you sure you guys can handle everything?” I asked Marty for the bazillionth time. “We can always wait and go next week so you don’t have to juggle May and my boys, too.”
“Maggie, go. You need to get out of this town for a little while. Trust me, Josh and Kenny will be fine. I’ll hold down the fort and we’ll see you next weekend.”
“Not if we see you first.” I hugged him and sent up a silent prayer to our parents to watch over him and the lives for which he was responsible.
I was snuffling like an idiot by the time I reached my own doorstep and detoured to the garage instead of the house. Neil was in there, inventorying what we’d take in his truck and what we could cram into Sylvia’s car. Atlas snuffled through the various toolboxes and bags that waited next to Neil’s truck. The dog added a little extra slobber in case our bags were too dry.
“How’s it going, Slick?”
Neil grinned at me from the bed of his truck. “Almost there. Did you get your baby fix?”
May’s scent still lingered in my olfactory receptors. “Best smell in the world. Other than fresh coffee.”
Neil hopped down from the bed of the truck in one fluid movement. He looked better than he had in weeks, happier and more like himself. This trip was a good thing, no matter how harebrained its inception. “Poor Uncle Scrooge. Is your biological clock ticking?”
He meant it as a joke but I froze. Not that I’d been moving, yet every cell in my body stopped and waited. The baby thing kept coming up, like a song stuck on repeat. It was only natural, what with our family’s latest addition, but it was one thing to appreciate May in all her pink-cheeked perfection, quite another to imagine my own baby. I didn’t know how to respond.
Neil and I had exactly one pregnancy scare in our relationship, way back in the beginning when we weren’t sure we’d have a future together. Nothing had come of it and Kenny was still in diapers at the time, Josh barely a toddler. By mutual consent, we’d delayed any discussion of adding more offspring to the mix and I’d been diligent about birth control for more than a decade. The subject hadn’t come up again.
Not until now.
“Sorry,” he said, though his tone didn’t hold a hint of apology. If I had to put a name to the emotion he exuded I’d call it wistfulness.
“Nothing to be sorry about.” I didn’t have any regrets. I really didn’t.
One finger traced along the side of my face. “Do you ever think about it? What a child of ours would be like?”
“Of course I did.” Did he? His demeanor suggested he did but I was afraid to ask.
“You never said anything.” His touch was gentle, sweet but careful, like I was breakable. Maybe I was.
“It never seemed like the right time to talk about it. It’s still not.” Not with the mess we were currently in. Adding something small and helpless and completely dependent on us for its survival seemed almost cruel.
“I know.” His hazel eyes were hooded, seductive. “But it’s a thought.”
A very appealing one what with the way he touched me. Tenderly, with sure strokes that blotted out my good judgment. It’d been so long since we’d shared a moment cocooned in intimacy meant for the two of us alone. Even though I’d slithered away from it, I’d longed for it too. No shouting or door slamming or idiot dog barking up a storm. I leaned into his caress, savored the rough texture of his calloused hands. For the first time in weeks the panic and fear weren’t with me and I only wanted our connection to go on forever.
Of course it didn’t.
“Hey, thought I’d let you know, Leo just pulled up.” Sylvia popped her head around the corner of the garage.
Neil and I sprang apart as though guilty of doing something more than canoodling and talking crazy. My heart pounded against my ribcage as though the damn thing wanted to burst forth and ricochet off the garage walls. I shook my head as though I could rattle the errant thought Neil had placed in there free. Did he really want to talk about us having a baby, or was that just a new way of hinting that we should make with the lovin’?
Sylvia’s eyebrows went up as she looked between the two of us. “Should I give you guys a minute?”
Neil snorted. “It’d take more than a minute for what I had in mind.”
I looked away to hide my blush and focused on the mountain of stuff that we still needed to load. No way would it all fit, even with Neil arranging the bed of the truck like it was a giant jigsaw puzzle. “It’s fine, Sylvia. Do you have any more room?”
Since there were three of us, plus a monkey-butt-ton—the technical term—of tools, cleaning supplies and ghost busting stuff, we were caravanning along with Leo, who knew where he was going, to the place in upstate New York, a small town nestled along the Delaware River near the Catskill Mountains.
Sylvia shook her head and grinned. “Nope, my car is packed to the gills.”
“And possibly radioactive,” I muttered. Who’d have thought my vegan neighbor, who made her own herbal deodorant, would have cornered the market on toxic ghost remedies?
Sylvia wrinkled her nose. “It’s not
bad. Most of the stuff is completely organic.”
“So is the Ebola Virus. Organic doesn’t mean harmless. Look at Neil’s mom.”
Neil covered his laugh with a cough. “Play nice, Uncle Scrooge.”
“I just want to make sure our bases are covered,” Sylvia said with a shrug.
From her preemptive packing list I felt certain Sylvia had covered acids, bases and everything in between. Her enthusiasm for our mission was weird, but it was nice to see her revved up about something again. I just wished it was contagious.
“Maggie, you’re riding with me, right? I just downloaded eight steps to a cleaner aura onto my iPod and I thought we could listen to it on the ride.”
I pasted on a smile, though it felt a tad brittle. “Sounds great.”