Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
“Gotta fix that.” I scribbled it on the list. It’d probably be easier to just scrawl the word “everything” in the gotta fix column and call it a day.
I spied Neil out the window, working with his shirt off. A sigh escaped. He was perfect, from the dark hair that was just starting to thread with silver to the flex of ropy muscles beneath the tanned skin as he loaded debris into a wheel barrow. Sharing was caring and I beckoned Sylvia over. “Check out the view.”
“Hubba, hubba.” She winked at me and then leaned out as far as she could and catcalled, “Hell-
Neil, sweat-slicked and utterly glorious, turned in our direction, looked up and waved. “Ladies.”
We watched him work for a while, ogling as he bent, stretched and moved. “I feel like a pervert,” I said, my gaze glued on his jean-clad posterior. Atlas bounded up from the brook sopping wet, stopped three feet from Neil, and shook. Neil yelped as he was coated in half a bog’s worth of water. A bevy of colorful curse words drifted our way, along with a glee-filled bark.
“He’s yours to watch,” Sylvia pointed out. She somehow managed to turn away from the earthy display below. “So, it’s not like you’re tired of each other.”
“I’ll never be tired of him,” I replied. “Doesn’t matter how old he is, or how old I am, I’ll still want him.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Somehow I found the strength to turn away and hold up my hands for her inspection. “You see this? That’s the problem.”
Her eyebrows drew together. “The scars? Do they hurt?”
“No, but just look at him.” I gestured at Neil’s golden glory. “He’s perfect and I’m a mess.”
Sylvia didn’t say anything and, disgusted with myself, I picked up the pad of paper and looked around. The light fixture in the ceiling was garish but functional. I added a maybe column there. Neil had something in the truck to test the outlets to make sure they worked, so we’d come back to that later.
“Maggie.” Sylvia sat on the bed, her legs crossed in front of her. She patted the spot next to her, indicating that I should sit and talk with her.
“There’ll be hell to pay if Leo catches us sitting down on the job,” I warned her.
She shrugged. “Like he’s not just finding busy work to keep us out of the way.”
I sat, though my body refused to bend the way hers did.
Old. Broken. Mess.
I must have made a face, because Sylvia took my hands in hers. “First of all, no one is perfect.”
My chin went up. “Neil is.”
She shook her head. “No, he’s not. Ask him, he’ll tell you.”
“His shoulder isn’t his fault.” Neil had done serious damage to his rotator cuff years ago, effectively ending his career with the SEAL teams. “And other than that he’s the picture of health. He can still run a five minute mile, for crying out loud.”
Sylvia nodded slowly. “Okay, I’ll give you he’s physically fit. He works hard to stay that way. You could too, if you really wanted it.”
I snorted. Sylvia had tried to drag me down the healthy lifestyle road before and it had ended in a five car pile-up.
“You could, but I’m not going to argue with you over it. You weren’t exactly an Olympic Athlete when you guys first got together, right?”
I shook my head. My rounded physique had been a constant since I was eight, part of being bred from sturdy Scots stock. Generations back, thin people died from starvation caused by famine, while heftier ones lived to procreate and pass on their chubby DNA. Extra weight piled onto my hips, thighs and ass and whenever I
manage to shed a few pounds, it always came right from the boobs.
“So, how are your scars any different than Neil’s rotator cuff?”
I glared at her. “It is different. He got those in the line of duty.”
“You saved a woman’s life.” Sylvia’s tone was quiet. “These are a badge of honor. If you were in the military, you’d be awarded a purple heart. You’re as much a hero as your husband.”
I opened my mouth, and then shut it again when I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. Did she really view me in that light?
She did, I could tell by the look on her face. Sylvia believed I was some sort of champion of the weak, defender of the oppressed, instead of a dumbass busybody who didn’t have enough sense to stay home.
“It’s not only me, either. Neil sees you like that, too. Like a hero.”
I made a rude noise. “No, he doesn’t. He kept telling me to stay out of it, tried to keep me out of it. I didn’t listen and ended up in the hospital. Twice.”
“I’ve seen how he looks at you when you’re doing something else,” she argued. “He may be upset that you got hurt, but there’s this…I don’t know quite how to describe it.”
“Obligation to the mentally handicapped?” I offered.
She waved her hand in circles, as though conjuring the words out of the air. It must have worked because she continued, “Sense of wonder. As though he’s struggling to accept that you’re real. As if he can’t believe you’re his. He’s in awe of you, Maggie.”
The breath caught in my throat and it took some effort to get the word up out of my chest. “Why?”
Sylvia shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him.”
“You smell like wet dog,” I said and plucked a stray piece of grass off Neil’s bare chest, then handed over the glass of ice tea I’d brought him.
“All part of my master plan.” He wiped an arm across his sweaty forehead and took the glass with a grateful smile, which was just so Neil. Appreciative, regardless of how small the gesture. “What have you been up to?”
I studied him from beneath my lashes, in search of the awe or wonder Sylvia had mentioned, but saw only mild curiosity. My hand shook a little and I clenched my fist so it wouldn’t show. I strove to keep my tone light, “Besides ogling the help, you mean? Why, exploring the great wide world of inspecting toilets. The pipe in the wall behind the master bath sounds as though someone flushed a wrench whenever the upstairs bowl sees any action.”
“Fascinating.” He drained the glass and handed it back to me and turned back to his raking. “Any sign of the ghost?”
“No, and personally, I hope it stays that way, considering she predicts death. Alex from the diner gave me the Grants’ address. I was thinking of stopping by. Wanna come with?”
Instead of answering, he tipped his head to the side and asked a question of his own. “Isn’t Sylvia going with you?”
I shook my head. “No, she’s going to be burning sage and cleansing the house of any lingering spirits. There’s not much we can do about the bean nighe, but any other ghosts will skedaddle after that.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Skedaddle?”
I nodded. “The official ghost-hunting term.”
He smiled. “Just give me a few minutes to clean up.”
“Tell me if there’s anything hinky with the shower,” I called out to his retreating backside. Damn, a few weeks ago he would have invited me to shower with him. He must have grown tired of nonstop rejection. Could I blame him?
I sat down on a river stone bench and stared out at the water. And if he had invited me to join him, would I have been able to get over my mental hang-ups and accept? Probably not. I wanted him, but ran when he expressed any sexual interest, and when he didn’t, I felt lost.
There really wasn’t any pleasing me. So why did he keep trying?
I snorted. The answer came before the question fully formed in my head. Because he was a SEAL and they never said die, never gave up, even when they probably should.
The water level was higher than it’d been that morning, almost completely covering the huge boulders that made up the rapids of the scenic upper Delaware. A train roared along on the Pennsylvania side of the river, adding a manmade element to this otherwise pristine bit of nature.
I felt something at my side, a presence, but when I looked over my shoulder expecting to see Atlas, there was nothing.
Probably too much time contemplating the ghost. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself. From Granny McIntyre’s stories, Celtic spirits were one of two distinct kinds—mischievous or vengeful. For centuries Scotland had been a hard, unyielding place that produced hardy and strong-minded inhabitants. No Casper the friendly ghosts populated highland lore. Changelings, Selkies, frigging Nessie, all had their own agenda and would harm humans willy-nilly if it served their purpose. No, righteous souls didn’t linger on the mortal plane, but moved on to whatever came next, be it heaven or damnation.
Of course that was the old country, and while this place had a history, we weren’t hearing tales of river trout that captured weekenders or wood sprites who enchanted children and led them to their doom. This was a different location, a different age, so why had a bean nighe immigrated?
Where the tellers went, the stories followed. I still hadn’t made up my mind if I actually believed in ghosts in general but some deep-seated instinct warned me to tread carefully. Skeptics weren’t immune to whatever mischief the ghosts came up with.
My phone rang. My signal was sketchy at best in the house but outside I got half a bar. “Hello?”
“Hey hag, how’s it hanging?” my brother asked.
I grinned in spite of myself. “If you’re talking about my sanity, by a thread of dental floss. How are things there? Did the boys get off to school all right? How’s May? And Penny?”
Marty snorted. “Sixteen more until you make the full twenty questions.”
“Huh, I didn’t know you could count that high.” It felt good to banter with my brother and my shoulders relaxed. “Seriously though, what’s up?”
I’d spoken to the boys last night after our arrival and they’d seemed all right but I knew from experience that adolescent boys could go from zero to oh holy hell in three point two seconds.
Marty heaved a put-upon sigh. “Can’t a brother just call his big sister to chat without something being wrong?”
Maybe somebody else’s brother. “No.”
“Fine, but it’s really not—”
“Out with it, Marty.”
He hesitated but then blurted, “It’s May’s father.”
May was not Marty’s biological daughter. The real baby daddy was supposedly a bigwig in the small southern town Penny hailed from, as well as an abusive womanizer. Marty had absconded with Penny while she was still pregnant, with big plans to rescue her and her child, but in typical Marty fashion, he’d gone about it in an incredibly half-assed manner. Still, his heart was in the right place, and Neil and I had agreed to help him sort out the whole kerfuffle.
“What about him?” My tone was wary. “I thought the lawyer Ralph recommended had handled everything.” My family had been giving the Massachusetts legal system a helluva workout.
“He’s demanding a paternity test.”
I blinked, not sure I’d heard that right. “He doesn’t think May is his?”
“I guess not.” Marty sounded glum.
“What does Penny have to say about it? Is there any possibility he’s right?” Penny had arrived on our doorstep—or more accurately, in our bathtub—six months pregnant. She’d been showing when Marty first met her, so we knew he wasn’t the father. But maybe Penny had a few secrets of her own.
“I haven’t said anything to her yet.”
“Marty! Why the hell not?” I rose, unable to sit still while we had this conversation.
My brother’s tone turned defensive. “She’s so stressed out, Maggie. She barely sleeps at night and she’s just getting used to everything with May. I try to help her out, the boys too, but still, she cries half the time she’s awake.”
Guilt surged up inside me like one of those giant rocks in the river. Damn it all to hell, I knew I shouldn’t have left them. Neil and Atlas approached from the side, my husband clean once more, but the dog muddier than ever.
“Marty,” I mouthed at him. “All hell’s breaking loose.”
Hazel eyes searched my face. “Do you want to head home?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, but then really looked at him. Dark circles ringed his eyes like a coffee mug would a hardwood end table. I’d taken on this job for one main reason, to reconnect with my husband. If I called it off now, we might never get our marriage back on track.
“No,” I mouthed and shook my head.
Marty was still kvetching in my ear. “I don’t know what to do.”
Neil’s expression didn’t change but I could tell he was pleased. “Okay, I’m going to take Atlas down to the river and get him cleaned off. You finish up your conversation and then we’ll head out.”
I watched him go, secure in the knowledge that I’d made the right call.
“Maggie, you still there?” Marty sounded stressed.
Taking a deep, fortifying breath, I made up a plan of attack any idiot could follow. “Okay, Sprout, here’s what you need to do.”
“So, he’s going to tell Penny?” Neil asked, after I’d filled him in on the situation.
“He’s got to. She’s the only legal guardian at this point and she needs to be aware of what’s going on, no matter what has her knickers in a twist.” I checked the address for the Grants, but the GPS had done us dirty. It flaked out and lost the signal every ten feet. “I think we missed the turn.”
“We didn’t miss it.” Neil took a corner with ease.
“How would you know? You’ve never been here before.” Momentum slammed me against the door and I nearly cracked my skull on the window. “Easy! We’re on a dirt road, for crying out loud.”
He cast me an apologetic glance. “Sorry. But seriously, we’re not lost. It’s called the country for a reason, Uncle Scrooge. Do you think the guy is trying to wriggle out of paying child support?”
The thought had crossed my mind more than once. “If so, why wouldn’t he just let Marty adopt May?”
His thumbs drummed on the steering wheel. “Sometimes people do things for no discernible reason.”
The verbal barb made my hackles rise. I squared my shoulders and narrowed my eyes at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
His expression was mild. “Nothing, just making noise.”
I cast him a withering stare. “It’s not like you to be all passive-aggressive.”
“I’m not,” he insisted as we jounced over the rutted dirt. “Look, you’ll have to trust me. Let’s keep our eye on the prize here, all right?”
Since the prize was a ghost, I wasn’t sold on the wisdom of his plan, but we’d taken the last turn to the Grants’ driveway. The narrow wooded lane opened up to yield rolling hills and a small turn of the century—the 19
not the 20
— stone farmhouse. Situated on a bluff several hundred feet above the winding river valley was the mansion estate the Grants oversaw for nearly half a decade.
Both places were in direct contrast to the Phillips’ new property—i.e., obviously well-tended. I focused on the cottage. The shutters were coated with fresh black paint, dark as ink. The window boxes glinted white in the late afternoon sunshine and a few green herbs poked out of the rich brown soil. The stone steps that led up to the front door were swept free of grass clippings and fallen leaves. Light strained through enormous oaks that flanked the property, dappling the place in picturesque light. Thomas Kinkade couldn’t have done better.
A man with long, shaggy gray hair tied back from his face with a strip of leather hunched over a pitch fork in what promised to be a decent-sized garden patch. He raised a hand to us in greeting, and we descended from the truck and moved in his direction. Though a chain link fence surrounded the patch of freshly turned earth, the mesh gate stood open and Neil and I headed toward it.
“So, do you want to let me in on the plan?” Neil murmured.
“Plan?” I hissed back.
“Well, we can’t just walk up to him and ask if he’s seen the bean nighe roaming around.”
“Why not?” In fact, that had pretty much been my entire plan. Scots, in my experience, tended to be blunt people, sure and to the point. Either he’d tell us about the bean nighe or he’d tell us to take a hike. Though always hospitable and rich in storytelling culture, they were thrifty with their money, their time and their words, especially to strangers.
“Maggie, he’ll think we’re nuts.”
“Okay. We’ll wing it.”
He made a disparaging noise, not a fan of my off-the-cuff plans. I chose to ignore his criticism and pasted on a broad smile to greet the gardener. “Mr. Grant?”
He started as he got a close look at us, his lips parting as though to say something. They closed, he swallowed and then finally he spoke. “Aye, that I am, lass. Do I ken ye?”