Ghosts Gone Wild

CHAPTER ONE

It’s a new dawn. A new day. A new life. A new … everything, and it’s stressing me out.

To take some of the pressure off my shoulders, I’d hired a part-time assistant at the flower shop. It wasn’t working out quite the way I’d planned. In just two excruciating weeks, she’d managed to flood the walk-in cooler, break the coffee machine, and total my brand-new delivery van.

Lizzie Hartwell was a sweet, well-meaning girl with an interest in floral design, an easy smile, and—until a week ago—a clean driving record. I was new to being the boss lady and hadn’t yet found a gentle way to let her go. At the same time, summer was here, and I was in desperate need of an extra set of hands to help get me through wedding season—regardless of how clumsy they might be.

When the sound of shattering glass caused me to drop the birds of paradise I was placing in a large-scale tropical arrangement, I started to rethink my Ms. Marshmallow stance.

“Sorry!” Lizzie called from the front of the shop.

“Another one bites the dust,” Gwen said from her place at the front counter. She was snooping through the computer that pulled local and online orders.

You’re the one who recommended her!” I hissed to my ghostly gal-pal.

Gwen shrugged her translucent shoulders. “I swear, I never noticed the butter-finger thing when she worked as a shampoo girl at Lucky Lady.”

I sighed. It wasn’t her fault. As Beechwood Harbor’s gossip queen, she buzzed through my flower shop on a daily basis to see who was sending flowers to whom—and why. Then she carried the scoop back to the Lucky Lady Salon, where the primo gossip percolated. When Lizzie had answered my help-wanted ad in the local newspaper, Gwen signed off without hesitation.

Still, I couldn’t blame her for missing the shy girl’s utter lack of hand-eye coordination when there was so much hot gossip zinging around. No, at the end of the day, hiring Lizzie had been my call and I’d have to live with it, at least until I could woman up and let her go. Or until she burned the shop down and I no longer needed an assistant.

I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead. “Is it really too much to ask that we go one day without something ending up broken?”

“I don’t think so,” Gwen said, drifting away from the computer.

She doesn’t know the meaning of rhetorical.

Doing my best to keep the irritation out of my voice, I called, “Everything okay out there?”

“Yeah! I’ll get it all cleaned up right away!” came the frantic reply.

I drew in a slow, cleansing breath. “When I hired an assistant, I didn’t realize I needed to have padding installed on the floors. I also didn’t think that she’d be assisting me by putting my van in the body shop for a week,” I whispered to Gwen.

Gwen offered a sympathetic frown. “She means well.”

I opened my eyes and gave a slight nod. “I know. That’s what makes it so hard to get rid of her.”

“Not to mention you’re super swamped right now.” Gwen smiled as she tossed her long, sun-bleached hair over her shoulder, sending her feather earrings jangling. “It’s Four Weddings and a Funeral over here! Literally!”

“Tell me about it,” I grumbled, unable to match her level of enthusiasm. Truthfully, it was all a smidgen overwhelming. I’d gone from a wanderlust world traveler to a one-woman show under the microscope of a tight-knit community that seemed to be closing in on me a little bit further each day. In the past two weeks alone, I’d been forced to quick-talk my way out of three separate offers to set me up on a blind date. The locals wanted to get to know their newest resident and it appeared that the more I tried to close the door, the harder they were willing to push.

All of that was more than enough to keep me just inches from the brink of losing my sanity, but then the ghosts got involved and things went from barely manageable to circus-monkeys-loose-in-department-store crazy in two seconds flat.

“You okay, Scarlet?” Gwen asked when I started massaging my temples.

“I’ll be fine,” I told her. “I’m just feeling a little frazzled today.”

A Cheshire grin spread over Gwen’s delicate face. “That wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Lucas is coming back into town tonight, would it?”

“No,” I said before heaving a sigh. “It has everything to do with the fact that I am van-less for the rest of the afternoon and have three deliveries to make.”

“Doesn’t Lizzie have a car?”

“She has half of a car,” I replied, twisting my lips into a sour pout. “It’s one of those mini something-or-others that has no cargo space whatsoever.”

Lizzie rounded the corner from the front of the shop into the studio space and carefully dumped a dustbin full of shattered glass into the large trash can by the back door. She shot me a guilty look. “I’m really sorry, Scarlet. You can take it out of my paycheck.”

“That’s cute, she still thinks she’s getting one,” Flapjack, the ghost of my childhood Himalayan cat sauntered into view from underneath my work bench. “If I were you, Scar, I’d give her walking papers before she takes out anything else.”

Lizzie was not gifted/cursed with the ability to see ghosts and stood, wringing her hands, as Flapjack handed down his sentence.

I sidestepped the fluffy ghost and placed a hand on Lizzie’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Lizzie. Accidents happen.”

Flapjack made a sneeze-slash-cough sound that clearly communicated he thought I was being a pushover.

I ignored him. “If you can make a note of what was broken, I’ll take it out of the inventory database.”

Lizzie looked up at me through her thick lashes, her brown eyes glossy with unshed tears. “Are you sure? You’re not going to fire me?”

It was all I could do to keep myself from sighing. Instead, I forced a smile that I hoped came across as warm and shook my head. “I’m not going to fire you, but please try to be careful. I know we’ve been busy since you started, but it’s okay to slow down. We’ll handle the work load. Okay?”

Lizzie gave me a timid smile. “Thank you, Scarlet.”

The phone rang and Lizzie sprang into action. “I’ll get it!”

“At least she’s good at that,” Flapjack said as Lizzie rushed to answer the phone by the cash register. “Then again, teenage girls usually are. Heavens knows I suffered through your Chatty Cathy phase.”

I frowned down at my one-time pet. “No one asked you to stick around and listen in on all of those calls. It’s not like you’re bound to me. You could have gone anywhere, done anything. You know what I think? I think you liked listening to all those giggly conversations, just like you liked hanging around for my slumber parties and birthday parties. You even followed me on my first date!”

Gwen covered her mouth to stifle a laugh but her shaking shoulders gave her away. “Aww, Flapjack, I always knew you were a big softy!”

Flapjack’s eyes narrowed in Gwen’s direction. “For your information, I was keeping her safe!”

“From what? Face masks and terrible rom-coms?” Gwen asked, barely able to contain another laugh.

“I was talking about her first date,” he replied, swishing his tail.

Lizzie came around the corner before I could further question my self-appointed, pint-sized guardian. That was the other downside to having an assistant hanging around—it made talking to the ghosts nearly impossible without looking like a raving lunatic.

“Kimberly Gardner is on hold,” Lizzie said, a nervous lilt to her voice as she held out the phone. “Line one.”

“Ugh.” I groaned as I took the phone. “What now? Let me guess, she’s changing the order again? That would make it what … the fifth, no, sixth time? There’s only three weeks until the wedding. How many times is she going to do this?”

Gwen gave me a pitying look as my finger hovered over the illuminated button for a moment longer. Finally, I clicked onto the line.

“Hello, Kimberly. This is Scarlet. How can I help you?”

Silence greeted me on the other end.

“Kimberly?” I waited another beat and then put the phone back down and shrugged. “Guess she hung up.”

Gwen looked past my shoulder and her expression darkened.

The bell on the front door jangled and my shoulders fell. I didn’t need to turn around to know who had just wandered into the shop.

“I tried to call.”

I slapped a serene smile on my face and pivoted on my heel. Kimberly stood, arms folded and one Louboutin tapping the welcome mat, with a sour look on her face. “I apologize, Kimberly. I was mid-design. What can I do for you today?”

“I’ve reconsidered my bouquet. The lilies would be a mistake,” she said, pausing only to dig into her large purse and pull out a bundle of glossy bridal magazine pages. She strutted across the shop and slapped them onto the counter. With dizzying speed, she flipped through the multitude of sticky-noted pages and stopped on a spread that showed a table loaded down with decadent centerpieces. “I think something like this is more … me.”

Gwen scoffed over my shoulder. “That’s practically a carbon copy of the drawing you did two weeks ago!”

While I agreed whole-heartedly, I kept my smile buttoned up tight. I couldn’t verbally agree with Gwen for a couple of reasons. First, because she’s a ghost. Secondly, because Kimberly Gardner was a client. An incredibly important one. She was the first bride-to-be at the newly opened Lilac Bed and Breakfast, a historic home that I’d become entwined with a few months earlier. Let’s just say there had been one seriously pissed off ghost in residence during the renovation and without my help, the entire house would have ended up in a crumbled heap of rubble. Thanks to my help with the spooky situation, I’d earned the exclusive rights to provide florals for all events, including Kimberly Garner’s upcoming nuptials. Yay me?

Oh, and the whole thing was going to be on TV, adding another few degrees to the pressure cooker I found myself living in. The Lilac B&B’s renovation had been featured on a popular home improvement show, Mints on the Pillows, which resulted in a flock of bridezillas looking for a slice of the limelight when the show returned to film a special segment on the venue. Enter stage left: Kimberly Gardner.

She was by far one of the most demanding, entitled women I’d ever met, and thought for some delusional reason that her nuptials should be on par with something from the royal family across the pond. I honestly wasn’t sure why she wasn’t throwing her wedding in some kind of swanky Los Angeles hotel or on a tropical beach somewhere. Beechwood Harbor was a lovely town, tucked along the rustic Washington State coastline. Lush greenery collided with the majestic ocean, separated only by miles of sandy beaches. It was a beautiful place to have a wedding, but it wasn’t quite up to the standards splashed through the newsstand’s worth of bridal magazines that Kimberly was armed with 24/7. Rumor (Gwen) had it that Kimberly was a huge fan of the show and that her family had paid nearly triple the asking price to have her wedding be the christening event for the B&B’s outdoor venue. To say the wedding was going to be over the top would be the understatement of the decade.

“Are you even listening to me?” Kimberly snapped.

My shoulder stiffened and I bit back the fiery retort at the tip of my tongue. Instead, I offered a placating smile. “Of course, Kimberly. I was making some mental notes, that’s all.”

“Well?” Her overly plump lips protruded into a duck pout. Had she had more work done since her last visit?

“I’m not normally a violent person, but this woman has me wishing I had the use of my hands,” Gwen said, pantomiming a strangling motion at the woman opposite me.

“If I had the use of my claws, I’d join you,” Flapjack said, jumping up onto the counter.

I rolled my eyes, only realizing a moment too late that Kimberly wouldn’t understand why.

“Is there a problem?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“No, no, no,” I said, scrubbing at my face. “My eyes are just really dry today. Allergies, you know? I should have put some eye drops in earlier.”

Kimberly sighed. “You know what? I think I’m going to speak to Sonya again. This is clearly too much for you to take on right now and, as I’m sure you can understand, I really need someone with more experience handling my wedding florals.”

Heat flashed over my skin and I planted my hands on the counter to keep them from shaking. I gritted my teeth but managed to hold onto what little patience I had left. I didn’t want to kiss up to the woman, but she was a top-dollar client and my first bride with the Lilac B&B, an important business partner. So, it was time to pucker up. Just a little. “Kimberly, I’m going to make sure that you will be carrying the perfect bouquet when you walk down the aisle to become Mrs. Casper Schmidt.”

Yeah, that’s right. Her fiancé’s first name is Casper. I nearly spit out my coffee when I’d taken the order.

My plan worked; Kimberly took on a certain glow anytime she heard the phrase Mrs. Casper Schmidt, and it tended to knock her down a few pegs from homicidal. The effect would strike me as adorable, perhaps even enviable, if she wasn’t such a ginormous pain in my rear.

She’d plunked the magazines back on the counter and returned her attention to me. “It’s all going to be fine.” I picked up one of the glossy sheets from the counter. “Now, should I make a photocopy of this page, or may I keep it for reference?”

Kimberly’s phone rang. She waved a finger, shushing me before ripping it from the outside pocket of her purse. “Where are you?” she barked without so much as a hello to the person on the other end.

She paused and her expression darkened.

“Oh boy,” Gwen breathed, floating backward a few paces. “She looks like she’s about to blow.”

“That’s not good enough, Drea! I told you that I needed help today,” Kimberly snapped. She spun on her high-dollar heels and stalked to the front window. “I’m giving you ten minutes. That’s it!”

“Quick, Scarlet, hide anything pointy and sharp!” Flapjack warned.

“She is looking kind of … stabby,” Gwen added.

“Shush,” I whispered, waving a hand at both of them. It was hard enough for me to keep up my unflappable routine without the pair of them hissing in my ears.

Kimberly ended her phone call with a snarl and slam-dunked her phone back to the depths of her beach-tote-sized purse. She turned back to face me and managed to find her smile, though it didn’t quite reach her hazel eyes. The woman was nearly airbrushed perfection with a pulse. Everything from her skin to her glossy chestnut hair and her perfectly manicured fingernails was tended to and maintained. I had a feeling that the monthly receipts from her boatload of beauty products would add up to more than I made in a quarter.

“As usual, she’s late!” Kimberly fumed, her cheeks burnished with a color that had nothing to do with her bronzer. “Make a note of that: Drea is not allowed to be in charge of anything regarding the flowers. I’ll make sure Sonya knows too—”

As if summoned, Sonya Perez, a striking woman with raven hair and olive skin, strode into the shop, flashing a megawatt smile. “Good afternoon, ladies!”

How she maintained such a sunny disposition in Kimberly’s near-toxic radius was beyond me.

“Hello, Sonya.” The smile I offered her was genuine.

“Drea is late, as always,” Kimberly complained. Her insufferable whine was like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got everything under control.” Sonya set a hand on Kimberly’s forearm. “Now, what are these changes you’re making? I simply can’t wait to see what you come up with, Scarlet. Maurice has been raving about the designs you’ve been doing for the B&B guest rooms!” She peeked past me to my design table and spotted the arrangement I’d been working on before Kimberly barreled in. “Is that one of them? I simply love birds of paradise!”

Kimberly frowned, unhappy to be out of the center of attention.

“You’re sure you can do this?” She eyed me, both of her painfully perfect brows drawn into sharp peaks.

“Ugh, give it a rest already!” Flapjack groused.

“I promise you, Kimberly, it will be beautiful. Okay?”

Before she could argue with me further, her phone rang. She plucked it out of her purse again and scowled. “It’s Drea. Probably more excuses!” She answered the call and then reached for Sonya’s arm. “I’ll see you at the restaurant in one hour.”

Without another word—never mind a thank you—she turned and stalked out.

“I’m really sorry about her,” Sonya told me as soon as our shared little ball of sunshine was out of sight. Her bright smile faded and for the first time since meeting her six weeks beforehand, I realized that she was just as fed up with Kimberly’s theatrics as I was. For some reason, that made me feel a little better.

Misery loves company, after all.

“It’s fine.” I handed over the magazine page labeled with three hot pink sticky notes. “Here’s what she wants now,” I pointed at the design Kimberly had indicated before flipping to the next page. “We didn’t get around to talking about either of these, so I’m sure they’ll be her choice du jour tomorrow or the next day.”

“Oh, goody,” Gwen quipped.

“All right.” Sonya nodded as she considered the image. “That works. Honestly, I don’t know why she bothers to pay my fees. She doesn’t even consult with me on these kinds of changes, just picks up the phone or fires off an email and I’m usually the last one to know what’s actually going on.”

I raised my brows. “Seriously?”

“Just last week, I chewed out the catering company for sending us the wrong quote for the second time, only to find out that Kimberly had been changing the menu behind my back.” She shook her head. “So humiliating. Honestly, if it weren’t for the absurd commission I’m set to make, I’d have bailed out months ago!”

“No wonder her sister avoids her at all costs,” I said, my voice lowered.

“Oh, Drea is a whole other story,” Sonya replied, adding an exasperated sigh. “Anyway, I know you’re closing soon, so I’ll get out of your hair and let you finish your work. We’ll talk tomorrow, all right?”

“Works for me. Have a good evening.”

Sonya waved as she headed out and I returned to my studio.

Flapjack and Gwen followed, complaining about Kimberly’s treatment of me for a few more minutes. They kept at it until Flapjack left to go revel in the stink wafting from the catch of the day as it was being cleaned down at the harbor docks.

“Enough about that horrible woman,” Gwen finally declared when Flapjack was gone. “Let’s talk about Lucas!”

Gwen had a semi-unhealthy obsession with my love life. Granted, she had the same fixation with nearly everyone in town, I was simply one of the few corporeals that she could talk to.

I returned to my studio and dove into work without commenting.

“You’re really not going to tell me anything?” Gwen asked.

I slid a meaningful glance at Lizzie as she worked to print off a batch of inventory tags. Gwen huffed. “Fine, but I expect a full report on your romantic reunion first thing in the morning. Before the wrecking ball in a cardigan punches in for her shift.”

Gwen’s silvery silhouette shimmered and then vanished without a sound.

Somehow, Lizzie and I managed to squeeze the three outgoing orders into her clown car and I sent her off before returning to my arrangement. For the first time in a long time, the studio was quiet. By the time Lizzie circled back near closing time, I’d rearranged the cooler, cycled out all of the old product, and cleared out the voicemail queue.

“How’s tomorrow looking?” I asked Lizzie as she consulted the schedule on the front computer.

“Busy,” she replied in an almost apologetic tone.

I sighed. “All right. Well the rental company said they would have a van available for me tomorrow morning, so I’ll need you to run the show while I run over there to pick it up.”

Lizzie nodded violently. “Of course!”

The front bell rang and she jumped up to go to the front counter but I stopped her. “Why don’t you go ahead and clock out since I’ll need you early tomorrow.”

“Okay. Have a good night, Scarlet. Thanks for everything.”

She grabbed her purse and car keys from the small office and slipped out the back door with a small wave. I went to the counter, eager to take care of the last customer so I could close up. Despite my cagey response to Gwen, I was looking forward to seeing Lucas again. More than I was willingly to admit. He was flying into SEA-TAC and making the three-hour drive into Beechwood Harbor in a rental car. He’d assured me that he would make it in time for a late dinner.

“Evening, sir,” I said to the tall, lanky man standing at the front counter with an expectant look on his face. “How can I help you?”

“Are you Scarlet Sanderson?”

“That’s right.”

He reached up and rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I need your help.”

“Selecting the right flowers?” I asked, cringing because I already knew from his posture he wasn’t there to pick up a bouquet.

“No, actually, it’s about—well, it’s about a ghost.”

Of course it was.

Ghosts Gone Wild will be available in the next day or two, be checking your inbox for the official announcement the moment it goes live on Amazon!