Chapter one

There’s nothing more obnoxious than having an easy-going Sunday morning ruined by a pair of warring ghosts.

Unfortunately, that was my reality far more often than not.

“You’re blocking the screen, you talking feather duster!” Hayward Kensington III snapped at Flapjack, a gorgeous Himalayan cat who had once been my childhood pet.

“Newsflash, stuffed shirt, I’m a ghost. You can see perfectly fine, right through me!”

Yeah, that’s right, the cat talks. This is one of those things that sounds fun but in reality turns out to be more of a pain in the rear than anything else. On the bright side, he doesn’t require a litter box and he doesn’t meow when I use the can opener.

“But it’s distorted!”

With an irritated growl, I stalked into the living room, coffee mug in hand. “Do you two mind?” I snapped, directing a frosty glare at my two constant—whether I wanted them to be or not—dearly, not-quite-departed companions.

Hayward bristled at my sharp tone and had the good sense, or manners, to look embarrassed. He wrung his gloved hands and bowed his head so that his face was mostly concealed by the silvery shadow of his top hat. “Apologies, Lady Scarlet,” he started, leaning into his Oxford accent. “I was simply trying to convey my displeasure to that beast.”

Flapjack hissed in protest. His thick tail swished all the more, blurring the small TV screen entirely.

And to think the day had started off so well.

Still scowling, I skirted the back of the long couch and moved further into the living room, then set my mug on the coffee table, careful not to slosh any of the scalding liquid over the sides. I slammed my hands on my hips and planted my legs wide, glaring at the pair of them. “What is the one thing that I ask of you two?”

Flapjack sat down and swirled his tail around his front paws. I swear, he shrugged. “I can’t help it if he’s so touchy about everything!”

“Get down from there,” I said, snapping my fingers and pointing at the floor.

Flapjack’s eyes narrowed but he dropped off the edge of the entertainment center, landing soundlessly on his ghost paws. He flicked his fluffy tail up into the air, whipping the tip in feline irritation. He glared at me for a moment, then turned his displeasure back to Hayward as he stalked toward the couch. He leapt up and curled into a ball atop the pile of throw pillows gathered at one end of the couch. I’d chucked them all to one side during a frantic hunt for the remote control earlier that morning.

“Thank you, Lady Scarlet,” Hayward said with a self-satisfied grin.

I rounded on him and it slid from his face. “Drop the self-righteous routine, Hayward.” I said.

When he continued to hover, I took a deep breath, reaching for my last shred of patience. “What do you want?”

Hayward was an old ghost. A once-upon-a-time English gentleman. He’d died in 1926 after suffering a heart attack during the encore of a premier musical performance at the Vienna Opera House. Hence the perma-coattails and top hat. I guess if you have to be a ghost, you may as well be a fashionable one.

He took his hat from his head and passed it nervously between his hands. “I was hoping you might invite Lady Gwen to dinner prior to tonight’s meeting.”

I sighed. “Hayward, why can’t you invite her yourself?”

Flapjack’s head popped up and, in his best impersonation of Hayward’s accent, said, “Oh, my stars! Lady Scarlet, can you imagine the horror? The impropriety? What would the peasants say?”

Hayward’s silvery cheeks darkened and he surged forward.

I held up a hand. “Stop!”

Flapjack cackled and made a face at the fuming ghost.

I shot him a glare. “Knock it off, Flapjack, or I swear I’ll banish you.”

His eyes narrowed, but he put his head back down on his paws. It was an empty threat; we both knew it, but it usually worked, at least for a time. Similar to a toddler’s parents counting to three.

Turning back to Hayward, I said, “I’ll see if Gwen wants to come over before the meeting.” His eyes brightened. “On one condition,” I added, holding up one finger.

“Anything, Lady Scarlet!”

With a victorious smile, I laid out my terms. “You let me watch TV, in peace, with no running commentary, for the next two hours before I have to go downstairs and work.”

Hayward popped his hat onto his head and nodded so vigorously it was a wonder it didn’t fall back off. “Of course. Not one word out of me, my lady!”

Yeah, we’ll see.

“That goes for you too, Flapjack,” I said, settling into my favorite spot on the couch. The L-shaped sectional was a second-hand find and from the feel of it, it was clear that whoever had owned it previously had rarely used any of the cushions but the one in the corner. It was a little saggy, but that was probably the reason I liked it so much; It was the couch equivalent of a perfectly worn pair of jeans.

I reached for my coffee and remote control and smiled to myself as I nestled down into the cozy spot. With a few clicks, my favorite Sunday morning ritual officially began—emptying my DVR while sipping on a steaming cup of coffee.

In peace.

After years abroad, running from literal ghosts of the past, I’d finally settled down in the charming town of Beechwood Harbor along Washington state’s rustic coastline. Thanks to an inheritance from my grandmother, I’d opened a florist shop called Lily Pond Floral Design and was ready to begin a brand new chapter of my life. Ideally, a more normal chapter than the past few.

It took over six months of hard work to get my shop open, during which I hadn’t been the most social of residents. I’d barely explored my new hometown until after the shop’s doors were open. At my grand opening, I’d found a curious community eager to pop in and learn all about their new neighbor—and occasionally buy a bouquet of flowers. I’d also quickly learned that while Beechwood Harbor was postcard-perfect on the outside, it was teeming with paranormal activity and had more than a handful of supernatural residents thriving just underneath the surface. So far, I’d met a vampire, a telepath, and a pair of witches that lived in one of the town’s historic homes that served as something of a supernatural halfway house.

Knowing that witches and vampires shared your zip code would probably scare the bejeebies out of most people. I, however, was more or less used to it. Nothing about my life had been normal, so why should it start now?

My first peek into the supernatural world took place on the eve of my eighth birthday. Once the festivities of my party dwindled to a pile of tattered wrapping paper, ribbons, and crumbs of leftover cake stuck to the ends of half melted candles, my parents had tucked me into bed so that they could visit with my aunt and uncle in the living room. Restless and more than a little sugar high, I’d sneaked out of my room and went down the hall to the playroom where all of my shiny new presents were waiting. As quietly as I could, I’d opened my dollhouse and introduced my old dollies to their new friends. As I’d played, the sugar rush wore off and I’d lain down on the bean bag in the reading nook under the window and fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, Flapjack was watching me from the doorway.

The only wrinkle? He’d died three weeks prior to my birthday.

For reasons still unknown, Flapjack had been gifted the chance to come back as a ghost and had returned to me that night. I’d raced downstairs to tell my parents, along with my aunt and uncle. They’d all smiled sadly at me and my mother had taken me back to bed. She’d kissed my forehead and told me to give Flapjack a hug if I saw him again in my dreams. I’d tried to explain that it wasn’t a dream, that he was actually watching us from the foot of the bed at that very moment, but she didn’t believe me.

They never did. After a few weeks of referring to him as my imaginary friend, they took me to see a counselor, who assured them it was a normal part of the grieving process. After all, Flapjack was my first brush with death and at the age of eight, the whole concept was a little shaky. It was sometime after that when Flapjack realized he could talk in his new form and he advised me to stop talking about him to my parents. In hindsight, I suppose he was trying to avoid getting me dragged off to some asylum masquerading as a boarding school for troubled children. I’d heeded Flapjack’s advice, and we still shared long conversations as he continued to follow me most everywhere I went, but I was careful not to talk to him if they were within earshot.

The years went on, and more and more spirits crossed my path. Along the way, I’d been forced to come up with a myriad of different strategies to cope with my strange ability. At first I tried ignoring the ghosts that would reach out to me. That backfired when no less than twenty spirits accumulated in and around my childhood home, all of them refusing to budge until I listened to their problems. After that, I tried to help all of them, a plan that crashed and burned even harder.

As a high schooler, I had enough problems without adding the personal woes and perils of ghosts into the mix. Who could be expected to deal with breakouts, break-ups, and agonizing over prom dress selections with ten ghosts chattering on about the terrible life choices their offspring were making on the other side of the state?

After high school, I started traveling the world, and found that country-hopping was an effective way to extricate myself from particularly sticky situations. Plus, it was one heck of a way to spend my twenties. But by age thirty, my resources had dried up and I decided I was too old to keep letting my parents bail me out of trouble whenever my temporary jobs didn’t quite cover my next plane ticket or hotel bill. I returned home to Arizona and found a job working in a local florist shop and found what seemed like my true calling: creating beautiful botanical works of art.

When my grandmother passed away she left a sum of money and I decided to strike out on my own again. I may be staying stateside, but my new business was an adventure nonetheless. I was just getting started, but I had a good feeling about it.

As long as I could keep all the ghosts in my life in check.

Piece of cake, right?

 

***

 

Per Hayward’s request, I invited Gwen over for dinner prior to that evening’s ghost support group. After a few months in town, word had gotten around in the local specter circles that a ghost whisperer was in town. Out of necessity, I’d set aside Sunday evenings to hold a meeting. Then, and only then, could ghosts come to me with requests for assistance. Anything outside of those hours would fall on deaf ears—no matter how persistent said ghosts were in their requests.

Hayward and Flapjack were all that I could handle on a daily basis, and even then they gave my sanity a run for its money from time to time.

In some ways, Gwen was another exception. She was the first ghost I’d met after arriving in Beechwood Harbor and was the town maven. Queen bee. She knew everything about everyone and was the one who’d helped me establish my “office hours” among the local spirit population. Oh, and Hayward has a major crush on her. I’m talking smitten kitten in a top hat. So for that alone, she gets a bit more leniency. Hayward deserves someone like Gwen. She’s funny, bright, and despite her occasional ditzy moments, was quickly becoming one of my favorite people. Dead or otherwise.

As usual, I ate a microwave meal out of a plastic container down in my design studio, AKA back room, taking bites in between other tasks. Lily Pond Floral Design was closed for business on Sundays and Mondays so that I could have some time off, as I was currently operating as a one woman show. Even still, I tended to clock in a few hours refreshing the window displays and taking inventory to get ready for the next week. It worked as the perfect guise for the ghost support group. The attendees all floated in and I could continue to work while they chatted and presented occasional requests. If anyone walked past the front windows, they would likely assume I was singing along with the radio or talking to myself as I worked.

Gwen rambled on about the local gossip of the week as I finished my broccoli and fish dinner and began working on an arrangement. Most of her revelations surrounded the arrival of a reality TV crew who spent the last week remodeling one of the town’s older homes. Mints on the Pillows was a home improvement show that followed a husband and wife team that traveled the country renovating old, sometimes historic, properties into cozy bed and breakfasts. Ever since the town gossip mill learned that our small town was about to be splashed across millions of television sets across the country, a small, outspoken group of people had raised hell and threatened to shut down production with protests and petitions.

“All I’m saying is that people are angry,” Gwen concluded. “I heard the ladies in the salon saying a petition is going around as we speak to put a stop to the whole thing!”

“Haven’t they already started filming?” I asked, pausing to glance at her over the top of the bouquet I was arranging.

Hayward didn’t add much to the conversation; it seemed he was more interested in silently adoring our guest from his place at the front counter. I smiled at the dreamy look on his face and then continued tweaking the hyacinth stalks I’d nestled amongst the greenery in the vase before me.

“They started filming Wednesday,” Gwen replied without pause, as though she’d been taking minutes on every move the crew made. Which, in all likelihood, she had.

I offered a half-shrug as I continued working. “I imagine the whole thing will blow over pretty quickly. I mean, how long are they supposed to be in town? A few weeks?”

“I haven’t nailed that down yet.” Gwen shook her head, sending her feather earrings swinging. Gwen was an eternally preserved flower child, having died in the seventies following a tragic stage-diving accident. Her delicate face didn’t show the signs of the damage that it must have sustained, but I imagined the aftermath of the fall hadn’t been pretty.

“And people are just now signing petitions?” I asked, one eyebrow quirked. “Seems a little too late.”

“I’m not sure I quite understand the problem,” Hayward interjected. “Why are people so upset? A bed and breakfast sounds like just the thing this town needs!”

“I think so too. The Lilac house was made to be a B&B!” Gwen agreed with an enthusiastic nod. “I saw the plans. It’s going to be beautiful! Then again, anything would be better than the eyesore it’s been for the last two decades. I mean honestly, it looks like a giant, house-sized Easter egg! According to my research—”

I stifled a laugh. That’s what Gwen called her gossip hunting: research.

Gwen shot me a withering glance and then continued, “According to my research, people in town think the house is haunted. That’s why no one has lived there for so long; all the previous tenants have run screaming for the hills and no one has dared move in since.”

I perked at this. “Haunted?”

“Is it?” Hayward asked.

Gwen shrugged. “I’ve never met a ghost who lives there, but then again, I don’t tend to go poking around uninvited.”

I snorted into the flowers and hurried to take them to the walk-in cooler. I set down the vase on one of the metal shelves built into the far back wall and then started gathering handfuls of fresh flowers from the buckets scattered on the floor. By the time I exited, hands full of blooms and greens, my teeth were chattering. Voices floated to me and a quick sidelong glance showed that the first ghosts had arrived a few minutes ahead of the hour. Gwen was entertaining them for the time being so I moved to my work table to deposit the flowers from the cooler.

Hayward drifted closer. “Before the meeting gets started, I wanted to apologize for this morning’s antics, Lady Scarlet.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I stifled a smile and flapped a hand at him. “Believe me, I’m sure it was mostly Flapjack’s doing in the first place.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Scarlet,” a cool tone interjected.

I cringed and then pivoted on the toes of my ballet flats to see Flapjack, tail twitching, sitting on the floor beside the display case.

“Oh, come now, Flapjack,” Hayward said. “You have to admit she has a valid point.”

Flapjack shot a scowl at Hayward and he quickly turned his attention to Gwen, clearly not wanting to tangle with the pint-sized walking attitude problem.

“What are you even doing down here?” I asked Flapjack, stubbornly refusing to apologize, mostly because what I’d said was true. “You hate support group nights.”

Flapjack cast a disdainful look toward the front of the shop where the ghosts were gathered, speaking in excited tones. “Oh, believe me, I’m not staying here for the freak parade.” He trotted away and leapt over the counter as though he were a thoroughbred show horse instead of a fluffy, eleven-pound cat. At least, in life he’d been around that mark. Ghosts didn’t exactly have weight in the same way living beings did but at the same time, they tended to stay near the ground and I’d wondered if gravity didn’t still retain some degree of hold over them, granted a much more elastic grip. Then again, for all I knew, there were ghosts walking the surface of the moon.

With a heavy sigh after him, I fussed with the flowers on the work table before starting work on a new creation. The rest of the ghosts filtered in over the next ten minutes, and by the top of the hour, we had a full house. Gwen spearheaded the meetings and was responsible for ferrying in new ghosts who might be aimlessly wandering through town. In some ways, I was just a body. If a ghost needed something specific done—something that required hands or an audible voice—they’d loop me into the conversation and make their request. Otherwise, I was pretty much free to half-way listen in as I worked.

I quickly lost myself in a new design and the ghost’s chattering became white noise in the background. Gwen directed a question my way and I glanced up, smiling, ready to answer her, when a wave of dizziness nearly drove me to my knees. The smile slid from my lips as my hands wavered. The handful of roses slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor.

“Scarlet?” Gwen called out, swooping closer.

I splayed my hands on the cool surface of the counter to keep them from shaking. Something was wrong. A rush, almost like the sound of the ocean, roared in my ears and made me light-headed and unbalanced. My square-shaped nails raked across the counter as I struggled to stay upright.

Bam!

The front door burst open and slammed into the wall, the metal stopper snapping like it was a toothpick, and the glass panels shattered. I ducked behind the counter as glittering shards exploded inward from the impact. When I dared to peek over the edge, a striking ghost hovered midair, her long raven hair flying out behind her like a superhero cape. The air around her crackled and popped as her fierce eyes flashed with sheer rage. They locked on mine and shivers gripped my spine, turning it into an icicle.

“You!” She bellowed, one finger raised, pointing imperiously at me. “Are you the ghost whisperer?”

I’m pretty sure the question wasn’t rhetorical. If her entrance was any indication, things were about to get ugly.


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