?I can?t believe it?s almost Halloween,? I said, working to untangle a string of small, pumpkin-shaped lights. ?It feels like we were just putting these away for the season. Someone definitely has their thumb on the fast-forward button of life.?
Lizzie laughed as she set a trio of ceramic pumpkins beside the cash register. ?That?s because you were lost in wedding planning land for most of it.?
Smiling, I nodded in agreement. ?That?s true. It?s actually our one-month anniversary tomorrow.?
?Aww. Do they have some kind of gift guide for the first month? You know, like how the first year is paper.?
Working from left to right, I strung the tiny pumpkins along the edge of the front counter, tacking the strand of wire in place with clear tape between each plastic pumpkin. ?I don?t know about that, but we are supposed to go pick up our wedding album from our photographers. So, that has to count.?
?I can?t wait to see it!?
?Here,? I said, handing Lizzie the plug when I reached the end of the counter.
She plugged in the lights and the pumpkins illuminated, each of their painted expressions backlit by a soft orange light. ?Cute.?
I reached into the bottom of the storage box and quickly recoiled with a startled yelp.
?What is it??
Frowning, I pushed the box away. ?It looks like we have more than just plastic spiders in here, and now I?m not sure which of the cobweb balls are the real deal. It?s wigging me out.?
Lizzie cringed and took the box to the back room. A few seconds later, I heard her bang the box against the large metal trash can we used for flower waste.
She reappeared a few moments later, wiping her hands on her apron. ?I?ll hose it out before we repack it.?
?Bless you,? I exhaled.
She giggled and went back to unpacking the second box of decorations. We added a scarecrow to the front door, a variety of pumpkins to the window display, and lastly hung a thin metal cutout in the shape of a witch astride a broomstick on the wall behind the register. ?Nice to see you again, Broomhilda,? Lizzie said, smiling at the painted witch.
We?d bestowed the name upon the decoration the year before?possibly after one too many spiked apple ciders.
When the last of the decorations were set out, I took a slow twirl, admiring our handiwork. There were moments when it still caught me off guard that the flower and gift shop was all mine. Every detail pulled from my daydreams.
My smile faltered a little as I wondered if this would be the last time I got the place ready for Halloween.
?You okay over there?? Lizzie asked. ?Did we miss a spot??
Turning back to face my sole employee, I hitched the corners of my smile back in place. ?It looks great. I guess I should go upstairs and finish packing. Are you sure you have everything you need??
?Yes! For the hundredth time, yes,? Lizzie replied, laughing as she made a shooing gesture at me. ?I promise not to burn the shop down, empty the till into my purse, and run away to Mexico, and I will water all of the plants.?
I sighed. She was smiling and clearly not bothered by my barrage of questions, but I couldn?t help but feel a nip of guilt. ?I?m sorry. You know I trust you with my whole heart, right? ?Cause I do.?
?You?re just stressed. Anyone would be, considering what you?ve got going on.?
?You?re the best.? I gave her a quick embrace. Over the past couple of years, we?d become friends, in addition to our employer/employee relationship. Lizzie had my back, both at the shop and outside it. ?Thank you,? I said.?
The bell on the front door twinkled and a trio of middle-aged ladies wandered into the store. With summer in the rearview mirror, it was no longer the peak of tourist season in the small coastal town of Beechwood Harbor, but this weekend there was a wine festival a couple towns over and our little community was experiencing a slight surge in visitors as people passed through on their way to and from the event.
Lizzie greeted the women with a friendly smile, and I placed a hand on her shoulder. ?I?m going to head upstairs and finish packing.?
She nodded, then rounded the front counter to go strike up a conversation about the various gift items in the front window display.
I took the back stairs up to the small apartment built above the retail space. When I?d originally viewed the property, I?d agreed to lease the apartment, too, thinking it would serve as a temporary crash pad while I built my business. However, a lot had changed since my move to the small, coastal town a few years ago. For starters, I?d met and married my husband, Lucas Greene. There was some irony in getting a new last name before a new address. In the whirlwind of acclimating to life in a new town, starting my own business, falling in love and getting married, I hadn?t given house hunting more than a cursory glance through the rental listings in the local paper every few months.
All of that changed after Lucas and I exchanged our I dos. We were now knee-deep in the house hunting process, only not in Beechwood Harbor. Lucas?s job was in Seattle. He had a plush corporate rental, courtesy of his job with a high-end security firm, but it was more of a crash pad. It wasn?t meant to be permanent, and certainly wasn?t the kind of place we envisioned spending our newlywed years. We?d started the house hunt prior to the wedding, but nothing had worked out yet. So, I spent my time ping-ponging between the big city and the quiet small town. I was beginning to feel like I had a split personality. There was Beechwood Harbor Scarlet, working at Lily Pond and keeping up my personal relationships. Then there was Seattle Scarlet, the newlywed bride trying to soak up every minute with her husband, wishing life came equipped was a pause button.
On top of all that, there were the ghosts.
Several months back, I?d handed over the reins of the ghost support group I?d formed since arriving in town. My ghost friend?and longtime Beechwood resident?Gwen ran the show these days. I liked to stop in and socialize when possible, but beyond that, I?d managed to unentangle myself from most of the ghostly goings-on around town. Granted, my three permanent companions came up with more than enough to keep me occupied. Hayward Kensington III was still in the throes of a post death identity crisis, trying to decide what the future held for him. This exploration rubbed up against Gwen, Hayward?s lady love. Then there was Flapjack. The Himalayan ghost cat with one potent superpower: unending snark.
They were exhausting and entertaining and infuriating all at once. In other words, they were family. My family.
I found the trio in the living room, sitting on the couch, watching whatever channel I?d left playing before going downstairs to work that morning.
?Good afternoon, Lady Scarlet,? Hayward greeted, tapping his fingers to the brim of the top hat perched on his head.
?Hey, Scarlet!? Gwen added.
The pair couldn?t be more different if they tried. Hayward was an old-world gentleman who?d died following a performance at the Vienna Opera House. Dressed in white-tie, he?d been giving the performance a standing ovation when he tumbled from the balcony seats. Then there was Gwen, a flower child, barely out of her teen years when she died in a tragic stage-diving accident at an outdoor concert. Perhaps that was the thread that held them together: both died in musical events. In any case, Gwen?s feather earrings, Farrah Fawcett waves, and floral-print romper were in stark contrast to Hayward?s coattails, bristled mustache, top hat, and gloves.
?Finally,? Flapjack said, vaulting himself up onto the kitchen counter. ?You?ve been gone forever.?
I frowned at him. ?I?ve been downstairs all morning. Don?t tell me you?re developing separation anxiety after twenty-something years.?
?Hardly,? Flapjack scoffed. ?I?m just sick of this channel. I?d also like some tuna. You owe me, remember??
I rolled my eyes. A few days ago, I?d struck a bargain with the feline, trading him access to a can of tuna in exchange for his tamping down the rude comments about Hayward?s new hobby: opera singing. In an effort to connect with Gwen and find more common interests, Hayward had taken his lady love to the theater the last few weekends I?d gone to Seattle. Somewhere along the way, he?d met the ghost of a once-famous opera singer and had started taking lessons. It was good for Hayward?s soul, not so good for our collective eardrums.
?I don?t have time for that now,? I told the cat. ?I have an hour before I need to leave, and I haven?t finished packing.?
Flapjack?s silver eyes gleamed as he looked at Hayward. ?You know, Hayward, there?s something I?ve been meaning to say??
?Flapjack ?? I growled.
The cat flicked his tail toward the drawer where I kept the can opener, his eyes narrowed in challenge.
?This is why they tell you not to negotiate with terrorists,? I mumbled, stalking into the kitchen.
Once the fluffy tyrant had his treat, I crossed through the living room, heading toward the small bathroom. ?As I was saying, I?m leaving in an hour. Are either of you planning on coming with??
I hit the bathroom lights and Gwen materialized on the counter beside the sink, her mile-long legs swinging back and forth. I clutched at my chest. ?Jeeze, Gwen, you scared me.?
Exhaling, I started plucking items from the counter. I?d purchased duplicates of most things, one set to keep at Lucas?s rental, and one to keep here, to make packing easier, but there were a few key items I hadn?t wanted to buy again. My perfume, flat iron, glasses to wear at night after taking out my contact lenses.
?Remember, I won?t be coming back until Wednesday,? I said, dumping the items into a small travel bag I kept under the sink.
?We?re coming.? She nodded. ?Hayward has big plans for us.?
I laughed. ?Oh yeah? Something tells me you?re not thrilled about them.?
Gwen looked away for a moment, worrying at her lower lip. ?I?m sure it will be a fine time. I just hope it?s not another foreign opera. The music is always beautiful, but I sure would like it better if I could understand what they were singing about.?
I tucked away my smile. ?Just remember, this journey you two are on isn?t supposed to be one-sided. If you go to the opera with him, he needs to hold up his end of the deal and do something you want to do.?
?I know.? A spark of a grin pulled at her lips. ?I?m making him go to the wall of gum.?
?Oh, Gwen! You?re not serious.? I grimaced.
She giggled. ?Why not? It?s something new!?
I killed the lights and went down the short hall into the singular bedroom. My suitcase was already opened, lying across the bed. I?d started packing that morning, before going downstairs to open the shop for the day. Having spent more weekends away than at home the past few months, the packing was something I could do on autopilot.
Gwen floated in behind me and settled at the foot of the bed. ?I bet you?ll be glad when all this traveling is over, huh?? she said, glancing at my suitcase.
Tucking the toiletries bag beside a stack of light sweaters, I smiled at the part she wasn?t saying. ?Don?t worry, there?s no danger of that being over anytime soon. I still don?t have any buyers lined up to take over the shop, so even when Lucas and I find a place I?ll be back and forth.?
?It?s not going to be the same, though.?
I smiled, trying to tamp down the bittersweet pang in my chest. ?I know.?
Gwen fell silent for a few minutes, watching me as I finished packing the last few items and zipped up the suitcase. ?I guess I?d better go get Hayward. Meet you downstairs??
?See you there.?
* * *
Driving three hours into the city was so routine, I could do most of it on cruise control. In a perfect world, I could listen to an audiobook or one of my favorite playlists. However, in my world, I had three bickering ghosts in the back seat, and would have gladly traded them in for a trio of toddlers. At least the toddlers would have eventually fallen asleep. Hayward insisted on warming up his vocals, which led to Flapjack completely forgoing our arrangement to lay off the mockery. Gwen sat in between, trying to play interference as Hayward sang louder and Flapjack started caterwauling in an attempt to drown him out. They finally piped down after I threatened to chuck a handful of ghost dust into the back seat, but even then they threw little barbed remarks at one another for the rest of the drive.
When we finally arrived at the high-rise condo building, every last one of my nerves was shot. Lucas met me in the lobby with a cup of coffee and a warm smile. ?Please tell me there is alcohol in here,? I said, taking the cup.
Lucas chuckled as he leaned in for a kiss. ?Guess that answers my first question.? He took the handle of the suitcase and rolled it toward the bank of elevators. ?I?m assuming you?ve got the full entourage in tow??
He glanced past my shoulder, though he couldn?t see the ghosts. Or hear them. Lucky bastard.
A ping sounded and a pair of silver doors slid open. A well-dressed couple departed and then Lucas ushered me inside.
?At least the rain held off for most of the drive,? I said, hitching my purse a little higher on my shoulder as I stepped aboard the elevator.
Lucas dragged the suitcase in behind him and the doors slid closed. Hayward and Gwen stood opposite Flapjack, the three of them scowling. ?Perhaps we need to come up with a proper schedule,? Hayward suggested. ?Lady Gwen and I could accompany Lady Scarlet into the city every other weekend. Then you, Flapjack, could have her to yourself on the opposite weeks.?
I rolled my eyes. ?This isn?t a custody agreement. I get the final say, and if the three of you can?t behave yourselves, then none of you will be invited next time.?
Lucas cringed. ?That bad, huh??
I sipped the hot mocha. ?You have no idea.?
The trio sulked all the way up to Lucas?s floor. Part of me wanted to send them away but thought better of it and decided to just ignore them as best I could until they got bored and went off on their own adventures. Lucas rolled my suitcase into the bedroom and helped me unpack. My visit would be a little longer this time and it felt nice to have my things hanging in the closet and properly laid out on the bathroom counter.
We caught up with each other as we made quick work of the unpacking. The ghosts stayed out of sight, adhering to the rule I?d laid down about interrupting Lucas and me when we were alone in the bedroom?for obvious reasons.
Sighing, I flopped back on the bed. It was ten times more comfortable than the bargain basement model I had back in Beechwood Harbor. ?Are you sure we even have to buy a house? I mean, what?s so wrong with this place??
Lucas chuckled and stretched out beside me. ?I already got the name of the mattress and have one on layaway for whenever we move into our new place.?
I laughed. ?You know me so well.?
He scooped me in close and we let our lips do a little catching up, too.
When we managed to get untangled, Lucas sat up and brushed a hand over his short hair. He?d served in the Navy in his twenties and still preferred to keep his hair cut short. ?If you?re up for it, there?s actually an open house tonight,? he said, twisting around to look back at me.
My nose wrinkled. ?It?s almost five o?clock.?
?It just went on the market and the sellers are highly motivated. They?re showing it tonight and all day tomorrow. But Yvonne said it?s likely to turn into a bidding war, so if we want a crack at it, we should try to make it ASAP.?
?Another bidding war?? I groaned, rolling out of the bed.
?I know, I know. But Scar, this place, I?m telling you, it could be a real contender,? Lucas said, following me back into the main living area.
?Is it a house?? I asked, ignoring the way the ghosts perked up.
?Two-story, single-family in Georgetown. The yard is a little small, but there is a little deck out back for grilling and entertaining. The kitchen was recently remodeled, and the master bath has a soaking tub, which I know was on your wish list.?
?Oh, a yard!? Gwen gushed. ?Maybe you can get a dog!?
A bubble of excitement threatened to rise, but I quickly stuffed it back down. We?d been here before. The trail behind us was littered with false starts, rejected offers, failed inspections, and blown deals. Following our honeymoon in Hawaii, we?d returned to the mainland just in time to offer on a gorgeous townhome, only to have the deal fall apart a week and a half later when the seller reconsidered and yanked the property right out from underneath us.
?We can go see it, but remember our deal.?
?I promise to wear my best poker face,? Lucas agreed with a grin.
?All right, but I?m still not going to get excited until the keys are actually in my hands.?
?Something will work out,? Lucas told me.
?I don?t see why we can?t just keep this place,? Flapjack said, stalking along the wall of windows at the far side of the living room. ?It?s big enough.?
?Not if they want to have a baby!? Gwen said.
Flapjack made a sound that was reminiscent of his hairball hacking days.
I laughed. ?We won?t need to worry about that for a while.?
Lucas glanced back at me, his expression puzzled.
?Oh, oops. Sorry.? I waved a hand toward Gwen. ?Ghosts.?
?Aha.? Lucas grinned at me, coming a little closer. ?You know, we could leave in half an hour and still make it to the open house. We could let traffic die down a little.?
His grin turned decidedly wicked and I raised a hand, pointing at the front door. ?Ghosts, out!?