Witchless In Seattle Mysteries, Book 3
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Are you Stevie Cartwright?”
A really good-looking older man dressed in a black suit with a lavender shirt and deep-purple tie stood at the opening of my door, where, just behind him, chaos ensued on my front lawn.
In the middle of the swirl of activity, I couldn’t help but notice he stood out like a bright plate from Pier One in a sea of Corningware. Not that Corningware isn’t perfectly lovely. It is. It’s reliable and functional. But it’s not exactly Waterford—which is what Win informs me is the best of the best, in his snobby opinion.
Me personally? I’m just fine with a paper plate, but Win (he’s my dead British spy ghost) insisted I at least consider upping my taste game and contemplate a more refined set of dinnerware.
Looking up at the stranger decorating my doorway, his good looks so devastatingly handsome, I forgot the question.
“So you are Stevie Cartwright, correct?”
I scanned him from head to toe once again. Wow, the caterers didn’t just dip into the handsome lottery pool when they hired the help, they dove in head first.
“You must be the greeter, right?” I stuck out my hand and he took it, though he looked a little confused.
But no worries. My house was enormous and there was more activity going on than at a beehive convention, as everyone prepared for my housewarming party. I was just as confused as him, to be honest. So I waved him in distractedly. What was one more person in the madness?
I scanned him from head to toe again, noting his outfit didn’t match the rest of the caterer’s staff, but then, his job was to address the guests as they arrived. He should be showier.
Sticking out my hand, I smiled. “It’s nice to meet you. Gosh, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re really good looking. So I’d better warn you now. The mature ladies of Ebenezer Falls are going to have to be herded like cattle or you’ll have a backup at this door worse than anything you’ve ever seen on the I-5 freeway. Just a head’s up for efficiency’s sake.”
At first he stood up straight and appeared to preen a little, but then he cocked his head, a head with just enough gray at the temples to be dangerously delicious. “I’m sorry, say again?”
I winced, tightening the belt on my bathrobe. “Did I offend you? Sorry. Sometimes I say things before I think them through thoroughly. It’s a curse, I tell you.”
“No. No, I’m not offended. Not at all. In fact, I’d quite agree,” he said on a velvety chuckle, smoothing his full head of thick black hair. “But I think we have our signals crossed—”
“Stevie!” Win, my ghost I mentioned earlier, yelped in my ear, his distress crystal clear.
I winced and held up a finger to the man who was still talking, his words muffled due to Win.
Dollars to donuts my spy was all up in arms over some minor detail that wouldn’t make a hill o’ beans difference after tonight was through, but that didn’t stop him from nitpicking me to death anyway.
We’d only been planning this housewarming party for a month. Yep, that’s right. It had been almost thirty full days of torturous choices—dinnerware, cutlery, silk or rustic-themed napkins, colors, ice sculptures, flowers, lighting, entertainment, and so on. Hence my analogies to Corningware.
Torture, I tell you.
I pressed my fingertips to the Bluetooth I used as my beard for communicating with Win when others were around. I’d been caught a couple of times talking to him as though he were in the room with me, not just in my ear, and it always proved awkward.
So I wore the Bluetooth almost as an accessory nowadays.
“What now? Swear, Winterbottom, if you’re interrupting me when I’m with the staff—the staff you insisted we hire for this housewarming—just to tell me some Cirque du Soleil member with a fancy, unpronounceable one-letter name is stuck at the airport with her leotard and satin rope again, I’m going to kill you!”
“Now that’s simply impossible, isn’t it, Cheeky One?”
I bobbed my head, turning around to attack the next problem in the kitchen, when I distractedly noted that the handsome man followed. “Fair point. But I’ll think of some way to make you wish you’d never met me if you throw one more problem on my plate. This housewarming was your idea, International Man of Mystery. I would have been fine just inviting everyone from town over for some Cheese Whiz and Triscuits—maybe even pizza or weenies in a blanket if ambition really struck. I’ve never hosted a party of this size before—let alone with fancy dishes, a string quartet, and some guy hanging from the ceiling in the parlor by a ruffled sheet! Give me a break, would you? It’s been Stevie, Stevie, Stevie all day long!”
“Your husband, I presume?” the debonair man asked with a smile.
“I’d rather eat toxic waste,” I replied. Curious as to why he was following me around.
Petula, from Parties By Petula, the catering service we’d hired, said her people were go-getters, initiators. She must’ve said that a hundred times while we planned this party. As handsome as he was, he needed to go take some of that initiative.
“Toxic waste, Dove? Really? Why do you have to be so curmudgeonly?”
“Are we going to get into the million reasons? After you just finished asking me to shine the handle on the fridge with a cloth made of cashmere?”
“Bah! I didn’t. I just said it had a lot of fingerprints and it should be freshened. Be careful not to scratch it, use a soft cloth. A mere suggestion, nothing more.”
“Okay, fine. Let’s get to the point. I still have to dress and do my makeup before my mother arrives. I’ve told you about Dita, haven’t I? She makes me unreasonable, surly even. I want everything in place before I have to locate her world and make it revolve around her. So what’s the problem this time?”
“Your mother’s attending the party?” the stranger asked, catching a glimpse of himself in the freshly shined fridge. He stopped for a moment in front of the French doors and smiled at his distorted image.
No, he really did. It was exactly like you’d see on a cartoon where the character catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, smiles, and his teeth sparkle. He flashed a million watts while he lifted his chin and checked each angle with a tilt of his head. Then he gave himself a thumbs up—two, if I’m to be precise.
Healthy self-esteem is a good quality for sure.
But I had things to do. So I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the entryway. “Listen, er…really great-looking guy. I have five hundred million things to do before this shindig starts. So if you’d just go wait by the front door for instructions from Petula, I’m pretty sure you won’t lack for company.”
I didn’t bother to wait for his answer of compliance; I had a dress to squeeze into. Waving to the chef in our amazing new white and Italian marble gourmet kitchen before grabbing a blob of cheese with some brown thing under it, I zipped out of the kitchen and up the gorgeous new staircase, alight with twinkling fairy lights.
Racing down the wide hall, I didn’t even take the time to admire the smooth, creamy-colored walls or the pictures of scenic cottages Win had personally picked out.
Skidding around the corner, I fell into my bedroom where my familiar, Belfry, napped on the furry back of our rescue dog, Whiskey.
Setting my blob of cheese on the nightstand, I did take the time to appreciate my bedroom.
Gosh, I loved this room. It was every dream I’d ever had as a teenager. Especially my bed, literally built against the tall windows facing the Puget Sound. Framed with wainscoting in pale lemon and a bookcase built into the headboard, and blue and white chintz bedding with tons of fluffy French country pillows. It was, in a word, magnificent.
A hanging chandelier cast a warm glow over the room, the sparkly multi-shaped jewels making shadows on the walls. A white brick fireplace—which I wasn’t able to take for a test drive right now at the end of May—sat on the far wall, and would keep me toasty come December. A matching wingback blue chintz chair with a warm cashmere pale lemon throw draped over its back sat by yet another set of windows overlooking the front lawn. To top it off, a big braided rug lay in the center of it all.
It was heaven.
And I really wanted to crawl back into that heaven and forget this whole party thing.
But I’d promised Win I’d get involved with my fellow Ebenezer Fall-ers, and he told me this was the best way to do it. Good food, expensive wine, and ridiculous ice fountains were the way to reintroduce myself to the people I’d grown up with and forge new adult friendships.
He’d said this was how to welcome everyone into my life again after having left when I was just out of high school to move to Paris, Texas, for training as a paranormal 9-1-1 operator for my coven of witches. Who were no longer my coven, by the by.
This party was a friendly way to say “howdy neighbor.” For some reason, probably because not so long ago I’d lost everyone in my life, Win felt it important to thrust me into the face of anyone who crossed my path because he never wanted me to be alone.
Which I mostly never was. Not with him in my ear, our new dog Whiskey and my bat familiar Belfry. This particular worry of his made me worry about Win’s future on what we laughingly called the place he was spending his afterlife—Plane Limbo.
Where spirits who aren’t yet sure they’re ready to cross hang out and linger. Or in Win’s case, turn their afterlife into one big party, conga line included. I wondered if all this getting-me-involved meant he was considering crossing over for the first time since I’d met him.
Win had refused to cross over from the start, but I wasn’t pushing him to, either. He was one of the reasons I’d been able to keep my head above water after I lost my witch powers. But I worried someday he might not have a choice, and as selfish as it seems, he was my tether these days. My glue. I needed him, and I’d mourn his loss for a very long time if he left.
Whiskey, our St. Bernard, stretched on the bed, his mahogany and white fur rippling as he groaned his pleasure, rolling over for tummy scratches.
“Duuude!” Belfry chirped his discontent. “A little warning before you do that, huh, buddy? You could crush me and then what? Who would you have to pretend-throw the ball to you when these lugs are too busy solving murders?”
I giggled. Belfy is a cotton ball bat. Two inches of snarky, snarly, snow-white, loveable, forever-napping bat, and I’d have never made it this far without him after being kicked out of my coven and losing my powers. He remained steadfast in his loyalty to me as my familiar, the coven be damned.
Plucking him from the bed before Whiskey crushed him, I held him up and looked him in the eye, his yellow snout and ears twitching as he asked, “You ready for tonight, Cinderella?”
“I’m afraid of tonight,” I replied, eyeing my glittering red designer dress. A brand-new designer dress Win insisted I purchase, rather than dig into my stash of secondhand vintage clothing.
I love the coup of finding a designer label in a secondhand store. There’s nothing more fulfilling when it comes to shopping for clothes. Win insisted I could more than afford all new designer clothing, but he missed the point entirely. If I can just buy whatever I want, it takes the fun out of the hunt. Also, there was a time when I couldn’t just buy what I wanted—before Win gave me all his worldly possessions.
“You’re not nervous, are you, Stevie?” Bel asked. “You know all these people, for cripes sake. What’s the big hullabaloo?”
“They’ve never met me this way, Bel. I used to be just Stevie Cartwright, brooding, pouty, Goth-black-makeup lover. And when we moved back here, I was thrown into the position of Madam Zoltar, medium to the heavens, before anyone really had a chance to see all this. But no one knows this Stevie. The one with all the money for a champagne fountain and Italian marble countertops. It feels kinda showy, don’t you think?”
Belfry twittered his wings. “If I were you, I’d worry less about that and more about the fact that I have something to tell you. So get dressed. It’ll keep your hands busy so you can’t grab something and throw it at me.”
My eyes narrowed. If Win had put him up to something—like, say, I dunno…elephants arriving at any second—I’d kill him. He and Win were always in cahoots these days.
“Bel…” I said with clear warning.
But he flapped his wings. “Go! Shoo. Put that snazzy dress on and I’ll talk.”
I set him back on Whiskey’s fur and grabbed my amazing dress. Even if it had cost the earth, and I hadn’t hunted it down myself, it was gorgeous. A long-sleeved turtle neck of glittering red, it cinched at the waist and had a flared skirt that just grazed the middle of my thighs. Paired with silver-strapped heels and shiny silver hoop earrings, I fell in love with it the minute Win pointed it out in an expensive boutique in Seattle.
I made my way into my equally fabulous bathroom with a real cast-iron claw-foot tub and said, “Okay, Bel. What’s on your mind?”
“Are you near the soap dish?”
“I don’t want you to throw it at me.”
I couldn’t hold back my laughter. “Just spit it out.”
“My parents are coming.”
Sweet Pete on a carousel.
I pulled my dress over my head and let it fall to my waist, brushing it past my hips without saying a word.
“Boss? You still upright?”
Grabbing the brush, I ran it through my hair, happy with the caramel highlights I’d had added just yesterday. My chestnut hair was rather drab, in my opinion, and now that it was growing out, I needed a change.
“Boss?” Bel repeated with a tentative tone.
“I’m still upright. When?”
“Well, that’s the thing…”
“Tonight. Oh, crud, I might as well just spit it all out. They’re bringing—”
“Not Com and Wom. Please say the twins are off in familiar boot camp or something.” I almost moaned, biting the inside of my cheek. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease.
Bel snorted. “You’re joking, right? What witch in even her half-right mind would want one of those two hooligans for a familiar? They couldn’t guide a pet rock, let alone a fully grown witch with fully grown powers.”
I loved Belfry. He was my family, always—but his family?
The Bats (yes. That’s really their last name. Bat) were a firestorm of crashing, sticky fruit drippings and mayhem.
His twin brothers Com and Wom were like toddlers on a continual sugar rush, always into something. And Mom Bat? Mostly as adorable as Bel but not exactly on top of things, if you know what I mean. She turned a blind eye to her sons’ shenanigans more often than not.
And Dad Bat, well, he was of the mind that boys will be boys. The translation of that? Win’s house and all the beautiful things he’d filled it with were going to crumble around our ears by the time they left.
I gripped the white porcelain sink and closed my eyes as a shiver of dread slithered up my spine.
“Belfry? Is Uncle Ding coming, too?” Then I winced and said a silent prayer.
“Yes…?” he replied in a hesitant squeak.
My head fell to my chest and I took deep breaths. Uncle Ding Bat (again, yes. That’s his real name) was a feisty senior—all wings and snout in all the wrong places. Mostly my wrong places.
But okay. I could do this. If I could handle a houseful of two hundred guests or so, people spinning from sheets in the living room, and a testy French chef in the kitchen, I could handle the Bats coming for a visit. They deserved to see their son as much as the next parents.
“Are we still speaking?” he asked, flying into the bathroom as I quickly applied some lipstick and mascara.
“Don’t be silly. Of course we are. Just remember to keep them away from Dita. You know how much she loathes the twins.”
He settled on my loofah on the sink. “I’m on it, Boss. By the way, have I told ya how proud I am of you for inviting Momster?”
Nodding, I jabbed my earrings into the holes in my ears and slipped on my sandals. “You have. She’d have found out about the party anyway, because she and Bart are traveling through Seattle to Ebenezer Falls to pick up some things she has in storage. So it was an easy decision.”
In truth, it wasn’t an easy decision. Sharing my life and all the new things in it with my mother wasn’t something I was doing lightly. I’d thought a lot about this. But over the last couple of months, I’d seen people torn apart who’d never be able to make things right. Not until they met somewhere else again—if they met somewhere else at all.
I didn’t want to leave this plane motivated by disharmony and anger.
“You’re a good egg, Stevie. I know Dita’s not exactly Donna Reed, but maybe you can make lemonade. Or at least martinis. Booze has helped less get through far worse.”
The moment my mother Dita heard I’d been booted from my coven—after a powerful warlock accused me of meddling with his family and slapped the witch out of me from the great beyond (yep. He literally slapped the witch right out of me)—she’d shut down all communication. Probably for fear our leader, Baba Yaga, would punish her for consorting with the shunned.
It didn’t matter that when it came to your child, nothing should prevent you from supporting her—short of murder, that is. And even then, you can hate the crime and still love the criminal.
But my mother wasn’t that sort of mother. She was shallow, vain, and went through boyfriends and husbands like I went through Pop-Tarts. Nurturing wasn’t part of the plan with my mother. Sometimes I wondered how I’d survived my childhood, as distant as she’d been…as caught up in her own life as she’d been.
But over the past couple of months, with the changes in my life being what they were, I’d realized I’d be in my grave long before her immortality would run out.
I’d seen a lot of death these past couple of months, and even if we didn’t get along, I didn’t want to leave this world angry with her. Mildly irritated might be the only way, but harboring all this leftover childhood anger with her was not. I was going to accept her for who she was and not hope she’d miraculously turn into Carol Brady.
Because that would never happen. Plus, The Brady Bunch had way more kids than my mother would ever be able to handle.
Taking one last look at my reflection, I smoothed my hands over my dress and blew out a breath of pent-up air. Everything would be okay. It was going to be a great night.
“You look beautiful, Stevie,” Belfry said on a whistle. “Never prettier.”
I curtsied and smiled, stroking his head with my fingertip. “Why thank you, kind bat.”
As I headed back into my bedroom, my stomach rumbled, reminding me I hadn’t had the chance to eat all day. Scooping up the blob of cheese and brown stuff, I shoveled it into my mouth.
I regretted that the moment it hit my tongue. “Oh my goddess!” I spit it out, wiping my tongue with my finger as I gagged. “What is that?”
“I’ll have you know, it’s goat cheese from the finest stock. A herd raised by monks, thank you. And fig, grown and shipped straight from the trees in California,” Win chided.
“It tastes like sweat and airplane fuel,” I said, gagging again.
“You’ve eaten sweat and airplane fuel, I gather?”
“No. I’m only guessing, but if you’d like, I’ll go drain Sea-Tac before I’ll eat any more of that.”
“You have the taste buds of a five-year-old, Stevie Cartwright. If it’s not a Pop-Tart or a box of Cheez-its, you can’t process it on that undeveloped palate of yours.”
I held my hand out to Whiskey and offered him the snack. “Here, buddy. You have airplane fuel and sweat. It’s on me.”
But Whiskey took one sniff and whined, turning his nose up at it and making me laugh. “See? Not even our dog will eat it. Now, I need to move it because the alarm on my phone is bound to go off any second, telling me something else is arriving. I just can’t remember what. Clowns?”
“Perish the thought. Mimes, Stevie. We’ve hired mimes. They’re the silent, refined entertainers.”
I did my best impression of a mime stuck in a box.
“Thank goodness we hired professionals,” Win drawled in his uppity British accent. But then he paused just as I started toward the door to join the chaos downstairs.
His aura wrapped me in a warm bubble. “You look stunning tonight. Positively, beautifully glowing,” Win said, his voice husky and silken in my ear.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, unsure why his compliment made me choke up. “Thanks, Win,” I whispered before I scurried back down the hall and toward the stairs.
As I zoomed down the steps as fast as I could in heels, I inhaled at the sight of that man again, still at the front door. He was smiling his movie-star smile. Chatting amicably with some of the quartet and signing a napkin.
Curious indeed, but I had no time for investigating.
Still, I couldn’t get over how good looking he was, and from this distance, maybe even a little familiar? Nah. Where would I know a guy like him from?
I stopped at the bottom of the steps, my hands wrapped around the thick square of the banister cap, and caught my breath before entering the melee of activity.
That was when he approached me, his movie-star smile on point. “Stevie? May I speak with you?”
“Oh, of course.”
“Privately?” He swept his arm in the direction of the parlor like he was introducing royalty.
“Well, it’s not exactly private. I mean, there’s a guy hanging from a sheet in there.” I pointed to where, moments ago, the Cirque acrobat had been checking the pulleys the engineers had installed especially for his performance.
He turned up the wattage on his smile of persuasion. “He’s gone on a quick bathroom break.”
“Then sure,” I mumbled. What was so important he had to talk to me in private? He was a door greeter—or something fancy Win had given a label to, but I’d never heard of.
He held out his arm and offered an escort.
I gave him a strange look but reminded myself, he was older. Chivalry wasn’t dead for him. So I slipped arm through his and let him lead me into the living room, er…parlor. Win called it a parlor.
White calla lilies and hydrangeas filled tall vases scattered about the room, on end tables and atop a chest of drawers, all created at the local florist shop owned by Adele Perkins. The sheet still hung from a beam spanning the ceiling, the soft silk cascading to the floor in a pool of lavender.
“So how can I help you?” I looked up at him, drawn by his compelling gaze.
“My name is Hugh Granite, and—”
I think my shoulders shook a little with laughter when I heard him say his name, making him stop speaking. I didn’t mean to almost laugh, but c’mon. Hugh Granite? You have to admit, it’s comedy gold.
Yet, he still gazed down at me as though confused, giving me the impression no one laughed at him or his name, and if they did, they were of no importance.
So I covered my almost laugh with a cough and rubbed my nose. “Sorry. Allergies. Nice to meet you…er, Hugh…Granite.” I spit his name out, stuttering and coughing some more to hide further snickers.
Hugh Granite. Priceless, I tell you. I hoped Win was hearing this.
“Yes. That’s correct. I am the Hugh Granite. International star of stage, screen and film. In Japan, of course.”
Of course. The Hugh Granite. Big, big star. In Japan.
I fought another laugh, holding my breath to keep from snorting because his face said he wasn’t joking around. His title meant something to him, and he was looking at me like I was just shy of the cuckoo’s nest for not acknowledging as much.
But he was so endearing in the most overblown way, I couldn’t mock him. Though, I’m sure Win was having a field day in his head right now.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, but if we could just get to the point? My mother’s coming, and if you knew my mother, you’d want time to gather your wits and put them somewhere you can find them so they’re handy when she starts poking you with her big stick. Mothers, right? Sheesh.”
Now his face changed, but only for a blip of a second before he was smiling again, catching his reflection in the big picture window to his left and straightening his shoulders. “Of course, I understand. My mother is nothing like yours. Nothing. But still, I understand.” He patted my shoulder with his impeccably manicured fingers as though he were soothing me.
Okey-doke, then. I bit my lower lip and scrunched my eyebrows together in a frown. I couldn’t help it. I was missing something here. “Okay, so what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Now he nodded again, his dark, perfectly groomed hair never moving. “I, Hugh Granite, have come to tell you something. Something wonderful,” he said in his game-show announcer’s voice, each word over-enunciated.
Did all stars of stage, screen, and film use third-person narrative when they talked about themselves? Maybe it was a Japanese thing…
Scratching my head, I sighed and glanced up at him. “Okay. Well could you do that, please? I have tons of guests coming and if you only knew the kind of crazy chaos happening in my kitchen right now, with that wood-fire pizza oven, you’d see why I want to move this along. So, Hugh Granite, talk to me.”
“As requested, then…” He paused, rather grandly for emphasis, if I do say so myself, and held out two hands to me as though he were offering me a gift.
But I didn’t take them because this was getting weirder by the second.
“Mr. Granite, you were saying?”
He let his hands fall to his sides and puffed out his chest as though preparing for an important speech. And then he let ’er rip.
“I’m pleased to announce that I am your father.”
Then he gave me a thumbs-up sign and grinned wider still—and I’d swear I saw his teeth sparkle.
“Your mouth is open, Dove.” Win whispered the gentle reminder.
“So you’re not the doorman who works for Petula?” I squeaked.
“It’s herald, Stevie. If he weren’t an international star of stage, screen and film, he’d be the herald. A herald announces the guests with flourish,” Win admonished on a grating sigh of frustration.
Right. That was the fancy word Win had used when he’d decided to have each person announced as they arrived.
But Hugh smiled again, his dark eyes twinkling. “No. But I understand your confusion. I once played a maître d’ in one of my earliest Japanese films. A pivotal role for me, if I do say so myself. A young, handsome devil of a man, seeking his fortune in sushi. That must be where you recognize me from.”
“Stevie? Close your mouth again, Dove.”
I did as I was told, but I still wasn’t able to think of a single thing to say.
“Now answer the Hugh Granite, international star of stage, screen and film, and the man who claims he’s your father, Dove. It’s impolite to ignore a guest.”
But I couldn’t form words. So I just kept staring at Hugh.
Hugh sighed, his wide shoulders lifting upward. “You’re in shock. A wonderful shock, I’m sure. This happens to me all the time when people first meet me, and it’s delightful. It isn’t every day you find out Hugh Granite is your father, is it?” he asked, his words bloated like his ego. But I couldn’t even be angry at him for thrusting himself upon me like he was the Gift of The Magi.
Because he was so dang cute. No, really, aside from his incredible good looks, perfect hair, even more perfect teeth, he was darn well adorable.
There was no denying his voice was gentle and warm, and matched the look in his eyes as he stared down at me tenderly—almost hesitantly, waiting for me to react.
“Stevie? We have things to deal with promptly. So for now, say these words,” Win ordered in his concise British take-charge tone. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Hugh Granite, international star of stage, screen, and film, but as you can see, I’m very busy right now. Can we have a nice long chat about where you’ve been for the last thirty-two years of my life after I deal with the acrobats and mimes and my party has gone off without a hitch?”
I frowned, but I attempted to repeat the words anyway, because they sounded like they might get me out of the frying pan for the time being and stall the flaming fire.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr…er, stage, screen, and Japanese film star, but party…and thirty-two years, actually almost thirty-three now. And um, stuff…to do… So, talk later. I mean, you and me. M’kay? Gotta go.” I pointed in the direction of the hall outside the parlor.
And with that, I pivoted on my heel and ran from the room like the devil himself had shown up for the party.
I’d hoped to find shelter in the bathroom just off the kitchen so I could process what had just happened, but was intercepted by Petula, who had that needy look on her face. The one that said there was a problem. It didn’t happen often, and she was a stickler for perfection. So when she came running, I asked how high I should jump.
She raced toward me, her wide hazel eyes glassy, her sandy-blonde hair piled on top of her head in haphazard fashion with a clip. “There you are!” she drawled on a sigh of relief, gripping my arm with her pudgy hand. “We need someone to make a decision about the ice sculpture of the dragon. Apparently there’s been some kind of mix-up on placement. Can you come with me?”
I liked Petula. She was a crackerjack of sound and motion. Chubby, which—she declared with a warm smile that made her eyes crinkle around the outer corners—was from sampling her vendors’ foods. She was warm and friendly and she always smelled like a pastry store with a hint of sage.
I let her lead me away mostly because I didn’t have a choice, stumbling in my heels as we headed back down the hallway to the front door and out onto the porch.
Petula pointed to the amazingly gorgeous round tables covered in pale-pink silk tablecloths that dotted my front lawn, set up in a circular fashion to encourage mingling. “Do you want the sculpture on the dessert table, or the table where the Bustamante boys will make made-to-order fajitas and tacos?”
Win had insisted we utilize the talents of some of the food truck owners, and the Bustamantes were high on his list, as was Carlito, now an honorary Bustamante, according to Maggie and her boys. Her daughter Bianca was still warming to him.
Long story short, Tito Bustamante was murdered last month, and he’d owned a taco truck—the best-ever taco truck. My favorite dining experience in all of Ebenezer Falls. Tito’s son, Carlito—a son he went to his grave unaware of—had come to town to locate his biological father in the middle of the investigation into Tito’s death.
Tito’s adopted sons, Mateo and Juan Felipe, now ran the taco truck in their father’s stead, and they’d included Carlito in every way possible.
But I didn’t even have time to consider how proud Tito would have been if he could see his adopted children, born to Maggie from her first marriage, and his newly found biological son working so well together, before Win said, “Oh, definitely tell her the dessert table. Dragons breathe fire—we don’t want to evoke images of heartburn mixed with our Mexican food, do we?”
Clearly he’d read my lack of focus, and likely the blank expression on my face, the way he always does. And he always knows exactly what to do.
I nodded distractedly. I don’t know why I hadn’t made the correlation between fire and spicy tacos. Duh. It was so obvious.
“The Mexican table. So we don’t inspire an OD on antacids—or something. Does that work, Petula?”
Petula clapped her work-worn hands. “Of course. You’re so clever! And now I’m off. The quartet should arrive at any second and I’d like them warmed up and playing before the guests begin to arrive, which should be in about twenty minutes.”
She hopped down the wide front steps of the house in her sensible shoes, all energy and motion, and threw herself into the fray of activity, leaving me to continue staring blankly, unable to move.
“Maybe you should take a moment?” Win suggested.
“Or a lot of moments,” I mumbled as the lights, strategically mapped out by Win, began to turn on, turning my front yard into a twinkling mint-green and soft white fairy garden. The evening was cool, but not uncomfortably so, and the chance we’d taken by having an outdoor party in May, in Seattle, looked like it wouldn’t end up the risk I’d envisioned.
The newly planted hydrangeas in blue and white, their fat blooms drooping from their stems, added to the aura of an English cottage garden. Lavender and purple salvia surrounded them, accented by pink tea roses, the flowers all aglow with specifically chosen lighting to best accent their beauty.
Chester, the man I secretly considered my surrogate grandfather—and the real grandfather of the man I was dating casually—had helped me meticulously plan this particular garden, and it was as beautiful as I’d hoped.
But I couldn’t enjoy it right now, or take pride in it, because my father, Hugh Granite, was somewhere inside my house, certain I was thrilled to bits he’d made an appearance after almost thirty-three years.
How did I even know he was telling the truth?
“Dove, please take a moment to gather your thoughts.”
“Do you really think he’s…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. It sounded ludicrous in my head. I couldn’t imagine what it would sound like out loud.
“Your father? I will admit, there’s a resemblance. It’s in the line of your jaw and the set of your pretty eyes. What I’d like to know is how and why?”
“Why now and how did he find me?”
“Exactly. We must protect you from frauds, Stevie. You’re a very rich woman. Now, I’m going to stress once again, please take a moment to gather your thoughts. Have a glass of wine. I want this to be an enjoyable evening for you. As good as it possibly can be, after Hugh’s admission. I don’t want you frazzled and upset. I’ll have Belfry call Petula, if need be, and give him instructions to pass on to her if we run into any more problems.”
Petula, as well as Liza, the college student and friend I’d hired to handle the Madam Zoltar shop in town, both thought Belfry was my virtual assistant from Connecticut. It helped tremendously to fall back on Bel and Win.
But I shook my head. If I didn’t think about what had just happened, I could compartmentalize it for now. But there was just one thing I had to ask myself.
If Hugh Granite, international star in Asia or wherever, really was my father, how had two such vain people made me? Given, Hugh was certainly sweetly egotistical, but my mother? Not so much.
Maybe I should ask him to leave and come back another day when I was more prepared to find out if he was just messing with my head? Was he dangerous? He sure didn’t look dangerous. But there were plenty of madmen out there who looked as gentle as newborn kittens. I didn’t know what to do. So many decisions, so few brain cells not already eaten up by party matters.
Yes. Wine. I needed wine. Maybe that would help me loosen up enough to parse through all this new information.
“Stevie? Wow! You look beautiful,” Forrest called before he let a whistle go, thus, ending my dilemma.
As he climbed the porch steps, I had to admit, he looked pretty impressive, too. He’d worn a tux, the crisp lines and smooth material accentuating his chiseled face and sandy-brown hair.
I reached up and tweaked his bow tie with a grin. I liked Forrest. I liked him a great deal. He was easy to talk to, made killer coffee at his shop, the Strange Brew, and he was even easier on the eyes.
We’d had a few dates now, coffee, dinner, sometimes lunch. But nothing serious.
I forced myself to look as relaxed as possible even as my eyes scanned the lawn for Hugh. “You look pretty great yourself. I was just going to grab a glass of wine. You want one, too?”
“Sure,” he said with one of his devastatingly handsome smiles. “The house looks amazing, Stevie. I can’t believe you pulled this and a housewarming party together in so little time.” Putting his hand at my waist, he ushered me back inside the house.
“Me either, but we did it.”
“Oh, I meant me and Enzo and his crack team of subcontractors. Never could have done it without him. He’s a miracle worker for sure.”
Forrest stopped just as we stepped into the entryway, where I gave a cautious peek around for Hugh.
“Did you hear that?”
I paused to listen. “Hear what? The string quartet? They’re warming up.”
He shook his head and cocked his ear. “No, that wasn’t the sound of violins I heard.”
And then I heard it, too.
A shrill scream.
Turning back toward the wide-open front door, I shot Forrest an apologetic smile before I ran to see what was going on.
It was one of the Cirque du Soleil members. I’d name-dropped Win’s name in order to entice her to come perform. Of course, after I’d done all my name-dropping, I asked Win how a spy comes to know an entire troupe of acrobats. To which he answered, who doesn’t appreciate women who could twist themselves into every position in the Kama Sutra without a single grunt?
Short answer to my question? None of your beeswax, lady.
Anyway, the long-limbed, graceful goddess in a soft-pink leotard was screaming and swatting at her hair.
“Get eet off!” she screamed in a pretty French accent. “Eet’s in my haaair!”
And that’s when I saw it—a tiny white bat wing poking out from the troupe member’s long blonde locks.
Aw, heck. The Bats had arrived. Let the games begin.
I zipped down the steps as fast as my heels would allow, making a dash across the lawn as the petite woman screamed in terror again. “Kill eet! Get eet out!”
A crowd had begun to form and someone, also in a leotard, with a pair of scissors, pushed their way through the gathering performers.
“Noooo!” I bellowed, diving into the throng of people, pushing my way past them to get to the acrobat. “Wait! I can help!”
The slender woman trembled, her hair a nest of tangles as she shook her arms out, bouncing oh so gracefully in a circle. “Get eet out! Get zis beast out of my hair!”
I latched onto her arm and turned her to face me before eyeing the man with the scissors. “You! Put the scissors away, please. Now, just hold still. It’s probably just a bat, as scared as you are. They’re common in these parts, and I know it’s freaking you out, but we need bats as part of our ecosystem so please try not to hurt it. I promise, if you just hold still…er, what’s your name?”
“K,” she said on a violent shiver. “Just the letter, notheeng else.”
“Just one letter?” I asked for the sake of Win, because I couldn’t stop laughing over their one-letter names.
“Oui, mademoiselle,” she said on another shiver
“Before you say anything else, mostly everyone in the troupe does have one-letter names, Stevie. Save the crass jokes for later,” Win chastised before I’d even had the chance to crack a joke.
I fought a smirk and gripped K’s arm. “Right, K. Just hold still and I promise I can get him out of your hair without you losing any.”
I began to spread her lush locks and ramble on about the plusses of bats, plucking until I identified Ding, Bel’s uncle. Of course it was Ding. The old adage “blind as a bat” definitely applied in his case.
“You are not frightened?” K asked, calmer now as I untangled Ding.
“Nah. It’s just a bat.” I pulled him out and held him up briefly while everyone’s eyes widened and they made horrified faces. “See? Aren’t they cute?”
Pushing her hair from her face, K’s slight body shuddered in revulsion. “Eet’s deesgusting. Ack!”
“You oughtta tell the broad to eat somethin’ before she starts usin’ words like—”
I coughed—loudly, to cover Uncle Ding’s retort. “I’ll just take him out back and set him free. I’m sorry you were frightened.” I tucked Uncle Ding into the palm of my hand as the performers rallied ’round K to soothe her, hoping they hadn’t heard his response.
When I reached the steps, I opened my hand and gave Ding a stern look. “Uncle Ding, what were you told about flying without an escort?” I whisper-yelled.
“Well, hello gorgeous!” he chirped, his sweet aging face a total deception. Uncle Ding was a letch. An utter and total tiny ball of letch. All tiny hands, all the time. “Long time no see, hottie. I had an escort, but I left his butt in my dust somewhere around Eugene, the slowpoke.”
“Oh, you did not,” I admonished, pointing a finger at him. “I know you, Uncle Ding. You sonar-ed her boobs from way up there, didn’t you?”
He shrugged his wings before giving me a guilty look, his wrinkly white face scrunching up. “Okay, so my aim’s a little off.”
“You’re such a fibber. Uncle Ding, you cannot accost the women attending this party. Understand? It’s unacceptable, and if you’ll be staying here, we have to have rules.”
“Fine, fine. Everybody’s always with the rules, so serious and everything. Bats just wanna have fun.”
“But you can’t have fun in an unsuspecting woman’s boobs. Now, I’ll take you up to see Belfry, and you must stay in my bedroom during this party. But above all, behave, please? There are a ton of humans down there who’d become unhinged if they knew you could talk. Hear me?”
“Like you need to ask twice. Who wouldn’t want to stay in your bedroom?”
“Ah, charming old goat, isn’t he?” Win cracked.
Uncle Ding bristled in my hand. “Who the flippity-flop was that?”
I held him at eye-level. “You can hear him? How?”
“Sonar, honey. Yeah, I can hear him.”
How interesting. “That’s my British ghost, Uncle Ding. An ex-spy from the afterlife.”
“Oh yeah?” he croaked. “I thought you couldn’t talk to dead people anymore? Rumors all over the place in Familiar-ville goin’ around about ya. What gives, hot stuff?”
With a sigh, I made my way up the stairs and ran for my bedroom to bring Uncle Ding to Bel. “It’s a long story. Hey, where’s the rest of the family?”
And then I heard another scream from outside, and someone’s panic-riddled yelp. “Look! There’s more of them!”
“Uncle Ding? Rev up the old sonar and tell the family to fly into the open bedroom window on the second floor, please. And you all need to stay hidden. No one knows I’m an ex-witch. This isn’t like Paris, where you can freely fly around wherever you want,” I said, referring to my old hometown in Texas where everyone was paranormal.
“Do ya think I just checked out of the crib at the maternity ward, girlie? I know the score. Keep your fancy dress on, I’ll send ’em a message.”
Carrying him to my bedroom, I set him on the bed next to Whiskey and Bel and ran to the window to open it, just before the rest of the Bats flew inside in a cloud of white.
They tackle-hugged Belfry, rolling him over the surface of the bed and making him squeal with feigned reproach. “Stop, you guys! Com, quit drooling! It hasn’t been that long!”
“You c’mere to mama, my squishy love muffin,” Mom Bat—or Deloris, as I called her—squeaked with warmth.
“Son, good to see you, boy!” Bel’s father, otherwise known as Melvin—or more lovingly, Bat Dad—nudged Belfry.
The twins, Com and Wom, lunged for Belfry again, knocking him over with their roughhousing. A tumble of white cotton rolled across my pillow, making Whiskey groan his displeasure.
The scene made me smile. They might be a handful, but they loved Bel, and he loved them. That was all I really cared about.
Plunking down on the bed, I stroked Whiskey’s fur. “Okay, so guys, I need you to listen, please. Stay put tonight. You can get plenty of exercise once the party’s over, but if I hear another scream of sheer terror because one of you crash-landed in the punch bowl, it’s curtains for you. Got it?”
“I got this, Boss,” Bel assured. “You go enjoy your party and tell me all about it when you’re done.”
I stroked his head and smiled. “Thanks, buddy. Enjoy your visit.”
Scratching Whiskey on the head, I’d turned to make my way out of the bedroom when I heard an all-too-familiar voice call out with enthusiasm, “Stephania! Where’s my girl?”
Ugh. Momster in the house.
“What was all the commotion with Hardy Clemmons?” Win asked in my ear as I skirted running into my mother for the third time tonight, ducking behind an ice sculpture of a castle and peering around it to see which way she’d gone.
“A commotion? I missed the commotion. Is everything all right?”
“You missed the commotion because you’re hiding. And I imagine everything worked itself out. I only came in on the tail end of Hardy stomping off in a huff. Seems calm enough now. Why do you hide from your mother, Stephania?” Win asked as I crouched lower.
“Why does a chicken hide from a fox? Or a more current analogy, Taylor Swift from Kanye West?”
“Now, Stevie. She can’t be all bad, can she? Stop ducking around corners and trying to make yourself small so she won’t see you, because we can see you. The invisible game doesn’t work in real life like it does when there are monsters under your bed.”
I pressed my finger to my Bluetooth and whispered, “I’m not hiding. I said hello to both she and Bart.”
“Yes. Indeed you did. Then you gave her the warmest air-kiss ever.”
“You hush. Who do you think taught me to air-kiss? My mother. That’s right. She taught me to do that so I wouldn’t muss her hair or her lipstick.”
Or her clothes or whatever else was important to her nab-a-man ensemble.
“You’re still hiding from her,” he accused.
Yeah, I really was. After the good talking to I’d given myself, I still wasn’t able to just pretend nothing had gone wrong with us—I wasn’t able to hide the hurt over her not at least checking on me to see if I was okay after losing my powers. “Well, have you seen her?”
“Oh, indeed I have. She’s quite lovely. Breathtaking. Just like you.”
I’d warm to that compliment if it meant anything, but Win thought every woman with a pulse was breathtaking. “Yes, she’s beautiful, isn’t she?” I asked, rising and slipping past the crowd gathered at the Cirque exhibit, where women in tasteful bathing suits were acrobatically slipping in and out of a life-sized champagne glass full of water. “But that’s not what I meant. Or did you miss how she eyeballed every available man on the lawn like they were candy in a candy store?”
“I didn’t see that at all. I saw her glance, maybe even peruse, yes. But eye? No. That’s too strong a word.”
My mother was always on the hunt for a new husband on the off chance the old one died or divorced her. She’d once told me it never hurt to keep your options open.
And she was doing just that, making quite a splash as she wove her way through the partygoers, reintroducing herself, with the handsome Bart on her arm.
I tried to focus on how beautiful everything was, how it was all running like the clockwork Win had said it would. How everyone was dancing and laughing and eating the amazing food. But I felt edgy and snappish while my mother held court.
Some might call that jealousy, but it’s not that at all. I used to be overjoyed with pride when all my little friends said my mother was the prettiest mom ever. Because she was. She still was. Her skin was like peachy porcelain, smooth and creamy, her blue-gray eyes wide and shiny with a thick fringe of lashes that were all hers.
She didn’t look her age, not even a little. Her body was firm beneath her backless gold lamé dress, her tanned legs toned, her arms sculpted. A crown of her gorgeous chestnut hair was strategically placed high on her head, artfully dyed with red lowlights, the rest falling to the middle of her back, which might look ridiculous on some women her age, but not my mother.
Like I said, I was once very proud about having the prettiest mom in Ebenezer Falls.
Until she stole one of my friends’ fathers right out from under that friend’s mother’s nose. Needless to say, sixth grade ended up a hellish year, where I sat alone on the playground at lunchtime and recess.
“Well, you have to admit, she seems happy with your stepfather. Maybe true love has changed her?”
That she did. She smiled and laughed up at him, cooed over his every word. Bart was as handsome as Dita was beautiful, his dark suit expensive, his cufflinks like shiny jewels at his wrists. Everything about him screamed money—just the way mom liked her men. He was totally snow white, which was unusual for my mother. She typically liked them darker, but I guess it didn’t matter what color their hair was if they had a fat bank account.
Bart held himself with a regal air, his wide shoulders making my mother’s look diminutive and delicate. And I’m sure he was an awesome guy. A guy who’d no doubt have his heart broken before Dita was through with him.
Had she broken Hugh Granite’s heart?
And where was my sperm-donating Japanese star of stage and screen, anyway? Why was he just now popping into my life? Was he paranormal—a warlock, maybe? And what would he say when he and my mother finally met up again after thirty-two years? Should I warn her that he was here? Was he even still here? Had they already run into each other? I shuddered at the thought.
As always, Win read my mind. “Do you think you should mention to your mother your alleged father is here? Won’t it be awkward for all involved that he just popped in after all this time, after she never told you who he was to begin with? Wouldn’t she be the person to ask if the Hugh Granite is really your father?”
“I don’t even know where he is, and we don’t even know if he’s telling the truth, Win. I gave a lot of thought to what you said about people trying to con me for my money. Maybe that’s all this is?”
“I know you have a lot on your plate tonight, but giving your mother fair warning is the very least you can do, con man or not.”
Win was right. He was always right. “You’re right. I don’t like it, but you’re right. If you see her, shoot me the memo, okay?”
“Dove? I thought you were going to try to get past all the baggage with your mother and move forward. Circumstances in your life being what they are right now.”
I bobbed my head. That was fair. I had said that. This was all part of turning over a new leaf. I’d better get turning.
“You’re right again. I promise I’ll go find her and we’ll chat.”
But Forrest grabbed me from behind, wrapping his arm around my waist, and I didn’t stop him. “Dance, milady?” he whispered in my ear.
I giggled and let him spin me around before leading me to the dance floor set up in the middle of the lawn, surrounded by dreamy globe lights. The quartet was on a break and the small orchestra had begun a zippy tune.
Smiling, I said, “Just for a minute and then I have to find my mother.”
“Color me intrigued. The Dita Cartwright, back in Ebenezer Falls after all this time,” he teased.
Even more intriguing—that everyone prefaced my parents’ names with a preposition—or was that an article? Again, another decision I was incapable of making.
“Live and in the flesh,” I remarked dryly. I hadn’t shared much with Forrest about my mother, not in the way I had with Win. It was too personal; too embarrassing for someone I was just getting to know.
Forrest twirled me, pulling me close and swaying. “Did I already say you look amazing tonight?”
I grinned, my cheeks flushing hot. “You did. But I don’t mind hearing it again.”
“Then you look amazing tonight,” he whispered once more before brushing his lips over mine.
I didn’t even have time to process Forrest’s kiss or how it made me feel before, Ginger Jenkins, tapped me on the shoulder, sliding in beside us to sway in sync with our movements.
“There you are, Stevie! We’ve been looking all over for you! How’s our favorite medium these days?” Ginger smiled broadly, her petite height shadowed by the linebacker frame of her husband, Ronald Terrence Jenkins, the presiding mayor of Ebenezer Falls.
“I’m good, Mrs. Jenkins. Glad you could make it.”
I knew why her smile was so bright and what she was angling for. It was an election year, and Win had been right: since I’d come into all this money, everyone wanted a piece of me.
“Stevie, wonderful to see you—terrific party. And you look lovely,” Ron said, his fake politician grin firmly in place as he tipped his glass of champagne in my direction.
“You, too, Mr. Mayor. Funny how things change, huh? I remember when you used to be my seventh-grade science teacher and now look. You’re the mayor!”
Ron brightened his smile as Ginger patted him on his barrel chest with affection and rocked with him. “We’d love to talk to you about our upcoming campaign if you have time this week.”
I smiled and nodded distractedly before Forrest whisked me away again, saving me from putting my foot in my mouth—which I was often wont to do.
I sighed in relief against him, patting him on the back. “Thank you. I never know what to say when people start talking about money. I just inherited it. I don’t know the first thing about campaign donations.”
The story I told everyone who wondered how I was making it rain cash was simple. I told them a dear friend left it to me—and that wasn’t far from the truth.
I’d heard a rumor or two about me and some torrid affair with an older man (or “just like her mother”), but for the most part, everyone just took me at my word.
Forrest laughed, gripping my hand while his other rested at my waist. “Me either, but Ron’s campaigning hard, so look out. Though, if I’m honest, someday I’d like to hear all about how you came into all this.”
I looked around at all the things money bought. The mimes, slipping in and out of the clusters of people in their black-and-white striped shirts and white face paint. The orchestra, sitting in a pit in front of the dance floor with the garden as their backdrop, playing Sinatra tunes.
The Cirque acrobats, twisting and arabesque-ing with colorful sheets and hula-hoops, arcing in graceful leaps beneath the fairy lights. My amazing front lawn, high on a cliff, overlooking the Sound with tables dotting the landscape, bright lanterns glowing atop them. The endless array of expensive food and ice sculptures on tables with candelabras, leaving the horizon with a soft glow.
And the house. The most beautiful place I’d ever lived, big, sprawling, with every amenity known to man. And looking at it, the wide front porch, the lantern lights lining the cobblestone walkway, the stained-glass door, the beautiful white brick exterior with steel-blue shutters, was when I realized—these things were all awesome. I loved every one of them.
I won’t lie and tell you life isn’t easier with some cash. Because it is. I no longer worry about the light bill or paying my rent on time. I didn’t even have to work as Madam Zoltar 2.0 if I didn’t want to.
But I’d give all of it up if I could meet Win. Just once.
I’d go back to that fleabag hotel where I’d started when I first came back to Ebenezer Falls and eat one-dollar tacos for the rest of my life if I could just see him.
If I could sit next to the handsome man I’d seen in that picture I found in the back of my closet. The picture of Win and a woman named Miranda. The woman he claims murdered him. Who I came to find out was a fellow spy and his former lover.
The picture I still have in my room—still mostly unexplained because Win claimed he wasn’t quite ready to tell me the details.
It was the people in my house who made me happiest, who fulfilled me, and Win was a huge part of that, even without knowing the full story of his life or death.
“I ask you, Dove, how did that mime get in the mix? He looks like he’s kung-fu fighting his way out of a trash receptacle.”
I fought laughing out loud at Win’s comment while still in Forrest’s arms as I looked in the direction of the mime he referred to and wrinkled my nose. In the middle of a group of several of the shop owners from town, his black-and-white striped shirt and white face paint glowing in the semi-dark, he attempted to tip his hat and dropped it into Sandy McNally’s plate of shrimp.
Ooo, he really was bad. He’d moved on to another trick, but he didn’t look like he was pulling an invisible rope—not even close. He looked like he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and shown up a virgin to the hooker convention.
The other mimes were quite adept, producing flowers out of nowhere, pretending to walk tightropes, but this guy…let’s just say while he was muscular and fit, and looked good in the tight outfit, I hope he wasn’t going to quit his day job.
The crowd began to snicker a little at just how atrocious he was, making me feel uncomfortable for him. “That poor man,” I said to Forrest, slowing our dancing to a halt. “Let me go see if I can talk him out of any more performing and into some food. I’ll catch you in a bit.”
Pressing a quick kiss to his cheek, I slipped off the dance floor and went to see if I could convince the most awkward mime ever he should just grab some food and hang out.
But that was just before the crowd swelled as some of the waiters arrived with fresh plates of the big hit of the night—the shrimp wrapped in bacon and stuffed with jalapeño cream cheese.
When I managed to find my way past them and the crowd waiting for the food, the awkward mime had disappeared.
But Bart hadn’t. He strolled up to me, tall and maturely handsome, his shock of thick white hair even whiter against his tan. “Stevie! Have I told you how good it is to finally meet you in the flesh?”
I smiled up at him, remembering my words to Win that I was going to try to leave my baggage behind me. It wasn’t Bart’s fault my mother wasn’t Donna Reed. “It’s good to finally meet you, too. Where’s my mother?”
“Oh, she’s floating around, working her magic on all her old friends, if you know what I mean,” he said on a wink.
My mother didn’t have any old friends here in Ebenezer. And when he used the word “magic,” I grew a little nervous. Did he mean magic-magic? Or magical charms? Either could apply when it came to Dita.
Hooking my arm through his, I caught a whiff of his spicy cologne. He even smelled expensive. “So tell me a little about you, Bart. Where do you come from? What do you do for a living? What’s it like to live in Rome?”
The warm smile never left his green eyes. “It’s actually Greece, and I dabble in the market from time to time. Speaking of the market. I’d love to advise you.” He leaned in and whispered the next words. “Dita told me all about your recent coup and it sounds like you need an investment planner. I’m your man. If you’re looking, of course.”
“I’ll keep that in mind—”
Bart’s phone rang, interrupting any more conversation. He held up his phone, the shiny Rolex on his wrist flashing in the dark. “You’ll excuse me, won’t you?”
I smiled and patted his arm. “Of course. We’ll have a nice long chat later, after the party.”
Bart nodded and moved back off into the crowd of people, stepping around Sandwich, who was looking very smart in his tux, even if his bow tie was a little off. I nudged him with my shoulder. “Find any sardines in the sea of escargot and goat cheese?”
He barked a laugh, his shortly cropped dark hair glistening beneath the lights. “No sardines ever again for me.” Dropping his hands into his pockets, he smiled wide, his easygoing expression much different than the one I’d witnessed just two months ago at the scene of a murder. “So, this place, Stevie? It’s pretty amazing.”
I curtsied and winked. “No big deal. Just a couple of marathons on the DIY channel, YouTube videos, and some two by fours and paint. Easy-peasy.”
Sandwich smiled, flashing his white teeth. “You wear it well, Stevie. This house somehow suits you, and you look great tonight, by the way. Not that you don’t always look great, but tonight, you look extra great. Thanks for inviting me. Good eats.”
“Miss Cartwright?” someone drawled from behind me. Someone who was the bane of my existence.
Ah. My favorite police officer was here. I turned to find Officer Nelson, also known as Dana (I was still snickering over that), and occasionally known by me as Officer By The Book, looked quite dapper all dressed up. “If it isn’t Mr. Sunshine and Chuckles. Are you having a nice time, Officer Nelson?”
His lips lifted at the corners, otherwise known as the rare beast called a smile. “I am. This shrimp is pretty dang good.” He held up his hors d’oeuvre plate to show me, his always-serious eyes dancing with a flicker of delight.
“Good. I’m glad to see you’re enjoying yourself. So, anyone save your life lately?” I teased, batting my eyelashes in reference to my last tango with a killer.
Sandwich snorted. “Told ya, she grudges and she never forgets.”
I didn’t know Officer Nelson’s story. He was already a part of the Ebenezer Falls Police Department when I moved back. I didn’t know where he came from or where he’d been before here. The only thing I can tell you is, he’s one tough nut to crack. Like walnut-tough to crack. Wheedling information out of him about a crime and any hints or clues is about as easy as getting a hand mirror away from my mother.
Speaking of my mother, I promised Win I’d find her and warn her about Hugh. Where was Hugh, anyway? It was like he’d disappeared.
I grinned at Sandwich. “You don’t rack up points if you forget, Sandwich,” I teased.
Officer Nelson held up a shrimp and saluted me. “I, for one, never forget, Miss Cartwright.”
As I chuckled along with them, Chester waved to me, pushing his stout body through the crowd.
“There’s my girl!” Chester, Forrest’s grandfather, surrounded me in a warm embrace, wrapping his arm around my waist and chucking me under the chin. “Pretty as a picture, you are. Saw your mother with that guy Bart. Still looks just like she did the day she left Ebenezer. It’s uncanny. Handsome couple, the two of them, huh?”
“Not nearly as handsome as you, buddy. Who’d you buy all that good looking from?” I joked, straightening his white and red polka dot bow tie and letting my hands rest on his chest.
He looked up at me, his eyes crinkling at the corners, his balding white head shiny. “Aw, you stop, young lady. I’m just the gardener.”
“Bah. I’d have never made it without you, Chester. You’re the flower whisperer, as far as I’m concerned.” When his face turned appropriately red, I asked, “Did you get something to eat? I made sure they had pickled herring and crackers just for you.”
“I’m fine, toots. You go enjoy your company. But save an old man a dance, would ya? Forrest ain’t the only one who’s got twinkle toes.”
I barked a laugh and pressed a kiss to his round cheek. “I love you, Chester. You’re one of a kind.”
Letting go of him, I turned and scanned the crowd, hoping to locate my mother and Bart, or even Hugh at this point, but to no avail. They were somewhere swallowed up in the crowd of partiers.
So I strolled through the people who’d gone off and formed their own groups, waving, smiling, thanking everyone for coming, reintroducing myself, passing the time and avoiding the inevitable questions about my sudden wealth and my day job as Madam Zoltar 2.0.
There was some kind of commotion over by the big champagne glass of water, but I couldn’t quite catch what was going on before someone grabbed my arm.
I was caught off guard for a moment until I looked a bit closer to the man calling my name and recognized him. “Elias Little?”
“Yeah!” he said on a grin. Sticking out his hand, he grabbed mine and pumped it. “Good to see you after all these years!”
I’m pretty sure Elias knew little to nothing about me—at least not from high school. We’d traveled in very different circles then, but he hadn’t changed much. Still wearing those horn-rimmed glasses, still sporting a crew cut and kind brown eyes.
“You look great, Elias. It’s good to see you, too.”
He leaned in as though he were going to share a secret (also, he still smelled like band practice—resin and a hint of sweaty, secondhand band uniform, to be precise). “So, wanna give a guy a scoop?”
“Yeah. All this.” He spread his arm, covered in a brown tweed jacket, and waved it at the house. “Didn’t just happen, did it? I mean, you had to get the money from somewhere, right? So I was hoping to do a feature on you in the Herald. You know, hometown girl makes good while she reads your mind or something? There’s gotta be a story there, Stevie—there always is.”
I snickered. “I don’t read minds, Elias. I speak to the dead on behalf of the living.”
He gave me the skeptical look everyone gives me, the dimples on either side of his mouth fading. “Riiight. A medium. Either way, I’d love to feature you in my column. Whaddya say?”
Just as I was about to politely decline, I heard a scream—a scream that chilled me to the bone, slicing right through me.
Oddly, it was a familiar scream.
One I swear I’d heard before.
In that moment, I wondered if the Bats had disobeyed orders to stay put in my room.
But then I saw my mother—on the top step of the porch stairs—her face riddled with horror and disbelief, the light shawl she wore falling about her slender shoulders as she clutched it to her breast.
My stomach sank right to the bottom of my sparkly shoes when she cried out, “Bart! It’s Bart! He’s dead!”