My shoulder brushed the well-built arm of Ellis Wydell, deputy sheriff with the Sugarland Police Department and my new main squeeze. I tilted my head, cautiously optimistic. We stood in the front room of his modest 1940s bungalow, judging the merits of two different curtain panels, one a rich sage color, the other a lovely moss. I’d hung our options on opposite sides of the big picture window so he could easily see the difference. “What do you think?”
Ellis nodded one too many times, until a grin tickled the corners of his lips. “You realize they’re both…green curtains.”
“Be serious.” He was the one who’d asked me to help spruce up the place, and the one who had to live here.
“They cover my windows,” he offered, as if that were a major selling point.
Oh my. If he didn’t see—much less care—how the sunlight filtered differently through the moss versus the sage…well, then he was a man. And impossible to work with. “If you were my client, I’d fire you,” I teased.
“Then you wouldn’t have any clients,” he shot back, smiling, until he realized what he’d said. “I’m sorry,” he added quickly.
“It’s fine,” I assured him. He hadn’t meant any harm, even if the truth did sting a bit.
A few months had passed since my interview in the Sugarland Gazette, publicly outing me and my ability to see ghosts. I’d abandoned my struggling graphic design business in favor of making a go of it as a ghost hunter.
So far, I hadn’t had a single customer.
It wasn’t for lack of exposure. For most of spring, and now into summer, my newfound ability had been the talk of Sugarland, Tennessee, population 17,606. As a result, I’d endured a parade of drop-in visitors curious to see if poor Verity Long was indeed three gallons of crazy in a two-gallon bucket.
At least my neighbors all hailed from the South, where you didn’t drop in without a dish in hand. I’d filled my freezer near to bursting and had been fork-deep in everything from Missy Forester’s Coca-Cola glazed ham to Kimmy Barker’s turnip greens with salt pork.
The homemade bonanza was almost worth the prying questions. But not quite. Truth be told, I’d been hiding out at Ellis’s place a lot. Not even fried green tomatoes warm out of the pan were worth one more random knock on the door that led to an uncomfortable half hour of small talk. Especially if it was with someone I hadn’t seen since the church potluck in fourth grade, and it ended with a ‘bless your heart.’ That was Southern for ‘yep—you’ve got problems.’
Good thing Ellis liked having me over. I’d brought dinner tonight, courtesy of Lulabelle Mason. The smell of rich gravy wafted from the kitchen.
I had to admit it felt good to be useful. Ellis needed the decorating help. We’d started with the recycling box on permanent display by the front door and the plant stand he’d been using as an end table. Today, we were attacking the bedsheets tacked up over his windows.
I took Ellis’s hand, twining my fingers with his. “You’ve been my rock lately, and I know this isn’t your favorite thing.” Forget the fact that half the reason he’d asked me to decorate had probably been to keep my mind off my troubles. “But believe it or not, this is important,” I said, turning his attention back to the curtains. “Sage or moss? Take a really good look.”
“Important…” He shot me a sideways look. “Like for the good of mankind?”
“For you,” I assured him. My strong, capable deputy sheriff boyfriend had never taken the time to make his house a true home . He never did anything for himself. I wanted to help him, too. “What makes you feel good?” I pressed.
He winked at me. “You really want to skip to that part?”
“Pick some curtains, and maybe we can,” I teased.
“All right. That one,” he said, pointing in the direction of the window, his gaze never leaving me.
“You didn’t even look at them.” But he’d accomplished his mission: he’d made us laugh.
“Anything is better than what my mom tried to do,” he said, recovering.
When Ellis had been out helping me on my last ghost hunt, his mother had burst into his place uninvited and redecorated with antique white furniture that he’d been afraid to sit on. The dining room table she’d picked came with a warning not to use plates or glasses on it.
And she’d probably sent him the bill.
“I just want you to be happy,” I told him. I’d helped him discover his own personal style and we’d had a lot of fun in the process.
When it came right down to it, Ellis had a great eye. Discovering that pleased him immensely, even if he didn’t quite understand how we’d managed to spend more than an hour in a store that sold only lamps.
I’d shown him how to be thrifty as well. We found a pretty white rug on clearance at the Target over in Lawrenceburg, along with a chocolate suede slipcover for a soft, comfortable couch we’d found at a garage sale.
“Let me make one thing clear,” Ellis said, wrapping his arms around me tight. “I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.” The oven timer dinged. “Ignore it,” he said, leaning down for a kiss.
I enjoyed one kiss, then another. “Come on,” I murmured, “I’m starving.” I took his hand and guided him through the short hallway that led to the kitchen. I’d tell him later that this was my last casserole.
Despite my troubles, I was determined to be thankful, not only for the people in my life who cared about me, like Ellis, but also for my special connection to the spirit world. Not everyone could see ghosts. I’d find a way to make use of my gift.
So far, I’d posted flyers. I’d embarrassed myself on local radio morning shows. I’d given a talk at the library. Everyone had been curious about my ability and about the long-dead gangster who supplied the supernatural power to make it happen, but no one had hired me yet.
If something didn’t change soon, I might have to give up my new business before it ever got started.
We entered his black and white tiled kitchen and smelled roasted chicken in rosemary gravy with a buttery crust. Ellis gave an appreciative groan. “You might not like all your drop-in visitors, but some of them can sure cook.”
I went to fetch a trivet. “I wouldn’t need charity casseroles if I could manage to get just one ghost-hunting job.” My ever-patient boyfriend had offered to spot me grocery money, but I didn’t want that. Besides, I needed to prove to the good people of Sugarland that my ability was real. We lived in an old Southern town—one with a rich, haunted history. But I’d also grown up with these people, and to suddenly tell them all I had gained special ghost goggles? It sounded crazy even to me. I knew what people said when they thought I couldn’t hear. “You realize you’re dating the town coot.”
“Believe me, there are lots of other people in line for that title,” Ellis said, handing me a pair of red Fiestaware plates. “You haven’t patrolled the neighborhoods like I have.”
“Ha,” I said, placing the plates on the table. We’d picked them out last week and they were so…him. And they went perfectly in his quaint, 1960s throwback kitchen. Maybe someday I’d buy real dishes again, perhaps some pretty yellow ones.
I’d had to sell most everything I owned last summer after the queen bee of Sugarland, who also happened to be Ellis’s mother, tried to bury me both financially and personally. I was digging myself out one shovel full at a time. Although sometimes it felt like I was using a spoon.
Ellis found his oven mitts and drew the earthenware dish from the oven.
Gravy bubbled from heart-shaped cutouts in the perfectly browned crust. ““Mmm…chicken pot pie,” I murmured as he placed it on the table. If I was going to be the town crazy, we might as well enjoy the food. “This is Lulabelle Mason’s specialty.” Her husband owned the Food Mart and she loved to cook, and to gossip—not necessarily in that order. “I’d tell her I could fly if it would keep us in homemade dinners.”
“I like that you have a plan.” Ellis drew off his oven mitts and headed for the pantry. “I’ve got the napkins.”
“I’ve got the utensils,” I said, moving seamlessly behind him, eager to dig in.
I tried to make light of the gossip, hoping that with time I wouldn’t care, but deep down it hurt that my greatest fear had come true. I was the town oddball, the flake, and nobody understood that I was really just a good Southern girl caught up with a 1920s gangster ghost.
It wasn’t like I wanted to be this way. It had happened when I’d accidentally tampered with the funeral urn of a cranky prohibition-era whiskey runner named Frankie. His urn looked a lot like a vase, and his ashes like dirt. So I’d dumped him out over my favorite rosebush and rinsed him in good. Not knowing the dirt was…him.
It was an honest mistake.
It hadn’t helped that I’d filled his final resting place with water from the hose and inserted a fat red rose.
But that was before I realized my error. Or what rinsing his ashes into the ground would do. My actions trapped Frankie on my property. He couldn’t leave unless I brought his urn with me.
So, yes, not only was I the girl who saw ghosts, I also carried a funeral urn around in my purse with me. In my defense, I did keep the lid taped shut.
Anyhow, ever since I’d met Frankie, my life had been one crazy haunted ride. In my short time as a ghost hunter, I’d been buried alive with a poltergeist, almost gunned down in a haunted speakeasy, and cornered by a scalpel-wielding Civil War spirit.
Then there was Frankie himself. I’d left him at home tonight. He’d wanted some alone time. Hopefully, he wasn’t up to anything.
I tried to put it out of my mind as I grabbed two glasses while Ellis finished setting the table. “Did you put the sweet tea in the fridge?” I asked, going to get it.
“Wait.” He held up a hand. “You need to see this. I taught Lucy a trick while you were at the store with my credit card.”
“I wasn’t gone that long.” He’d said he was going to paint the trim while I was away.
“Come on in here, crazy girl,” he called to my pet skunk.
Lucy trotted out from her nest of blankets on the living room couch, with half the hair on her face and neck smushed down from a good sleep. She was petite, for a skunk, with silky black fur, a sleek double white stripe, and big button eyes.
She looked up at Ellis with eager affection. “All right,” he instructed, “just like we practiced.” Lucy pawed the floor excitedly as he pointed to the fridge. “Go fetch a snack.”
“This could be dangerous,” I mused. Lucy loved to eat.
At the word snack, she swished her tail and let out a happy grunt. She hurried to the refrigerator, her rear end wriggling with every step. Then she reached around and opened the refrigerator door.
“Lucy!” I admonished as she reached in and grasped a baby carrot from a bowl on the bottom shelf, right at skunk level.
“I bought them for her,” Ellis said, proud as if she’d placed them there herself. “It’s her own fruit and vegetable stash. She likes the carrots and the grapes the best.”
This was either brilliant or crazy. “She’s never going to want to leave.”
“So you see my strategy,” he concluded.
The little skunk clung to the carrot with both hands and crunched heartily, one eye on me, as if I might take away her treat.
“I had no idea she could do tricks.” I certainly hadn’t given her the chance. Come to think of it, I didn’t have any spare carrots to encourage her.
“She’s incredibly smart,” Ellis said, as if she were his prized pupil. “It didn’t take her any time at all.”
“That’s because you have the goods.” Lucy loved new foods, and I’d been giving her a lot of bananas lately.
“The goods?” Ellis remarked as we sat down to dinner. “You’ve been hanging out with Frankie too long.”
“True,” I said. Along with helping Ellis, I’d been spending a lot of time with Frankie, trying all kinds of ways to free his spirit. We’d had no luck so far.
The pot pie tasted amazing and I enjoyed every morsel. After tonight, I’d be back to living on ramen noodles and granola bars.
At least Ellis had a way of making me forget my financial drought. He cocked a grin while Lucy helped herself to two more treats, pausing only to let my boyfriend stroke her on the head. She sure had a knack for charming hunky police officers.
Good thing I did, too.
We’d just finished up dinner when Ellis’s kitchen phone rang. He answered while I reached down and fed Lucy the last green bean on my plate.
“She’s here,” Ellis said, his voice guarded.
I glanced up, his change of tone worrying me. “Is it your mother?” I mouthed. To say Virginia Wydell didn’t approve of me was like saying the princess had a small hang-up about the pea. It had begun when I’d ended my engagement to Ellis’s brother a while back and had gone downhill from there—even before she’d found out I was dating yet another one of her sons.
Ellis and I had kept our budding relationship a secret at first, but we’d been outed after our last adventure. Virginia Wydell had promptly checked herself into the hospital with heart palpitations.
She’d gotten over them, although not the idea of us as an item.
Ellis handed me the phone. “It’s Lee Treadwell.”
“Interesting,” I said, standing. I had no idea what the elderly gentleman could possibly want. Lee was the last of a long, distinguished family line in town. He owned one of the big, old mansions in the historic area, and I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in a while. We didn’t run in the same circles, and he certainly wasn’t the type to exchange casseroles for a peek at a ghost hunter. “This is Verity Long,” I said, bracing my rear against the counter.
Ellis listened to my side of the conversation as he began gathering plates.
“Sorry to disturb you,” Lee said, his voice low and rough. He was hard to hear with all the static on the line. “I tried your house first, and when you weren’t there, well…word has it you’ve been spending lots of time with young Mr. Wydell.”
Sakes alive. “Word does get around,” I agreed. This was Sugarland, after all. “Now that you’ve found me, what can I do for you?”
He cleared his throat. “I need you to be honest,” he said tersely. “Are you serious about that ghost-hunting business?”
“Serious as the grave,” I assured him. It might not have been the best choice of words, but I was too focused on the fact that Lee could actually have a job for me. Lee Treadwell was well known in this town, respected. If he hired me, maybe everyone else would start to take me seriously as well.
Lee exhaled sharply. “I need you to come over right away.”
“Is it an emergency?” I’d need to prepare. “I’ve left my ghost at home.” Frankie couldn’t go anywhere without his urn, which was resting in a barrel full of dirt in my parlor. How it had gotten there was a long story. Suffice it to say, I had no power without him.
“I’ve stumbled across something peculiar,” Lee said, his voice strained. “I need you to see it. Grab your ghost. Pick up a crucifix while you’re at it, because I don’t think you’ve ever seen anything like this.”
I’d seen plenty. The newspaper hadn’t revealed all my secrets. “Hang tight,” I told him. “I’ll be over as soon as I can.” I hung up.
Ellis stood a few feet away, with Lucy snuggled in his arms, her head buried under one of his biceps. “What’s the crisis?”
“I don’t know yet.” I smiled, despite my trepidation. “But I’ve got my first ghost-hunting job.”
**Deader Homes and Gardens is coming in early October! There are no pre-orders on this one. Click here if you’d like an email on the day it releases!