I kept both hands on the soaking wet skunk in my kitchen sink while a small tsunami of water sloshed over the front of my pink sweater set and white jeans. Bath time wasn’t Lucy’s favorite recreational activity, and by extension it wasn’t mine, either. As I readjusted my grip, she braced her back legs for a wild leap onto the counter.
“Lucy,” I admonished, nudging an eggshell off her petite, velvety ear, “it wasn’t my idea for you to go digging in the compost bin.”
She grunted and wriggled while I slid her into a soft mound of soap bubbles and washed day-old banana off her cheeks.
My little girl loved fruit and would take it any way she could get it.
“You’re almost done,” I told her, rinsing the double white stripe on her back with the hand spout while she tried to eat a soap bubble.
I nearly had her calm when the spirit of my gangster housemate shimmered into view next to me. Frankie “The German” appeared in black and white, like an old movie, but I could see through him. Almost. Lucy jerked at the presence of the ghost and launched into a rolling twist that soaked me to my elbows.
“Lucille Désirée Long,” I warned, regaining my grip on her.
Frankie smoothed his 1920s-style pinstripe suit and straightened his fat tie. His long face and sharp nose made him appear every bit the utterly ruthless gangster he had been when he was alive. It would have scared me if I didn’t know him.
“We got company.” The ghost cocked his head, and I heard the faint crunch of gravel. “A black sedan creeping down the side drive.”
Strange. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“I got this,” he said, shoulders stiffening as he drew a revolver out of his coat pocket.
It was eight in the morning. I doubted we were under attack.
Frankie ducked through the back wall and out onto the porch. Lucy used my split second of distraction to break for the counter. She made it halfway across before I snagged a clean towel off the kitchen island and captured her behind the toaster.
I snuggled my skunk close and towel dried her fur as I peeked out the window over the sink.
A black Mercedes parked out back. My friend Lauralee sat in the passenger seat.
Frankie holstered his gun when he saw her exit the car. I gripped my skunk a little tighter when her uncle Reggie, the big-time banker, emerged from the driver’s side. Here I stood, drenched in skunk water, with one of the most powerful men in Sugarland about to knock on my door.
Lauralee had seen me at my worst, but Reggie was another matter. He’d never encountered me in anything more casual than a summer dress at a picnic.
I set Lucy down on the floor. Her wet fur stood out at all angles around her scrawny little body. She appeared half her usual size when wet.
“Oh my, sweetie. We’ve got to fix this,” I told her. Not her hair or mine. Those were lost causes. But I could still put the last of the coffee on and then raid the laundry room for a dry sweater. I was on my way to dig through my laundry pile of limited options when a horrible sight stopped me in my tracks.
In all the excitement, it had quite slipped my mind that a huge black outdoor trash can occupied the space where my kitchen table used to stand. Worse, rich garden dirt filled it to the brim and provided a home for one very large, teetering, heirloom red rosebush.
How to explain… I chewed my lip as my guests started up the walk.
I certainly couldn’t tell them the truth: that I’d trapped the spirit of a long-dead gangster in my house and that this was part of our attempt to free him. Lauralee might understand if I could convince her ghosts were real. But Reggie would think I’d lost my mind. He was respectable, proper. He’d come back home from Chicago to take over the oldest bank in town. And if he told another soul in Sugarland, my secret would be out before suppertime.
There simply had to be a way to handle this.
I’d hide it in the parlor.
Curling my fingers around the edge of the trash can, I pulled hard. It slid…a bit. It was heavier than I’d imagined. I gritted my teeth, wincing as my arm stretched half out of its socket while I dragged the can one foot, two feet, almost three…
“Where do you think you’re going with that?” Frankie demanded.
“We have to hide…you,” I said, having no time to sugarcoat it. It was either that or reveal his final resting place to my guests. Then I’d have to somehow explain that I’d mistaken Frankie’s urn for a dirty old vase and dumped his ashes out into my rosebushes, grounding him on my property. And that we’d moved him inside for safekeeping. “Please step aside.” I could walk through him, but it would give both of us an icy shock.
“I ain’t going anywhere.” He removed his white Panama hat. “Those are my ashes you’re messing with.” He pointed his hat at the mess. “My urn.”
Heavens to Betsy, we’d left his urn nestled at the bottom of the rosebush.
I met Frankie trash-can-to-hips, eye-to-eye, trying not to let my gaze wander to the neat, round bullet hole smack dab in the middle of his pasty white forehead. He hadn’t gotten it by being a nice guy. “Please, Frankie,” I said, praying he had a sliver of gentleman in him, “I’m not ready to explain this to company.”
“You don’t got much of a choice. That can ain’t budging.” Frankie glided toward the back wall while I took hold of the trash can and pulled with all my might until I succeeded in tugging it into the parlor.
Except the parlor held my only piece of furniture suitable for entertaining company—a purple velvet couch I’d gotten in exchange for solving a ghostly problem.
Frankie shoved his head through the back wall and whistled. “Smokes. Get a load of that sharp suit.”
“Frankie!” I protested. “You’re not helping.”
He didn’t even bother to take his head out of the wall. “You know I can’t move anything on the mortal plane.”
That wasn’t the point. I put my butt to the can and pushed backward, nudging it toward an out-of-the-way corner. It slid two feet, then two more, probably leaving a mud spot on my white pants. Nobody but me could see Frankie, and if I could just get rid of the evidence…
“The big cheese is coming up the porch steps,” Frankie called. “Spit-shined shoes. Ritzy watch. I do like his style,” he added, almost to himself. “What do you suppose he wants with you?”
My sneakers slipped on the hardwood. Dirt spilled from the top of the can. I’d barely made it past the fireplace.
“Your friend’s carrying a box. They’re at the door now.”
A knock sounded. We were out of time.
The lower branches of the rosebush flopped toward my face as I forced the can back against the wall by the antique marble fireplace in the parlor. In one smooth move, I grabbed the bedsheet from the futon and tossed it over the rosebush. “There.”
“That looks worse,” Frankie said.
It would have to do.
I frantically brushed dirt from my white jeans and wet sweater, and tried to pat down my hair as I hurried to answer the door. Lucy, who loved visitors, ran from the main hallway to join me. She grunted with excitement, her scraggly little body churning with each step.
Oh, to be a skunk without a mirror.
I opened the door and tried for my most carefree smile. “Good morning!”
My friend wore basic black jeans and a long-sleeved top. She’d tied her auburn hair into a simple ponytail. The style of the day was obviously casual, yet she took one look at me and launched into an apology. “Oh, Verity, I should have called.”
“Don’t say that.” She was my best friend on this earth. Yes, I’d made sure we’d gotten together at her place instead of mine since I’d moved Frankie’s remains—and the rosebush they surrounded—into my kitchen, but that didn’t mean she should feel like she had to make an appointment to visit. “I was just giving Lucy a bath,” I said, waving them inside, silently pleading for them to stay in the kitchen.
“It’s my fault,” Reggie said, shaking my hand warmly as he entered my home. “I surprised Lauralee and now we’re surprising you.” His gray-brown hair had thinned over the years, and I respected the fact that he hadn’t tried to style it funny to hide that. His fine gray suit spoke of quality, as did the genteel monogram on his left shirt cuff. Still, underneath the fancy clothing I could see the same Uncle Reggie who manned the grill at my friend’s big family events. Maybe it was his blue tie with whimsical embroidered hunting dogs or the twinkle in his eye. “I dropped by Lauralee’s to take her out to breakfast,” he said. “She’s always the one cooking and she deserves to have someone make her a good meal once in a while.”
My friend beamed at the appreciation shown by her uncle and held up a small baker’s box for me. “I’d just finished sugaring a batch of homemade doughnuts. I thought you might like a fresh treat.” She gave an embarrassed shrug. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I said, accepting the goodies. Lauralee was a whiz in the kitchen. “It’s really sweet of you. I will appreciate each and every one of them.”
Meanwhile, my skunk tried to climb one of Reggie’s pant legs.
“My apologies,” I said, depositing the donuts on the kitchen island and going to fetch her.
“Friendly little minx, isn’t she?” Reggie reached down to give my skunk a benevolent scratch between the ears. “I’ve heard so much about you, Lucy. Nice to finally meet you.” She buried her forehead against his palm and rubbed him back, causing him to chuckle. “I’d almost forgotten how friendly everyone is down South, even the wildlife.” He gave her one last pat and straightened, his eyes scanning my simple home. He made no mention of the empty rooms or the sharp outlines on the antique wallpaper where family portraits once hung, but he’d have to be blind not to notice.
Life had changed for me recently.
Lauralee eyed her uncle. “I told you Virginia Wydell went after Verity,” she said, her voice chilly.
“I’ve made my own choices,” I reminded her. I was the one who called off my wedding to the favored son of the most powerful family in three counties. His mother had just seen that I paid for it.
Lucy headed for the couch in my parlor and Reggie followed. Oh my goodness.
“How’s the graphic design business going?” he asked genially, no doubt thinking he was redirecting the conversation to a better place.
“I have high hopes,” I said, rushing to intercept my skunk.
My work had been in demand until my almost-mother-in-law had used her considerable influence in town to bring an end to my business.
I managed to snag Lucy, but Reggie continued on into my parlor.
“Why do wet animals always go for the couch?” he asked as he stood under the gaping hole where a centuries-old chandelier had once hung.
Reggie’s gaze traveled over the used couch to the rumpled futon huddled against the opposite corner. You’d think from his pleasant demeanor that he stood in the queen’s chambers. But then he spotted my sheet-draped secret.
“What have you got here?” he asked, heading straight for it.
“You don’t want to—” I began.
He ripped off the sheet before I could stop him.
Lauralee gasped. “Is that one of the rosebushes from outside?”
“I can explain,” I said quickly.
Only I couldn’t.
Reggie tucked the sheet around the back of the bush and turned to me, the corner of his mouth quirking up. “I like it. Art should make a statement,” he declared.
Lauralee touched my shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I assured her.
Meanwhile her uncle took another look at the rosebush in the trash can. “Maybe you should add a trellis.”
Frankie shimmered into view next to the banker. “Nobody touches it,” he warned.
“It’s a work in progress,” I said, eyeing the gangster.
“You should display it,” Reggie suggested, fingering a particularly robust bloom, “even if you’re still tinkering. The flowers are pretty. So is the urn. Paint the trash can pink and the whole piece is even more feminine.”
Frankie looked ready to punch him.
Reggie walked right past the gangster and lowered himself onto the couch, his arms spread over the back. “That’s why I love this town. People are people. You wouldn’t see a rosebush like that in Chicago.”
Lauralee didn’t seem convinced. “You know, Verity could really use a freelance design job,” she said, joining him on the couch. “I’ll bet you could hire her at the bank.”
I cringed a little at her forwardness. I’d never been good at selling myself, especially to an old family friend who might not even be in need of my services.
But Reggie merely rubbed his chin. “That’s not a bad idea. I’m redoing all of the bank’s branding. We need brochures, advertising, everything. I’d be glad to see what you can do.”
“I’ve worked for banks before,” I said quickly, hoping he was serious.
This could save my hide. Return my business to respectability. Everybody admired the local boy who’d made good, and if he hired me, that would be like an endorsement.
“She’s really talented,” Lauralee said, as if putting me to work were as inevitable as the sun rising or a skunk leaping headfirst into a pile of day-old banana peels. “Nobody’s given her a chance since Virginia started gunning for her.”
Reggie snorted. “I’m not afraid of Virginia Wydell,” he stated, as if challenging us to feel the same. “And I do need someone to”—he eyed the rosebush by my fireplace—“think outside the box.”
“I can do that,” I promised. My ghostly adventures had sure taught me the benefits of unconventional thinking.
Lucy wriggled out of my arms and hurried to sit at Reggie’s feet like a loyal dog, as if she knew which side her bread was buttered on.
Even if I only designed a few brochures, it would pay for food. And skunk snacks. I could stop living on ramen noodles or trying to make a box of cereal and a bunch of bananas stretch out a week. I could add a few things to my rotating wardrobe of three very cute, gently used winter sweaters.
I stared in horror as my mess of a skunk reared back to jump into Reggie’s lap.
“Lucy!” I grabbed her the second before she leaped.
Reggie barked out a laugh. “Look at this. Artsy and quick on her feet.” He scooped Lucy out of my arms. “She’s okay. I don’t mind a bit of wet,” he said, cradling her close. Lucy preened as he gave her a belly rub and set her back down on the floor. She nudged his ankle with her nose and rested a cheek on his shoe. “Well, we’ve imposed quite enough. Lauralee and I should head to breakfast and leave you in peace.” He checked his watch. “I have a meeting at ten. Come by the bank at eleven fifteen and show me what you’ve got.”
“That sounds perfect,” I told him.
He bent and gently removed Lucy from his shoe, giving her one last stroke behind the ear as he did.
“Thanks for the opportunity,” I added as he crossed my parlor in long, easy strides.
“Glad to do it, Verity.” He paused at the door. “We all deserve a second chance.”