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Chris admired the spread laid out on the kitchen table. She didn’t know how Marsha felt about Italian food, but she didn’t really care. It looked delicious and smelled even better, and she couldn’t wait to dig in. She picked up a fork and reached for the baked ziti, the recipe courtesy of Derek’s aunt’s Sicilian mother-in-law, intending to shave a tiny sliver off one corner that nobody could possibly miss. Derek caught her and smacked her hand.
“Oh, come on! A taste.”
“You already had a taste when it came out of the oven.”
“One more, then. It’s so good.”
He grinned. “I’m glad you like my cooking, but you can wait until the guests get here. Why don’t you open the wine? It needs time to breathe.”
“Fine.” Chris tossed the unused fork in the sink and retrieved a bottle of pinot grigio from the fridge. “Have I mentioned that you’re a lifesaver?” She nudged the refrigerator door closed with her hip and opened the drawer next to it to fish out the cork screw. “Where did you learn to cook, anyway?”
“My mom, mostly. But I also did a couple of stints subbing for the morning show anchors and helped out on some cooking segments. You tend to pick up a few things.”
“I’ll say. You saved me from having to serve takeout. My cooking skills are pretty much limited to picking up a phone.”
“Oh, come on, that’s not true. I’ve seen you pour a mean bowl of cereal.” He winked and then jerked his chin toward the table. “Besides, you did a great job with the salad.”
“Yeah, I guess chopping vegetables isn’t too far outside my skill set.” She grimaced as she pushed down on the levers of the cork screw. The cork was being stubborn.
“Want me to get that for you?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got it.” She pushed harder. The cork started to give. At that moment, the doorbell rang. With an exasperated sigh, she handed the bottle and the cork screw over. “Here. Remember, I loosened it for you.” With a wink, she headed out of the kitchen.
“Yeah, yeah,” she heard behind her, followed by a distinct “pop!” as the cork came loose.
Chris hurried toward the front door but slowed her steps at the entryway. This wasn’t merely the first time her dad had been to her new place. It was also the first time she and Derek had entertained together as a couple. Between that and the mysterious announcement she was about to hear, she couldn’t help the nervous flutter in her gut. She paused to take a deep, calming breath before opening the door.
It opened barely a crack when an admittedly impressive diamond was jammed in her face. “We’re getting married!” Marsha shrieked, shoving the door open the rest of the way and pulling Chris into a vice-like hug, all the while hopping up and down on her designer heels.
Chris’s gaze found her dad as she patted Marsha’s back awkwardly and tried to muster up sounds of enthusiasm. Even through her shock, she couldn’t help but notice how happy he looked underneath his obvious embarrassment. “Gee, Marsha, don’t keep her in suspense.”
Marsha released Chris and stood back, grinning as she fanned her face and blinked back tears before they could ruin her mascara. “I know we said we’d tell her together over dinner, but I couldn’t help it. I’m so excited!”
The sound of footsteps approaching from behind helped bring Chris back to her senses. “Excited about what?” Derek asked. Chris opened her mouth to answer, but Marsha beat her to the punch with an encore performance. “Hey, that’s great!” Somehow, he sounded sincere as she threw her arms around his neck and squealed right in his ear. Patting her back with one hand, he reached the other toward Chris’s dad. “Congratulations, you two.”
“Thanks.” Smiling, he shook Derek’s hand, then turned to Chris. “Do I get a hug?”
Chris blew out a breath. “Of course.” She leaned into one of his patented bear hugs and squeezed him hard. “Congratulations, Daddy.” They released each other, and she stepped back. “Come on in.”
The four of them moved into the foyer, where both Marsha and Drew studied the ornate staircase. “Oh, how beautiful,” Marsha gushed. “Sweetheart, wouldn’t this be a wonderful place for a wedding? Couldn’t you picture the bride coming down these stairs with her dress trailing behind?”
“I don’t think—” Drew began, but she cut him off.
“Oh, I don’t mean our wedding. We’ve got our venue all picked out. But for somebody, someday…” She looked meaningfully from Derek to Chris and gave Chris a big, showy wink.
“I’m pretty sure that whenever Christine does get married, she won’t want to do it in the spot where her sister died,” Drew said, his voice tight.
Everyone fell silent. Marsha’s hand flew to her chest. The horrified look on her face made Chris feel a little sorry for her. “Oh, Drew, honey, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know—”
Ignoring her, he turned to Chris. “This is it, isn’t it? Where it happened?”
Chris nodded. She looked around, hoping Ron had decided to sneak down for a peek at Marsha and was there to witness their dad’s obvious grief. But she and Joe had apparently decided to remain tucked away in the attic for the evening. Chris sighed. “Yeah. This is it.”
“Where did you find her?” The tremor in his voice was barely perceptible and would probably be missed by anyone who didn’t know him as well as Chris.
“Over here.” She led him to where she’d discovered Ron’s twisted body.
Drew stood there, contemplating the spot. Out of the corner of her eye, Chris saw Derek move close to Marsha and slip an arm around her shoulders. She gave him a grateful look and patted his hand before pulling away from him and coming to stand next to her newly minted fiancé. She took his hand and simply held it in silence, and Chris thought maybe, if she tilted her head and squinted, she could see a little of what her dad must see in the woman.
After a protracted moment of silence, Drew tore his gaze away from the floor and smiled at Marsha. “I’m sorry.” He patted her hand. “I don’t mean to rain on your parade.”
“It’s our parade, and I’ll march through rain all day long as long as you’re by my side.”
Chris didn’t know whether to feel touched or slightly nauseated by Marsha’s pronouncement, but her dad seemed to be moved by it. He bent his head to kiss her forehead, then seemed to remember they weren’t alone. “We, uh, we brought some champagne.” He patted his pockets as if he might find it there. “I must have left it in the car.”
“I’ll get it,” said Derek. “Is the car locked?”
“The keys are in my purse,” said Marsha.
“I’ll get them.” Chris went to retrieve Marsha’s purse and dig out the keys. As she handed them to Derek, she leaned in and said in a low voice, “Please tell me you got that wine open.”
“There’s already a glass poured and waiting for you.” He pecked her on the lips before heading out the door.
Chris watched him go until the door swung shut behind him. Then she took a deep breath and turned to her guests. “I hope you guys are hungry!”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go down there?” Joe twisted one of Ron’s blonde curls around his finger.
“I’m sure.” She wiggled down into the couch cushions and wrapped her arms more tightly around him as if to declare that she was firmly anchored to that spot. “Believe me, there’s nothing going on down there that interests me.”
“I gotta admit, I’m interested. Aren’t you even the least bit curious about this Marsha character?”
“Not really,” Ron fibbed. The truth was that she was dying—figuratively speaking, of course, seeing as how that ship had sailed—to get a look at her father’s lady friend. But the thought of seeing her dad carry on as though he’d never even had an older daughter, let alone felt any grief over her tragic passing, simply hurt too much. “But by all means.” She extricated herself from Joe’s arms and sat up. “If you want to go down, don’t let me stop you.”
“Now don’t be like that.”
“All huffy and put out. I said I’m curious, is all. That don’t mean I’m about to leave you up here to stew.”
“I’m not stewing.”
A crease in Joe’s brow conveyed his skepticism as his gaze drifted down to her arms. Ron looked down to see that they were folded protectively in front of her. She hadn’t even realized she’d folded them. She forced them to her sides and adopted a relaxed posture. “I’m not stewing. I really don’t care that my dad’s down there.”
“Now that’s a lie if I ever heard one.”
Ron sighed. Joe knew her too well. “Fine. I care. But I don’t want to think about it. I’m too tired. Aren’t you tired? Today was a long day.”
“You got that right.” He made a show of stretching, then reached an arm over to pull her back against him. “How many people did we help out today?”
“Five. Two coaching jobs, and a whole lot of Googling for the other three. But you’re the one who did all the legwork.”
“If you can call the way we get around legwork.”
“Well, it’s still exhausting. Who knew Tulsa had so many dead people wandering around with unfinished business and having no idea what to do with themselves?”
“Your sister knew.”
Ron nodded, conceding the point. “Well, she can’t help all of them single-handedly.”
“She’s hardly helped any of them since you took over. Does she know how much you’ve been doing for her?”
She shrugged. “She knows enough. The whole point is for her to not have to think about it. She’s got enough on her plate with her new boyfriend and his YouTube channel. Not to mention all the physical therapy she needed for her leg.”
“Well, at least that’s done.” Joe shook his head. “I don’t understand this YouTube business, though. It ain’t like we show up on camera. What’s the point?”
“Some apparitions do. And don’t forget about voice recordings. Anyway, it’s spooky and people like it. I was trying to convince Chris that we should start a YouTube channel before I joined the corporeally challenged.”
“I guess I’ve seen enough horror in my time that I don’t understand why people go lookin’ for scares. All those kids who used to break into the house whenever nobody lived here… Thank Heaven Lilly and I managed to scare ‘em all off before Sarah got to ‘em.” He looked at her sideways. “Our scare tactics didn’t work so well with you, though.”
“Yeah, well, when I get scared I tend to be more fight than flight.”
“Don’t I know it.” He brushed her hair behind her ear. “Can’t exactly complain about the way things turned out, though.”
Ron leaned back in and snuggled up against him. “Neither can I.” It wasn’t that she was happy about being dead. But if she hadn’t died, she wouldn’t have known Joe, and they had managed to cobble together a pretty good existence here in their limbo between life and whatever comes next. Between this and watching over Chris, she managed to stay busy enough that she hardly had time to miss out on life.
She tilted her head to smile up at Joe. He returned her smile, his eyes crinkling in that way that made her feel warm all over. They held each other’s gaze for a long while before he brushed her forehead with his lips. “You’re right, though. I am a might tuckered out. I could use some shut-eye.”
“You and me both.” She laid her head on his broad chest and closed her eyes.
But sleep didn’t come.
Despite all her bravado about not caring, she couldn’t shake the sense of awareness that her father was right downstairs, or an intense curiosity about his girlfriend. It was only sheer stubbornness that held her in place long after Joe had faded out of consciousness. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slipped out of his arms and went downstairs.
She could have simply popped herself down there with a thought, but she wasn’t sure exactly where they were and she didn’t want Chris to see her and know she’d caved. So she transported herself to the second floor and took the stairs the rest of the way down, creeping slowly and listening for voices as she went.
Sounds of laughter drifted out of the living room. Ron approached cautiously, peeking around the corner to see where Chris was seated before materializing behind her, safely out of sight. While it seemed that other spirits could somehow remain invisible to her sister if they so chose, that was one trick for which Ron had never developed the knack.
From her vantage point behind Chris’s chair, she stood facing her father, who was all smiles as he leaned forward to pick up a wine bottle and refill his glass. He also topped off the glass of the woman seated next to him on the love seat, who could be none other than the infamous Marsha. Ron couldn’t help noticing the big diamond prominently displayed on the hand that was propping up her chin as she gazed adoringly at their dad. She also couldn’t help immediately comparing the woman to her mother, which she knew wasn’t fair, but still. The differences were striking.
Ron’s mother had been a natural beauty. Ron had inherited her curly blonde locks, which she had worn long, usually braided to keep them out of a face rarely touched by makeup. She simply hadn’t needed it. By contrast, Marsha was exactly as Chris had described—a brunette Barbie, dressed to the nines with perfectly winged eyeliner and a face expertly buffed and powdered to perfection. Actually, there was a name for the brunette Barbie, wasn’t there? Bridget or Midge or something like that. Ron should know. She had really been into Barbie dolls as a kid. That was how she’d inadvertently killed her mom, after all.
“—your sister could be here for this,” the living Marsha doll said. Ron blinked. She had been so caught up in her own thoughts that she barely heard a word anyone was saying, but that got her attention. “I would have loved to have known her.”
“I’m sure she would have loved you.” Drew reached over to squeeze her hand. Ron made an involuntary sound of disgust, which went unheard by all but Chris, who suddenly cocked her head and glanced behind her.
“Will you guys excuse me?” she said, leaning forward to set her drink on the coffee table and standing up.
“Everything okay?” asked Derek.
“Yeah. I need to check on something.” She headed into the hallway before glancing back and making eye contact with Ron. A jerk of her head commanded Ron to follow.
They were in the office with the door safely closed, but Chris still kept her voice low. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with this.”
Ron shrugged and folded her arms. “So I got curious. Sue me.”
“How long have you been there?”
“I don’t know. Not long. A couple of minutes.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. So, Dad’s getting married, huh? Good for him.”
“Yeah,” said Chris. She didn’t sound overjoyed.
“Are you okay?”
Chris shrugged. “That woman’s going to be my step-mother.” She flinched and corrected herself. “Our stepmother. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Pretty sure it doesn’t count when you’re dead.”
“So what do you think of her?”
“I don’t know. She’s really different from Mom, but other than the whole homecoming queen, sorority girl vibe she gives off, I haven’t really seen enough to form an opinion.”
Chris nodded. She was silent a moment as she watched Ron, seeming to consider something. Finally, she asked, “Do you want to come back in there with me? I could tell them you’re here. You could meet her, sort of, and maybe talk to Dad.”
“Oh, I’m sure Dad would love that. No thanks.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. But you should get back. My curiosity’s satisfied. I’m going to head back upstairs.”
“Ron…” Chris looked like she wanted to press but wasn’t sure what to say. Before she could complete her thought, a thump out in the hall grabbed their attention. She turned to peer through the French doors “What was that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the cat?”
Chris opened the door and leaned out into the hall. “Here kitty,” she called, but there was no sign of Miss Persnikitty, nor of anything else that could have made the noise. She eyed Ron sharply. “You and Joe didn’t bring home any strays, did you?”
“No,” she said, indignant. Then she considered and softened. “At least, I don’t think. You haven’t bought any antiques lately, have you?”
Chris glanced at her once-haunted desk. “No.”
“It’s probably nothing, but I’ll check it out. You should get back to your dinner.” When Chris hesitated, Ron shooed her away. “Go! I’ve got this!”
Her reluctance evident, Chris gave in and went to rejoin the living. Ron watched her go. Then, hands on her hips, she looked around the room. “Hello? Who’s there?” When nobody responded, she added, “It’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid. Come on out and let’s talk.” She moved to the back of the office, peering into each darkened corner, even looking under the desk. The creak of a door made her turn in time to see one of the French doors swing open.
Suddenly, Ron had a vivid flashback to her first day in this house. A sense of dread filled her. She crept toward the double doors, hoping she wouldn’t find that a spirit had followed her home. Leaning out into the hall, she heard a low growl. She sighed and slumped with relief.
“What are you doing down here, little guy?” she asked as she approached the pooch, the adorable ghost of a Jack Russell that had been left behind when his owner’s spirit was freed to move on. He stood peering into the living room, shoulders hunched, head low. As Ron got closer he grew emboldened enough to start barking. It looked like Marsha was the target of his ire, although he might have simply been put out by having strangers in the house.
From her spot back on the couch, Chris looked over at them and raised an eyebrow at Ron. She waved a hand dismissively before bending to scoop the pup into her arms. “They say dogs are a good judge of people,” she muttered as she carried him back upstairs, growling and barking the entire way.
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