Manhattan-based Mikal Gray rents a summer weekend getaway and discovers there’s already someone in residence: a very persistent ghost. His friend, Alice, sends help in the form of a sexy ghost hunter named Seth. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the haunting and discover the heart always searches for what it needs… and often finds it.
Available at ARe. (Amazon is being pissy, asking me to prove I have the rights to publish this book. Hopefully, it will be available there soon.)
After the breakup with Dave, there was no way I could face Fire Island for the summer, so I made a bold move and went in the opposite direction.
“Some place isolated,” I told the realtor, Cindy Miller. “Not too expensive, but with obvious charm and seductive views.”
“I have exactly the right property for you,” she oozed. “Only ninety minutes from Manhattan and very affordable. Will you be the only occupant?”
I clenched my teeth against a surge of anger and pain. “I will. When can you show it to me?”
She picked me up on Sunday morning and drove northwest to New Paltz in the Hudson River Valley, and then north on 32. I’d never been there, but it was away from everything familiar and everyone I knew, so immediately, it had my vote. While my friends partied on the island, I would be here… partying with the trees.
I looked out the car window and frowned. “There’s a lot of green.”
Cindy grinned, giving me the patented salesperson shtick. Why did they always sound like they’d sell you their mother if the price was right? “You wanted isolation, and you will love this place.” She turned left onto Shivertown Road. “It was a farmstead back in the late 1800s, but it has been updated, renovated, and made available to rent by the current owners.” Her eyes slid sideways. “It’s a beautiful place. Lots of wildlife, within walking distance of a small lake, and you could have it immediately.”
“Uh-huh.” I slumped in my seat, becoming aware again of the depression that had haunted me for weeks.
I hadn’t been eating well. I hadn’t been sleeping. I’d even been tempted to take up smoking again, but some last instance of self-preservation kicked in and wouldn’t let me. I threw out the unopened pack I’d picked up on an impulse, then had second thoughts and retrieved it, giving it to a homeless person the next day. I couldn’t believe how much they’d gone up in price since I’d last indulged. Someone should enjoy them.
Why the hell was I doing this again? Oh, right. It was summer and no one with cash or brains stayed in the city over the weekend. As I possessed some of the former and much of the latter, I was compelled to seek a place to escape to come Friday night. This would be good for me. I could spend long hours strolling through verdant woods, communing with an impossibly beautiful nature while secretly lusting for a couple of good stiff drinks and wondering how my life suddenly fell apart and whether or not it would eventually go the way of Humpty Dumpty.
She left Shivertown for Old Kingston, and I had to admit, the scenery was awe-inspiring and a little frightening. Living and working in Manhattan, I hadn’t had much to do with what people call ‘the country,’ but I did appreciate the unvarnished reality of it. When she turned onto Gun Club Road, I realized we were deep in the middle of nowhere. I saw nothing but trees; no houses, no roads. “Who owns all this?”
She laughed. “Can I ask what you do for a living, Mikal? You look familiar. Are you in entertainment? Or maybe you model.”
“Uh, no. I’m in the food industry.” I was tall, thin, and dark, and I’d been told more than once I should trade my good looks for money, but instead, I’d joined the catering business belonging to my estranged lover, Dave. What would happen to that job now? The headache I’d woken up with made a splashy return, and I winced as my temples pounded.
She didn’t notice. She was leaning forward over the steering wheel, squinting at the woods. “The turn off is hard to spot…. There!” She rolled a little fast into a gap between the trees, but managed to stay on the road though the wheels skidded on gravel. “Sorry. Almost missed it. I suggest you install reflective driveway markers so you see it coming.”
The trees had grown over the driveway, giving the impression of traveling through a dark tunnel. I liked the effect, even as it sent a chill down my spine. “When does the headless horseman ride?”
“Who? Oh!” She giggled and steered through a curve which abruptly opened onto a large grassy yard in need of mowing. Behind that was a single-story house made of stone and wood. A shallow porch offered a swing and rocker, and potted geraniums added color to the steps. To the right was a tidy barn, painted the ubiquitous red and also boasting stone half-walls. Attached to it was a small corral made of white board fence.
She parked, and we got out. The first thing I noticed was the quiet. Birds were not singing and there was no breeze. Midday heat settled on me like a heavy coat. “It’s air conditioned, right?”
“Central air, yes, but I doubt you’ll use it much. The stone keeps the house cool, and those large maples shade the roof from the sun.”
“People use the barn?”
“I don’t think anyone’s used it in years, but it’s kept in good shape, so you could if you had a horse.” She shot me a look. “Do you?”
“Not at the moment.” I’d wanted one when I was ten and pestered my parents so much, they’d taken me to one of the city stables, Claremont Riding Academy, now closed. Someone had kindly shown us around and while my parents’ attention had been directed elsewhere, I’d slipped away to visit one of the stalls, where the equine resident, though friendly enough, stepped on my sneaker-shod foot. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it, but it hurt like a bitch and I suddenly saw how big a horse really was. I decided I didn’t want one after all, and my parents, thankful I’d finally shut up about it, let the subject drop.
“A trail behind it leads to the lake. I’m told there are fish in it. There is a dock and canoe which you may use.”
“Who takes care of the lawn?”
“Someone comes out from town every week or so to mow, but if the flowers look thirsty, you might want to water them.”
We went up the steps to the glassed front door. “This seems kind of small for a farmhouse.”
She spun the numbers on the lockbox and retrieved a key. “Two bedrooms, one bath with whirlpool tub, a large living room and eat-in kitchen. They didn’t build McMansions back in the day.” She grinned at me and unlocked the door, pushing it open onto a nicely decorated room. “If you’re interested in the history of the place, there’s a library in town that may tell you more, and of course there are newspaper archives. Just look at that fireplace! Isn’t it gorgeous?”
She gave me the tour, and I oohed and aahed in the appropriate places. It was clean, comfortable, and well-appointed with the necessities of modern life, i.e., it had a flat screen television in the living room, DVD player and stack of classic movies, books on the shelves in the guest room, and stainless steel and granite in the kitchen. “Internet?”
She shook her head, her lipsticked mouth a moue of disappointment. “Too far from everything, and the owners haven’t yet installed satellite. This place truly is for those who want to get away from it all.”
I could live without email on weekends, but I’d checked my cell and discovered this was a no-service area. “Land line?”
She pointed to a trim black phone sitting on a small table near the door. “So, do you think this will suit your needs?”
I dropped onto the sage green couch, bouncing experimentally. “Two questions. First, why is it still available in mid-June, and second, why is it so cheap?”
“It was booked at the start of the season by a lovely older couple from Queens.” She self-consciously straightened the embroidered pillow on the over-stuffed chair. “They left suddenly, after a few days.”
Something in her voice put me on alert. “And why did they do that?”
She sat, hands on her knees, gazing at me earnestly. “They said the place was haunted, and they could no longer take the disturbances.”
“Haunted. Right.” I burst into laughter. “And that’s why it’s so affordable?”
She colored. “No one stays here longer than a week before packing up and leaving. Apparently, the ghost is… boisterous.” She leaned toward me, a crease appearing between her brows. “Do you believe in spirits?”
“No. Think that will keep me from hearing it?” Sun poured through the windows, but as she’d said, the house was cool. Haunted, huh? Interesting. Maybe my friend, Alice, would come for a visit. She loved shit like that. Her favorite movie was the original Exorcist.
“I honestly don’t know.” Sitting back with a sigh, she searched in her purse before pulling out a sheaf of papers. “There is nothing else available, and certainly not at this price. Sign these and it’s yours, Mr. Gray.”
We’d left the front door open, and at that moment, a hummingbird appeared, hovered for long moments while seeming to look right at me, then turned and flew off. I’m particularly fond of hummingbirds, and this was the first one I’d seen in years.
I stretched out a hand. “Gotta pen?”
When I got to work Monday, Dave was there, making up menus for an upcoming wedding. He was the cook, I was the business end, and we’d been together professionally five years. The personal relationship came after and might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.
“I will not be available on weekends, so schedule accordingly,” I said, sweeping past him into my office and slamming the door. After weeks of tiptoeing around each other, I’d had it.
The door opened immediately. “What do you mean, you’re not available? Most of our events occur on weekends, you dick.”
I opened the laptop and booted up. “Work around me. Hire your nephew. Close. I don’t give a shit.”
He glared down at me. “Are you quitting then?”
“I’m giving it serious thought. I’m not sure I can continue working with an asshole like you.” I said this in an even tone, as if I was discussing the weather.
“Grow the hell up, Mikal. Learn to separate work from the rest of your life.”
“That’s pretty hard to do when I catch your assistant fucking you on a table in the kitchen,” I snarled at him, calmness gone.
“We’re not married, Mikal.”
“But we were exclusive,” I shot back. “We were together three years, and you threw that away for some twink who can’t even make radish roses. Are you insane?”
“I’m in love with him,” he sniffed, running a hand through his close-cropped hair. “It happens.”
I stared at him, remembering how that gesture used to turn me on. I remembered a lot of things in that moment, and some of them were pretty good. Like the time he’d made me chicken soup when I’d been down for two days with a nasty cold. Or the time he’d bought expensive tickets to a concert I’d really wanted to see. The night he told me he loved me, and then went on to prove it three times. How he smelled right after a shower. How he smelled when he hadn’t had one in a few hours, which was even better.
We had history, damn it. We’d created a life together. For a moment—just a moment—I almost relented. The thought of starting all over again with someone new made me want to curl up in bed and sleep until the next millennium. Dave and I understood each other. We knew those little quirks and foibles everyone was reluctant to share until enough time had passed.
But that fucker had cheated on me, and maybe it hadn’t been the first time. I mean, how would I know? He worked long, sometimes odd hours, and I’d rarely been with him, spending most of my time in the office or working from home.
I had some money saved. I didn’t have to put up with this crap. Standing with such force the chair rolled back and banged into the wall, I closed the laptop. “Stick it up your ass, Dave, if you can find any room up there.”
Marching to the front door, I paused, hand on the knob, looking back at him. “That was me quitting, in case I didn’t make myself clear. Better hire a replacement fast. Insurance premium is due next week and the health inspector is coming around on the twenty-sixth.”
I walked away quickly, eyes burning with unshed tears. I’d lost Dave and thrown away my job. My life in ruins. Christ, I was feeling sorry for myself.
Out on the street, I dug my cell out of a pocket and speed-dialed Alice, who answered using her professional voice.
“Alice Blakely. How can I assist you?” Alice had been a close friend for years. She worked as a secretary for a department store executive and took rapacious advantage of the 5% discount offered to her.
“Hire a hit man to knock off Dave,” I said without preamble.
She sighed. “Now what?”
“I just quit. I couldn’t stand to look at him without wanting to punch him in the mouth so hard, his teeth would fly out the back of his head and stick in a wall.”
“Honey, that’s always a bad sign, especially at nine in the morning.”
“Don’t I know it.” I stood on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. “I rented a place in the middle of nowhere. Think I’ll pack some stuff and drive out there.” My weekend place had just become my new full-time residence.
“No Fire Island this year?”
“Are you kidding?” The light changed and I crossed with twenty other people, none of whom were paying attention to me talking into my phone because most of them were doing the same thing. “He’s probably fucked everyone who signed up this year. I just don’t know it yet.”
“Why don’t we meet for lunch? I’ll let you sob on my shoulder.”
“Thanks, sweetie, but I really need some alone time.” I walked faster. “Do me a favor? Find someone to pack up my shit and store it at your place until I figure things out? I’ll pay whatever it costs.”
“It’s that bad, huh?”
My chest convulsed with pain. “It’s that bad. I never want to see him again.”
“Okay,” she said in soothing tones. “I have the spare key you gave me. I’ll call someone. It’ll be taken care of.”
“If Dave gives you any shit about this, tell him to fuck off and die.”
Touched by her loyalty, I told her I’d talk to her soon and ended the call.
I packed a bag with enough clothes for a week, grabbed my e-reader, laptop, and iPod, and drove out of the city. Traffic was light, as it was Monday; most people were working. I stopped in New Paltz for groceries before continuing on to the rental.
Parking under a shade tree, I carried stuff inside. Food was put away, clothes shoved into dresser drawers, personal items placed in the bathroom.
Back in the living room, laptop on the coffee table, I lounged on the couch, staring into the fireplace. “Now what?” I had the habit of talking to myself. I’ve been told this didn’t necessarily mean I was crazy, but there were days when I had my doubts. Dave used to find it endearing.
When had I stopped being endearing to him?
What had I done or not done that made him look elsewhere? Why hadn’t I been enough? Tears pricked my eyes and I swallowed hard.
It had been a long time since I’d felt this alone, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. Exploring sounded like a good time waster and a distraction from thinking, so I grabbed a beer and wandered off to the barn.
The sun sank into me clear to the bone, and I gratefully gulped beer as I crossed the heat-drenched yard. Sweat broke out on my forehead and between my shoulder blades. The barn had a side door, but in front were massive wood panels that slid on metal runners. They were in good enough shape that I could push them open with one hand. I stepped inside and walked to the line where sun met shadow, stopping and looked around.
There were six stalls, three on either side of a wide aisle. Straw faded to white thickly covered the floor. Above, in the haymow, was more straw, stacked in bales tied with twine. I finished the beer, set the bottle down near the door, and strolled to the back, slowly zigzagging back and forth so I could look in the stalls. Except for the ubiquitous straw, they were empty except for the last one on the left. In it was a rusty collection of farm equipment: pitchforks, shovels, a wheelbarrow, something I thought was called a harrow, a plough, loops of chain, piles of frayed rope, other odds and ends, and all of it covered with a thick coat of dust.
When I leaned over the door to get a closer look, a blast of cold air hit me. Exhaling, I saw my breath. I drew back, startled, and instantly, the heat was back. I’d heard of micro climates, but inside a barn?
I moved forward again, into a wall of icy air. The chill of it went all through me.
I didn’t linger. I went out the back doors, which were replicas of those in front, shoving one panel aside enough to let me through, and found a path and followed it through the woods to the lake. Deer flies dive-bombed my head, and I swung my arms to keep them from biting me.
Yup, there was a lake. It wasn’t large. I could probably paddle across it in five minutes, but suitably prepared, it might be nice to spend some time on it. A canoe was tied to a short dock. I mentally added Off bug spray to my shopping list and returned to the house, bypassing the barn altogether.
I picked up the phone and dialed. She answered on the third ring. “I’m here, Alice.”
“It’s just north of New Paltz. Know the town?”
“Yeah, been there a couple times. Touristy.”
“Come and visit me?”
“What, in New Paltz? Jeez, Mikal. I have to work tomorrow. And I thought you wanted alone time.”
I looked around the room, realizing this was not home. I didn’t belong here. It was simply the place where I’d run to lick my wounds. I suddenly regretted renting the place. Probably, I should have spent the money on a new apartment. “Yeah. I thought so, too.”
There was a pause. “I have some PTO coming.” She paused again. I waited, breath held. “See you in the morning.”
“Great. There’s a guest room. I’ll get it ready for you.”
“You fucking owe me,” she said, but I heard the affection in her words.
I was grinning ear to ear. “Can’t wait to see you.”
We chatted another few minutes and then said goodbye.
After dinner, which consisted of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich―classic comfort food―I lay on the couch reading until my eyes drooped. I was tempted to sleep there, but my anal retentive nature wouldn’t let me. All bookkeepers were anal retentive.
I struggled to my feet, locked the doors, turned out lights, made a pit stop in the bathroom, and then crawled between fresh sheets, ready to sleep. The fridge clicked off, and in the sudden silence, another sound presented itself: someone was crying.
I came back to full wakefulness, muscles tensed as my ears strained to hear what seemed to be coming from far away. Yes, someone was crying, weeping so hard it made my heart ache in sympathy.
Who the hell was that?
I bolted upright in bed, eyes wide in the darkness. Could it be…? No, it absolutely couldn’t. I didn’t believe in ghosts.
The crying continued. I didn’t sleep for hours.