A woman is haunted—both literally and figuratively—by ghosts of the past in this second novel of the Royal Street series by New York Times bestselling author Karen White.
Nola Trenholm may not be psychic herself, but she’s spent enough time around people who are to know when ghosts are present, and there are definitely a few lingering spirits in her recently purchased Creole cottage in New Orleans. Something, or someone, is keeping them tethered to this world. And not all of them are benign.
But with the sudden return of Sunny Ryan, Beau Ryan’s long-lost sister, Nola has plenty to distract her from her ghostly housemates. Especially when the tempting—yet firmly unavailable—Beau, wanting to mete out justice to those he blames for Sunny’s kidnapping, asks Nola for a favor that threatens to derail her hard-won recovery and send her hurtling backward. He asks her to welcome Michael Hebert back into her life, even though Michael is the reason for Nola’s bruised heart. Beau is convinced that Michael’s powerful family was behind Sunny’s disappearance and that Michael is the key to getting information the police won’t be able to ignore—if Nola is willing to risk everything for which she’s worked so hard.
Torn between helping Beau and protecting herself, Nola doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late why the ghosts are haunting her house—a startling revelation that will throw her and Beau together to fight a common enemy. Assuming Nola can get Beau to listen to what the spirits are trying to tell him, because ignoring them could prove to be a fatal mistake...
Release date: May 9, 2023
Print pages: 400
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The House on Prytania
The Crescent City, with its long and tangled history, its glorious architecture and subtropical allure, along with its inarguably dark past and requisite restless spirits, is a forgiving place. A city with accepting arms for society’s lost and hungry souls, and a haven for people like me who’d stumbled and fallen yet managed to pull themselves back up. People who were brave enough to try again in a place known for its extremes, or simply too hardheaded to admit defeat.
As the St. Charles streetcar I’d just exited waddled its way down the tracks toward the river bend, I listened to its clanging and jangling. It had become the soundtrack of my life in a new city, much as the church bells chiming their holy chorus in my hometown of Charleston once were.
Slowly walking down Broadway, I enjoyed the afternoon air of an early-October Saturday. The oppressive humidity of summer had lifted, giving us a reprieve, and although the temperature was nowhere near what anybody up north would call cold, it was cool enough that I wore a sweater over my T-shirt. Even my fingers felt chilled as they gripped the straps of my backpack.
I considered slipping on the gloves that my stepmother, Melanie, had sent me—along with typed instructions on how to care for them. I was due a visit from my family—my parents and my twelve-year-old half siblings, Sarah and JJ—the following week, and I didn’t want to register Melanie’s disappointment at seeing my dirty gloves. Exactly the reason why I wasn’t wearing them. Because absolutely nobody in real life had the patience to clean their gloves to Melanie’s specifications. Unless they were Melanie.
I lived on Tulane University’s so-called fraternity row, my upstairs town-house apartment sandwiched between two fraternity houses, so I was prepared to dodge the street football being played as I made my way down the sidewalk. The days were shorter now, the rose-tinted dusk sky hovering over me as I walked, the growing dimness darkening the shadows between houses and behind unlit windows. Not for the first time, I was grateful that I had only five senses and couldn’t see anything within the shadows. But just because I couldn’t see anything didn’t mean that nothing was there.
I climbed the steps to my apartment, enjoying the drifting scents of something spicy and pumpkin-y baking in the oven. Being greeted by fresh baked goods was just one of the perks of having the Southern version of Martha Stewart as my roommate. A version that sported flame red hair and had a skill set that included all things domestic as well as the ability to change a tire while wearing high heels, and had an accent as thick as the Delta mud from her home state of Mississippi.
Jolene McKenna was a force of nature whose turns of phrase could be simultaneously head-scratching and profound, and whose sweet nature hid a backbone of steel mixed with concrete. Jolene had been my roommate during my abbreviated tenure at Tulane, and when we’d run into each other in New Orleans seven years later, I had needed a roommate, and she’d needed an apartment. It had seemed serendipitous.
As soon as I opened the French door at the top of the stairwell and threw off my backpack, I was attacked by a small gray and white fur ball with two dark button eyes and a matching nose and a wildly waving plumed tail. He was wearing yet another fall-themed dog sweater courtesy of his favorite aunt, Jolene. Although Mardi was technically my rescue dog, Jolene had taken over all his accessorizing, something my stepmother, Melanie, could appreciate. I had drawn the line at monogramming, but little by little I’d noticed MLT (Mardi Lee Trenholm) appearing on bowls, bedding, and his dog-sized bathrobe.
At the tap-tap sound of approaching high heels, Mardi and I looked up to see Jolene. As usual, her hair and makeup were perfect, and she wore a Wizard of Oz–themed apron over a cocktail dress. At her look of disappointment, something clicked in the back of my mind. “Oh, no. Did I forget . . . ?”
“Yes. Tonight is the big welcome-home party for Sunny Ryan. I’ve been texting you for the last hour, but you didn’t respond.” Her eyes widened as they settled on my unruly hair, which had had only a glancing swipe from a brush earlier that morning before I’d left for work. “I’m not sure if we have enough time to make you presentable, but I’ve never been called a quitter.”
She took Mardi from my arms. “Sorry—I was catching up on Beau’s podcast and my battery died. Really, Jolene, there’s no reason for me to get all gussied up.” I used one of her words to placate her. “It’s just a small gathering of family and close friends.”
Jolene grabbed my wrist and began pulling me toward the bathroom. “I’ve already drawn your bath. It’s grown cool, but that means you won’t lollygag. And of course you should get gussied up. Beau will be there.”
I blinked at her. My relationship with Beau Ryan was complicated. Which was a lot like saying the levee system in New Orleans might have a few flaws. I hadn’t the energy or the time to hash it all out now. Instead, I said, “Well, Beau is Sunny’s brother, so it would be strange if he wasn’t. And I’m sure his girlfriend will be there, too. Besides, I haven’t heard from Beau since Sunny showed up the night of Mardi’s gotcha party. He’s obviously moved on now that he doesn’t need my help finding his sister.”
Jolene stopped at the threshold of the bathroom and pulled off my baggy cardigan before gently pushing me inside. “For someone so smart, you sure can be ignorant. Now hop in the tub and do the best you can with that shampoo. You have exactly five minutes, and I’m timing you. Starting now.” She tapped the screen of her smart watch before closing the door in my face.
One hour and fifteen minutes later, we were in Jolene’s relic of a car—named Bubba by its owner—and headed down Broadway on our way to the Ryans’ historic family home on Prytania in the Garden District. Mardi, wearing a celebratory yellow kerchief that matched his sweater, sat dutifully in his car seat in the back, the air from the vent blowing his fur from his face like in a shampoo commercial. The heater in the old car apparently had only two settings: off and full blast. I wanted to crack open my window to let in fresh air but was scolded by Jolene, who warned me that the three layers of Aqua Net she’d applied to my hair could go only so far.
A silver platter filled with Jolene’s pumpkin nut muffins sat on my lap. Apparently, she had the hearing of a bat, because despite the volume of the heater and the rumbling of the tires passing over the ubiquitously uneven paving of New Orleans’s streets, she heard me carefully lifting the plastic wrap to grab a pinch of one, and she slapped my hand.
“You’re worse than Mardi,” she scolded.
“I’m starving. I’ve been cutting bathroom floor tiles all afternoon. Thibaut is teaching me, and he’s very patient, but it takes forever. I didn’t want to take a food break and disappoint him.”
Jolene swerved around a giant pothole in the middle of the road, causing me to grab the platter to keep it from sliding off my lap. “You do know that Thibaut works for you, right?”
“Yeah, that. I keep forgetting.” Thibaut Kobylt was a master of all things construction related and led the two-man crew—including another jack-of-all-trades, Jorge—helping me restore my first home, a Creole cottage in the Marigny neighborhood. He was talented, smart, funny, and had the patience of Job. His only flaw was that he’d done time in jail for the manslaughter of his wife. I’d left out that little detail when telling my parents about Thibaut. There were some things they were probably better off not knowing.
Regardless, I was lucky to have Thibaut on my crew, which was a very small one, owing to the not-unfounded rumor that my house wasn’t “right.” Meaning it was haunted, possessed, or cursed. Or maybe just possessed or cursed, since it shouldn’t still be haunted. With the help of a reluctant Beau Ryan, who still hadn’t reconciled himself to the idea that he could communicate with ghosts, we had eradicated two spirits bound to the house—those of Beau’s grandfather and his grandmother’s best friend, Jeanne, who’d been murdered in the house in 1964 by her own father.
But in the weeks since, it had become clear even to me that things were still not right with the house. Judging from the fact that neighbors and most workmen continued to refuse to set foot inside, and from the regular delivery of gris-gris bags to my front porch, I wasn’t the only person who thought so. Even when the house was empty, the atmosphere was like that of a suspended breath, the air thick with the sort of tension that precedes the whistling of a teakettle.
I had even thought I’d smelled a hint of pipe tobacco, the telltale sign that Beau’s grandfather was nearby. But he couldn’t be. Beau had sent him to the light. Maybe he just wanted to hang on for a little while longer to get to see Beau. Or maybe they didn’t allow smoking in heaven. Any reason other than the nagging thought that Charles Ryan still had something to tell us.
“How long do you think we need to stay?”
Jolene sighed as she turned onto Prytania, rolling over the curb and jostling the platter on my lap. “Don’t you want to get to know Beau’s long-lost sister and find out where she’s been for the past couple of decades? I mean, the last time they saw her, she was just a baby. That’s a lot to go over.”
“I agree. And I’m interested in hearing her story. Yet from what she’s already told us, all she knows is that she was adopted when she was a toddler and raised by a loving family in Edina, Minnesota. Curiosity about her birth parents brought her back to New Orleans.”
“So what’s bothering you?” Jolene asked.
“I didn’t say something was bothering me.”
“You didn’t have to. You’re snapping that rubber band on your wrist, which is something you’ve started doing when you’ve got something stewing inside your head.”
I thought for a moment, trying to pinpoint exactly what was bothering me. “Don’t you think it odd that Sunny showed up when she did? Right after we’d uncovered the truth about Antoine Broussard and his connection to her kidnapping?”
“But now that Sunny’s shown up, none of that matters anymore,” Jolene said as she slid into a driveway and flipped down the car’s visor—bravely hanging on to the ceiling with duct tape and a prayer—and began reapplying her lipstick.
“Exactly,” I said.
She carefully closed the visor, then turned her gaze to meet mine. “What are you saying?”
I shrugged, not really sure what I was saying. “I don’t know. It just seems like such a . . . coincidence.”
“And there’s no such thing as coincidence,” she said slowly, echoing the oft-repeated mantra of my father, Jack Trenholm. He was an international bestselling author of true-crime books, and it was something he’d discovered in his research and that had been proven time and time again.
Jolene shifted in her seat so that she faced me. “Sometimes, Nola, we are handed miracles disguised as coincidences. For over twenty years, Sunny had no idea that she had a family looking for her, and that family had no idea that she was even alive. Then suddenly, for reasons beyond our comprehension, all the stars aligned, and the pieces fell into place, and Sunny and her family are together again. I don’t think it’s fair for us to question it. I think all we need to do is rejoice in this miracle.”
When I didn’t respond, Jolene squeezed my hand where it rested on the seat. “I don’t blame you for questioning it. It’s your nature to question things. I’m sure you can’t help but compare Sunny’s story with your own and how you had no one looking for you after your mama died. But that was only because they didn’t know you existed.” She squeezed my hand again, then sat back in her seat. “But now you are loved to pieces by your family and friends, and that’s the most important thing. Even if that little green face of jealousy pops up every once in a while, you can just whack it on the head with the full knowledge that you are deeply loved and cherished.”
“You’re right,” I said, my eyes open but seeing nothing except my thirteen-year-old self on a cross-country bus from California to South Carolina, with all my hopes and fears confined to a single piece of paper crumpled in my pocket, on which my mother had scribbled the name of the father I had never met.
“And I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I think your heart is still hurting because of Michael. He’s a weasel and he betrayed your trust, and it takes the heart a lot longer than the brain to get over that kind of hurt. Just thank your stars that it was short-lived and you didn’t have to eat the whole egg to know it was rotten.” She gave me a sympathetic smile to soften her words. “I think that might be the reason why you can’t feel the kind of happy you should at Sunny’s reunion with her family.”
The mention of Michael Hebert shook me out of my reverie. I widened my eyes, finally registering where Jolene had parked the car. “Where are we? This isn’t the Ryans’ house.”
“I know that. I just didn’t want anyone seeing me fixing my makeup.”
By “anyone,” I knew she meant Jaxson Landry, a local lawyer and the object of her unrequited love. He was dating her friend Carly. She had told me that Jaxson had bought a ring for Carly, and I didn’t want to rub salt in the wound. Pressing hard on the pedal, Jolene backed out of the driveway, oblivious to the blaring horn of an oncoming car.
“Maybe I need to stop looking at everything like a crime novel and just be happy for Beau and his family,” I said.
“I think that’s a very good plan. Besides, Sunny looks like Beau and is cute as a button. Except for the blond hair. It’s completely the wrong shade.”
“What do you mean? You think she highlights it?”
Jolene pulled up onto the curb behind a line of cars parked in front of the Ryans’ Italianate house. With an aggrieved sigh, she put the car in park. “Nola, I thank my lucky stars that we found each other again. There is so much I need to teach you. Sunny, despite her name, is no more a natural blonde than Dolly Parton is. And I adore Dolly, so you know that I’m not throwing shade on anyone’s character.”
“Of course not. And dyeing your hair isn’t a crime.”
“Although in some cases it should be. From the pictures we’ve seen, Sunny was blond as a little girl and it just darkened over time. It happens a lot—both ways. My second cousin twice removed on my mama’s side was born with a whole head of jet-black hair, and let me tell you that all that tongue wagging almost did that poor baby’s mama in. Luckily, it all fell out when she was two—or maybe it was three—but it all grew back just as blond as can be. We think it’s because her granddaddy was part I-talian. . . .”
I made a big show of unbuckling my seat belt and gathering my backpack, eager to distract Jolene before she gave me another lesson about her family tree. Jolene pushed open her door with a soft grunt before walking around the car to open my door. She took the platter of muffins. “I think these will be safer with me until we get them inside. You can bring Mardi.”
Mardi pulled at his leash as we headed toward the gate with the hourglass in the middle. It was a nod to the Ryans’ antiques shop, called the Past Is Never Past, on Royal Street in the Quarter. I held the gate open for Jolene, doing my best to restrain Mardi on his leash. I wasn’t sure whether he was excited about the muffins or because he loved visiting Beau’s grandmother. They had bonded at his gotcha party, and Mimi Ryan had included Mardi’s name on the invitation to Sunny’s welcome-home party. I just hoped no food would be left on low tables, because Mardi’s name should have been Hoover.
Despite Mardi’s hard tugging on the leash, I slowed my walk, never tired of seeing the glorious architecture of what I thought was one of the prettiest houses in a neighborhood famed for its beautiful houses. As we approached the marble steps and arched colonnade of the front porch, the massive wooden double doors opened and Christopher Benoit, a longtime Ryan family friend and employee, stood in the entranceway with a welcoming smile.
I’d started to greet him when Mardi gave one more tug, pulling the leash from my hand. He raced around Jolene and up the steps. After briefly and enthusiastically greeting Christopher, he ran behind him into the foyer. I hurried to catch up, expecting to hear the sounds of crashing china and crystal, but by the time I’d reached the foyer, all I could hear were Mardi’s soft whimpers of pleasure coming from the front parlor. I stopped abruptly on the threshold, taking in the small gathering of familiar faces, along with a few new ones, and Sunny Ryan sitting between Mimi and Beau on the sofa while my dog—previously known as my fierce protector—rested his head on Sunny’s chest, licking the bottom of her pixie-like chin while staring up at her adoringly.
“See?” Jolene whispered in my ear. “Would Mardi steer us wrong?”
I recalled how Mardi had never liked Michael and would greet him with bared fangs. Granted, fangs that resembled tiny pillows, but the intent had been clear. My shoulders relaxed as I looked at the glowing, happy people assembled in the Ryans’ parlor. The scene reminded me of my last birthday party in Charleston, where I’d been surrounded by the family and friends who loved me unconditionally. Even with the lopsided and barely edible cake that Melanie had made for me with her own hands, I’d felt cherished—the same emotion I recognized on the pink and now slightly wet face of Sunny Ryan as my traitorous dog continued to bathe her with affection.
I had the sudden feeling someone was watching me. Slowly, I turned to find I was in the direct line of sight of the large portrait of Dr. Charles Ryan hanging in the foyer, the end of his pipe sticking out from his jacket pocket. The light and shadows of the painting made the eyes appear to follow me. When I turned back toward the roomful of people, my attention was drawn to two small puddles of water in the distinctive shape of a woman’s feet in front of Beau.
Jerking my gaze away, I looked up to discover Sam, Beau’s girlfriend and podcast partner, looking at me, a curious expression on her face. She motioned for me to stay where I was, as if she had the intention of speaking with me. I wasn’t sure what it was she wanted to say to me, but I was fairly certain it had something to do with Beau. I pretended I hadn’t seen her and I stepped backward into the small crowd, hoping to disappear long enough to call an Uber and leave. I still hadn’t emotionally recovered from the whole Michael fiasco, and I was in no mood for more drama.
I had made it into the dining room, where the table sat covered with all kinds of food on platters and in bowls, including Jolene’s muffins. She’d already dusted them with powdered sugar from the little dispenser she’d brought in her purse (because Jolene). I’d hit the Confirm button on my Uber app when I heard Sam call my name.
I gave a quick wave in her direction as I headed toward the door. “My Uber’s here—I’ve got to go.”
Jolene sent me a questioning look, and I held my hand up to my head like an old-fashioned telephone—something I’d seen Melanie do frequently—to let her know I’d call later.
Sam followed me out the door, then stopped on the porch as I jogged down the path toward the gate, silently hoping that the approaching car actually was my Uber.
“We need to talk,” she shouted as I clanged the gate shut behind me. “I’ll text you.”
I gave a thumbs-up as I opened the car door, pretty sure that Sam didn’t have my number. I paused to verify that I was in the correct Uber, then slid inside. I wasn’t sure if Sam wanted to talk about the footprints or Beau—or both. I wasn’t interested in discussing either topic with anyone, especially Sam, for reasons I couldn’t explain even to myself.
I shut the car door without glancing back, feeling her gaze on me long after I lost sight of the house on Prytania.
I stood under an awning near the corner of Canal and Royal in a misty drizzle, watching my young friend Trevor riding my bike toward me. For a small fee, the twelve-year-old entrepreneur guarded my bike each night so I didn’t have to ride it all the way uptown after a long day. In the mornings I worked at my office on Poydras as an architectural historian for a civil engineering firm, then in the afternoon shifted to the renovations at my new house, leaving just enough energy to bike to the streetcar stop and hand over my bicycle to Trevor.
He had sold me the bike, the basket, and several other essential items—including a Super Soaker to deter the more aggressive flying cockroaches—for what were clearly inflated prices for used items. Trevor insisted I was paying a convenience fee for having him source the products and hand deliver them, and I couldn’t say that he was wrong.
“Hi, Miss Nola. Sorry I’m late. Meemaw forgot to make my lunch last night, so I tried to make it myself. ’Cept we didn’t have no bread, and it made me late for school. I didn’t have time to get your bike out of my hiding place before school, so I had to get it after.”
“So you didn’t have anything for lunch?”
“No, ma’am. But my best friend, Gary, always has somethin’ for me. His mama likes me and says I’m too skinny, so she packs extra.”
After digging into my back pocket and pulling out a five, I handed it to him. “Use this to buy a hot lunch the next time that happens, all right? For emergency purposes, and only for food, and get an extra dessert for Gary. Do not use it to buy anything you plan to resell, all right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, eagerly taking the bill and shoving it into his pocket. As with every interaction with Trevor, I chose to trust him. His charm and smile always overcame any second thoughts.
“I’ve got something for you from Miss Jolene.” I slid off my backpack before pulling out an oddly shaped yet beautifully wrapped gift complete with an extravagant bow.
He reached for it, but I held it back before carefully placing it on the ground. “All you have to do is peel off that small strip of tape at the top and it will unwrap itself.”
With cheeks puffed out with anticipation, Trevor carefully removed the tape. The paper fell away like a flower blooming, leaving a decoupaged clay pot at the center. I was pretty sure Jolene had both spun the pot and decorated it herself, but I hadn’t asked because I didn’t want to hate her. Trevor lifted the pot and studied it, not quite sure what to say.
“It’s for your home computer fund,” I explained. “I figured all the money you earn from working at the antiques store and from your side business can be put in here. Christopher said he’d be happy to keep it locked up at the shop to keep it safe.”
Trevor nodded to show that he’d heard me, but his eyes were fixated on the pot. “Why’s it got a rainbow?”
“Because at the end of every rainbow is a pot of gold. Jolene loves rainbows because of the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ in her favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz.”
He squinted at me with his dark brown eyes, not understanding.
“You know—Dorothy and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion?”
I blinked a couple of times, wondering if he might be kidding, because, to my knowledge, I’d never met anyone who wasn’t familiar with the movie or the books. I squatted down to get a better look in his face. He was small for his age, and I got down to his level only when it was for something important.
“Trevor, do you mean to say you’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz or read the books?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
“No flying monkeys or the Wicked Witch of the West?”
He narrowed his eyes again, but this time to clearly show that he doubted my sanity.
I stood. “Well, we’re going to fix that right up. Now that you have a library card, you can check out The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum. Just ask the librarian.”
“Can’t I just watch the movie?”
“Sure. But only after you read the first book—there are fourteen in the series. Everybody knows the book is always better than the movie. Besides, reading makes you smarter.”
“Huh,” he grunted, clearly not convinced.
“Guess what Jolene’s favorite book in the whole world is.”
His eyes brightened, and I knew I had him. Ever since he’d met Jolene and had become the recipient of her baked goodies, he’d been a devoted admirer. He wasn’t alone in that regard, since she seemed to have that effect on everyone. Everyone except Jaxson Landry.
At my look, he burst out in his contagious laugh. “I’m just punkin’ you, Miss Nola.”
“Yeah, well, Jolene would be very impressed if you read the first book in the series. I bet—with your meemaw’s permission—we could have you over to our apartment to watch the movie after you read the book. Jolene makes the best popcorn.”
A frown appeared and he focused his gaze on the pavement at his feet. “Don’t know about that.”
“I hope you’re not thinking that the book will be too hard. Christopher or I would be happy to help if you get stuck.”
He looked up with an expression I couldn’t read, but it quickly faded before I could overthink it. He tucked the pot under his arm while I folded up the paper and placed it carefully inside. “I gotta go—Christopher’s waiting for me. I’m supposed to be at the shop now to sweep the back room.”
“Don’t let me keep you. He says he doesn’t know how he did it all without you.”
His small chest expanded like that of a robin preparing to sing. “My meemaw taught me how to clean right. Between you and me, Miss Nola, some of them corners at the shop hadn’t seen a broom or rag since Jesus was a baby.”
I hid my smile. “Well, then, you’d better hurry.”
He didn’t budge. “You owe me a dollar.”
“A dollar? What for?”
“ ’Cause I brought you your bike in the rain. It’s an extra fee.”
“I don’t remember ever paying that before.”
“It’s a new policy.” He grinned so big that I could see the pink of his gums. “You told me to look for ways to earn money so I can buy myself my own computer.”
I fished a dollar bill out of my pocket and handed it to him. “I’ve created a monster.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. His grin never dimmed as he said good-bye and began jogging toward the Past Is Never Past, carefully cradling the pot against his chest.
In the upstairs bathroom of my Creole cottage I sat up on my padded knees and rubbed my back. I’d been painstakingly applying thin-set mortar to the membrane I’d helped Thibaut install the previous day, and I had lost track of time while placing black and white octagonal floor tiles in a design I’d found in Preservation Resource magazine.
I had appreciated Thibaut’s agreeing that laying individual tiles was a lot more time-consuming and difficult than laying sheets of tile but way worth it in the long run. Which was always the way with historic restorations. My back and knees currently disagreed, and my mind was beginning to concur with my body when I looked up to realize that I had backed myself into a corner. My only way out was to step on the newly laid tiles with their even rows of meticulously placed spacers, which would erase all my hard work.
I groaned out loud when I spotted my phone lying out of reach on the other side of the doorway, where I’d placed it because it kept falling out of my back pocket when I leaned over. Melanie had sent me a lanyard designed to hang a phone around a person’s neck. She’d sworn by it, saying she didn’t lose her phone in the house anymore. I’d laughed at it as something only old people would need and shoved it into the back of a drawer. Someone was laughing now, but it definitely wasn’t me.
Thibaut and Jorge had long since left, their misplaced confidence that I could get this one job done before they returned in the morning sitting like sour milk in my stomach. I stood in my small untiled corner, wary of the waning of the light as I counted how many rows I needed to leap over. And how many rows I would likely destroy and have to replace before tomorrow morning.
The sound of a vehicle pulling up outside and then the slam of a door gave me hope. Maybe Thibaut or Jorge had forgotten something and had returned to the house. Holding my breath, I listened to footsteps climbing the porch while my nostrils flared at the unmistakable scent of pipe tobacco. A loud knock sounded on the front door, and my surprise expelled air from my lungs in a deep cough.
“Nola? Are you still here?”
I recognized Beau’s voice and felt relieved and horrified at the same time. I was glad to be rescued but would have preferred it be by anyone but him. We had a long history of me being the unwilling rescuee while Beau Ryan swooped in to play my unwanted hero. Melanie and Jolene kept telling me that I needed to reanalyze my feelings on the subject, but that would be like blowing into a hurricane to change the direction of the wind. I’d come by my stubbornness honestly, and I wasn’t likely to change anytime soon.
My phone, its ringer silenced, vibrated on the floor. I found it easier to concentrate when I wasn’t being interrupted by calls and texts. Although I was beginning to think that if I had been interrupted, I might have noticed my error sooner.
“I’m upstairs,” I shouted. “If that’s you calling, I can’t answer my phone right now. But if you could come up, I’d appreciate it.”
“Why are you shouting?” Beau’s head appeared in the doorway.
I started at the sound of his voice, causing me to drop my trowel into the bucket of thin-set with a soft plop. I pressed my hand against my pounding chest. “Because I thought you were downstairs.”
“I was, but now I’m here.” He grinned as he eyed my predicament. “You know, Nola, it’s usually recommended that when you’re putting down any kind of flooring, you should start on the far end and work your way toward the door so you don’t get trapped in a corner.”
“Gee, thanks for that clever observation. It would have been more appreciated four hours ago, when I started.”
“I bet,” he said, nodding sagely. “What are you going to do now?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Learn how to sleep standing up, I guess.”
The smell of tobacco was even stronger now, the scent concentrated around Beau. “Do you smell that?”
“Yes,” he admitted, showing how far he’d come in accepting his psychic abilities. He might not be shouting from the rooftops his aptitude for communicating with ghosts now, and he was still debunking fraudulent psychics on his podcast, Bumps in the Night and Other Improbabilities, but acknowledging it to me was a huge step forward.
As if reading my mind, Beau said, “Let’s discuss my grandfather’s pipe smoke later. I figure we have more pressing issues.” He indicated where I stood, in my little corner. “Have you come up with any ideas?”
“Yeah, but none that wouldn’t involve ruining at least two rows of tiles. Probably more if I fell backward after I leapt. Which I’m prepared to do without your help.”
He crossed his arms. “Sure. And I’m happy to watch. And I’ll even hold a flashlight while you pull up the crooked tiles and replace them before the mortar dries. Or,” he said with a wide grin, “you could leap toward me and I’ll work with your momentum and pull you forward. I bet you could clear all of the tiles and go home at a reasonable hour.”
I wanted to refuse, just for principle’s sake, but my stomach was already grumbling and my eyes could barely focus from the strain of the exacting work of getting the rows of tiles perfectly straight.
I sighed loudly. “All right. You win.”
His grin faded. “It’s not about winning or losing, Nola. It’s about accepting an offer of help. Without any expectations of payment or me thinking less of you because you needed help.” He held out his hands, palms up. “Come on. Take one huge leap toward me and I’ll grab you. And I promise not to tell anyone.”
I wanted to roll my eyes, but I was too grateful to show any attitude that might make him rescind his offer. “Fine.” Without warning, I sprang forward in an awkward version of a grand jeté that I’d once watched my little sister do in a ballet recital. From my gawky movements it was clear that I’d never taken a single ballet lesson, but the aim of my front leg and the forward propulsion were all I needed to clear the tiles. And collide into a surprised Beau, who plunged backward, breaking my fall as we landed together with an inelegant thud on the hard cypress floor.
We both lay there in stunned silence, catching our breath and checking to see if we still had sensation in all parts of our bodies. I soon became aware of the solid feel of him beneath me, and of the warmth of his arms, which had found their way around me. It was all too familiar, reminding me of the night he’d been sick and had slept on the couch in my Uptown apartment and had sleepwalked, alert enough to have a phone conversation with his dead mother and then kiss me. Both events that we had studiously avoided mentioning since.
I rolled away, his arms seemingly reluctant to let me go. I jumped up and brushed off my jeans even though the only thing they’d touched was Beau. He was looking up at me with a slightly stunned expression, but I knew better than to offer my hand and touch him again.
“Sorry,” I said, handing him the bottle of water that I’d left with my phone. “I thought you were ready. Are you all right?”
He pulled himself up and stood, rubbing the back of his head with his free hand. “I don’t think I damaged the floor, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Funny. Seriously, you could have a concussion. Are you dizzy? Feeling sleepy?” I recalled when Melanie had been pushed down a flight of stairs by an unhappy spirit and the doctor had forced her to stay on bed rest, but not before he’d made her stay awake for a period of time just to make sure she hadn’t suffered any brain damage. I picked up my phone, noticing that I had five unread texts, and turned on the flashlight. Standing on tiptoe to shine it in his eyes, I said, “Let me see your pupils.” I had no idea what I was looking for, but it seemed like something I should be doing.
He gently pushed my hand away, a grin forming in the corner of his mouth. “I’m sure they’re still there. I’m fine—I promise. I’ll probably have a nice knot on my head tomorrow, but that just means I’ll think of you stuck in the corner of your bathroom every time I comb my hair.”
I snatched the water from his hand. ...
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