The bells above the door jingle, and I absentmindedly glance over while thinking of the yummy sandwich I’m about to pick up—Chipotle Chicken and Avocado. A thinly sliced, grilled chicken breast that’s perfectly seasoned and super juicy, on a brioche roll with chipotle mayo, tender Bibb lettuce, thick tomato wedges, and the best thing ever grown on the planet…sliced avocado. It comes with a side of hot, salty fries, and the entire meal will make you want to slap your mama.
Okay, so no violence to mothers or anyone, but this sandwich is heavenly.
There are only two people in line ahead of me. Unfortunately, those delicious thoughts shatter when I realize that the person who just walked inside the cafe is Detective Kevin Burton.
I should’ve known better than to pick up lunch from a popular gourmet sandwich shop close to the police station. What was I thinking? Oh yeah, about this sandwich masterpiece. Darn taste buds. I’ve been known to make exceptional creations between bread too. Instead of driving ten minutes down the road, I should’ve gone to the family deli, which is across the street from my job at Julian’s PI firm and just beneath my apartment. Yes, I work and live within a hop, skip, and jump from one another. It saves on gas money and mileage.
Kevin notices me and walks over with a small grin on his face. I whip my head around to see if there’s a Victoria’s Secret’s model or a Chevy Corvette behind me. Not that I know what makes Kevin excited, nor have I ever wanted to know. But since he and I have been verbally sparring for over a decade, it’s a safe bet he’s not smiling at me.
As he steps behind me, I notice his brown hair slightly curls over the collar of his form-fitting, gray T-shirt. According to my brother, Enzo, a police officer at South Shore Beach Police Department, where Kevin also works, long hair is against regulations.
My gaze quickly travels down to his black shorts and sandals. Has he always been this buff?
“Gianna, how are you?” he asks in a pleasant voice. No scoffs, sighs, or lip curls. Clearly, I’ve entered the Twilight Zone.
“Um, good. Thanks. You?” I almost slap myself for sounding like I care.
“Great. Thanks.” His enthused tone makes me frown.
The last time we saw each other was a few months back. He’d been nice then too. I had assumed it was a fluke. A couple of temporary moments of insanity, but maybe he’s on a sugar -high. Several Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and I’m usually feeling happy.
I keep my attention on the customer before me. His wide shoulders and pale, muscled biceps suggest he works out but spends his days mostly indoors. He probably has a desk job or…
“You look nice,” Kevin says into my hair, ruffling my curls.
I swallow a breath and end up coughing. Did he really just pay me a compliment?
“How’s Julian’s new job?” he asks.
Okay, now this has gone on long enough. Smiles, flattery, and asking about my “taking it slow” boyfriend. So slow we’re practically a couple of dried-up snails.
I spin on my heel and almost knock my face into his. He’s leaned down and is way closer than he should be.
He straightens to his full height, which seems like miles above my five-two, curvy stature.
“How do you know about Julian’s new job?” I ask. As long as I’ve known him, Julian Reed has worked for a law firm as a fixer. I didn’t know he was a fixer at first, helping his boss’s wealthy clients worm their way out of tarnishing their reputations. Like when they find dead bodies on their property and want them moved. Yeah, it’s as despicable as it sounds and the reason Julian and I are not just taking it slow but more like on a break. A break where we still flirt and know we care about each other, but I’m unwilling to move forward just yet. I’m not sure what I’m waiting on. A sign from the Universe, perhaps.
Which is why he started his own PI firm a few months ago. He’s been slowly building his clientele, and once he’s making enough money to quit the law firm, he will. I think. I haven’t gotten that in writing or anything. It’s more of a strong belief. Why else start his own agency? So that may be my sign, but until it’s a done deal, I’m not holding my breath.
Kevin clears his throat. “I’m a homicide detective. We like to know who the private investigators in town are.”
Sounds legit, but I wouldn’t put it past Old Kevin to want to use that information against me somehow. Old Kevin? Do I actually think he’s changed?
“It’s going slow. Building it up takes time,” I say and wait for him to say something that makes me remember why I’ve always disliked him.
The next person in line leaves, and we all step up. When I glance back, Kevin is practically on top of me. I could lean on the back of my flip-flops and brush against him. His scent, a woodsy mix of sandalwood and citrus, awakens my senses, and I’m only mildly upset he’s this close.
“How’s the family?” he asks.
I turn sideways so that I’m not totally rude and I don’t miss my turn, but this means my arm is pressed between his and my side. Our bare skin touches, and I can’t decide if I should face front or run out of the shop screaming. Only the memory of my future lunch holds me in place.
“Um…” I’ve lost my train of thought and don’t remember what he’s asked for a second. Despite enjoying this truce we’re apparently experiencing, I still can’t quite believe it.
I turn my head and gaze into his blue eyes. “Who exactly are you, and what have you done with Kevin Burton?”
His grin widens until I see the corners of his molars, and laughter rumbles from his chest.
I’m caught by surprise and chuckle with him.
I barely hear the bell above the door again. In fact, I simply don’t care. Kevin and I are sharing a laugh, and it feels good. All of my animosity toward him hasn’t vanished, but it’s nice to not feel so tense when he’s around.
But the sound of footsteps grows heavier and heavier until I can’t help but look away.
Kevin turns his head too, and we both stare at the woman standing not six inches from me. The crown of her dark blonde hair is pulled back, and the blunt ends meet her shoulders. She’s wearing a pair of large diamond stud earrings, which are rather reflective.
My ex-best friend from high school.
And Kevin’s wife.
His face contorts into a harsh grimace. It’s a look I know well. It’s usually directed at me. “Are you following me?” he asks her.
His tone is so harsh that the man in front of me looks over his shoulder and frowns, and he’s not even aware that these two are married, so imagine my shock.
“No,” Hilary says. Her voice is low, but I hear the edge in it. These two must be fun around the dinner table and holidays.
“I’m here to see her,” she says before locking eyes with me.
Oh crap. What did I do to deserve this afternoon?
“Can we talk?” Hilary asks.
“I don’t have the time,” I say and turn to face the man before me.
He steps away, and the woman in a black half apron and grass green polo shirt offers a polite smile. “How can I help you?”
I place a hand on the shiny wooden counter. “I called in an order for Reed.”
She turns toward white paper bags lined up behind her.
Hilary takes a step closer to me, and I suddenly feel claustrophobic. Not that I am. I simply don’t like her breath on me.
“Please, Gianna,” she says.
“I’m busy.” And getting annoyed. I’ve been back in South Shore Beach, our hometown, for almost a year, and this is only the second time I’ve laid eyes on her. What’s so important now? And how did she know I was here? Not that I need the details. I’m good with where we are or aren’t.
The woman sets the bag on the counter, rings it up, and tells me the total.
I hand her the cash Julian gave me before I left our office and wait for the change.
Hilary gently touches my shoulder as I stuff a couple of bills into the tip jar and grab the bag with the best sandwich in the Universe inside it. Nothing is standing between me and it. Especially not Hilary.
“Are you ever going to forgive me for high school?” Now she sounds annoyed.
“Nope.” I take a step away from the counter.
“You can’t stay mad forever,” she says.
“Watch me,” I shout over my shoulder and walk to the door, acting like the child I apparently am.
“Just leave her alone,” I hear Kevin tell his wife.
As I hit the pavement and turn to head to my car, I glance back and see the unhappy couple scowling. She has her finger in his face, jabbing the air, and he holds his palm out, as if telling her to step back or that he doesn’t care.
The door swings shut, and he looks up and sees me watching him. A small smile pushes up the corners of his mouth. I can’t get to my car fast enough.
* * *
Later that evening, with the ghostly memory of avocado still on my tongue, I’m about to turn off my desk lamp and head across the street and up one flight of steps to the place I call home, when the door opens and a woman enters. It only takes me a moment to recognize her and for me to begin to panic. Today really plans on sucking, doesn’t it?
Her smile is soft and her dark brown eyes kind. Dr. Winifred Styles is probably in her mid fifties, around Ma’s age. Her dark hair is braided into cornrows, which are pulled back into a bun high on the back of her head. A light layer of blush highlights her dark complexion and makes her face light up. Every time I’ve seen her, there’s been a twinkle in her eye. Now is no exception.
“Gianna, dear, do you remember me?” She reaches out her hand, and three thin, gold bracelets click against one another.
There is no way I’d ever forget the woman who may know my secret.
I stand and shake her hand, trying hard to not frown and be rude, but why is she here?
We met a few months ago when I was working as a party planner at a wedding, and she was a guest. Actually, she’s close friends with the bride’s aunt, so I ran into her a few times. She’s a psychologist who dabbles in parapsychology and seems aware that I can communicate with ghosts. I don’t know if she actually knows, but she hinted at it, and that makes me very uneasy. Which brings me back to my question…
“What are you doing here?” I ask and wave a hand at the chairs opposite my desk.
Reed Private Investigations is operated out of a corner storefront. It’s a small space to begin with, and then add in two desks, several chairs, some filing cabinets, a coffee station, and a potted plant that Ma and Pop gave, and it’s beyond cramped.
Julian left the office shortly after we ate lunch, and I’ve been sitting here pretending I’m super busy since. I filed one folder and then my nails, and I played a couple of rounds of Candy Crush. I feel a little guilty for getting paid while vicariously eating gummy bears and spreading jam, but Julian likes when I stay until six. He says he wants any prospective clients to call and hear a human voice, but I think he’s really just trying to help me pay my rent. That may not exactly be a sign from the Universe telling me to get back with him, but it definitely makes him a great guy.
Winnie sits down and places her palms on her thighs, smoothing down her brown, white, and soft pink floral skirt. “I wanted to see you. I told you I’d be in contact. Remember?”
Oh, I definitely do. In fact, I’ve been dreading this moment and hoping she’d forget about me. It was one thing at the bridal shower and bachelorette party in a room full of women. She could only say so much without others learning my secret as well. Luckily, she’d remained quiet and gave none of her suspicions away.
Sitting one-on-one though means she doesn’t have to be coy. And that means I either have to lie straight to her face or come clean. I’m not fond of either option.
“How did you find me?” I ask. Anything to delay the reason she’s here. Plus, I’m also curious. I wasn’t working here when I initially met her, and I never mentioned Julian starting his own firm. He was only mentioned in one conversation, and I said nothing more about him than his name.
She points out the wide front window. “Mancini Deli. I remembered your last name and stopped in. The lovely man behind the counter told me you’d be here.”
Pop? She must’ve been very charming for him to give up my location to a stranger.
“He’s very nice,” she says. “You have his eyes.”
This is true. I also have his chin and Ma’s nose and smile. It’s as if my DNA literally went halfsies on my face.
I clear my throat and ask, “How can I help you?”
It’s time to get this over with so that I can go home and this day can finally end.
Winnie opens her purse and pulls out a small white envelope. She hands it to me and nods for me to open it.
It’s not sealed, and my name is on the front in black ink, in a very curly script. I pull out a card covered in red roses, and in the center, in gold lettering, are the words: You Are Invited.
Oh, please don’t let it be from that family that I helped plan the wedding. The last week I’d spent with them was enough to last a lifetime.
I flip open the card, and tomorrow at noon is listed for the time and date, and the address does not belong to that family. In fact, it’s close to here.
I look up and raise a brow, not sure what’s going on.
Winnie’s smile is big and bold. “I’m inviting you to lunch tomorrow at my home.”
I frown and stare back down at the card. “Oh.”
What else can I say? It’s bizarre that she hunts me down out of the blue to ask me to lunch. What about her suspicions about my ghostly abilities?
It hits me how I’m sitting here talking to her now and saw Hilary earlier today because Hilary is the reason I don’t like many people to learn about my abilities. When we were growing up, I told her my secret in confidence, and she blabbed to another friend of mine. Michael. She not only told him but kissed him too, even though I’d asked her to keep quiet and she knew I had a crush on him. I doubt that Winnie and Hilary know each other, so this has to be a coincidence. It’s just weird timing.
“Please say you’ll come. I’m not a gourmet chef, but I have several great pie recipes.”
My taste buds perk up. I can’t exactly turn down pie.
I search Winnie’s face for some telltale sign of what this is really about. Maybe she wants to delve into the ghost thing on her own turf. Bizarre, but whatever. Even if she knows I can talk to ghosts, she can’t prove it. It wouldn’t hurt to go to lunch. And eat pie.
I nod and set the card down. “Okay, I’d love to have lunch with you.”
“Oh, dear, I’m so happy. This will be fun. You won’t regret it.”
My smile slowly fades. Whenever someone tells me I won’t regret something, I usually do.
* * *
I open my eyes and stare at the flickering lights on the wall above my couch. What’s going on? Realizing it’s my TV and that I must’ve fallen asleep, I turn my head, wince at the stab of pain at the base of my neck, and shut my eyes again. Great, a kink.
I wiggle up into a sitting position and let out a deep breath. I’ll go to bed, and hopefully it’ll feel better in the morning.
I reach for the remote on the old, wooden, beaten-up coffee table, and from the corner of my vision, I notice a light blob near the front door. I don’t know what it is, but I hold in a breath as my foggy brain wakes up, because I know it doesn’t belong in my apartment.
My heart gallops in my chest when I turn my entire body in order to not feel the neck pain again and realize it’s Hilary.
She’s just standing there and looking shocked.
My annoyance from earlier flips on. How dare she come by after I told her I didn’t want to talk.
“What are you doing here?” I swing my legs off the couch and stand up, ready to physically push her out if I need to.
Wait a minute.
My brain is coming out of sleep fog and trying to make sense of things.
“How did you get in?” I ask. I know I locked both the downstairs door at the parking lot and this one up here. There’s no way she could—
“You can see me?” she asks.
My frown is so deep, she almost disappears.
“Of course I can see you. Hilary, if this is some kind of twisted joke…”
That’s when I realize she isn’t standing by my door. She’s floating. Her bare feet aren’t touching the floor.
This can only mean one thing.
She’s a ghost.