Disclaimer: This story contains some violence, consensual sex between two adult women, and an occasional potty mouth word thrown into the mix.
Special thanks go to Amy, who always takes the time to read my stories and is quick to tell me where I went wrong. LOL And to Tara, my editor, who took time out of her busy schedule to check this over and make it read much better.
Tracy Hoyt crept into the funeral parlor and slipped into the last row, wincing as the mournful sound of the organ penetrated her ears. She’d always hated organ music; it was the one instrument that grated on her nerves. It was almost as painful as the wooden pew she would have to sit on until the service was over.
“Look at my nails, aren’t they beautiful?” A voice broke Tracy from her internal whining. She turned to the woman next to her and nodded politely, thinking it odd that a stranger would call her attention to something like that—at a funeral, no less.
Though she had turned her head and was looking back at the front of the parlor, Tracy could feel the odd woman staring at her. She squirmed as she looked around for another place to sit. To her dismay, the small room was crowded, and she had managed to snag the last available seat.
“Did you know the deceased?” the woman whispered close to her ear.
Already feeling guilty for the reason she was there, Tracy quickly thought up a white lie. “No…I’m a friend of someone who knew her,” she answered politely.
She couldn’t bring herself to admit that she had struck up a deal with a relative of the deceased to buy a couple of the antique pieces of furniture dirt cheap before the estate was put up for auction.
She glanced at the elderly woman next to her who was still studying her like she had never seen another human being. The woman didn’t appear as flaky as she did at first glance. Dressed in a navy blue business suit, she looked as though she had just left the office. Her fiery red hair was styled to perfection, as was her makeup. She glanced back down at her fingernails and smiled.
“Who would’ve ever thought that the best manicure I’ve ever gotten was done in a funeral parlor?” She giggled softly as she thrust them back into Tracy’s face.
“Excellent job and great choice of color, too,” Tracy offered, hoping the woman would be satisfied with the praise and leave her be.
Tracy was startled when most of the congregation turned to look at her. She failed to realize that the music had stopped and the service had begun. She smiled sheepishly and ducked her head.
The woman leaned in closer and whispered with a chuckle into her ear, “They must think you’re crazy, sitting back here talking to yourself.”
Tracy shrugged off the comment and chose to ignore the woman for the rest of the service. At the conclusion, the minister invited the congregation for one last viewing of the body before it was to be laid to rest. Tracy kept her seat and watched as the rest ambled slowly toward the casket.
“It’s impolite not to pay your last respects, even if you didn’t know the deceased,” the annoying woman whispered in her ear.
Tracy gnawed at her lip for a moment, fighting back a retort, before guilt won out. After all, she was here to take furniture from the dear soul before she was even in the ground. She stood and took her place at the end of the line.
She had only meant to take a quick glance, but when she saw the body, she had to grab the side of the casket to keep from falling. One of the caretakers quickly rushed to her side and escorted Tracy back to her seat where she sat feeling numb from her head to her toes.
“I look pretty good for a dead woman, don’t I?” the woman asked, causing Tracy to nearly jump out of her seat.
Tracy gripped the edge of the pew and turned her head slowly to look at the apparition sitting next to her. Her mouth opened, but words failed to emerge.
“I knew I was going to die, I just didn’t expect it to be this soon,” the woman said calmly. “I hadn’t even picked out an outfit, so I was afraid they would dress me in something garish. Can you imagine the last time people see you and you’re dressed in something hideous? Overall, I’m really proud of the job they did.”
Tracy looked around to the last few stragglers in the room, and no one seemed to notice that the dead woman was perched next to her.
“They can’t see me, honey. You’re the only one I wanted to show myself to.”
“Why…me?” Tracy asked when she found her voice.
“My name is Charlotte, by the way,” the woman said with a smile. “You’re lost, just like I was.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The woman’s face softened. “You have no one; you’re alone in this world.”
“So you decided to just pop in and be my friend?” Tracy asked as anger began to chip away at her fears.
“Be nice,” Charlotte admonished. “I wouldn’t let just anyone carry away my armoire and dining table.”
Tracy rubbed at her face and looked around the room. A few people stared at her with bewildered looks on their faces.
“You better go find my niece, these people are starting to think you’re nuts,” Charlotte said as she vanished from sight.
Tracy stood on shaking legs and slowly made her way out of the chapel. The chill in the air and the grayness of the day added to the creepiness of her encounter with the deceased. She descended the brick steps slowly and looked back at the chapel before going to her car.
Shaking hands gripped the steering wheel, and she joined the procession as it crept two blocks to the cemetery. Refusing to get out of the car, Tracy waited for the graveside service to conclude before seeking out the woman she had come there to meet. Pulling the rearview mirror in her direction, she dabbed at the perspiration that dotted her upper lip, all the while questioning her own sanity.
“That’s my niece there in the black coat standing closest to the casket,” Charlotte pointed out from the backseat.
Tracy gasped and jerked the rearview back into place. The smiling face of the apparition filled the mirror.
“I’ve lost my damn mind!” Tracy proclaimed with a hysterical laugh. “It’s stress, that’s what it is. I’ve just worked myself into a breakdown.”
“Nonsense, you’re perfectly healthy and sane,” Charlotte chirped cheerfully from the backseat. “You know a lot more about people when you’re dead. You see more, hear more. For example, I was quite surprised to know that a grown woman such as yourself would wear Scooby-Doo underwear.”
The creepiness of the situation took a backseat to the embarrassment and surprise that floored Tracy. She spun around and faced the very dead Charlotte Perkins. “You can see my underwear?” she squeaked.
Charlotte threw back her head and laughed. “No, I can’t see them, but I can hear your thoughts. When you first sat on the pew next to me, you were aggravated that they rode up the crack of your ass.”
Tracy’s hands brushed frantically at the car door for the handle. She needed fresh air to clear the mind she was certain she was losing. In such a hurry to escape the confines of the car, she fell out onto the sidewalk and at the feet of a startled woman. Tracy rolled onto her back and stared up into a pair of concerned blue eyes.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked, looking around for assistance.
“I’m fine,” Tracy huffed as she struggled to get to her feet, immediately recognizing the woman the ghost had pointed out as her niece. “I hate rental cars. They’re so awkward to get in and out of,” Tracy offered in explanation of her odd behavior. She thrust out her hand. “I’m Tracy Hoyt, by the way. It’s nice to meet you, Miss Benoit.”
The bewildered woman looked down at Tracy’s hand for a moment, then smiled as she took it into her own. “Please call me Payton. How did you recognize me?”
“A little bird told me,” Tracy said, looking back at her car, relieved to find it empty. Actually, it was a little redheaded woodpecker who’s trying to drive me insane, Tracy thought to herself.
“I know it was peculiar to invite you to a funeral, but when you said you were only going to be in town for two days, this was the best I could manage. We don’t have much time before the auction, and Howard told me you were really interested in the pieces,” Payton said as she watched Tracy, who kept peeking back over her shoulder at the car. “Anyway, I wanted someone who would love them to have them, and Howard said you would consider the furniture a treasure.”
Tracy jerked her head back toward Payton and smiled. “I’m sure he’s right, we’ve known each other for years and he knows my tastes.”
“Well, my car is just across the street. Would you like to ride with me or follow in your own car?” Payton asked politely.
“I’ll follow you, if you don’t mind. I know you’re busy, and I don’t want to take up more of your time to bring me back here.”
In life, Charlotte Perkins lived in the kind of house that Tracy had dreamed of having since she was a small child. A white picket fence surrounded the well-manicured lawn, which accented the stately old home with its wraparound porch and white matching banister.
She followed Payton up the gravel path leading to the rear entrance in awe.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” the blonde asked as she slipped the old skeleton key into the lock. “Aunt Charlotte wanted to preserve it right down to the old locks since we have no crime to speak of here.”
“This town is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” Tracy said as she looked back over the street.
Payton stepped through the door and held it open for Tracy. “I hated living here as a teen, it was so boring. Now that I’ve had a taste of the world, I couldn’t wait to move back.”
“Will you be moving in here?” Tracy asked.
Payton shook her head sadly. “No, it’s more than I can handle,” she said as she looked around the old place. “Aunt Charlotte took good care of this house, but it really needs to be updated. The wiring and plumbing need to be replaced, and that’s out of my range for a house this size.”
“Were you and your aunt close?” Tracy asked as she followed Payton into the old parlor room.
“We were very close,” Payton replied softly. “I know that I don’t appear very saddened by her passing, but she was in such agony and suffered a long time before she died.” Payton sank down onto the sofa and sighed. “She was ready to go, and I think death was a relief for her.” She raised misty eyes and looked at Tracy. “That’s what I choose to believe.”
“I shouldn’t be here trying to buy furniture at a time like this,” Tracy said, feeling ashamed. “It was thoughtless of me to even have considered it.”
“Tracy, I was the one who contacted Howard. He’s very trusted in the antiques business, and I knew he would find a good home for the pieces that were most important to my aunt. I just hope I can find someone who will love this house as much I do.”
“Was that a sales pitch?” Tracy asked with a grin.
Payton’s somber look transformed into a huge smile. “Are you in the market for a new home?”
“I love this house, and if it was in Pittsburgh, I would run to the bank and beg for a loan.”
“That’s the appeal,” Payton said as she got up and pulled open the drapes. “Look out at this town, there’s no trash piled in the streets, no crime, nothing but a peaceful little slice of heaven. What’s not to love?”
Tracy joined her at the window. “And there’s no work for me.”
“Howard told me you restored old homes for a living, there’s plenty of work here.”
Tracy narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Just how much did Howard tell you about me?”
Payton shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “You know how he is. He loves to gossip.”
Tracy maintained her staunch pose, and a single eyebrow lifted. “How long have you known Howard?”
Payton chuckled and scuffed at the floor with her boot. “All my life, we grew up together here in Altoona. How long have you known him?”
“I’ve done business with him for about three years, which may change if he doesn’t keep it his yap shut,” Tracy said sternly, but smiled when she saw the look of shock on Payton’s face.
“He didn’t mean any harm,” Payton offered shyly. “He told me you had been working yourself to the bone and a town with a much slower pace might be good for you.”
Tracy reluctantly agreed but kept her thoughts to herself. She reasoned that was why she’d lost her mind earlier in the day and started seeing things.
“Why don’t you have a look at the rest of the house? You may find some of the other furniture to your liking,” Payton offered as she exited the parlor.
The temptation of finding more antiques caused Tracy to follow.
Payton led her upstairs first, giving a detailed tour of every room. Tracy followed her open-mouthed, completely awed by the old place.
“She thinks you’re attractive, but a little weird,” a voice whispered into Tracy’s ear, causing her to jump and run into Payton as she walked.
“I’m sorry,” Tracy muttered. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Well, that certainly didn’t help,” Charlotte chided. “Get some control of yourself, child.”
When Payton paused to explain the significance of a particular painting, Tracy turned and glared at the ghostly figure that joined them.
“She’s a beautiful woman, my Payton,” Charlotte said with a look of pride. “Unmarried, too.”
“I might find that enticing if I were a man,” Tracy retorted in her own mind. “And I’m not a man.”
“No, you’re certainly not, but something stirred inside of you when you first looked at my niece. She hasn’t noticed the way you’ve admired her, but I have,” Charlotte said with a wink.
“She’s very pretty and I admire that, as I do all pretty women,” Tracy thought as Payton tapped her on the shoulder, causing her to jump.
“I’m sorry to bore you with my family history. You’re probably more interested in seeing the house itself,” Payton said as her face colored a bit.
Tracy frowned. “I’m sorry for zoning out there for a minute. I tend to do that when I look at these old houses. I start to envision them in their original glory. And it’s getting a little late, do you mind if I look at the pieces Howard told me about?”
“Sure, they’re downstairs.” Payton gestured toward the staircase and allowed Tracy to go ahead of her. Tracy’s sudden mood change unsettled her, and she felt guilty for trying to push the house on her.
Tracy ran her fingertips across the antique dining table, then glanced over at the matching armoire. “Howard was right, these pieces are absolutely beautiful. Forgive me for asking, but why would you part with something so speacial?”
“My house is too small to accommodate furniture like this,” Payton said as she leaned against the armoire. “I have personal things of my aunt’s that mean more to me.”
“Well, if you’re sure, I would certainly love to have them,” Tracy said, knowing she could never part with them.
Payton smiled and ran her fingers over the old wood one last time. “We have a deal then. Howard told me that he had someone who could move them for you in a day or two.”
Tracy pulled out her checkbook and paid the figure that Howard had secured with Payton and added a little more simply because she felt guilty about buying the pieces.
“I guess this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other,” Tracy said as she held out her hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“If you decide you want to settle into a quieter way of living, have Howard get in touch with me and we’ll work out a deal,” Payton said as she shook Tracy’s hand.
“I’m going to kill you, Howard, kill you slow,” Tracy said aloud as she closed the door to her hotel room and stripped off her coat. “The furniture was worth the trip, but this place is just too damn strange for my tastes.”
“There’s nothing strange about this place, and you’ll love it here once you get settled in,” Charlotte said indignantly.
“Shit! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” Tracy asked as she spun around and found Charlotte sitting on the corner of her bed. “You’re not going to follow me home, are you?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Charlotte said with a determined expression.
“Fine then, follow me home and you can go to therapy with me because I’m making an appointment with a shrink as soon as I can.”
“You’re not crazy, darling, and I won’t go away after you pay someone to tell you I don’t exist.”
“What the hell do you want with me then?” Tracy asked as she dug through her purse, hoping to find something for the headache that got stronger each time Charlotte appeared.
“My niece needs someone in her life, and you’re the perfect match. You’ve denied what you’ve known in your heart for a long time.” Charlotte paused as Tracy filled a glass of water and threw two tablets into her mouth.
“I know all about you, Tracy. You’ve given up on love because you don’t believe it exists. Men have come in and out of your life, but not one of them made your heart skip a beat like it did when you met Payton.”
“Even if I had a schoolgirl crush on your niece, which I don’t, that doesn’t make me a lesbian.”
Charlotte laughed softly. “You’ve met the love of your life, and you can fight it all you want, but I’ll be right at your side until you come to terms with it.”
“Love of my life?” Tracy asked with a raised brow. “It was a business transaction, that’s all it was.”
Charlotte waved her hand dismissively. “I’ll not argue with you all night, but I will say this. You won’t leave this town tomorrow, and it’ll be by your own choosing.”
Tracy stood open-mouthed as Charlotte vanished from her sight.
Charlotte was unaware that when she revealed herself to Tracy that she opened a door in the younger woman’s life that she was powerless to close. Those with evil intent would come soon to try and manipulate their unwitting victim to access a world they could no longer touch.
Charlotte kept a vigilant watch over Tracy, who slept oblivious to her and the darker presence that hovered in a corner of the room.
“I know what you’re here for, and I’ll not let you get at this child,” Charlotte spoke aloud in a realm that Tracy’s ears could not detect.
She knew it was a hollow threat, but she would stand guard over the woman who would become her niece’s mate for eternity if she had to.
“Tracy, this is the job of a lifetime, you’re a fool to pass it up,” Howard said as he cradled the phone on his shoulder and snapped digital pictures of his latest find.
“Why do I feel that this ‘job of a lifetime’ is just a ploy by you to get me to stay in this town longer than I have to?”
Howard grinned and set the camera on top of the antique chest of drawers. “We’ve discussed this before,” he said with a smile and took a seat, knowing that the conversation was going to take a while.
“You need to slow down. I’ve never seen anyone your age look as old as you do. You’re tired and stressed out three hundred sixty-five days a year. Tracy, you can’t keep up with this pace.”
“Offering me another job is not helping me,” Tracy growled as she struggled to pull on her jeans.
“This job isn’t like the others that you do for pretentious yuppies. This is something you can take your time with and really return the place to its former glory.”
Tracy gnawed at her lip. There was nothing on the books to force her to return home, and she liked the idea of spending time in one of the majestic old homes that the small town had to offer. “I really don’t know if I’m comfortable with this place, Howard.”
Howard’s brow furrowed as he noted a smidgeon of distress in Tracy’s voice. “Has someone mistreated you?”
Tracy sighed and plopped down onto the bed. “I think I’m losing my mind, and before I go on with this, if you breathe a word to Payton about what I’m about to say, I’ll never speak to you again.”
“You have my word,” Howard replied, crossing his heart.
Tracy paused for a moment to collect her nerve. “I met Payton’s Aunt Charlotte.”
“She was a lovely lady,” Howard said in a somber tone. “I had no idea you had met her before she passed away.”
“That’s the problem,” Tracy said with a grimace. “She wasn’t exactly alive when I met her.”
“What do you mean ‘not exactly alive’?” Howard asked, feeling the hair go up on the back of his neck.
“She appears to me. She told me who Payton was before I even met her. She tells me things that I find alarming, too.”
Howard sank deeper into his chair, unconsciously rubbing at the chill bumps that rose on his arms. “What does she say to you?”
“She told me things about myself that no one knows. She believes that her niece and I are destined to be together.”
Howard snorted, then coughed to cover his laughter. “I’m glad she was the one to tell you then. Mark and I knew you would end up in a woman’s arms one day.”
Tracy sprang to her feet. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do you remember that woman’s house you redid just outside of Pittsburgh? You never could form a coherent sentence in her presence. Mark and I both noticed how you got all nervous when she came around. Admit it, Tracy, you had a huge crush on that woman.”
Embarrassed and feeling transparent, Tracy dropped back onto the bed and rubbed her throbbing head. “You could’ve confronted me about this before I came here and had a ghost lay it all out for me.”
Howard chuckled. “I tried, but you weren’t very receptive to what I had to say.”
“Howard?” Tracy paused, feeling foolish. “Do you believe what I told you about Charlotte?”
Howard’s tone became serious. “I’ve seen too many strange things while collecting my little treasures to not believe that there are things we have no explanation for. Plus, for a no-nonsense woman such as yourself to tell me she has been talking to a very dead person pretty much cinches it for me.”
“I wish I could accept it as easily as you have. I still think I’m losing my mind, and I would feel a lot better if I were back in Pittsburgh.”
Howard laughed. “Well, if you are losing your mind, you’re in a far better place to get yourself back together. I think you should consider staying there and undertaking this new job. Besides, you have some personal issues that you really need to come to terms with.”
Tracy snarled. “You mean I need to face up to the fact that I’m… Oh, hell, Howard, I can’t even bring myself to say the word.”
“No need to slap a label on yourself already, honey. I think you need to visit a little more with Payton. I think you’ll come to terms with it pretty quickly.”
Tracy sighed and grabbed a piece of paper and a pen off her nightstand. “Okay, give me the address and I’ll take a look at the place. I’m not making any promises, though.”
Tracy zipped her leather coat up to her neck, trying to ward off the bitter wind that assaulted her when she climbed out of her car in front of cozy-looking café. Her brown curly hair whipped around her face, causing her brown eyes to water. The temperature had dropped overnight, and she cursed aloud for not bringing warmer clothes. With her notes in hand, she entered the tiny restaurant and spotted a booth in the back.
“Good morning, how about coffee to start with?” the waitress greeted her cheerfully.
“Excellent idea, and with cream and sugar please,” Tracy responded as she spread her work materials out on the table in front of her, then picked up the menu.
The waitress returned quickly with the coffee and waited patiently as Tracy picked a sandwich and soup for lunch.
Tracy took out her digital camera and compared her notes with the pictures that she had taken of the colonial style home. The job was a sweet one to be sure, and the residents would be away for most of the winter, which made the offer too good to pass up. She wouldn’t have to worry about working around people and constantly mediating between her crew and the homeowners.
She began to jot down notes of the things she would have to do before beginning the job, the first of which would be finding a place to live since the commute to Pittsburgh would prove too costly and time-consuming.
“You could always stay in my house until Payton sells it,” Charlotte said happily.
Tracy jumped, hearing the familiar voice, and cursed as she spilled coffee on her notes. “Could you give me some sort of warning when you decide to show up, Charlotte?” Tracy hissed.
“Nothing I do will keep you from flipping out when I decide to show myself,” Charlotte said with a smile. “Oh, and I think you should order the short stack of pancakes instead of the sandwich and soup.”
“Why? Are the pancakes good here?”
“They’re average,” Charlotte replied with a wide grin. “I just figured they would be more your size.”
“Is that a short joke?” Tracy shot back, causing the waitress to look at her strangely.
Tracy lowered her voice and tried not to appear that she was talking to herself. She flipped open her cell phone and pretended to be talking to someone while answering Charlotte.
“Why don’t you answer me in your head like you did before, instead of pretending to speak on the phone?” Charlotte asked, amused.
“I have a hard enough time keeping my thoughts together,” Tracy growled. “Besides, you give me a headache.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Now have you decided to stay in my home?”
“I suppose it depends on how Payton feels about it. I can’t afford to pay a whole lot.”
“Payton won’t take a dime from you. She’ll be pleased that someone will be staying there to make sure none of the pipes freezes.”
“Well, she’ll have to ask me first. I’m not going to barge in and ask to live in your house,” Tracy said as she nodded at the waitress who set her food down.
“Just ask her if she knows of a place you can stay, and I’m certain she’ll offer my house,” Charlotte said as she admired her fingernails. “Besides, it’ll give you two a chance to talk again.”
“The other day, you made a comment that struck me funny. You said I was all alone. You do realize that I have parents and three siblings. That doesn’t make me alone in this world.”
Charlotte gazed down at the table. “When I lost my Charlie at a very young age, I refused to open my heart to another. I spent forty years without romance or love. You can’t be more alone than that.”
“So you’ve died and decided to become some kind of spiritual cupid?” Tracy asked with a smirk.
“My Payton lost the love of her life in a car accident four years ago. She shut herself away from the world, just like you have. The two of you need each other.”
Tracy felt sadness surge through her for what Payton must have gone through. “It’s a romantic notion you have, but what makes you so sure I’m the right one for her?”
Charlotte raised a brow and looked sternly at Tracy, who sank deeper into her seat. “I told you, I know things.”
“Don’t get all fiery on me,” Tracy said with a nervous chuckle. “I’ll go see Payton right after I finish my lunch.”
Charlotte cocked a brow and smiled. “Oh, and yes, it was a short joke I made earlier.” And she disappeared.
“This is the one right here,” Charlotte said as she appeared suddenly in Tracy’s backseat.
Surprised, Tracy lost control of the car and drove into the wooden fence that bordered Payton’s property, knocking two planks loose and causing one of the support posts to crack.
“Now look what you’ve done! I’ve wrecked the rental car!” Tracy yelled as she slammed the vehicle into park and got out to survey the damage.
“I can fix that easily,” Payton said as she approached. “I heard the crash.” She joined Tracy at the front of the car.
“I’m so sorry,” Tracy said, surveying the damage. “I turned my head for a second, and well…this happened.”
Payton patted Tracy on the shoulder reassuringly. “The fence is no problem to repair, and your car only has a scratch, so not much harm done.”
Tracy backed away from the car and shook her head. “I sure know how to make an impression.”
Payton smiled and stifled a laugh. “We all have our off days here and there.”
“I’m having an off week, I think,” Tracy responded with a chuckle. “I came here to ask you a few questions, if you have a moment. I would’ve called first, but I spilled coffee on my notebook today and can no longer make out your number,” Tracy lied. She simply wanted an excuse to see Payton again.
“Please come in then, I just heated some water for tea,” Payton said as she led the way to her front door.
Tracy immediately felt at home in Payton’s house. The rustic cottage was warm and inviting and smelled of baked goods.
“This is lovely,” Tracy said as she admired the hand-carved wooden figurines and boxes that sat on a work table in front of a bay window overlooking the property.
Payton returned from the kitchen with two steaming cups. “I like to carve when I get bored.”
“What do you do for a living, if you don’t mind me asking?” Tracy asked as she accepted one of the hot cups.
“I’m in real estate,” Payton offered sheepishly.
Tracy narrowed her eyes. “And that’s why you were so good at putting the sales pitch on me the other day.”
“I saw the twinkle in your eye when you looked at the house and I thought I’d take a chance, but I promise to lay off with the pushy sales attitude.”
Tracy smiled as she took a seat across from Payton. “You weren’t pushy.”
“Now what questions do you have for me?” Payton asked before taking a sip of her tea.
“I was hoping you could tell me if there are any rental properties available here. And now that I know your line of work, I’m certain I came to the right place.”
“Is there something in particular that you’re looking for?” Payton asked as she grabbed a pen and paper.
“Something cheap. I’m only going to be here for a couple of months on a renovation job. I’d like something clean, but it doesn’t have to be anything special, just a place to lay my head.”
Payton grinned and slapped the paper down on her lap. “I have just the place. It’s already furnished and dirt cheap. My aunt’s house could use some life in it until it sells, and as long as you keep an eye on the place, there will be no charge.”
Tracy felt a sliver of guilt rush through her, feeling as though she and Charlotte had double teamed Payton. “I can’t live there rent free. I’ll be happy to look after the place, but I’d still like to pay for my stay.”
“Okay, I’m paying the utilities right now, and it would take a burden off me if you would take that over. Do we have a deal?”
Tracy threw her head back and laughed. “If I were renting, I’d have to pay the utilities anyway, so let me pay both.”
Payton raised a brow and grinned. “The utilities on a house that size are expensive, especially in the winter. You’ll be doing me a big favor by taking that over and keeping an eye on the place, that’s my final offer.”
“I guess I’ll have to settle for that, you have yourself a deal,” Tracy leaned forward and offered a handshake to seal it.
Payton took the offered hand, and Tracy felt the warmth spread from her fingers to her toes. “Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?” she said before realizing that the words had slipped from her mouth.
Payton’s expression registered surprise, then a smile flittered across her face. “Only if you let me pay.”
Tracy went out to warm the car as Payton changed into warmer clothes. She turned the key and switched on the heater. “Charlotte, your niece is going to be with me in this car, don’t scare the crap out of me and make me wreck again.”
“Payton loves Italian, there’s a quaint little restaurant on the other side of town,” Charlotte said as her form manifested in the passenger’s seat.
“Are you going to be with us the whole night?” Tracy asked as she looked around, making sure that Payton wouldn’t see her talking to herself.
“Why? Are you planning to do something naughty to my niece?”
“No!” Tracy nearly shouted. “You make me nervous, that’s all.”
“Remember, this is your first date, don’t try any funny business,” Charlotte said, raising her brow just like her niece.
“I’ve never so much as kissed another woman, and I’m sure I don’t have the guts to try it tonight, so you can relax. And this is not a date. I simply wanted her company for dinner.”
“That’s not how she sees it. You asked her out, and you better not hurt her feelings.”
Tracy held her hands up in resignation. “This is too much for me to handle.”
“You’ve entertained thoughts of women before, what are you so afraid of?”
“I really don’t know…maybe that’s just it. I don’t know what I expect from all this.”
Charlotte smiled. “Take my niece to dinner, she’ll lead you through it.”
Tracy straightened in her seat as Charlotte disappeared into thin air and Payton opened the door to the car.
“Sorry it took me so long. I couldn’t remember where I’d left my gloves,” Payton said apologetically as she put her seat belt on. A strange look crossed her face, and she paused and looked at Tracy.
“What’s wrong? Did you forget something?” Tracy asked as she put the car back into park.
“This is going to sound strange, but for a second, I thought I could smell my aunt’s perfume.”
“I’m not wearing any perfume,” Tracy replied. “Maybe you just miss her.”
A sad smile slowly made its way across Payton’s face. “Yep, that’s probably it. So what did you have in mind for dinner?”
“I’d really like some Italian, if that’s okay with you,” Tracy answered with a smirk.
Payton beamed. “I love Italian, and I know just the place.”
Tracy admired the quaint restaurant as Payton caught up on local gossip with the owner who spotted them the minute they walked in. Payton apologized for her momentary lack of manners and introduced Tracy to the entire wait staff, including the owners.
“I take it you eat here often,” Tracy said when they were finally left alone.
“It’s a small town and you get to know just about everyone who lives here,” Payton said as she blushed a bit. “They’ll leave us alone now that we’ve caught up on all the town talk.” Payton’s eyes sparkled against the black turtleneck sweater that made her smooth skin glow in the dimmed light.
“Oh, I wasn’t complaining. I’m just amazed at the way everyone gets along. You kind of miss out on that living in a big city,” Tracy said, hoping she didn’t sound like an ass.
“So tell me a little about yourself, something that Howard doesn’t know,” Payton teased with a wide grin.
Tracy rolled her eyes. “He and his partner, Mark, are like brothers to me. Howard makes it a point to hover over me like a mother hen. He’s always complaining that I don’t eat right or get enough sleep. And when Mark can get a word in edgewise, he does the same thing.”
“Howard is one of a kind,” Payton said with a grin. “It’s strange to me that as long as we’ve both known him that we’ve never crossed paths.”
“I really don’t socialize that much,” Tracy said seriously. “I work non-stop, and I guess that’s why Howard has been on me so much to slow down.”
“Are you seeing anyone?” Payton asked out of the blue.
“Not right now. The guys I’ve dated lately all want to settle down, and I’m just not ready to give up my career, which is what they all seem to want me to do.”
Payton looked as though she had been slapped but recovered quickly, though not quick enough for Tracy not to notice. “Did I say something to offend you?” Tracy asked.
“No, not at all,” Payton responded quietly. “I kind of…got the impression that…” Payton paused and smiled up at the waiter who came to take their order.
Tracy watched as Payton’s blue eyes quickly scanned over the menu. Her long blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders and surrounded a face that was absolutely beautiful. Tracy noticed the small laugh lines that formed under her eyes each time she smiled and felt drawn to the woman like she had no other.
Even the crushes she had on women before did not compare to the way she felt about Payton. She was captivated at first sight. Suddenly, she felt the urge to be alone with the woman who sat across from her, and the thought made Tracy’s face color.
“Have you made a decision yet?” the waiter asked politely.
“Oh,” Tracy said embarrassed. “I’ll just have the spaghetti and meatballs, with the house salad.”
“That’s a good choice,” Payton said. “They’re known for their spaghetti.”
“So are you married?” Tracy asked, hoping to get Payton to tell her more about herself.
“I was in a very serious relationship a few years back, but a car accident put an end to that. I moved back here and had no desire to date any of my childhood friends.”
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss,” Tracy replied sincerely. She had forgotten what Charlotte had told her earlier and felt terrible that she had forced Payton to discuss something obviously so painful.
“So do you have any hobbies outside of work?” Payton asked, changing the subject and steering the conversation back to Tracy.
“Not a one,” Tracy replied with a wry grin. “I think I may be the most boring person on the planet.”
“Not necessarily,” Payton said with a shy smile.
“The only true hobby I can claim is reading. Mostly I read articles on architecture, and I like to read a few mystery novels when I have the chance.”
Payton poked around at the salad that was placed before her. “Sounds like you need to get out more and experience life.”
“Well, maybe you can help me with that. I’d like to explore more of Altoona, and you would make a great guide.”
“Tracy, I need to clear the air on something,” Payton said as she put her fork down. “I’m not sure how to approach it, though.”
“Just be blunt. I usually am,” Tracy responded with a smile, as her insides twisted into knots.
“I kind of got the impression that you and I had something in common.” Payton shrugged and chewed her bottom lip. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the way you look or anything you’ve said, but I sensed that you and I were playing on the same team.”
Tracy quirked her head like a dog when it was given a command it didn’t quite understand. “Same team?”
Payton smiled and nervously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m a lesbian and I thought you were, too.”
Tracy’s face colored, and she set down her fork. “To be honest, I don’t know what I consider myself to be at this point in my life. In the past two days, two people have told me that I need to face up to the fact that I’m…a les…I mean, I’m ga…” Tracy paused and dabbed at her sweating upper lip with her napkin, trying to force herself to say the words. “I’m attracted to women,” she finally blurted out.
“Is this something too difficult for you to discuss right now?” Payton asked, willing to let Tracy off the hook.
“I need to talk about it, I just don’t know where to begin,” Tracy said before taking a sip of her wine.
“When you asked me to dinner, did you mean it as a date or simply just dinner with someone to talk to? Because I don’t want to put any pressure on you,” Payton said sincerely.
“When I asked you to dinner, I wanted to spend time with you and get to know you. I had no desire to swap makeup tips or learn about this town. I just wanted to be with you, so I guess that does qualify as a date,” Tracy said, not believing the candid words that flew out of her mouth.
Payton smiled and looked down at the table. “Does that mean you’re attracted to me?”
“More than I ever have been to anyone in my entire life,” Tracy answered honestly.
The waiter arrived with their food, and Tracy took the opportunity to excuse herself and go to the bathroom. Once inside, she looked into the stalls to make sure she was alone.
“Charlotte!” she hissed. “You’re killing me! Do you know that?”
Charlotte manifested directly behind Tracy, and when she spoke, Tracy nearly jumped out of her skin. “I left you alone like you asked, you can’t blame me if you’ve made a fool of yourself.”
“I’m saying all kinds of crazy shit out there.” Tracy pointed angrily at the door. “Everything that rolls across my brain comes right out of my mouth.”
“And this is my fault?” Charlotte asked with a mischievous smile.
“What have you done to me?” Tracy asked as she looked at her harried reflection in the mirror.
“I haven’t done a thing. Did you ever stop to think that maybe deep inside you want to be honest with her?”
“Did that reasoning sound like bullshit to your ears, too?” Tracy spat. “I feel like some sort of puppet out there, and I’m not entirely sure you don’t have your hand up my ass.”
Charlotte wrinkled her nose at the analogy. “I have not intervened in your date this evening at all. As you’ve requested, I’ve left you alone and will continue to keep my agreement for tonight.”
“Then how did you show up so quickly when I called you?”
“I wasn’t hiding in the cloak room if that’s what you’re implying. I heard you call and I answered,” Charlotte replied nonchalantly.
Tracy washed her hands, then tried to make herself look presentable. “I have to go back out there and try to look normal now. I have no choice but to believe you’re telling me the truth.”
“I have no reason to lie,” Charlotte said with stern look in her eye.
Tracy returned to the table and found Payton waiting patiently for her before she began her meal. “Are you all right?” she asked with a look of concern on her face.
“I felt a little exposed with all that I said. I had to take a minute to regroup. I hope I haven’t offended you,” Tracy offered meekly.
“Are you afraid that you sounded too forward?” Payton asked with a smile.
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of…was I?”
“Not at all. I know it sounds strange, but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I feel connected with you in some strange sense. Does that sound crazy?”
Tracy relaxed a little and nibbled at her food. “No, it doesn’t sound strange at all.”
As they left the restaurant, Tracy was amazed at all the things they admitted to each other. She told Payton more than she had ever told another human being. She purged her soul of all her fears and desires and felt liberated. She did manage to leave out one thing—that she had regular conversations with Payton’s deceased aunt.
Fear gripped Tracy as she pulled into Payton’s driveway. Was she supposed to kiss her good night? Would it be expected?
“I had a great time, and I hope we can do this again soon,” Payton said as Tracy pulled the car to a stop.
“Yeah, me too,” Tracy said, trying to sound casual.
Payton looked at Tracy for a minute, then leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips. The kiss at first was very chaste and Payton fully intended to get out of the car, but then she brushed her lips against Tracy’s trembling mouth once more. She felt Tracy respond to the kiss and took advantage of the moment and slipped her tongue into Tracy’s mouth.
As though Tracy’s hands took on a life of their own, she weaved her fingers into Payton’s hair and pulled her closer, as her heart pounded in her chest. Payton groaned into the kiss, and Tracy felt fire in her veins as she tugged her closer.
Breathlessly, Payton broke the kiss and looked Tracy in the eyes. “Do you want to come in?”
“Uh-huh” was the only response Tracy’s brain could form.
Payton led Tracy into the house without a word, and as she closed the door, Tracy returned to her arms.
The kisses were nothing like Tracy had ever experienced, and she was unable to curtail the feelings that the lips on hers evoked. Again she wove her fingers into the long silky tresses and pulled Payton’s body close to hers. She could feel the way each curve melded into hers, making a perfect fit.
Tracy’s hands moved of their own volition over Payton’s shoulders and down her lower back, pulling the blonde’s body even closer into hers. No touch was close enough to satisfy the craving that filled her from head to toe.
Tracy whimpered as Payton pulled away from her mouth and kissed a trail across her neck to nibble on an oversensitized earlobe. Tracy untucked the sweater from Payton’s jeans and ran her hands over velvety skin that surprised her with a softness that she was unaccustomed to but immediately appreciated.
Payton pulled away and looked into Tracy’s eyes, breathing heavily. “You’re driving me crazy. If you have any intention of not going any further, please tell me now.”
Reality of what they were leading up to jolted Tracy out of her lust-induced stupor. She stood looking at Payton for a moment as she tried to analyze what it would mean when the sun rose the following morning.
“I don’t want to just have sex with you, then walk away. As corny as this sounds, will you still respect me in the morning?” Tracy asked, feeling foolish.
“I’ll only want to know more of you tomorrow, if you’ll let me,” Payton responded sincerely.
“Then, no, I have no intention of stopping,” Tracy said as her knees weakened.
Payton took her by the hand and led her down the hall to her bedroom and stopped next to the bed. “I promise, I’m as nervous as you are,” she said with a slight smile.
Tracy chuckled and laced her hands through Payton’s hair. “I really don’t think that’s possible.”
Payton smiled as she leaned in and kissed Tracy again. All the passion and desire returned as they deepened the kiss and Payton pulled Tracy down onto the bed.
The muscles in Tracy’s stomach twitched and spasmed as Payton ran her hands under her sweater. She tugged on Payton’s shirt until she had no choice but to sit up and let Tracy pull it off of her. And when she lay back down, Tracy unhooked her bra and pulled it from in between them.
Tracy’s eyes rolled up in her head at the pleasure of touching such luxuriously soft skin. Never had she been so aroused by simply running her hands over someone’s back and shoulders.
Payton sat up again, and this time, she pulled Tracy’s belt off and unzipped her jeans. Tracy watched as Payton tugged them down over her hips, taking her underwear and eventually her boots and socks with them.
Payton pulled Tracy up so she could relieve her of her sweater, but when she reached for her bra, Tracy stopped her. “Fair is fair,” Tracy said with a nervous grin. “Take your pants off, too.”
Payton graced her with a shy smile but complied with the request. Completely naked, she climbed back onto the bed and stripped Tracy of the one remaining piece of her clothing, then lay down, fitting her body along the side of Tracy’s.
Tracy pulled Payton’s lips back to hers and again allowed her hands to roam over the satiny skin. When her fingertips grazed Payton’s ribcage, she enjoyed the sharp intake of breath against her mouth.
Payton kissed her way down Tracy’s neck as her fingertips grazed across the skin of her stomach, eager to know all of Tracy’s secrets. Tracy groaned and arched her back when Payton’s fingers dipped between her thighs.
She wove her fingers into Payton’s hair as her kisses descended down her throat and chest.
Payton rose up a little so she could look Tracy in the eye and found her eyes clamped shut. “Tracy, look at me,” she commanded softly. When Tracy’s eyes met hers, she entered her slowly, making sure Tracy knew who was touching her. With each thrust, Tracy’s eyes grew heavier and her breath came in pants.
“Don’t close your eyes,” Payton pleaded as she brought Tracy higher and higher.
When she pulled her fingers from Tracy, she watched as her eyes widened. Slowly, Payton circled the spot she knew would send Tracy over the edge. She could feel the muscles in Tracy’s body tense, and she knew it was only a matter of seconds before Tracy would succumb to her touch.
Payton laid her head on Tracy’s shoulder and whispered in her ear, “You can close your eyes now.” Seconds later, she felt Tracy’s body go rigid as she took one last gasp of air.
Tracy couldn’t inhale enough to make a sound as wave after wave of sensation washed over her. When her body began to relax, she felt Payton slip into her again. “I can’t do this, it’s too intense,” she groaned breathlessly.
“You can,” Payton said as she straddled Tracy’s thigh and ground herself slowly into it. Sweat slicked both their bodies, as Tracy teetered on the point of muscle failure in her legs as Payton thrust against her.
Payton used the heel of her hand to put pressure on Tracy’s clit, and within seconds, she felt her body go rigid again as the second orgasm claimed her. Payton withdrew her hand and clutched the covers on the bed as she felt the first tremors begin.
“You have so much to teach me,” Tracy said as she propped herself up on one elbow and gazed down at Payton.
“I’ll teach you in the morning,” Payton replied with a tired smile.
Tracy ducked her head and nibbled on Payton’s neck. “I don’t think I want to wait until morning.”
Payton felt her pulse quicken when Tracy’s fingers grazed her stomach. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything,” she said as she ran her fingers though Tracy’s hair.
“Oh, but I want to,” Tracy said with a grin, and she kissed her way down soft skin.
Payton’s eyes shot open when she felt Tracy’s mouth on her. “I don’t think I’m going to have to teach you anything,” she said with a surprised grin.
Charlotte kept her word and did not invade Tracy’s time spent with her niece. The dark figure drew closer to the bed, taking full advantage of Charlotte’s protective absence. It hovered over the two sleeping figures in the darkness, seeking out the one who was open to its presence.
Payton felt a chilling breeze blow across her skin. She awoke and untangled herself from Tracy and pulled the covers over them both. She lay on her back and stared into the darkness as Tracy rolled into a ball and put her back against Payton, who shivered as an eerie feeling swept over her.
What she couldn’t see in the pitch black room was the dark mist that hovered inches from her face. The dark entity studied her intently as she lay unaware of its presence. Tracy began to twitch next her as the evil spirit moved from Payton to Tracy’s side of the bed.
Tracy’s dream switched abruptly, and disturbing images filled her sleeping mind. Standing in a grassy field, she watched a faceless man and woman make love, so wrapped up in each other that they failed to see another man slowly make his way toward them. Tracy flinched as she saw him lift the gun, sunlight reflecting off the shiny barrel. Unable to speak or move, she couldn’t warn the couple of the fate that was to befall them. Anguished screams filled her mind. The gunman turned and looked at her as she stood riveted to the spot. The features in his face were in vivid detail, and she shuddered as he raised the gun in her direction.
“Oh, my God!” Tracy screamed as she sat straight up in bed.
Payton fumbled in the dark and switched on the bedside lamp; almost afraid to look, she turned to Tracy, who clutched the blankets to her chest. She gently placed her hand on Tracy’s shoulder, and she nearly leapt out of bed.
“Did you have a nightmare?” Payton asked, hoping Tracy had not awoken during the night and regretted what they had done earlier.
Tracy turned to Payton with wide eyes, sweat poured down her face and neck, and her knuckles were white where she held the blankets close. “It was so real,” she said as the memory of the dream replayed itself in her mind. “I saw the gun, and I couldn’t do anything.”
Payton sighed with relief; it was only a dream. “Come here,” she said as she lay back and held out her arms.
Tracy curled up close to Payton, who held her tightly and whispered reassurances until Tracy once again drifted off to sleep. Payton switched off the lamp and lay in the dark wondering if Tracy’s dream was the result of some trauma that haunted her. Finally, her eyelids grew heavy and she drifted off, peacefully oblivious to the dark entity that hovered in her room.
Payton awoke the next morning with a start when Tracy threw her arm over her chest. She studied Tracy’s face as she slept, wondering and worrying about what Tracy would have to say about their lovemaking the night before. Tracy had been a very sober and willing participant, but who knew what truths the morning light would bring.
“Are you staring at me?” Tracy asked with her eyes still closed.
“I am,” Payton admitted with a chuckle.
“Well, stop it. I’m sure I didn’t take my makeup off before going to sleep, and I know I look like hell.”
“You look just like you did last night, except your hair is a little…wild.”
Tracy opened one eye and snarled. “You don’t have a hair out of place. I hate it when people wake up looking just like they did the night before.”
“Well, one of us had a nightmare last night and thrashed around like she was on fire,” Payton commented jovially, hoping that Tracy would be willing to talk about it.
Tracy stared at the ceiling for a moment deep in thought before speaking. “I haven’t had a nightmare in years. It was so vivid, though, like watching it happen on a television screen. I saw a man walk up and shoot two people to death.”
“Did you witness something traumatic that might be troubling you now?”
Tracy looked over at Payton. “When I say I’ve led a dull life, believe me.”
“Must’ve been the spaghetti you had for dinner last night come back to haunt you,” Payton teased.
Tracy rolled onto her side and twirled Payton’s hair through her fingers. “Do you have any regrets about what we did last night?”
“I was afraid to ask you the same thing,” Payton responded sheepishly.
Tracy laughed softly. “I’m too infatuated to analyze what all this means for me, but I wouldn’t trade a minute of last night for anything.”
Payton wiggled her eyebrows up and down. “So you wouldn’t have any problems doing it again?”
“Do you mean going to dinner with you or waking up in your arms?” Tracy asked with a playful grin.
Payton pulled Tracy closer. “Both,” she whispered before running her hand down between them.
After lunch, Payton and Tracy climbed into Tracy’s car and headed for the hotel, so she could check out and move her things into Charlotte’s house. “I’ll have to return this rental this week and see about having one of my guys bring my Jeep from Pittsburgh. I want them to get started on the outside of the house before the snow starts. That’ll make things very slow going.”
Payton looked out at the gray sky. “I’ll wish for lots of snow then,” she said with a smile.
Tracy chuckled. “I’m in no rush to get this job done, so you’ll have to put up with me for a while.”
“What have you been doing with my niece?” Charlotte asked from the backseat suddenly, causing Tracy to swerve.
Tracy glanced at Payton nervously. “Sorry, I think the alignment must be out on this car.”
“You scared the hell out of me, Charlotte!” Tracy thought angrily.
“Don’t get hot with me, missy,” Charlotte replied sternly. “You spent the night with her, and you’ve only just met.”
Payton yawned and leaned her head back on the seat, seemingly content to watch the landscape in silence.
“You know the old saying, Charlotte. It takes two to tango.”
Charlotte’s brow furrowed. “But this soon? The other day, you were adamant about being a straight woman, and in one night, you’ve jumped the fence.”
Tracy grinned into the rearview mirror. “Your niece is very convincing.”
“Don’t tell me anything else,” Charlotte replied with a scowl, then disappeared.
Tracy packed up the few things she brought with her from Pittsburgh, wishing she would have overpacked like she normally did. Payton carried her suitcase to the car, and after a quick visit to the hotel desk, they were on their way.
Payton volunteered to drive after Tracy nearly ran off the road while looking at the old homes that dotted the landscape. She whistled as she looked out the window. “If I would’ve taken this route into town, Howard might not have had to work so hard to convince me to stay. It’s lovely here.”
“Pennsylvania has some amazing sites. Amanda and I used to drive all over, and she would snap picture after picture,” Payton said before she realized it. She cleared her throat and kept her eyes on the road.
“Was Amanda the one who was killed in the car accident?” Tracy asked softly.
“She plunged through a bridge railing after being sideswiped by another vehicle when we were living in Williamsport,” Payton replied somberly. “I came back here soon after.
Tracy reached over and took Payton’s hand in hers. “That must’ve been a really severe blow.”
Payton sighed, holding back tears. “It was, and Aunt Carlotte really took care of me then. I was truly a mess. It’s not something you ever really get over, you just have to learn to live with it.”
Payton pulled a tissue out of her coat pocket and blotted her eyes and nose. “You’re the first person I’ve been interested in dating since she died,” she said with a weak smile.
“I consider that an honor,” Tracy said as they pulled into the driveway of Charlotte’s old home. “And I believe that Charlotte will always watch over you, just like she did when you needed her.”
“Given any thought to dinner tonight?” Payton asked as they got out of the car.
“Yes, I have,” Tracy said with a smile. “I was thinking about cooking in, if a certain person would be willing to join me.”
“I’m certain that if you asked that certain person, she would certainly love to have dinner with you,” Payton said as she turned the key and opened the back door. “This is your copy of the key, by the way.”
Tracy grinned and plucked the key from Payton’s fingers, thrilled to have unfettered access to the old home. “If I’m going to cook, I’ll need to go to the grocery store. Do you want to ride with me or do you have things you need to do?”
“Actually, I have to show a house this afternoon, but I’ll be free for dinner. What time do you want me back here?”
“It should be ready around seven, or I could make it later if you need more time.”
“Seven sounds perfect.”
“All right, let me just put my things away.” Tracy dropped her suitcase in the middle of the kitchen floor and brushed her hands together. “Now that that’s taken care of, I’ll run you home.”
“I’m so glad I could be here to help you unpack, but I’m nearly worn out,” Payton said with a laugh as she opened the door.
Tracy groaned at her knack for always picking the shopping cart with the squeaky wheels. The cart was jammed full of things she needed for the next couple of weeks, which caused the wheel to squeak louder, grating on her nerves. On her way to the meat aisle, she rounded the corner and ran straight into a familiar face.
Tracy’s jaw sagged as she stared into the same eyes she had seen in her dream the night before. He appeared to be much older, but there was no mistaking his face. “Excuse…me…I didn’t see you,” she stammered.
“No problem,” he muttered.
Tracy winced as the strong smell of alcohol assaulted her sinuses. She watched the man as he strolled through the store. Chills ran up and down her spine as she zipped her leather jacket up to her neck.
“We need to talk,” Charlotte said suddenly.
So stunned by the unexpected encounter, Tracy didn’t so much as flinch when Charlotte spoke. “I can’t talk to you right now, Charlotte,” Tracy mumbled under her breath. “I’m too shook up to think straight, and I’m not going to walk around this store talking to a person no one else can see.”
“Talk to me in your mind like you did earlier in the car today. This is urgent,” Charlotte demanded.
“I told you. I can’t think straight enough to do that right now. Meet me in the car.”
Without waiting for a reply, Tracy pushed her cart to the meat counter and grabbed a couple of steaks, keeping sight of the bedraggled man. She watched as he purchased a carton of cigarettes and spoke briefly to the clerk who waited on him.at the service desk.
“I’m sorry, miss, I can’t ring you up here, you have two many items,” the elderly man behind the counter said as she walked up.
“I’m not quite ready to check out,” Tracy said with a nervous smile. “I was wondering about the man you just checked out. Is his name…Ted Robertson? He looked so familiar, but I couldn’t remember his name and didn’t want to embarrass myself.”
“I don’t know any Robertsons around here,” the man replied. “That was Alvin Kline; I know his family pretty well.”
“I’m so glad I talked to you then. I would’ve made a fool out of myself,” Tracy said with an exaggerated laugh.
“Glad to be of help,” the clerk replied as Tracy made her way to the checkout.
After she had loaded the trunk with groceries, Tracy jumped into the car and backed away from the store, so no one would see her seemingly talking to herself.
“What’s so urgent, Charlotte?” she asked, knowing that Charlotte would hear.
Charlotte manifested in the front seat with a look of dread on her face. “I must explain something to you, something that I’m only really learning to understand. Had I known what my contacting you would lead to, I would’ve never done it.”
Tracy’s stomach twisted into knots. “You’re going to tell me something that I really don’t want to hear.”
Charlotte sighed and looked at Tracy with pity. “I was so eager to talk to you that I ignored the warnings. By making myself known to you, I opened up a door that I shouldn’t have. Now others can do the same, and some have evil intent.”
Tracy veered onto the shoulder and locked up the brakes, totally unaware of the vehicles that swerved around her. “Don’t go Charles Dickens on me and tell me that I’m about to be visited by three more ghosts!”
“More than three, I’m afraid,” Charlotte replied as she dipped her head.
“More than three?” Tracy shouted. “I’m having enough trouble with you. Do you have any idea how often I question my own sanity?”
“I’m aware of your thoughts,” Charlotte replied calmly. “And right now your mind is filled with words I didn’t know a woman used.”
“How do we close this door?” Tracy asked, trying to clear her mind and rein in her anger.
Charlotte shook her head and stared down at her lap. “Once it’s open, there’s no closing it. You can choose to ignore what you see and hear, like so many others do, or learn to live with it.”
Her first inclination was to bang her head on the steering wheel, but Tracy decided to use her fists as she took out her frustration. “You’re killing me, woman, just killing me!” she complained as she pulled the car back onto the road.
“Why are you the only one I’ve seen so far?” Tracy asked as she sped down the road.
“I do my best to keep the others from contacting you, but some are crafty and stronger.”
A thought struck Tracy as she pulled into Charlotte’s driveway. “Do you know an Alvin Kline?”
“You passed his house less than a block back,” Charlotte snorted. “Looks like a junkyard. He’s a loner who spends all his time with a bottle. Why do you ask?”
“I’d make you help me with the groceries for the answer, but the neighbors might find it odd to see stuff floating around,” Tracy grumbled as she got out of the car and opened the trunk.
Once inside, Tracy started stuffing food into the fridge and pantry. Charlotte appeared beside her with her arms crossed and a brow raised. “Why did you ask about Alvin?”
“I saw him in a dream last night. He shot two people to death and turned the gun on me.”
Charlotte grimaced. “I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone last night. That’s when he got to you.”
Tracy missed a shelf and dropped the can of peas she was holding on the floor. “Who got to me?”
“Sit down, Tracy,” Charlotte commanded softly as her ghostly form settled down at the kitchen table.
Charlotte waited for Tracy to get a glass of water and take a seat before she began her story. “When Alvin was a young man, he was engaged to Candace Birch, but she had eyes for Markus Collins, who moved into town and swept her off her feet. The whole town got wind of the love triangle, and Alvin was devastated. One day, Candace and Markus simply disappeared.”
Charlotte paused as Tracy gulped down the entire glass of water.
“We all wanted to believe that they simply ran off together, but Candace’s family raised a fuss about it. They refused to believe that she simply up and left without a word. An investigation was launched, but no bodies were ever found. The case was marked closed after years passed by. Alvin began drinking soon after the disappearance, and we rarely saw him unless he was in town to buy liquor.”
Tracy felt goose bumps grow on her arms as she wondered if she had witnessed the murder of Candace and Markus. “So what did you mean when you said ‘he got to me’?”
“I believe the entity that has been trying to reach you is Markus Collins,” Charlotte replied with a troubled expression. “He’s evil, Tracy, and he wants revenge. Stay away from Alvin Kline, it’ll only lead to trouble.”
Tracy scrubbed at her face with both hands. “But if Alvin did it, then someone needs to know.”
“And how will you explain it?” Charlotte asked. “Are you going to march up to the police chief and tell him that you dreamed that Alvin Kline is a murderer?”
Tracy got up from the table and opened cabinets, looking for something to start dinner in.
“Look in the drawer under the oven,” Charlotte said.
Tracy obeyed and grinned as she pulled out the type of pan she’d been searching for. “Why don’t you ask Markus where he’s buried?”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t work that way. I can’t speak to him like I do you. He would have to tell you himself, and for him to do that, I’ll have to leave you alone again. You don’t realize the full ramifications of this, he’ll have power over you.”
“And if I do nothing, he’ll keep coming back.”
Charlotte looked at Tracy thoughtfully. “It’s your choice, but I hope you won’t involve Payton in this. I regret putting you in danger as it is.”
“She’s coming over tonight,” Tracy said with a grin.
“I know,” Charlotte replied flatly.
“You may not want to be around when she arrives. I can’t promise we won’t have a repeat of last night,” Tracy teased and grinned as Charlotte’s face twisted in disgust.
“I still think you’ve moved too fast,” Charlotte replied indignantly.
“With all the things on my mind, I haven’t had a chance to dissect it all and what it means for me, but I know that I am completely smitten with your niece. You did say, after all, that she was the love of my life.”
Charlotte grinned mischievously as her figure began to fade. “I made that part up.”
Tracy’s brows knitted together, and she opened her mouth to say something when she heard a knock on the door. Her jaw shut with a snap, as she crossed the kitchen.
“I’m about thirty minutes early,” Payton said apologetically as she walked in the door.
“And I’m about two hours late,” Tracy said, stepping out of the way. “How about pizza?”
Just as Tracy had warned, she and Payton ended up in bed right after dinner. And Charlotte shut herself away, leaving the two of them alone again.
As she felt sleep wash over her, Tracy’s last thoughts were of Markus Collins. Show me where you’re buried, Markus, she said in her mind, and her eyes slipped closed.
Dreams came instantly as Tracy fell asleep wrapped safely in Payton’s arms. Her breathing became deep and even as her mind drifted deeper into a world where she had no control.
She found herself walking in a grassy field along an old barbed wire fence, when she came upon a sign conspicuously out of place. “Sutherland Farm” was emblazoned in bold red letters. Tracy strolled past it, idly tugging at plastic yellow ribbons intermittently placed along the fence line.
She paused when her foot came in contact with a whiskey bottle. She noticed that the bottles seemed to multiply and pile up in the grass. While her eyes scanned the ground, she noticed a pair of feet and allowed her eyes to travel up the naked body of a man.
Unlike the night before, she was not terrified, even though she could clearly see blood oozing from gunshot wounds in both legs and the forehead of the man who lay before her. He lifted his arm and pointed to this right. Tracy turned in that direction and noticed that she was looking into the bedroom where she and Payton now slept.
Her feet started toward the room on their own accord, and she found herself in front of a dresser. Without thought, she opened the top drawer and withdrew a pistol. Charlotte’s bedroom transformed into a wooded area that Tracy trotted through confidently as though she knew the way. Neither fear nor reason caused her to alter her course. In her mind, she was still dreaming, unaware that Markus was controlling her every step. His dark form floated through the night sky just a few paces behind his victim, assuring that his plan would be executed.
Payton awoke with her heart pounding, thinking she had heard the creaking of the stairs. She reached out for Tracy and found her side of the bed empty. She relaxed when she realized that it was her footsteps she heard. Assuming she simply went down for something to drink, Payton rolled over and snuggled deeper into the bed.
Charlotte stood at the bedside willing Payton to awaken, knowing if she revealed herself to her niece, she would open the same door that she had opened for Tracy. Anguish filled her soul, knowing that she couldn’t reach the woman who was completely under Markus Collins’s control. She stared down at her niece.
This is all my fault, Charlotte lamented silently as she called Payton’s name.
Payton bolted upright in bed and looked around the room frantically until she saw her aunt materialize.
“Sweetheart, trust me,” Charlotte said as tears streamed down her face. “Call the police and tell them to go to Alvin Kline’s place, tell them to call an ambulance, too.”
Payton stared open-mouthed at the figure that stood near her. “Aunt Charlotte?” she questioned weakly.
“Do it, Payton, and hurry, Tracy needs your help.”
Payton threw the covers back and grabbed her clothes as she ran toward the stairs. When she arrived in the kitchen, her heart skipped a beat when she found the back door wide open. Payton jumped when her aunt’s voice came from behind her.
“There’s no time to lose, call the police now!”
Alvin Kline threw another log onto the fire, then settled down in front of it as he drank the whiskey that warmed his bones and dimmed his memories. He jumped when his dog began to bark. The old hound never made a peep unless there was an intruder nearby. Alvin pulled his handgun out of its hiding place and carefully made his way to the front door.
Unaware of the cold air that bit into her bare skin, Tracy stood at the wood’s edge waiting. Movement on the front porch drew her attention, and she didn’t flinch when Alvin Kline stepped out of the shadows and headed her way.
“What the hell?” Alvin proclaimed as he realized that the intruder was a woman and completely nude. Stunned by the spectacle, he paused a few feet away from her, never noticing the weapon she held in her hand.
Tracy raised the pistol and aimed it at Alvin’s chest. The surprise of the action delayed him raising his own weapon. A thundering noise exploded in his ears, as the wind was knocked out of him. His finger pulled the trigger in reaction before his body dropped to the ground.
Tracy staggered back a step and looked down in horror at the blood flowing from her chest. She wondered how she had gotten there as her knees gave out beneath her and she dropped to the ground a few feet from Alvin Kline.
Payton ran blindly through the woods, clutching the robe and slippers that Charlotte demanded she carry. She could hear the sirens in the distance, causing her to run even harder. She was prepared for what she would find, Charlotte saw to that.
Running straight to Tracy, she dropped to her knees and quickly pulled the robe over her and placed the slippers on her feet. Payton pulled the bleeding woman into her lap and whispered words of comfort as the emergency vehicles arrived.
Tracy watched as a stunning redheaded woman walked out of an unfamiliar house and got into a car. Payton ran out of the front door and handed her something she had forgotten. Payton stuck her head in the window and gave the woman a passionate kiss and smiled as the car backed down the driveway.
Then Tracy was standing on a bridge. She watched the same car as a truck sideswiped it, causing it to spin out of control and crash through the guardrail.
Tracy found herself in the passenger’s seat as the car sank deep into the murky depths. The redhead was slumped over the steering wheel and remained so as the car filled with water. Tracy sat calmly as the water quickly flowed over her head.
“Tell her I didn’t suffer,” the redhead said softly as she and Tracy watched the police deliver the news to Payton. “I’ve wanted to relieve her suffering for a long time, but I was afraid of making her vulnerable to…” The red-haired woman smiled ruefully. “…to those like me.”
Pain wracked her body as Tracy opened her eyes for the first time in days. She licked at her dry lips as the room came into focus. Payton lay sleeping on a small cot beside her bed, and Charlotte materialized between them.
“Don’t bother trying to speak,” Charlotte cooed. “You have some internal injuries that will heal quickly if you mind what you’re told.”
Payton’s eyes snapped open, and a smile graced her face as she realized that Tracy had come to.
“What happened to me?” Tracy rasped.
“You heard screaming at Alvin Kline’s place. Payton called the police, but you left before she could stop you. Alvin was out of his head and shot you, your gun fired when you were hit and killed him on the spot.” Charlotte smiled. “Anyway, that’s what the chief is going to put in his report, right, Payton?”
Payton clutched Tracy’s hand and pulled it to her lips. “Right, Aunt Charlotte,” she whispered as she kissed each finger.
“You can see her?” Tracy asked in surprise.
Charlotte ducked her head. “She can.”
Tracy’s eyes filled with sadness. “Oh, no, honey, not you, too.”
“We’ll explain exactly what happened when you’re stronger,” Payton reassured as she helped Tracy take a sip of water.
“The bodies of Candace Birch and Markus Collins are on Sutherland Farms property, next to a fence with yellow ribbons. The grave is marked by whiskey bottles. Tell the chief that Alvin confessed,” Tracy said breathlessly. “That’ll go along well with the story you told him.”
“You can tell him when you’re stronger,” Charlotte said with a sad smile.
Tracy looked at Payton. “Was Amanda a redhead who drove a blue car?”
Payton looked stunned when asked the question. She glanced at Charlotte, who nodded.
Tracy tightened her grip on Payton’s hand. “She says to tell you she didn’t suffer.”
Payton sank down onto the cot and wept as Tracy watched helplessly.
Charlotte smiled and looked at Tracy. “She has tortured herself believing that Amanda suffered the day she died. You have no idea what this means to her to finally know the truth, she can finally let go now.”
Tracy relaxed, pleased that the news was a comfort to Payton and that all she had gone through made a difference in the lives of others. Perhaps the door that Charlotte opened would turn out to be a gift that she could share, and she knew without a shadow of a doubt that Payton would be at her side and of course Charlotte. Closing her eyes, she drifted into a healing sleep as dreams began to unfold in her mind.