Lois Cloarec Hart
With thanks to my wonderful betas, who as always rose to the occasion despite my tardiness. I couldn’t do it without you, Day, Betty and CA k!
If you’d like to comment on the story, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rayne removed the small cupcake from the cellophane, and poked at it morosely as she pushed it around her plate with a fork.
“Dessert with breakfast? Isn’t it rather early to be eating cake? It’s not exactly like you can afford the extra calories, you know.”
At the sound of her ex mother-in-law’s voice, Rayne glowered and defiantly skewered the cake, popping the entire thing into her mouth. “It’s never too early for cake!” The words were muffled, but the annoyance on her face was clear. She swallowed hard, then washed down the cake with coffee. “Don’t you ever take a day off, Everlene?”
“Why would I do that, dear? I enjoy my work. And I’m so very good at it.”
The mockery in the disembodied voice made Rayne fervently wish that just once the woman would materialize so she could pop Everlene a good one in her snooty nose. Longstanding frustration caused her to erupt. “Why the hell are you haunting me, anyway? I never did anything to you! Jesus, just because I left your precious baby boy—”
“For a woman! I was mortified! Why, I couldn’t even hold my head up in front of my friends. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the stress of that disgustingly sordid incident led directly to my fatal heart attack.”
“So you blame me for your death... It figures. You always did have a tenuous hold on reality, Everlene. In case you didn’t notice, you died three years after Marvin and I split up.”
“Three years, seven months and forty two hours from my dear boy’s phone call telling me of your duplicity. And I lived in shame each every single one of my remaining days. My poor Marvin...”
Rayne rose from the table, and carried her dishes to the sink. “Your ‘poor’ Marvin didn’t exactly pine away in my absence. He probably didn’t find it necessary to mention that the night I left, he was out on a date with the barmaid from the Anchor and Crown.”
There was an audible sniff, and then blessed silence. Rayne knew she shouldn’t prod the tiger, but she couldn’t help herself. “Besides, I’d have thought your thirst for retribution would’ve been satisfied when Melanie dumped me less than six months later.”
“She wasn’t right for you.”
Surprised, Rayne turned from the sink and glanced around the sunlit kitchen. It was the closest Everlene had ever come, in life or death, to a sympathetic comment. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. What is that old hag up to now? “Yeah? Well, Marvin wasn’t right for me, either. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got about five minutes to catch my bus.”
Grabbing briefcase and slinging her overcoat over her arm, Rayne left the kitchen, pausing only to perform her morning ritual. On the bulletin board by the front door hung a pockmarked computer print-out of a slender, patrician woman, her sharp eyes cool and judgemental. Taking one of the numerous push pins out of the board, Rayne jabbed it into the picture.
“Not the eyes, dear. They’re my best feature.”
Gritting her teeth at the amusement in the ghostly voice, Rayne flounced from the house, slamming the door behind her. Mrs. Pettywinkle, her elderly next door neighbour was out sweeping the walk. She glanced up in surprise at the noise and Rayne shot her a sheepish grin. “Sorry, Mrs. P! Hope that didn’t wake Mr. P.”
Mrs. Pettywinkle shook her head and raised a forgiving hand. Rayne returned the wave and hustled down the sidewalk to the bus stop. Standing with the other commuters, Rayne contemplated for the thousandth time why her former mother-in-law had taken up haunting her this year.
They had disliked each other on sight, but for the most part had been coolly civil during Rayne and Marvin’s short-lived marriage. In the period leading up to the divorce settlement, reports had reached Rayne of Everlene slandering her on her son’s behalf. Though I would’ve thought signing away Marvin’s so-called “fortune” just to get a settlement would’ve placated her.
However, not moving in the same social circles as her ex mother-in-law after her divorce had shielded Rayne from the worst of Everlene’s vitriol. Besides, she figured Everlene had earned the right to bitch a little, given the way Rayne had unexpectedly and abruptly ended things with Marvin. Up until this last year, her former mother-in-law—or more precisely, her shade—had simply been a non-entity.
“But why now? Why the hell is she hanging around now?”
The man standing next to Rayne glanced at her, and she realized she had spoken aloud. Ha! You try carrying on near daily conversations with a ghost and see how sane you appear!
The bus ride downtown was routine, and Rayne was grateful that Everlene hadn’t come along. She still had not been able to determine what precipitated an appearance by the Mother-in-law from Hell.
Sometimes Everlene would be quiet for a week, but just when Rayne began to hope her mother-in-law was gone for good, she would hear the disdainful voice again. Trying to shake off the disembodied presence, Rayne had actually moved twice. Desperate, Rayne had engaged a medium to move Everlene along in her celestial journey, but it hadn’t worked. She had resorted to crystals, burning sage, and holy water, but so far nothing had shaken her spectral stalker. Rayne had finally arrived at a reluctant state of acceptance: it appeared that Everlene was to be a fixture in her life for the foreseeable future.
With a determined effort, Rayne set aside thoughts of her deceased mother-in-law and focused on a review of her day’s agenda. Her hard won composure lasted until she stopped to buy a large coffee in the lobby of her high-rise office building. She turned away from the coffee counter as she absently stirred cream into the brew, and tripped over an unseen obstacle. Stumbling, Rayne’s coffee splattered over the woman standing in line behind her.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” Rayne grabbed a handful of napkins and tried to mop coffee from the woman’s light-coloured suit.
The victim sucked in a breath and tugged the suit jacket away from her torso. She held up one hand, stopping Rayne’s futile efforts in mid-mop. Without uttering a word, she strode away and disappeared down the hallway towards the women’s washroom.
Shoulders slumped, Rayne knelt and wiped up the remnants of the coffee from the tiled floor.
“Hey, Ms Kessler, I got that.”
Rayne looked up gratefully as the janitor pulled his bucket and mop in her direction. “Thanks, Tony. I can’t believe I was such a klutz. Damn, I hope I didn’t ruin her suit. I’ll have to find her so I can offer to get it dry cleaned.”
Tony clucked in sympathy as his mop made a quick clean-up. “It was an accident, Ms Kessler. These things happen. It is a hard way to start your first day of work though.”
“It’s her first day of work?”
Tony nodded, dunked the mop in the bucket, then wrung it out. “Yes, ma’am. Word is she’s starting on the fourteenth floor today.” He shot Rayne a keen look. “That’s your floor, isn’t it, Ms Kessler? That should make it easy to find her.”
Rayne gave him a sickly nod as she turned towards the elevators. Great! Not only do I soak the poor woman with coffee, but now she’s going to have to put up with seeing me in the hallway every day. She glanced back at the coffee stand in puzzlement. What the heck did I trip over, anyway?
There was nothing visible on the floor to account for her clumsiness. Visible? Oh no, she wouldn’t... Would she? Rayne cautioned herself against automatically blaming Everlene for the accident. While it was tempting to do so, the ghost had never made more than verbal appearances in her life, and Rayne certainly didn’t want to give her any ideas.
Settling at her desk, Rayne was well into the day’s paperwork by the time her office mate arrived. “Morning, Wendy.”
“Good morning, Rayne. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Rayne nodded with a smile. It could have been a howling blizzard and forty degrees below zero outside, and her congenitally optimistic colleague would have called it a “beautiful day” She knew Wendy’s unflagging good humour irritated some in the company, but Rayne had come to rely on her office mate’s upbeat attitude. “Hey, Wendy, did you hear anything about a new hire starting on our floor today?”
Wendy rolled her eyes as she hung up her coat. “We’ve got almost two hundred employees, Rayne. There are always new hires.” She plopped into her swivel chair and booted up her computer, then frowned and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Though I did overhear Fletcher in the lunch room on Friday complaining about some outsider starting in PR today. He was upset because his old frat buddy didn’t get the job, even though he was pushing for him.”
Rayne winced. Public Relations? Shit! A coffee stained suit isn’t exactly the way to please Old Man Dillon on your first day. Then the phone began to ring and Rayne quickly became too busy to give any further thought to the victim of her clumsiness.
At eleven thirty, as Rayne’s stomach was starting to rumble in anticipation of lunch, a familiar head poked around the door.
“Wendy, Rayne—got a minute?”
Both women looked up and nodded automatically. Susan Nielsen from Human Resources entered with a woman in tow. Rayne’s heart sank as she recognized the stranger. The coffee soaked jacket had disappeared, but the startling blue eyes were instantly recognizable.
“Cayleigh Hunter, this is Wendy Rasmussen and Rayne Kessler. Wendy, Rayne, this is Cayleigh Hunter. She’s just begun with the PR department and I’m taking her around making introductions. You won’t usually see much of Wendy and Rayne, Cayleigh. They’re always holed up in here working miracles with numbers, but if you need profit and loss projections, come see them. They’re our very own human calculators.”
Wendy stood up and offered her hand with a wide grin. “Welcome to Millar, Webster and Brownling, Cayleigh. Anything Rayne and I can do to make your job easier, you just let us know.”
Cayleigh shook Wendy’s hand, then turned to face Rayne, who faced her with an apologetic grimace. “I’m really sorry, Ms Hunter. I’d like to pay for dry cleaning your jacket.”
With a wry grin, Cayleigh shook her head, extending her hand. “Don’t worry about it, Rayne; these things happen. I’ve already dropped it off at the cleaners.”
Without another word, Cayleigh followed Susan out of the office, and Rayne was left to explain the situation to her puzzled office mate.
“Oh, well, she obviously isn’t holding a grudge.” Wendy winked at Rayne. “Maybe it’s because she’s one of yours.”
“One of mine?”
“Yeah, you know—what do you call it? One of the family.”
Blinking, Rayne considered Wendy’s words and evaluated her first impressions of Cayleigh Hunter. “Huh, maybe.” She sighed heavily. “You know it’s going to be damned depressing if a straight girl’s gaydar is better than mine.”
Wendy turned back to her computer with a laugh. “Might account for the date drought, Ray. Maybe you should let me set you up again some time.”
“Hah! Not likely. You were the one who introduced me to Marvin, remember? Look where that got me!” Haunted by the most irritating mother-in-law in non-existence, that’s where!
“So no one’s perfect.” Wendy waved airily, and they shared a chuckle as they returned to work.
In the following weeks, each passing encounter with Cayleigh Hunter caused Rayne to recall Wendy’s words. She became more and more convinced that her insightful co-worker was correct. Rayne’s gaydar, that had initially been off-line, was now pinging loudly.
Not that it mattered one way or another for any potential romantic aspirations on her part. Rayne had suffered through a string of puzzling encounters with the woman, all of which showcased her clumsiness and Ms Hunter’s uncanny knack for being in the vicinity to witness her humiliation. None of the incidents were major—dropped files in the hallway, a broken sugar bowl in the lunch room, and a misfiring faucet that sprayed water everywhere in the ladies room. Inevitably, Rayne would turn around and find Ms Hunter’s amazed—and amazing—gaze fixed upon her.
Rayne had even taken to consulting her daily horoscope to see if her stars were in a particularly clumsy alignment, but that proved to be about as useful as trying to evict her ghostly in-law.
One Friday morning, Everlene was being particularly obnoxious. After several long minutes of haranguing Rayne for her woeful performance as a wife, Everlene unexpectedly switched to her equally woeful performance as a single lesbian.
“I am merely observing that if you’re determined to actually be...one of those—”
Rayne rolled her eyes as she added a thick application of strawberry jam to her toast. “Lesbians, Everlene. Even if you had a soul to shrivel, I’m sure it wouldn’t do so just from saying the L word.”
“I’m perfectly capable of saying that word.”
“So say it.” Rayne savoured the sweet, fruity taste of her breakfast in the momentary silence. Don’t tell me I finally shut her up! Hey, maybe I’m onto something here.
“As I was pointing out...”
Everlene’s frosty tone slicing through the air shattered Rayne’s brief moment of hope.
“...if you insist on being a lesbian, you might at least make an effort to actually be a lesbian.”
“As opposed to?”
“As opposed to some withered celibate who hasn’t had a date since Emily Post first set pen to paper.”
“Gee, Everlene, does this mean you’re actually a secret voyeur? Perhaps you were hoping to drop in on some hot woman on woman action?” Rayne almost snickered aloud as she imagined her prim mother-in-law’s shocked expression. But Everlene’s acerbic response instantly quashed her humour.
“Hot? My dear girl, you forget that I actually met Melanie. The only thing hot about that woman was the speed with which she kept your charge cards revolving through the hands of the local merchants.”
“Yeah, well...Marvin clipped his toenails in the kitchen!” It was the best Rayne could do on short notice, especially since she couldn’t refute Everlene’s stark—and absolutely accurate—assessment of Melanie.
“If indeed he did, Marvin got that appalling trait from his father’s side, not mine. However, before this degenerates further into kindergarten discourse, I simply meant that if you are indeed set on being a...lesbian, perhaps you should actually ask some poor woman out. Though I have no idea why anyone would accept your invitation, it might mitigate your current circumstances. If I may be permitted an observation, you’re becoming positively stodgy. At your age, I was not only a young wife and mother, as well as a leading philanthropist in the community, I was also a social trendsetter, an arbiter of fashion, politics and good taste, and a—”
“Royal pain in the ass to all who had the misfortune to orbit about you,” Rayne filled in helpfully, as she returned the jam to the fridge and drained her coffee. “You were also the daughter, and wife, of very wealthy men. You never once had to worry about bills. I do. So you’ll excuse me if I go off to work now and make just enough to pay those damned things.”
Surprisingly, there was no retort as Rayne left the house, not even when she paused and stuck a pin in Everlene’s left ear. I really need to print a new picture soon. This one has so many holes in it, it’s starting to look like a sieve!
Rayne had reprinted her mother-in-law’s tattered pictures seven times so far—one for almost every month she had been haunted by the relentless ghost. The thought depressed her even more than the overcast skies.
As she stood at her bus stop, the deluge began, and Rayne put up her large umbrella. The downpour continued as she reached her destination, and she kept her cover up until she entered the revolving door. The umbrella was unusually problematic to lower, and it got caught as she tried to close it, effectively blocking the door from turning.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Rayne wrestled with the umbrella and the harder she tried, the more tangled it became. Her frantic efforts finally stripped the fabric from the bent and twisted metal skeleton, which set her free, but the umbrella was annihilated. Red faced from her exertions, Rayne pushed her way out of the door, only to see Ms Hunter step from behind her.
Rayne had managed to trap the PR executive in the round-about with her, and she groaned inwardly at her continued run of bad luck. “Oh, damnit, I’m so sorry! Again.”
Ms Hunter eyed her warily, and gave both Rayne and the shredded umbrella a wide berth.
“Well, I have to say that’s a first, Ms Kessler.” Tony’s cheerfully amused voice did nothing to lift Rayne’s spirits. “In thirty years I’ve never seen that door eat an umbrella, but hey, there’s a first for everything, isn’t there? Want me to see if I can fix it for you?”
Rayne shook her head disconsolately and tossed the useless umbrella in the nearest trash receptacle. Why me? Why always me...and her? She must think I’m a total idiot.
Rayne’s mood did not improve when she reached her empty office. Wendy was scheduled for dental surgery, and would not be in that day. Glumly, Rayne stashed her raincoat and briefcase. She had barely sat down when a familiar voice echoed in her ear.
“Why did you keep my son’s name after you divorced? I was sure you would return to your maiden name.”
“No! Everlene, you’re not allowed here, damn it! Go away!”
“And you plan to evict me how?”
The amusement in Everlene’s voice grated on Rayne’s jangled nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. “Arghh!”
“Seriously, though, why did you keep ‘Kessler’? Given the acrimonious ending to your marriage, I would’ve thought you’d be in as much of a hurry to shed the name as you were to shed poor Marvin. After all, it wasn’t like you’d had it long enough to even get used to it.”
“Two years. And trust me, it was like a lifetime and a half being married to your son!”
There was an audible sniff, but Everlene did not take the bait. “My point exactly. You were unhappy. You left. Yet you kept the name.”
Rayne contemplated simply ignoring her mother-in-law. However, she knew from experience, silence never drove Everlene away. “No matter what the Kessler associations, it was better than the teasing I’d taken all my life with my maiden name. My parents had a very warped sense of humour.”
Surprisingly, there was genuine puzzlement in Everlene’s voice. “Whatever do you mean? There was nothing amiss with your birth name.”
“Yeah, right. Nothing at all amusing in the name Rayne Waters, nothing at all. Besides, what does it matter to you? Worried that some day I’ll be buried under the same surname as you?”
The nameplate on Rayne’s desk moved, stirred by an unseen force. She slapped her hand down it. “Will you cut it out! I’ve had just about enough of you for one day! Get lost, and stay lost!”
The sound of a throat being ostentatiously cleared from the doorway made Rayne drop her head in dismay. No, no, no! This cannot be happening. Wearily she lifted her head, and saw the now familiar sight of Ms Hunter watching her with an expression of amusement and baffled concern.
“I hope I’m not here at a bad moment?” Ms Hunter glanced around the office as if assuring herself that Rayne was the only occupant.
Rayne waved Ms Hunter in, warily listening for Everlene’s voice. She knew she was the only one who could hear it, but her mother-in-law had mastered the art of coming out with such outrageous comments that Rayne sometimes couldn’t stop herself from responding, even when she was not alone. Thankfully, the meddling ghost appeared to have taken a time out.
“What can I do for you, Ms Hunter?” Rayne’s dispirited voice could barely be heard.
Ms Hunter regarded her for a long moment. “Well, for one thing, you can call me Cayleigh.”
Rayne shot her visitor a surprised look, but said nothing.
“Actually, I need some help with the Symonds’ account. There are some numbers that don’t jibe with the information I was given. If you have a moment to spare...Rayne?”
“Sure. Pull up Wendy’s chair and I’ll open the file.” Turning to her computer, Rayne felt on more solid ground. Not even Everlene’s taunts could change the fact that she was good at her job. It only took a few minutes to set Ms Hunter...to set Cayleigh on the right course, and it helped ease Rayne’s residual chagrin from their previous encounters.
Cayleigh stood holding the printout Rayne had given her. “Thank you, Rayne. I really appreciate this.” She flashed Rayne a genuine smile and walked to the door. Stopping at the entrance, she turned around. Rayne raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Look, would you...I mean if you’re not doing anything...” Cayleigh stopped, unexpected uncertainty writ large in her body language.
“Would you like to go out for a drink after work?” The words came out in a rapid string, as if Cayleigh had practiced them over and over.
Rayne strove for a coolly interested exterior, hoping just this once she could appear suave and sophisticated. “Uh...yeah, why not? That sounds good. Where did you have in mind?”
“I’m not really sure.” Cayleigh gave her a wry shrug. “I only moved here for the job, and I haven’t had much time to scope out the local nightlife. Do you have any suggestions?”
“What kind of place do you have in mind?” Rayne’s thoughts had flown instantly to Diva’s, the local lesbian club, but she had no intention of making that assumption or taking that chance.
Rayne froze as Everlene’s voice rang in her ears.
Cayleigh didn’t appear to notice anything amiss. “Perhaps some place fairly casual, where the music isn’t so loud that we can’t hear ourselves talk?”
“You know you want to, Rayne. For heaven’s sake, ask the woman to Diva’s! Don’t be so spineless. Honestly, what Marvin ever saw in you is beyond me.”
Frantically hoping Everlene wouldn’t manifest on the physical plane in any way, Rayne stumbled over her answer. “Um, why don’t you let me think about it? Shall we meet in the lobby about five?”
Cayleigh smiled at Rayne warmly. “Wonderful. I’ll see you then.”
After she departed, Everlene’s voice filled the office again. “You are the poorest excuse for a—”
“Oh, will you shut up! Look, it’s Halloween tomorrow, Everlene. Couldn’t you just go find someone else to haunt for a while and leave me alone?”
“If only it were that easy.”
Rayne frowned. Everlene sounded genuinely distressed. “What do you mean by that?” But since there was no answer, Rayne shrugged and returned to her columns of figures, determinedly putting the thought of the evening’s engagement out of her mind.
By four fifty, Rayne still hadn’t decided whether she was actually going on a “date”, or where she would suggest they go. She settled on Killarney’s. It wasn’t too far from Diva’s, and if her intended intelligence gathering indicated that Cayleigh might be receptive to the suggestion, they could always adjourn to Diva’s.
By the time the duo reached Killarney’s, Rayne was cautiously optimistic that her string of bad luck had, if not ended, at least taken leave for the evening. She hadn’t tripped, broken anything, soaked or soiled her companion, or otherwise disgraced herself in the entire four block walk.
Rayne stepped forward to open the door for Cayleigh. It was a traditional heavy wooden pub door, so she gave it a good yank—and nearly pulled her arm out of its socket. The door didn’t budge, so she tried again. It remained firmly closed.
Puzzled, Rayne glanced in the window. She could see the usual after-five crowd congregated around the bar as they waited for tables. The flashing sign in the window assured her the establishment was open. She seized the handle with both hands and pulled with all her strength, only to fly backwards and end up sprawled on the sidewalk when a man pushed the door open from the other side.
“Oh, good Lord! Rayne, are you all right?” Cayleigh extended a hand and helped her mortified companion to her feet.
Wincing, Rayne brushed at her clothes with scraped palms. Though the rain had eased to a drizzle, the wet pavements had left her clothes far less than pristine. With a deep sigh, she gave up the fruitless effort to tidy herself and met Cayleigh’s concerned gaze. “I completely understand if you want to bail. You’d probably be much safer if I just go home now.”
Cayleigh bit her lip, and Rayne could tell she was trying not to laugh. “Don’t be silly, Rayne. These things happen. Let’s not let it ruin our night, okay?”
Disconsolate, Rayne’s gaze dropped. “Okay, but in case you hadn’t noticed, ‘these things’ happen to me on a regular basis.”
“Well, I have noticed that the dry cleaner next door does a very brisk business with people from our office building.”
Rayne looked up sharply, but there was no malice in the gently teasing voice and laughing eyes. She felt some of her aggravation slip away.
A group of people pushed by the two women and entered the pub, but let the door bang closed behind them. Tentatively, Rayne reached out and tugged on the handle. The door didn’t budge. She sighed and shut her eyes. Everlene! Stop it! It has to be you, but I am not going to—
“Maybe we just weren’t meant to be here tonight.” Cayleigh glanced through the bar’s window. “Besides, it looks pretty crazy in there, Rayne. May I make a suggestion?”
Cayleigh drew in a deep breath, and Rayne was surprised by the doubt and determination on her face. “I read about a place that’s not too far from here—maybe you know it? It’s called Diva’s.”
A slow smile spread across Rayne’s face. “I know it well. I used to go there all the time, with my ex. I haven’t been back since she dumped me, though.”
Cayleigh was visibly relieved. She smiled back at Rayne. “So...feel like going there again, or would it stir up too many bad memories?”
“No, Diva’s is good.” They turned to walk down the street. “I’d actually thought of suggesting it initially, but I wasn’t sure—”
“Me neither.” Cayleigh nudged Rayne lightly with her shoulder. “But when that darned door wouldn’t work right, I decided it was worth the risk to suggest it. I figured Fate was trying to tell us something, and we’d better listen.”
“Fate...yeah, right. Fate.” Rayne could hear the echo of Everlene’s laughter in her head, but she was feeling too good to begrudge her mother-in-law a moment of gleeful triumph.
Hours later, the women emerged from Diva’s and stood under the night club’s awning. Rayne turned to face Cayleigh, and watched as her companion buttoned her coat.
“I had a really good time tonight, Cayleigh.”
“So did I. It looks like tomorrow will be even livelier in there, though.” Cayleigh grinned at Rayne. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, have a Halloween costume stashed away somewhere that you could pull out, would you? It might be fun to go to the party tomorrow.”
“So...you’re asking me?”
Cayleigh nodded, her eyes bright with mango margaritas and anticipation. “I’m asking. Will you go with me to the Halloween party tomorrow?”
“I’d love to.” Rayne felt giddily like a sixteen-year-old on her first date. She fidgeted, and glanced shyly at her feet, and then back to her companion. “Well, I guess I’d better catch the bus to the ’burbs.”
“And I should go and pick up my car.”
“I’ll walk with you.” Rayne felt her heart soar as Cayleigh linked arms with her. The rain had ended, but the residual mist formed a romantic corona around the street lights. The warmth of the woman at her side was a delightful counterpart to the coolness of the night air. They said little, but after hours of conversation, the companionable silence was a peaceful coda to their date.
They reached the parking ramp and stopped off to the side of the entrance.
“Are you okay to drive?”
“I’m fine, Rayne. The only thing I was drunk on tonight was your presence.” Cayleigh chuckled. “God, that sounds corny, doesn’t it? But it’s true.”
Rayne’s cheeks hurt from smiling so widely for so long. She had to pinch herself to believe this evening had really happened. For the third time that night, she reiterated her disbelief. “I just can’t believe you’d look twice at me. It seems like every time I’ve run into you, I was a hazard to your life and limb.”
“I thought it was kind of sweet.” Cayleigh leaned closer. “I noticed you the first time I walked into the building. I wasn’t standing in line behind you at the coffee stand by accident. So I figured from then on you were just trying to catch my attention—sort of like a little boy pulling a little girl’s braids because he really likes her.”
Rayne laughed aloud. She had never come up with that interpretation. If you only knew the truth! Her certainty that Everlene had been behind the string of mishaps had grown, but she found it hard to believe that Everlene would actually play matchmaker. Still, the pesky spirit hadn’t voiced so much as a peep during the hours Rayne and Cayleigh had spent together at Diva’s. Hah, more likely she knew we were going to be attracted to each other and tried to kill any chance of a relationship before we could even begin!
Then everything else faded as Cayleigh leaned forward and softly kissed her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Rayne.” Cayleigh walked through the entrance, and spun around to wave goodbye before she disappeared from view.
When Cayleigh was out of sight, Rayne pressed her fingers to her lips with an astonished laugh. Oh my God! I can’t believe this is happening!
Rayne’s bus pulling into the curb, and she sprinted to catch it. As she rode home, Rayne stared out the window and replayed the evening in her mind. She was so deep in thought that she almost missed her stop.
Stepping down to the sidewalk, Rayne caught herself humming and grinned. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt in such good spirits. Everlene herself could’ve stepped from behind the bushes and it wouldn’t have dented her profound sense of well-being.
Entering her home, Rayne stopped in the foyer and stared at the picture of her late mother-in-law pinned to the bulletin board. Then deliberately, she took out the stick pins and pulled the picture down.
Carrying it to the kitchen and turning on the light, Rayne shook her head. “I don’t know what your intentions were, Everlene. But if you were behind my recent spate of clumsiness, I thank you.”
A disdainful snort sounded in the air behind her.
“As if you weren’t capable of being perfectly inept all by yourself.”
Nothing was going to dent Rayne’s good mood. She leaned against the table and smiled. “True, I may not be the most graceful of women, but I know there’s been something supernatural about what’s been happening. And since it brought Cayleigh into my life, I really do thank you, Everlene.”
“Well, at least try not to ruin this relationship. It’s not like I’m going to always be around to help you out.”
Rayne raised an eyebrow. Setting aside Everlene’s questionable definition of “help”, she focused on the important part. “Do I take it you’re planning to leave our little arrangement? You won’t be hanging around anymore?”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
A snarky retort was about to fly from Rayne’s tongue, when she paused to consider. I guess...it hasn’t been all bad having the old bat dropping in. At least she was someone to talk to in the morning.
To Rayne’s amazement, Everlene’s hazy image formed in front of her. To her even greater amazement, there was a genuine, affectionate smile on her face. “I strongly suspect you’ll soon have someone else to talk to in the mornings, Rayne.”
“Hey, you read my mind?” Rayne straightened indignantly as Everlene shrugged.
“Eh, it comes with the territory. And trust me, ‘old bat’ is the mildest of things I get called some days.”
“What? You’re haunting others, too?”
Everlene wore a sad smile. “I have a long list of restitutions to make, Rayne. You were neither my first, nor my last.”
“You mean all this was about making some kind of amends?” Rayne shook her head in disbelief. “Putting me through all this misery? Making me think I was going out of my mind?”
“Perhaps my technique could use a bit of refinement, but you are a very hard nut to crack, Rayne. You simply weren’t going to cut me any slack. If I’d approached you forthrightly, you never would have believed in my better intentions. You always insisted on believing the worst of me.”
“Not without reason!”
Everlene sighed deeply. “Admittedly, not without reason.” She plaintively held out her hands and Rayne instinctively recoiled from the ethereal form. “But you took my baby boy from me. He was all I ever had.”
Rayne gaped at her. “All? You had everything you ever could have wanted! And furthermore, Marvin was 38 when we got married. He was hardly your baby boy!”
Everlene regarded her with a forlorn look that stemmed Rayne’s pique before she could even wind up a righteous head of steam.
“Marvin was the only one who ever loved me without reservation.”
“What about Marvin Senior?”
“My husband loved my father’s money more than he ever loved me.” Everlene waved a dismissive hand. “But that’s all water under the bridge now. He will have to face his own reckoning when his time comes. I simply dropped by to bid you adieu, my dear.”
“You really are leaving?”
“Yes. I have to go make amends with Great Aunt Sophie next, and it’s not like she has all the time in the world. Please do have the courtesy to delay breaking out the champagne until I am out of your house.”
Rayne smiled at Everlene’s dry response, and her mother-in-law began to chuckle. In moments, they were laughing together.
Everlene was the first to compose herself. Regarding Rayne warmly, she said, “You were a good daughter-in-law, Rayne. I regret not having been a better mother-in-law. I would like you to know, however, that I would be proud to have the same surname on our tombstones, yours and mine.” Then she vanished.
“Hey, wait! I want to know—were you deliberately trying to get Cayleigh and me together?”
A distant laugh and the soft words—You’re welcome—were all the response Rayne got. Something told her that she had heard the last of her exasperating mother-in-law. She crumbled up Everlene’s picture and started to toss it at the garbage can, then stopped herself. Unrolling the paper, Rayne smoothed it out carefully, feeling a flash of sadness. “You were okay, you old...Everlene. You were okay.”
The phone rang and Rayne crossed the kitchen to pick up the handset.
“Hi, Rayne. I hope it’s not too late to call. I just couldn’t wait until tomorrow to hear your voice again.”
“It’s never too late, Cayleigh. Apparently, never, ever too late...”