Terry Derby swallowed as he took in the picture-perfect cabin on the lake. Frosted shrubs and pavers led to the front porch, where a welcome wreath hung on the door. Everything about the place was neatly maintained. The wooden exterior showed no signs of drooping. Windows twinkled as the winter sunlight waved its last goodbye across the horizon. He inhaled the scent of pines and woodsmoke.
When he reached the door, he gripped the hem of his button-down and tugged, smoothing the cloth over his slight belly, feeling a bit self-conscious.
Of course my perfect date lives in a perfect landscape. Talk about being out of my league.
But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t shoot his shot. Before he could break out in a cold sweat or freeze in the Maryland twilight, he steeled himself and rang the bell.
Tonight could be the night. This could be the night he got past his ex-wife for good. The night he made a new future—a real future—with a good woman.
A better woman than his ex.
Holly swung the door open, letting out a blast of warm air. Her rosy-red lips widened into a big smile. “Terry, come in before you freeze!”
Terry stomped his boots on the porch mat and stepped inside. He leaned down to give her a quick keep it friendly for now hug. “You’re just as beautiful as I remember. It’s so good to see you again.”
“Oh, you flirt.” The jest bubbled from her throat in a singsong. Her blue eyes twinkled at him. Just like at the store, her understated makeup—except for those red, red lips—made his whole chest thrum. Even in a burlap sack, she’d have been gorgeous. “Come on back to the kitchen. I’ll have dinner up soon. I hope you like lasagna?”
“I love it. And it smells great.” Not a lie either. Her place smelled like an Italian restaurant full of pasta and garlic, and he couldn’t have been happier.
Not a bad start for a guy who hasn’t been on a date in a decade.
“I should’ve asked you over sooner.” She fussed with the two place settings at the kitchen table. “I was so nervous. You understand? I’m just so glad you could make it tonight.”
“Nowhere I’d rather be.” He waved toward her stainless steel stove. “Anything I can help with? I’m glad to be useful.”
Holly pulled her long brown hair around one shoulder and smoothed it down over her dress. The strands shimmered, even in the dim light. She then handed him a bottle of merlot. “Open the wine and relax?”
He took the bottle and corkscrew she offered. “You have a lovely place.”
The buzzer on the oven dinged, pulling her attention. “A far cry from where we met anyway. But I couldn’t have picked a better person to help me out there.”
True enough. What single man didn’t go into a hardware store hoping that a gorgeous woman would ask for help with some DIY project? He’d won the lottery that day.
From the moment Holly had asked if he knew anything about nails, the whole scene had felt like a dream. Telling her he was a carpenter had been the start of a fifteen-minute conversation ending in exchanging business cards. And he’d been smooth in his closing too…simple and sweet. “Just in case you need help with any other projects.”
Finally, two weeks and endless late-night phone calls later, she’d invited him over for dinner. He hated to ditch his kids for even one night, but Aaron and Lindsay were capable teenagers. Besides, they’d been telling him to go out and meet someone for months.
Maybe he owed it to himself, like they’d said. Either way…talk about a someone to open up his dating life again. This woman was the whole package, swaying around her kitchen on light feet, making his imagination swoon.
Settle down. It’s one date. One night away from the kids. Keep cool.
Holly added a casserole dish of lasagna to the table just as he finished pouring their wine. She lit a single tall scarlet candle between them.
He tugged out her chair for her.
“Let me serve you?” As she leaned forward, her breasts nudged together beneath her low-cut blouse.
Terry’s heart just about blew up. His mouth went dry. After so many months of it just being him and the kids, he didn’t know how to process his luck. His first date out of the proverbial gate was with a dynamite brunette. There had to be a word better than “lucky” to describe what had happened.
Holly Watts was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met. Way prettier than his ex-wife. Inside and out. And if the smells at this table were any indication of taste, she was a damned good cook too.
Janet used to burn slow-cooked meals.
Portioning out healthy helpings of lasagna onto both their plates, Holly gave him a sweet smile. When she bit her lower lip, betraying her own nerves, his heart sped up in response. Maybe this night was about a lot more than lasagna for both of them.
I don’t know what she sees in me. A middle-aged guy whose wife left him for her personal trainer. But damn, if I’m not excited to try to make this into something.
“Eat!” She gestured at his plate, dimples returning to her cheeks.
Terry picked up his knife and cut into the gooey lasagna. He lifted his fork and admired the gorgeous layers of cheese and meat and sauce. His mouth
watered for it, as well as for the woman across from him.
Holly sipped her wine and watched as he wrapped cheese around his fork. “I love seeing someone enjoy my cooking.”
He grinned, obliging her by taking his first, delicious bite. The flavor was deep and rich. Groaning in satisfaction, he closed his eyes in appreciation. He’d always been a big fan of garlic, and the dish delivered. This woman could cook.
With the second bite, more meat than cheese, he tasted a bit of nuttiness. Strange, but not unpleasant.
Terry swallowed a third bite, heavier on the interesting aftertaste.
Holly took a large bite of a piece of garlic bread.
“This is great. And unique. You must use a special blend of spices…?”
Her eyes crinkled, smiling, but he couldn’t quite return the smile.
His lips tingled, feeling thick.
Then came the burning.
Am I allergic to something?
His fork fell from his hand, bounced off his new khakis—leaving a sauce stain on its way down—and clattered to the floor.
“My hands…they’re numb,” he stammered, the words breaking up even as they formed.
As he tried to push back from the table, his limbs became useless lumps of wood, heavy and unwieldy. His chest tightened, and his heart pumped wilder as he stared across the table.
He was having a heart attack. He had to be.
Holly turned her head sideways, as if she were looking at someone else. “What do you think, honey? It’s working, isn’t it?”
Who was she talking to? He needed help.
Words still wouldn’t come to him as his heart hammered louder.
Holly peered into thin air, everywhere but at him, as his gut rumbled and numbness spread up his arms and down through his legs.
The only damn thing that wasn’t numb was his blasted, blasting heart.
Terry shut his eyes, gasping for a deeper breath against the pain of his pounding chest, but he couldn’t quite bring air into his lungs. Sporadic thumps of muscle came as his heart hammered against his ribs. He felt himself spiraling, dizzy and hot.
When he fell sideways, the silver fork that he’d dropped poked hard into his back.
Holly stood. She seemed calm above him. Her bright-red lips formed a flat, thoughtful line as she studied him closely.
And then she said something, but not to him. Maybe to herself. Gibberish to his brain, though, which couldn’t make sense of the situation.
Numb as his arms and legs, his thoughts spun in circles, sticking on the same little detail—Holly’s calm, easy manner.
And then, she smiled.
His heartbeat sputtered, threatening to stop, and he gasped, trying to take in the still air of the kitchen. He clutched at his chest, which was working to split apart with a blasting slam of pain.
His children’s faces flashed through his mind. The moments of their birth, bright red and screaming. Grabbing his hand as they crossed the street. The look in their eyes as he read them stories. Their expression of hope as he left their home earlier that night.
Try as he might to hold onto the image of their beautiful faces, Holly’s blue eyes were the last thing he saw before he closed his own.
This is my last first date.
As FBI Special Agent Emma Last jogged along the side of her apartment building, she skirted an overflowing trash can and an untrimmed tree.
Ah, the joys of city life.
At the end of the block, she skidded to a stop.
To anyone else, the man walking toward her would seem normal in his checkered button-down shirt and gray chinos. His balding head was shiny, and his gray mustache was full. A small smile graced his lips. He swung a wooden cane jauntily. He’d seem “normal,” anyway, if they could see him at all.
His white eyes stared both at her and at nothing. He grunted as she reached the corner.
Air plumed from her lips, clear in the streetlight, but the natural cold was no match for the icy chill surrounding the ghost. Rather than acknowledge him, Emma turned on her heel and jogged back the way she’d come, circling the building to the back entrance. Going in this way meant using her key card three times, instead of just once at the entrance, to get through the various security measures and gates, but that was fine.
She slowed down on the icy sidewalk between the security gate and her building before using her card to finally get back into the relative warmth.
Even if her sanity wasn’t quite that close to breaking, the fear of going crazy was real.
Earlier that day, Ned Logan, the late brother of her colleague Special Agent Mia Logan, had paid her a white-eyed visit too.
What a day.
“Ghost overload.” The elevator was empty, so her voice sounded loud. But maybe it would scare any nearby spirits away. Couldn’t hurt to try. “That’s right. I’m going to shower and go to bed. Leave me alone.”
Or maybe it’s time to take real action, Emma girl.
She’d never believed in psychics or ghost hunters. As someone who’d taken multiple classes and trainings on human behavior, she knew discovering secrets was often just a matter of observation.
Now, knowing what she’d seen, she wondered if maybe there was something to it. After all, she’d had coffee with Mrs. Kellerly nearly every day. If ghosts were real, some of the spiritualists must’ve been on to something.
After Esther, the fortune teller at the Ruby Red Spectacle Circus, warned her of the Other, Emma realized she might not be alone…even if the encounter had made her distinctly uncomfortable.
Speeding through a shower, Emma stayed in her bedroom only long enough to throw on jeans and a sweatshirt. She barely glanced at her mom’s photo, but the thing vibrated at her, nabbing her attention anyway.
That was a relatively new development.
The photo wasn’t falling over like it did before. Now it shook if she looked at it, all but rattling on the nightstand.
When it shuddered the first time, Emma tried to stare the picture down, thinking a force of will might make it stop. The frame had just rattled harder, so much that she couldn’t make out her mother’s features. Normally, it was easy to see Gina Last’s smile as she danced with infant Emma. Lately, her mother’s blue eyes became blurry swirls whenever the picture started trembling.
Not exactly an improvement on the situation.
In the kitchen, Emma wasted no time in flipping open her laptop. Part of being smart meant knowing when to ask for help…and she needed help.
Now, she just needed to find a psychic who wasn’t a whackjob.
Apparently, finding a non-whackjob was no easy task. Site after sketchy site appeared in her browser. Over-the-top crystal ball hawkers, tarot advertisements, and psychic testimonials. Life-changing predictions! Accurate readings!
She’d reached the third page of her Google search when she spotted someone who seemed promising.
Marigold Florence’s site was unassuming. Simple background colors and clear fonts made everything easy to read. No flashing banners or Click Here Now! ads. The site could’ve been advertising antique sales based on the feel of the web page alone. Only a simple explanation of services told the supernatural tale. A brief biography listed Marigold’s bona fide training with another psychic.
All of which sounded great, Emma supposed. Nothing stood out as particularly helpful, however.
She nearly gasped when she read, Provides connections with the Other.
Out of all the sites she’d explored so far, Marigold’s was the only one that referenced “the Other.”
This was the person she needed.
In seconds, heart beating fast, Emma typed up an email, requesting an appointment, and hit send.
Stretching her arms above her, she released a sigh before moving to her fridge to find something with electrolytes in it. While rehydrating, she stared at her computer.
What was she supposed to do now?
Marigold could take hours or maybe days to respond. If the psychic didn’t get back to her soon, Emma might find herself drowning in ghosts. Looking through more websites seemed like a wasted effort.
Emma collapsed back onto the stool at her island and stared at her email.
Marigold had already responded.
Emma, it’s great to hear from you, and I’d love to help if I can. I’m actually available tonight if you can make it over prior to 9:00 p.m., when I’m expecting another client. If not, perhaps tomorrow night between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.? Just let me know, and I’ll look forward to seeing you. Feel free to just come on by if you’re free tonight.
Emma’s stove clock read seven twenty.
Damn right she could make that work.
Marigold’s address was included in the email’s closing salutation, and Emma was glad and a bit disturbed to realize it wasn’t more than a five-minute drive from her apartment.
No time like the present.
Grabbing her coat, Emma headed out and down the stairs. At her car, she slammed the driver’s side door behind her—even though physical barriers hadn’t stopped a single ghost yet—and immediately locked herself in. The effort made her feel better.
She flew through the parking lot fast enough to raise the eyebrows of Bobby the security guard, the one living person strolling down the sidewalk.
“Trust me when I say it’s an emergency!” Emma hollered out the window as his eyes widened.
“Slow down and get there in one piece!” Bobby called after her as she peeled out of the lot and down the street.
She smiled, took a deep breath, and slowed, eyeing street signs.
Marigold’s house stood out only because of its warm blue hue among endless blocks of brick and neutral-colored homes.
She had no signage, though. Only a neat placard with Marigold’s name and contact information, placed just beside the door, spoke to the fact that the woman ran a business of some kind out of her home.
Emma appreciated the subtlety. She lifted the knocker just as the lock snicked open. Immediately, she dropped it and stepped back, her heart speeding up. Maybe this would be the night she’d finally learn something about the Other.
“That’s me.” Emma willed her hands to stop sweating. She hadn’t been this nervous around axe murderers, if her last case was any measure. “Marigold?”
Smiling, the woman waved her inside, opening the door wide.
Emma stepped inside, and Marigold closed the door behind her. The home was normal, with nice oversize, microsuede furniture and a fireplace burning brightly. Family pictures hung from the walls. Deep-gold curtains were tied neatly, framing the view of brick homes outside. It was utterly and unquestionably normal.
Just like the unassuming woman who’d opened the door.
Marigold’s warm brown eyes and straight brown hair seemed designed to counter any stereotype associated with “psychic.” With no bandanas or huge hoop earrings in sight, Marigold wore a modest, knee-length skirt and a floral blouse. She didn’t look the sixty-two years of age that was listed on the website. Emma would’ve guessed somewhere in her forties…but maybe that was the dyed hair talking.
“Not what you expected?” The woman grinned as she locked her front door.
Emma’s face warmed. Marigold was clearly used to her reaction. “Better than expected,” she said honestly.
Marigold beamed. “Well, let’s not waste any time. Follow me.”
She led Emma past the living room and into a side room with dark, built-in cabinets and a china cabinet full of books. She poured tea into two mugs from a sideboard and set the steaming drinks down on a center table. Simple and wooden. Unassuming, like the pretty woman who’d set up the space.
Aside from an old-fashioned quilt hanging on one wall, the only decor was a flat, square dish sitting on the table, off to the side. Crystal blue, full of water, with flower petals floating on the surface.
As New Agey decorations went, it wasn’t much. Marigold’s minimal setup struck Emma as oddly powerful. For a few seconds, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the bowl.
Marigold swirled the water with one finger, setting the flower petals to twirling. She brought Emma back to the present with one quiet question.
“Now, my dear, what type of otherworldly problems are you having?”
The simplicity of the question made Emma’s hands freeze around her steaming mug.
She’d been longing to speak to someone about this for a while. Holding it in, knowing no one would really understand, had weighed on her. She could finally talk it out, ask questions, and learn. A relieved laugh bubbled out of her throat, and Marigold only smiled back at her.
Marigold radiated patience as Emma gathered herself.
But Emma didn’t need patience. She needed answers. So she tamped down the laughter and dug in.
“It started when I was in Ireland. Almost four years ago.” Emma swallowed, forcing herself to slow down and take a breath. “I saw a bone-thin woman standing on a cliff. At the time, I wasn’t sure she was real, but she was, well, she might’ve been my first…encounter with a ghost. With the Other.”
Marigold tilted her head, resembling a curious puppy. “What do you mean by might’ve been?”
“There was a moment, in high school. I had a conversation with a…boy. At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I’d had trouble with him, and he said something rude the night of graduation, at a party.”
“Trouble” didn’t quite cut it. She’d intervened when Brad Caits was assaulting her friend Sophie, back in the fall of their senior year. Brad was an entitled jerk with very few redeeming qualities. The son of two Hollywood powerhouses, he exemplified “privilege” and abused his status and parentage to get his way.
Stopping him and being there for Sophie through the healing process started Emma on her mission to help others. Why that douche had to be her first ghostly encounter was still a mystery, one she often chose to forget.
“The next morning, on the news, I heard he’d died in a car wreck. So I couldn’t have spoken to him. But I did.”
“Of course you did.” There was no hint of mockery in Marigold’s voice, only a matter-of-fact tone that Emma found reassuring.
Leaning forward over the little table, Emma fought the rush of emotion back down her throat. “You have no idea what it feels like to finally…admit that. Say it out loud.”
The woman’s eyes went soft. “I could tell you needed to speak when you sent that email. I’d been waiting for someone who needed me to get in touch today. I’m here to help.”
Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Trying to pull together her thoughts, Emma could only nod. The woman could have said—probably did say—that to everyone, but her words had the ring of truth. Emma had come too far now. There was nothing to do but trust her.
“But that woman in Ireland was really the start of things.” Emma closed her eyes, thinking back to the Irish ghost floating along beside her. Clearly dead and speaking to her and nobody else. “But I’ve continued to see them ever since…”
Once Emma got going, she found herself spewing out her story like word vomit, fast and free, all the details stored up for just this moment.
Marigold was the picture of patience as she listened through the recitation of Emma describing ghost after ghost, encounter after encounter. The hair had raised on Emma’s arms as she told of how so many ghosts had warned her that “they” didn’t like her in the Other. How ghosts had sometimes nudged her toward clues in cases. How at other times, they ignored her entirely. How sometimes, they mocked her.
She told Marigold how her colleague’s dead brother had found her just that morning, seeking her out, leaning his translucent head—Ned had been decapitated in the car wreck that took his life—near her car window. She’d sped away like a bat out of hell, overwhelmed and panicked.
And her mother’s picture, which had been constantly falling over on its own, now vibrated every time she looked at it.
“And your mother died…” Marigold prodded.
“When I was two.” Emma wrapped her hands tighter around the mug. The porcelain had cooled as she spoke. “From a brain tumor.”
Marigold’s forehead creased in sympathy.
Emma didn’t tell her that her father was also gone, or that she’d had a less-than-close relationship with him. That didn’t feel pertinent, and anyway, she guessed the woman knew as much already.
“There’s a message related to the picture, I’m sure of it.” Emma steadied herself, watching Marigold for any reaction. Would the psychic think she was crazy? “I just have no idea what that message is. And I don’t know why my mother won’t simply appear and talk to me like all the other ghosts.”
Though there was no chill in the air, Marigold rubbed her hands together. “I’m guessing that’s not an easy answer, Emma, but I hope we’ll come to find it. Have there been clearer messages?”
“I don’t know about clearer. But there’ve been some direct messages. A couple weeks ago, we were working a case at a circus—”
“The Ruby Red Spectacle Circus? I saw that on the news.”
“Yes, that one. A circus fortune teller, Esther, said that forces are…are gathering against me.”
“That must’ve been difficult to hear.”
Difficult to hear was an understatement. Confusing, terrifying, lonely—if she allowed herself to define her feelings, because she couldn’t tell a soul about any of this—those would just barely scratch the surface. For starters, who would believe her?
Emma hoped Marigold would. The psychic’s accepting brown eyes encouraged her to say more.
“Esther said that if I’m very quiet, very still, I’ll sense the ghosts coming. She mentioned a wolf, also. She said that the path to the wolf is covered in innocent blood, but that it’s the path I have to take.”
Marigold leaned forward, focused. “The path to the wolf is covered in innocent blood? That’s what she said?”
Emma forced herself to sip at the lukewarm tea. The beverage didn’t help her nerves but relaxed her throat enough to answer. “Yes, that’s what she said.”
Marigold waved one hand. “And did you ask her what she meant?”
“She didn’t know.” The frustration of that night came right back to haunt Emma. She’d just captured a killer, barely saving a young woman in the process. Then, she’d been accosted by a fortune teller who wouldn’t explain anything. “And she didn’t exactly stay around to chat.”
“Well.” Marigold stood and went to the side table, hitting the start button on the electric kettle. “That doesn’t surprise me, I guess.”
“Why doesn’t it surprise you?”
“The Other, the afterlife, for all intents and purposes, is a mysterious, cryptic place.”
That meant Marigold didn’t know either. Though that shouldn’t have surprised Emma, the realization still left a hollow feeling in her gut.
All her life, Emma fought to be the best. She was determined to be independent and prepared for anything. If she didn’t know the answers to a problem, she would know how to find them. Her focus helped her solve mysteries and fix whatever went wrong.
The whole damn situation she’d found herself in was foreign and added more and more anxiety with each passing day.
If someone like Marigold, who’d trained herself to be comfortable with the supernatural, couldn’t offer up answers, who could?
“I need help.” Emma hadn’t meant to say that. Not out loud.
Marigold reached across the table, her fingers resting near Emma’s but not quite touching them. “Some curses are gifts, and some gifts are curses. From what you’ve described, I believe you’ve received both gifts and curses. Likely from different sources. I can help you understand why you have this power, Emma. But…you have to understand that only you can confront the source.”
Emma’s heart picked up speed. “You mean…face the source, as in…face the wolf? One and the same?”
Marigold’s lips lifted in a tiny smile that appeared more sad than comforting. “I can’t be sure of anything yet, but perhaps.”
Emma couldn’t quite hide her disappointment that more answers weren’t forthcoming.
The psychic grasped Emma’s forearm. “It’s okay, Emma girl. We’ll figure this out together.”
Emma girl? How does she know that’s what I call myself?
Marigold gave her arm a gentle squeeze of reassurance, and despite the oddity of her words, Emma’s heart was infused with a spark of hope.
Three severed heads. Two worlds. One forbidden love.
Decapitated bodies seem to be following Special Agent Emma Last. First, it was the haunting appearance of the ghost of Ned, the late brother of Emma’s friend and colleague, who was beheaded in a car accident years ago. Now, D.C.’s Violent Crimes Unit has two more headless victims.
Or is it four?
Over two eerie nights, a crypt raider exchanged ancient skeletal skulls for the freshly severed heads of two unidentified men. Yet, the whereabouts of their bodies and the stolen bones remain shrouded in mystery…