I see dead people.
Okay, so it’s very, very rare, but I do seem to see creatures of the furry dearly departed variety on the regular. And, believe you me, it is never a good sign to their previous owner. It is always a harbinger of terrible things to come. Up until a few months ago, the horror used to amount to nothing more than a scraped knee or a horrible tumble. But these days, it almost always amounts to death.
Just a few weeks ago, Tanner Redwood’s Golden Retriever, Dutch, bounded back into reality—my reality anyhow. Apparently, I’m the only one with vision that extends right into eternity. Wait—that’s not entirely true. I just recently discovered that my best friend’s Grammy Nell can see these fantastic phantasms, too. But anyhow, Dutch was the first creature that I not only saw but heard. He’s a beauty with long golden hair, wears a smile for most of the day, and loves to cuddle with my Himalayan cat, Pancake.
I’m pretty sure Pancake can’t see or hear him, but he definitely senses a disturbance in the force. It’s probably best Pancake, nor anyone else can see the majestic beast—aside from his transparent qualities, he has eyes that blaze like fire, and it’s really quite alarming. Aside from that, Dutch is the first furry phantasm that has not disappeared after his owner’s murder was solved. Strangely enough, he’s taken up firm residency in my living room.
“Lottie!” Mom waves to me, frantic as an entire herd of women stream into the oversized living room of the B&B. It’s not only the day that her historical book club meets up for the month, but it also happens to be the birthday of the founder, Eve Hollister. “Lottie, please make sure the dessert buffet is kept well replenished.” She jabs a finger to an elongated table near the entry of the room that I’ve laden with every sweet treat that the Cutie Pie Bakery and Cakery could muster. It’s especially laden down with Eve’s favorites, like the chocolate chip peanut butter swirl cookies, dark chocolate dreams, and rocky road brownies. Eve Hollister has had a sweet tooth for as long as I’ve known her.
“Will do!” I note the brownies are running low and head to the kitchen to replenish the supply.
I’m not halfway there before I come upon the birthday girl herself, Eve Hollister, and a couple of her guests. Eve is actually the same age as my mother, but she’s had a rough go of it, and unfortunately looks as if she could be my mother’s mother. In Eve’s defense, my mother has found the fountain of youth and is willing to deny its existence until her dying day.
Miranda Lemon looks like she could be in magazines with her shoulder-length butter yellow locks, her svelte physique—and the fact she is always overdressed for any and every occasion doesn’t hurt either. I’m convinced my mother came out of the womb looking impeccably put together.
In contrast, Eve looks like your stereotypical grandmother with short white hair, a hobble to her step, and wrinkles worn proud like a badge well earned. Both Eve and my mother lost their husbands around the same time many years ago. Eve hasn’t dated since, that I’m aware of, but my mother has more than made up for it for the both of them. Miranda Lemon has a steady rotation of men she likes to keep warm by her side. As of late, she’s dating an abhorrence of an individual, one that happened to be cheating on his ex-wife just a few months back—the same ex-wife who tried to poison him. Brad Rutherford has an insatiable appetite for both women and a wild time—clearly a double whammy of reasons why he should be nowhere near my mother, and I’d go as far as to say no one else’s mother either.
The two younger women standing with Eve appear to be locked in a heated argument with the poor frazzled woman, and on this her birthday. They have a familiar look, and I can’t quite put my finger on where I know them. One girl looks to be about my age but far more polished, with her chocolate brown hair slicked back into a bun, her pencil skirt and heels both something I would eschew. I’m more of a pony, jeans, and sweater girl myself. My cozy shearling boots are perfect for running around the bakery and making deliveries this frozen time of year.
January in Honey Hollow, Vermont rarely calls for stilettos, but you can’t tell my sister Lainey that or apparently this woman either. The other girl locked in the heated debate looks younger, with pleasant wide-set features that would appeal to any man, a shock of red lipstick, and sleek glossy hair dyed a jarring shade of silver.
The one with gray locks leans in—it’s an ironic hair color, considering the fact she looks younger than I do at twenty-six. “You won’t get away with this forever.”
The brunette is quick to wave off the ingénue. “You know, ever since Daddy died, she’s been tighter than those shrunken jeans you’re wearing. You can’t teach an old horse new tricks.”
“It’s dog,” the younger one corrects.
“Woof woof,” Eve bleats with a laugh.
I try to boot scoot my way past them, and Eve’s eyes light up like that Christmas tree my mother still has lit up in the corner.
“Lottie Lemon!” she cries. “You remember my girls, Daphne and Brenda Lee?” She points to the uptight brunette and the angry gray-haired girl respectively.
“Oh my goodness,” I say, stunned as both girls glare back at me as if I’ve just let a noxious odor fly. Upon closer inspection, I do see traces of Eve in their features. Both are wildly attractive. The brunette, Daphne, has that nude makeup palate look going, and with her upscale skirt and navy silk blouse, she looks elegantly understated.
Brenda Lee has a boho chic vibe with a jacket that looks as if it was made out of a psychedelic quilt, and a sweater that looks as if someone ripped off the midsection, which would explain why it’s unraveling at the base—a purposeful look, I’m tragically sure—and let’s not forget the aforementioned shrunken jeans.
“Yes!” I try to match Eve’s enthusiasm, which only makes her daughter’s glower all the more in my direction. “I mean, I knew you had children.”
The Hollister kids are all about my age, but they were more or less what amounted to an urban legend here in Honey Hollow. We’re such a small, close-knit town, that it’s a miracle they managed to evade the entire state of Vermont for the duration of their childhood. The three of them—a rumored brother included—all went to boarding school in Switzerland. I believe Eve once mentioned a couple of them live in Ashford now. Too good for Honey Hollow, I suppose.
Eve Hollister herself has more money than she knows what to do with, and she’s just as happy to live in Honey Hollow as the rest of us.
“So nice to meet you both. I’m Lottie. I run the bakery on Main Street. If you’re ever in the area, please stop by. It would be my pleasure to send you home with a box full of goodies. Our mothers are very good friends.”
The younger one smirks and scoffs. “Our mother has friends? How much does your mother charge a month?”
The two of them break out into cackles, and my mouth falls open as I look to Eve. Surely they’re kidding—right?
Eve winks my way. “Oh, they’re just being silly.” She offers them a curt smile. “Lottie here was kind enough to bake her famous seven-layer cake for my birthday. It’s my absolute favorite.”
“I sure did, and it was my pleasure! Four layers of rich decadent chocolate and three with French vanilla. And don’t forget the generous layers of Bavarian cream and berries sprinkled on top. It was a feat finding berries in January, but I tracked them down for you. I’m baking the same cake for Nell in just two weeks.” Nell Sawyer is my best friend, Keelie Turner’s grandmother—Grammy. Nell also happens to be the only one I have ever shared my supernatural secret with. Well, I told Everett, my new neighbor, the judge, but he sort of wrangled it out of me.
Regardless, Nell not only knows my secret, but I just discovered this past Christmas Eve that she shares the same gift. She saw and heard Dutch, too. Suffice it to say, I’ve been itching to have one long sit-down with her ever since that night. No sooner did I discover Nell’s own supernatural secret than her daughter shuttled her out the door. Nell promised we’d get together after the holidays, but she’s been under the weather as of late so I thought I’d wait until she felt better.
“Ooh”—Brenda Lee rolls her eyes—“seven-layer cake.” She twirls a finger in the air and makes a crazy face at her sister. “How very creative, Mother.”
Wow. Eve Hollister must have inadvertently reared the rudest children—daughters anyway—on the planet. I’m beginning to think it was pure luck I evaded them all these years.
I hold up a finger. “Brenda Lee?” It comes out curt, and I don’t mind one bit. “That’s a very beautiful name, and I think it indeed proves that your mother is very creative.”
“Brenda Lee!” Eve snaps her fingers and dances a spontaneous jig. “She was my favorite singer growing up. Oh, she was just the best.”
Brenda Lee shoves her finger down her throat and pretends to gag.
Daphne elbows her. “Would you stop with the theatrics? Let’s get this over with.” She drags her sister into the living room, and I’m left to shrug at Eve.
“Lovely?” I didn’t mean for it to come out a question but, honest to God, there was no way around it.
“Just one minute, Lottie.” Eve waves me off as someone behind me hijacks her attention. “Well, if it isn’t Connie Chutney!” Eve pulls the older woman into a quick embrace. Connie looks like a fitter, and judging by the sour look on her face, a tad more bitter version of Eve.
The older woman grunts. “You just knew I was coming up on my golden badge today, this very day, and you had to have a birthday party,” she grits it through her teeth before turning my way. “I’m coming up on the most coveted badge of them all.” She turns to Eve with an uncontested look of malice. “Sometimes I think you do these things to me on purpose.” She gives Eve’s cheek a hard pinch and causes the birthday girl to yelp.
“Yes, well”—a devilish gleam takes over Eve’s blue eyes—“a girl must do what a girl must do.” Her demeanor changes on a dime as her own expression grows hostile. “Speaking of sabotage, I can’t believe you set my article to such a garish background—crimson with black ink! And don’t you think I didn’t notice the fact you made my name far smaller than you did yours. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother contributing to the volunteer newsletter.”
I try to take a step away from what is obviously a private conversation regarding highly coveted badges that I care to know nothing about and newsletter sabotage, and yet Eve reels me right back in their bickering midst.
“Connie, this is Lottie Lemon. She’s catering the event for me today. Lottie, this is Connie Chutney. We’ve volunteered down at the hospital for the last four decades.”
Connie extends a bony hand, no smile. “I’m the head volunteer down at Honey Hollow General Hospital. And I’m also in charge of editing the volunteer newsletter. Someone here is just bitter that my articles are better received.” She gives a barely-there wink.
Eve balks, “Mine would be better received if people could actually see them.”
Eve straightens a moment as she looks over my shoulder, and I turn to see Bear and an older man both dressed in jeans and flannels with tool belts slung low on their hips. Otis Fisher—Bear as he’s better known in these parts, is my infamous ex. We were together for three torturous high school years, but then he decided he wanted more than one girl to torment with his presence. My fragile broken heart when I discovered his pre-teen paramour and I hightailed it out of Honey Hollow and straight to New York City, where I had the rest of my heart smashed to smithereens by the next ex on my list.
I used to have such poor luck with men, I never thought I’d meet a prince, but, sure enough, last fall I met someone better than your run-of-the-mill next in line for some useless throne—I met a drop-dead gorgeous detective, my fabulous new boyfriend Noah Corbin Fox. My insides detonate just thinking about him.
Noah and I recently took our relationship to the next level, and let’s just say that he’s been over every single night ready and willing to frost my cookies. And, my God, does that man ever know how frost me right into outer space. My entire body is overheating just thinking about it.
“What are they doing here?” Eve gives the construction duo a suspicious look and yanks me right out of my Noah-inspired trance.
Mom bursts into our tiny circle. “Don’t you worry about a thing, missy.” She slings an arm over Eve’s shoulders. “They’re here for me. One can never have enough men in the house.” She waves them over. “I’m thinking of adding a conservatory—that’s a fancy word for sunroom—and Bear offered to give me a free estimate.”
“I thought Bill should be here, too.” Connie leans in. Her hair is short and curly, a salt and pepper color with salt winning the battle. Her face is round, her wrinkles soft, but by contrast, that hardened expression never seems to leave her. “I figured since he was dropping me off, he might as well place a bid himself.” Her eyes narrow as she looks to Eve. “Miranda had to tell me about the addition herself.” She pokes Eve hard in the chest. “You know Bill needs the business this time of year. It should have been you who recommended him.”
Eve inches back, her lips buttoned up as if she were holding back a deluge of words, not one of them kind. Eve has had an infamous remodel going on now for over a year, and it looks as if she has nothing good to say about Bill and his remodeling skills.
Mom ushers the men off and Connie follows, barking orders to poor Bill who looks as if he wants to be anywhere but here. He offers Eve a curt nod as he passes her by, and just like the rest of her guests, he doesn’t seem all that happy to see her. My God, they all act as if they want to slaughter her in her sleep.
I clear my throat. Despite her foibles, Eve is a kind soul. I think.
“Well, I’m going to make sure you have the best birthday party ever,” I say, determined to make it happen.
“That makes two of us!” a cheery voice calls from behind as a stunning blonde bounces her way over and offers Eve an embrace. “Where do you want the gifts, boss?”
Eve waves off the idea of such a generous offering. “How I wish you didn’t buy me anything. I don’t pay you much to begin with!”
The blonde lifts a brow. “I keep saying if you cut my wages I’d be working for free.”
An entire crowd of women heads this way, and Eve makes her way to them.
“Lottie Lemon,” I’m quick introduce myself to the only person outside of my mother who I’ve seen maintain a level of civility toward the birthday girl. “You work for Eve?”
“That’s right. I’m Valerie Vernon, modern-day handmaiden, ten ruthless hours a day. No breaks. Eve thinks all I do is sit around. You try cleaning that haunted mansion of hers and see how easy it is. Eve Hollister makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like a prized benefactor.” She stalks off, looking far more bitter than she did when she arrived, and I’m at a loss for words. Et tu, Valerie Vernon?
After threading through a sea of limbs, I finally make my way to the kitchen, where I note the fact I left the back door open after hauling in the countless cookie platters.
My mother purchased the B&B the year after she lost my father, and this has been her source of income and her beloved pet project ever since. The kitchen is impressively large and has all the top-of-the-line appliances you could wish for. But nevertheless, I insisted on baking all of my goodies at the Cutie Pie. That bakery is essentially my home away from—
“Oh my God!” I howl so loud my voice reverberates off the walls. Standing next to the opened back door is an eight-foot tall black bear, complete with a menacing growl, angry red mouth, and razor sharp teeth that look as if they were just itching to clamp themselves down over one of my juicy little arms.
The enormous beast rocks back and stands on its hind legs, letting out an egregiously howl—so loud, my eardrums beg to burst from the effort.
My body freezes solid, every muscle I own has turned to stone, and I can’t seem to catch my next breath. It takes a lumbering step forward and upturns a couple of empty cookie sheets, sending them to the floor with a clatter before letting out another menacing growl.
“Lottie?” Mom stomps her way in, hands on hips, looking visibly annoyed with me. “What in the heck is going on here? It sounds like you’re tearing up my kitchen.” She heads over and picks the cookie sheets right off the floor and lands them onto the counter where they belong. She turns my way, the bear dwarfing her in size, breathing down her neck as he stands menacingly close behind her. “My goodness! What has gotten into you? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“A ghost!” I shout so loud it might as well be a cry for help.
The bear stalks its way right through my mother before dropping to all fours and bounding out toward the bustling birthday party.
“Whew.” Mom fans herself a moment. “I think I just had one serious hot flash—or as I like to say, power surge.” She scoops up a tray of rocky road brownies before pausing to look at the seven-layer cake sitting pretty on a glass platter. “What talent you have. It never ceases to amaze me. You really are something special, Lottie.”
She blows me a kiss as she speeds right past me.
I suppose I do have a talent, and I’m not talking about my expertise in the kitchen. I have a supernatural knack that is quickly morphing into a curse. Not only did I see, and hear the bear—I witnessed the fact he was able to upturn those cookie sheets.
Never before has that happened. Never before has it gone this far.
A bear of all creatures!
Never before has it been this dangerous.
I’m willing to bet someone in this very B&B is about to take their final breath.
One thing is clear: death has come to Honey Hollow once again.