Arizona Wild (formerly published as Deadly Gamble)
New York Book Festival Honorable Mention 2007
Romance Writers of America RITA Award Finalist 2007
Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Paranormal Romance 2006-2007
Mojo’s got an uncanny knack for winning at slots, but her home sweet home is Bad-Ass Bert’s Biker Saloon. She’d love to go undercover with an irresistibly hot cop, but he’s got baggage as big as his biceps. Mojo survived a mysterious childhood tragedy, but she’s never quite figured out who she really is or how to get on with her life. Now the wisecracking Mojo is seeing ghosts—the ectoplasmic kind—and turning up baffling clues to her real identity. And she’ll need all her savvy and strange new talent to keep someone from burying her—and the truth—for keeps.
Cave Creek, Arizona
At first, the chill was a drowsy nibble at the distant and ragged edges of my awareness, raising goosebumps on the parts of my flesh bared to that spring night. The sensation was vaguely disturbing, but not troublesome enough to stir me from the fitful shallows of sleep. I remember rolling onto my side, pulling the comforter up to my right earlobe and murmuring some insensible protest.
That was when I heard Nick’s voice. Or thought I heard it.
Impossible, I told myself, nestling groggily into my polyester burrow. He’s dead.
Just then, a hand came to rest on my hip, and the chill sprouted teeth and bit right through cotton nightshirt, skin and tissue to seize the marrow of my bones.
I choked out a hoarse cry, too raw and guttural to qualify as a scream, and shimmied off the mattress to land hard on both feet. In the space of an instant, my senses shifted from dial-up to broadband, and I pressed one hand to my chest, in case my heart tried to flail its way out of my chest. My brains pulsed, Cuisinart-style, then scrambled. I couldn’t seem to drag a breath past my esophagus, though my lungs clawed for air like a pair of miners trapped beneath tons of rubble.
I felt that way once on a stair-climber at the gym after sucking in a pack and a half of nicotine in a bar the night before, and subsequently swore off exercise forever. Hell, somebody has to serve as the bad example.
But I digress. Get used to it.
My eyes must have bugged out, cartoonlike. Nick—Nick—lay on top of the covers, dressed in his snappy gray burial suit, with his hands cupping the back of his head. Except for a peculiar greenish glimmer emanating from his skin, he looked pretty much the way he had before he collided with a semi on the 101 North and was thrown through the windshield of his BMW. Along with Tiffany, Nick’s lover du jour, who was scarred for life and for some insane reason blamed me for her Frankenstein face and deflated implants.
One of the many things I don’t like about dead people is that a lot of them glow in the dark. Not that I’d seen any before my late ex-husband turned up that momentous night, a full two years after his funeral. Since then, unfortunately, I’ve become something of an authority.
“Hey,” Nick said companionably, as though the situation were entirely normal, and not something out of an old segment of Unsolved Mysteries. My stomach quivered. Like my heart, it was threatening to leap out of my throat and make a run for it.
“You’re dead,” I pointed out—quite reasonably, I thought, given the circumstances. I knew he’d croaked, but I wasn’t sure he’d been notified. He looked so calm and matter-of-fact, as though turning up in his ex-wife’s bed in the middle of the night was a perfectly ordinary thing to do.
Nick sighed, slipped his hands from behind his head and hoisted himself as far as his elbows. “Sort of,” he admitted, with a rueful note.
I managed a step backward, ready to hot-foot it out of there, jerk open the outside door, and dash down the fire escape style stairway to Bad-Ass Bert’s Biker Saloon. Normally, I didn’t seek out the company of Bert’s clientele, especially when I was naked except for a slip of cotton jersey that barely covered my thighs, but given the situation, I was game for just about anything. Trouble was, once I’d retreated half a stride, I couldn’t seem to move again.
“How can you be ‘sort of’ dead?” I asked.
“It’s complicated,” Nick replied. “In some ways, I’m more alive than you are.” With that, he swung his legs over the side of the mattress and stood up, turning to face me across the expanse of tangled bedding. The glow surrounding his lean frame flickered a little, as if somebody had turned a celestial dimmer switch.
“Relax,” he said. “It’s okay.”
Sure. No problem. Pay no attention to the walking, talking corpse.
“You’re dead,” I repeated stubbornly.
“Yeah,” he agreed wryly. “I’ve noticed. So maybe we could get past that?”
“Don’t come near me,” I ordered. Pure bravado, of course. I’d read The Damn Fool’s Guide to Self-Defense for Women and practiced all the moves on Bert, who was a genuine bad-ass, but if there was a chapter on phosphorescent assailants, I must have missed it.
Nick tilted his dark head to one side and looked pathetic, though still damnably handsome. Apparently, being deceased is neither messy nor strenuous; his suit was wrinkle-free, slightly out of fashion, his hair sleek, and there was no sign of his hallmark five o’clock shadow. No tire marks, either, thank God, and no blood, guts or jutting bone fragments.
He must have read my mind. With a sad grin, he looked down at himself, before meeting my gaze again. “Hell of a patch job, though. You should have seen me before the mortician did his thing.” He shuddered. “You haven’t lived—so to speak—until you’ve seen yourself lying in pieces on a slab. Definitely not a pretty sight.”
I winced. “Thanks for sharing,” I said. At least we were on the same page with the dead-thing. I had a lot of questions, naturally, but I couldn’t seem to articulate any of them. Shock does that to a person.
Another fetching grin. “You cried at my funeral,” he reminded me, with pleased modesty.
I stiffened. My heartbeat had slowed somewhat, and I was managing a full breath every few seconds, but my knees felt about as substantial as foam on a mug of draft beer. When the last few bubbles popped, I’d be on the floor in a quivering heap.
“So what?” I asked. “We were married once. You were only thirty-two, and you didn’t deserve to die like that, even if you were an asshole. Too bad about Tiffany, too. Did you know her boobs popped and she had to have three surgeries just to look human?”
He ignored the reference to girlfriend #62. At least she was post-divorce; the first thirty-seven could probably be slotted neatly between “I do” and “Go-to-hell-you-bastard-I’m taking-back-my-maiden-name.”
“Black isn’t your color,” he observed gently, starting around the end of the bed, heading in my general direction. I backpedaled. “Stay away from me.”
He stopped, and once again that slight, familiar grin hitched up one corner of his mouth. “You looked for all the world like the classic grieving widow that day,” he reiterated. “Divorce or no divorce, you weren’t over me.”
“The hell I wasn’t,” I shot back, and shoved a hand through my shoulder-length tangle of curly red hair. I did a quick mental review of The Damn Fool’s Guide to Lucid Dreaming and wondered if I was experiencing some random version of the phenomenon. I pinched myself, blinked a couple of times and sighed.
Nick was still there, which meant I was awake. The jury was still out on whether or not I was lucid.
“I’m sorry about the other women,” he said sweetly.
“Too little, too late,” I answered, stunned by the sharp, sudden pang of sorrow at the verbal reminder. It was like a rubber band snapping around my soul. “What are you doing here?’”
He cocked one perfectly shaped eyebrow. In life, Nick had been a real estate developer, eating up the Arizona desert with tract houses, convenience stores and strip malls. I half expected his cell phone to ring. He was one of those people who go around with an earphone plugged into their heads, apparently talking to themselves. “I wondered when you’d get to that question,” he said.
“Now you know.”
Nick fiddled with his tie again. His mother chose that tie—red, with tiny silver stripes. I hated it, and I hated her. More on that later. “It’s hard to get your attention,” he said. Then, with a wistful look, he added, “Some things never change.”
“Pul-eeze,” I said. “We’re not going to play the poor, misunderstood Nick game, okay?” I was so not in love with him, dead or alive, and I didn’t want him hanging around. How do you get a restraining order against a ghost?
He held up a hand, palm out . . . All right, all right,” he said. “Let’s not go there.”
“Wise choice, Bucko. And you still haven’t told me what you’re doing in my bedroom in the middle of the night.”
“It’s a long story.” He looked around the bedroom, with its linoleum floor, fading wallpaper and garage-sale furniture. “Still living over the biker bar,” he observed. “When are you going to get a decent place?”
Thanks to Nick and his mother, Margery DeLuca, society Scion and barracuda divorce lawyer, I’d gotten F-all in the settlement, except for a pile of credit card bills I was still paying off. I couldn’t afford anything but what I had, and sometimes even that much was a stretch, but there didn’t seem to be much point in going down that winding and treacherous road. “Did you come here to talk real estate? If so, kindly go haunt somebody else—your mother, for instance. I’m not in the market.”
Nick looked hurt. That was my second cue to feel guilty.
He sighed once more, philosophically this time, like some holy martyr, angling for his own prayer card. No sale there, either. Nick DeLuca was a lot of things, but a saint wasn’t one of them.
“Damn it,” he said, looking down at himself again. “I’m fading.”
Sure enough, the glow indicated low batteries, and I could see through his left shoulder and part of his mid-section.
“Wait,” I said. The word scraped my throat.
Nick’s brown eyes connected briefly with mine, then he vanished.
I blinked, hugging myself now, ready to collapse but afraid to go near the bed, where I could expect to make a soft landing. “Nick?” I whispered, gripping the dresser for support.
He was really gone, except for a faint reverberation in the air.
If he’d been there in the first place.
I stood still for a long time, staring at the space where Nick had been standing, then groped my way out of the bedroom, along the dark hall and into the kitchen, flipping on the light switch with numb fingers as I passed it. I sank into a chair at the round oak table, laid my head down on my folded arms and sat out the rest of the night.
At dawn, I made a pot of coffee, and as soon as I heard Bert’s Harley roll up outside, I forced myself to go back into the haunted bedroom. There, I quickly pulled on a pair of jeans, stuffed my feet into the Sponge Bob slippers my foster sister, Greer, had given me for Christmas in one of her rare moments of whimsy, and finger-combed my hair. In the adjoining bathroom, I brushed my teeth and splashed my face with cold water. Gazing into the mirror over the cracked pedestal sink, I gave myself a brief lecture.
“Suck it up, Mojo Sheepshanks,” I said. “You’re probably not the first woman to wake up and find her dead husband in bed with her.”
Despite the speech, I wasn’t consoled. My face was so pale, my freckles looked three-dimensional, and my eyes, which vary from blue to green, depending on what I’m wearing, were colorless. I had the raccoon thing going, too—an effect that can usually only be achieved by cheap mascara and a crying jag.
Having made this grim but accurate assessment, I turned from the mirror, traversed the kitchen again and opened the door. I stood for a moment on the landing, looking down on the gravel parking lot. Bert, a brawny guy with a shaved head and both arms tattooed with road maps, bent over the sidecar attached to his bike, unbuckling Russell’s helmet. Russell was his basset hound; and the mutt gave a happy yip when he spotted me.
Bert Wenchal—Bert being short for Bertrand—turned and favored me with a broad smile. For all that he could have been an attraction in one of those road-side freak shows advertised on billboards—See the Amazing Human Map, 5 Miles Ahead—Bert had perfect teeth, never mind that they were the size of piano keys, and baby blue eyes.
“Hey, Mojo,” he called, setting the dog’s head gear on the seal of the Harley. Russell leaped out of the sidecar and trundled toward me as I descended the wooden stairs. Most days Russell sat on a stool at the end of the bar, and scored too many pepperoni sticks from the customers.
I bent to ruffle the dog’s floppy ears. “You’re too fat,” I told him affectionately.
He tried to lick my face.
Bert’s keys jingled as he shoved one into the lock on the service door. The bar wouldn’t open until ten, but he liked to come in early, put the coffee on to brew, fire up the hot dog roaster, rake the peanut shells, cigarette butts and spitlumps out of the sawdust on the floor and balance the till. As landlords went, Bert was unconventional, but the rent was right and he had a great dog, so we got along okay.
“You look like hell this morning,” he told me brightly, washing his hands at the sink behind the bar. Bert was proud of his saloon, especially the bar. It was nothing but splintery boards, nailed across the top of six huge wooden barrels, bought at a junk sale in Tombstone, but according to Bert, the thing was a true historical artifact. Allegedly, in its heyday, the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had bellied up to it.
“Thanks,” I said bleakly. Russell climbed onto the old mounting block next to his bar stool, then made the leap to the vinyl seat. I perched on the next one over.
Bert started the coffee. Despite his size and the fact that Route 66 coursed in a green line up his left arm, presumably across his chest, and down his right, complete with side roads, highway numbers and place names beside little red circles, he was a sensitive guy.
“Something happen to Lillian?” he asked.
My eyes burned, and my throat tightened. I ran a hand down Russell’s broad back for a distraction. Lillian Travers was the closest thing I had to a mother, and she would have been my first choice to confide in, but she’d suffered a devastating stroke six months before. Now, she sat staring into space in a Phoenix nursing home, and I made the forty-five minute trip to visit her three times a week.
Sometimes Lillian seemed to know me, sometimes she didn’t. Except for isolated, garbled words, she never spoke.
Bert paused in his coffee-making, waiting.
I finally shook my head. “She’s the same,” I got out.
“Then what?” Bert persisted, but gently. With the coffeemaker chortling and belching out fragrant steam, he flipped on the hot dog machine, opened the fridge tucked behind the bar and took out a package of frankfurters. I watched as he laid them carefully, one by one, on the gleaming steel bars’ rolling behind the glass.
“Something really weird happened last night,” I said, with understandable difficulty and no little reluctance. Russell laid his muzzle on my left forearm, mesmerized by the spinning wieners.
Bert arched his eyebrows, tossed the frankfurter package into the trash and washed his hands again. Time to rake the sawdust. I took comfort in Bert’s unvarying rituals, maybe because I had so few of my own. Most of the time, I felt as insubstantial as Nick’s ghost; I’d been Iiving a lie for so long, I couldn’t recall the truth, if I’d ever known it in the first place. “Like what?” he prompted.
I turned on the bar stool as he reached for the rake leaning against the weathered board wall. “Like I saw my dead ex-husband last night,” I stumbled. There was no graceful way to say it.
Bert paused, rake in hand and gave a low whistle . . .“Dude,” he said.
Since some people would have tested my forehead for a fever, I was mildly encouraged. “Maybe I’m going crazy.” That was the thought that had kept me awake, too agitated to engage in my usual insomnia cure, which was to sit at my computer and work my way through one of the piles of medical billings that paid my bills. That and the fear that Nick would get a recharge and show up again if I Iay down on the bed.
Bert began to rake noxious things into a pile between two massive pool tables. Anybody might think they were losing their mind if they’d seen what I had, but I had more reason than most. My parents were shot to death in our rented doublewide, down in Cactus Bend, when I was five years old. I knew I must have witnessed the murders, since I was found hiding in the clothes dryer off the kitchen, covered with their blood, but I had no memory of the incident, or of the next few months, for that matter. The first thing I could recall was waking up in a cheap motel, and Lillian dabbing at my face with a cold washcloth.
“I seen you do some strange things,” Bert said. “Like the way you can make a slot machine pay off pretty much whenever you want. You come by your name honestly, but you ain’t crazy, Mojo. Not you.”
My heart warmed. Actually, I didn’t come by my name honestly—or much of anything else, either. Like Lillian, I’d been using an alias for years—one I’d chosen myself, out of a library book—and some dead child’s social security number. As close as Bert and I were, though, I’d never told him the whole story. Even Nick hadn’t known, though maybe he did now. He’d seen his battered body after the accident, and he knew I’d cried at his funeral, so maybe being dead gave him a broader perspective.
Now there was a disturbing thought.
“He looked—real,” I went on. “Except that he glowed in the dark.”
Bert raked a little faster, and I hoped he wasn’t revising his opinion about my sanity. “Was there a reason for this visit?” he asked, without looking at me.
“We never got that far,” I said.
Bert glanced in my direction.
“Nothing happened,” I told him firmly, and without delay.
He grinned. “I never said it did,” he replied. “Give Russell one of them frankfurters, will you? He missed his breakfast.”
I slid off the stool and went around behind the bar, glad to have something physical to do, however mundane. “You shouldn’t let him eat stuff like that,” I said. “One of these days, he’s going to blow an artery.”
Bert got out the dustpan and leaned down to rake the pile into it. “Poor dog gets nothin’ but diet kibble at home,” he said. Bert’s girlfriend, Sheila, ran a tight ship. “One sausage ain’t gonna hurt him.”
I opened the door, speared a frank and plopped it onto a paper plate.
Russell watched, salivating, as I cut it into bite-sized pieces with a plastic knife. “Like you don’t give him one every morning of his life,” I chided, but I set the plate down in front of Russell and smiled as he snarfed up the grub.
“My aunt Nellie saw a ghost once,” Bert ruminated, raking again. “It was her dog, Fleagel the beagle. He lived for seventeen years, and Nell swore she found crap on the same old place on the stairs for ten days after he croaked. She said that was how she knew she was going to die. When the beagle came back, I mean. Sure enough, a few weeks after the sighting, she bit the dirt, right in the middle of a game of blackout bingo.”
I gazed across the bar at him, hands resting on my hips. With anybody else, I would have felt self-conscious in my jeans, rumpled nightshirt and Sponge Bobs, but Bert was different. Like a brother. “That was a pretty insensitive remark,” I said.
“Aunt Nellie was a pretty insensitive woman,” Bert answered, without missing a beat. “If Uncle Dutch hadn’t been too embarrassed to call the cops on her, she’d have been run in on a domestic violence charge. The only thing she ever loved, far as I could tell, was that dog of hers.”
I returned to my stool but sat facing Bert, with my back to the bar. “We both come from dysfunctional families,” I reflected. “Maybe that’s why we get along so well.”
Bert chuckled, shook his bald head. “You know what worries me, Mojo? I can follow your logic, back-asswards as it is. Your brother went to prison for killing your folks. I was raised by two drunks and a pack of Labrador retrievers. We’re a pair to draw to, you and me.”
I nodded glumly. Bert’s knowledge of my background was limited to the bare facts, but I’d told him more than I’d told just about anybody else in my life, including Nick or the men I’d dated since the divorce. “By psychological standards, we ought to be in padded rooms by now.”
“If you mention seeing a ghost to the wrong person,” Bert mused, pausing to lean on the rake handle and regard me with concern, “you might end up in one anyhow.”
By then, my thoughts had shifted to Lillian. Maybe she was having one of her good days. Even if she was, she wouldn’t be able to carry on a coherent conversation, but she could listen, and she always seemed to enjoy a surprise visit. I decided to shower, dress and motor down the 101 to see her.
“You’re a real comfort, Bert,” I teased, already on my way to the side door, which stood propped open to the still cool mid-April air. In another month, it would be so hot the asphalt on the highways would buckle.
“You didn’t have your coffee,” Bert called after me.
I doubled back, filled a disposable cup, stirred in sugar and powdered creamer and raised the brew in a toast as I went by. “Put it on my tab,” I said.
Bert grinned and nodded, and I stepped out into the sunny parking lot just as another Harley roared up, flinging gravel, and came to a noisy stop beside Bert’s bike.
Tucker Darroch, my most recent bad romantic choice.
He shut off the bike and gave a salutelike wave. Clad in jeans, scuffed black boots and a blue muscle shirt, which showed off his biceps to distinct advantage, Tucker was the complete opposite of Nick, at least when it came to appearance. He was six feet tall, square jawed, and his honey-colored hair was too long, falling in his eyes and curling at the nape of his neck, while Nick was of average height, compactly built and born to the boardroom.
Tucker looked like a Hell’s Angel. In actuality, he was an undercover cop.
We’d done a little undercover work ourselves, Tucker and I. That was the best part of our relationship. The rest of it sucked, unfortunately, and we’d agreed, three and a half weeks before, to cool it for a while. Tucker was just wrapping up a nasty divorce, and he and the little woman were still duking it out over custody of their seven-year-old twins, Danny and Daisy.
Just watching Tucker swing a blue-jeaned leg over the seat of that bike made my nerves twitch. I wanted to nod a noncommittal greeting, climb the stairs to my apartment and go on about my business, but I might as well have been wearing cement shoes.
Tucker approached, his hips rolling in that easy, death-to-women walk of his. He shoved his hair back from his face and looked straight down into my eyes. “Nice getup,” he said, hooking his thumbs in the back pockets of his Levi’s.
It took me a moment to realize he was talking about my clothes. “It’s a fashion statement,” I heard myself say. “Care for a translation?”
He grinned. “I’ll pass,” he said lightly, but his green eyes were watchful, and slightly narrowed. “You okay? You’ve got dark circles under your eyes.”
Between Bert and Tucker, I was pretty clear that the current look wasn’t working for me. “I’m fine,” I said, a little too quickly.
Tucker pretended to dodge a blow. “Excuse me for asking,” he said.
I finally got my legs working again, and made for the stairs. “Things to do, people to see, ” I explained airily over one shoulder, concentrating on 1—putting one foot in front of the other, then repeating the process, 2—not spilling my coffee, and 3—not running back to Tucker and jumping his bones in the parking lot. “Nice seeing you again.”
He didn’t answer, but I felt his gaze on me as I mounted the steps.
Lillian was not having one of her good days, as it turned out.
She sat in her wheelchair, in front of the one window in her fusty little room, a shrunken and fragile figure, arthritic hands knotted in her lap. A worn but colorful afghan coveted her bony knees, and a lump rose in my throat as I remembered the woman she used to be. Her stepdaughter, Jolie, had crocheted that afghan for her long ago, as a Christmas present. Lillian had been luminous with delight that day, her laughter rich and vibrant, her brain and body in working order. Those painfully curled fingers had been busy, competent, glistening with shopping-channel rings.
LilIian was my babysitter, before my parents were murdered.
Shortly after the killings, she’d been my kidnapper. I swallowed the lump, blinked back tears and crossed the room to stand next to her, bending to kiss her lightly on top of the head.
“Hello,” I said gently. She looked up at me, and for a moment recognition sparked in her sunken eyes. She grasped my hand, squeezed it with a strange urgency and made a soft sound that I chose to interpret as a greeting.
I dragged up a chair to sit knee to knee with her, opened the bag of doughnuts I’d picked up on the way down from Cave Creek and offered her favorite, a double-frosted maple bar.
She shook her wobbly head, like one of those bobble-figures they give away at baseball games, but her watery eyes were full of longing. Lillian had been an off-the-rack size 16 ever since I could remember, but now she looked almost skeletal, with big dents at her temples and under her cheekbones. It was as though her skull were eating its way to the surface.
I broke off a piece of the maple bar and held it to her lips. She took a nibble, like a baby bird being fed in the nest. My heart twisted.
Laboriously, Lillian gummed the morsel and swallowed.
“You look good,” I lied.
“Cods,” Lillian said.
I frowned. “Cods?” She wanted fish?
“Cods,” Lillian insisted.
“She’s talking about these,” a female voice put in, nearly scaring me out of my skin. I turned to see a pudgy nurse’s aide standing by Lillian’s neatly made bed, holding up a familiar deck of cards. Of course, I thought. The Tarot cards.
I didn’t recognize the aide. The turnover was huge at Sunset Villa.
Lillian began to squirm in her chair, reaching with what seemed a desperate eagerness. “Cods!” she croaked.
“They’re the devil’s work,” the nurse’s aide said, with a righteous little sniff. She was overweight and looked like she might attend one of those churches where they drink antifreeze and juggle snakes. “Only thing worse is them Ouija boards, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” I pointed out, crisply polite as I dropped the maple bar back into the bakery bag and went to claim Lillian’s deck. They were her most treasured possession, those creased and battered cards. When we were on the run, after my folks were killed, she’d sometimes given readings to pay for a tank of gas or a meal in some diner. They’d warned us, those cards, Lillian claimed, when somebody recognized my picture from the back of a milk carton, and the Tarot had predicted disaster if I married Nick.
I should have listened. I took the cards and stared at the nurse’s aide, bristling in her flowered scrubs, until, in a minor snit, she turned around and left the room.
“Give,” Lillian demanded.
I handed her the cards, bracing myself to watch the inevitable struggle. Once, Lillian had plied that deck with the skill of a riverboat poker shark, but that was when her fingers were straight and strong, with a hotline to her brain.
She gripped the cards in both hands, and I saw a tremor pass through her as she closed her eyes to concentrate. I wondered, not for the first time, if large portions of her mind were dark and boarded up, as the doctors said, or if the old LilIian crouched in there someplace, smart as ever.
I didn’t know what to hope for. For a woman as bright and full of life as Lillian had been, it would be hell if the wires were down between her mind and her body. On the other hand, being a vegetable was no fun, either.
It tortured me, wondering how it was for her.
I watched bleakly as the woman who’d saved me from so many things fumbled with a pack of tattered playing cards. She turned the deck over, thumbed them until she settled on one. The Queen of Pentacles, a colorful card, showing a medieval woman seated on a throne. That one dropped into her lap, followed, after more excruciating selection, by the Page of Cups. A young man in tights, holding up a chalice with a fish, presumably dead, flopping over the rim.
I waited tensely, resisting the urge to help her.
Lillian still had her pride. I had to believe that.
When it came to interpretation, I was useless. The deck was a familiar fixture, since LilIian had carried it in her pocket or purse for as long as I could remember, but I knew next to nothing about the images, even though I’d seen them many times.
It was almost an anticlimax when she settled on the third and apparently final card—Death. It showed a skeleton, wearing black armor and mounted on a fierce-looking horse, bodies littering the ground beneath. I drew in my breath.
Lillian’s hands relaxed suddenly, and she looked up at me, her contorted face imploring me to understand.
“Take,” she ground out.
I plucked the three cards from where they’d fallen onto the pilled afghan covering her thin legs. My palms sweated as I examined the pictures, one by one. I knew there was a message, but the circuits were blocked.
I tried to hand them back.
“Take,” Lillian repeated, and shrank back in her wheelchair, the remaining cards bending in her grasp. I bit my lower lip, nodded and tucked the Queen, the Page and Death gently into the side-flap of my purse. I’d stop at a bookstore on the way back to Cave Creek, I decided. Pick up a Damn Fool’s Guide to Tarot. I wasn’t ready to leave Lillian, but she was clearly overwrought, and staying too long might plunge her into an even steeper decline. “Want some more of the maple bar?” I asked, and practically choked on the words. If she’d been in her usual staring mode, I might have told her about last night’s visit from Nick, just to have a sounding board, but she was too agitated to listen to a ghost story. Besides, even if she understood, what could she do?
“No,” she said clearly, and at first I thought she was answering my question about the maple bar. Instead, her gaze was fixed on the doorway.
A tall man stood on the threshold, a finger hooked in the suit jacket hanging behind his right shoulder. He had a full head of gray hair and one of those benignly handsome faces that inspire instant confidence. I felt a spike of recognition and reached out to close my fingers over Lillian’s hands. They were clenched.
My uncle, Clive Larimer, smiled.
“Hello, Mary Josephine,” he greeted me. “Long time no see.”
Lillian began a soft, gurgling murmur.
Larimer stepped into the room, momentarily distracted when the nurse’s aide pushed past him and rushed over to Lillian.
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Travers?” she asked anxiously.
I peeped at her name tag. Felicia.
A tear slipped down Lillian’s right cheek.
“You’ll have to leave, both of you,” Felicia decreed.
Larimer backed into the corridor, out of sight. I forgot all about him, in my concern for Lillian.
“It’s those damn devil-cards,” Felicia declared, but she was patting Lillian’s shoulder, and Lillian seemed to be calming down a little. “Time for your medicine anyway, isn’t it, Mrs. Travers? And after that, you can take a nice nap.” Felicia paused to glare at me. “That’s what Mrs. Travers needs. Medicine and a nap. You’d better go now.”
I didn’t protest. I’d already made the decision to split, after all. Lillian had drifted back into herself, and the cards lay forgotten between her palms. I might have been transparent, the way she stared through me.
I nodded, certain I’d break down and cry if I tried to say anything. I picked up my purse, leaving the bakery bag on the window sill, where I’d set it earlier, and dashed for the door.
I ran smack into Uncle Clive in the corridor, and he steadied me by placing avuncular hands on my shoulders.
“Mary Josephine,” he said, as if he couldn’t believe it was really me.
I bit my lower lip, speechless. I hadn’t seen the man since I was five, and I probably wouldn’t have recognized him at all if he hadn’t been a state senator, making regular appearances on TV and in every major newspaper in Arizona. He looked harmless, even friendly, but he was one of the people Lillian had wanted to avoid, all those years ago. She’d been scared to death, for herself and me, which was why she’d snatched me from the front yard of my foster home. At least, that was her account of what happened—I didn’t remember any of it.
“Let’s have some coffee and talk,” Uncle Clive said quietly.
I was twenty-eight years old, a self-supporting adult, not a kid. I’d been married and divorced. I’d read The Damn Fool’s Guide to Self-Defense for Women.
There was nothing to be afraid of.
And, besides, I was curious as hell.
Uncle Clive was my mother’s older brother. He’d been around when the killings took place, and he could fill in a lot of gaps in my memory, bring me up to speed on my half brother, Geoff, who’d gone to prison at sixteen for second-degree murder.
“Okay,” I said.
The cafeteria at Sunset Villa wasn’t much, so we walked, my long-lost uncle and I, to a nearby Starbucks, with outside tables and misters to cool the customers. Even in April, it’s warm in Phoenix.
I didn’t think I could choke down anything—the whole scenario was an excuse to talk, after all—but Clive bought us both a cup of classic roast. Except for a few university students bent over textbooks and one doughy guy with piercings and vampire teeth—a poet or a serial killer or both—we had the place to ourselves.
“I can’t believe it’s you,” Clive said, as he joined me under the shade of a green-and-white striped umbrella, setting down our cups. His black metal chair, which matched the black metal table, scraped on the patio stones as he drew it back to sit. I didn’t answer. After twenty-three years, I didn’t know where to start.
It wasn’t that there was too much to say. It was that there wasn’t too much.
Tentatively, my mother’s big brother and only living sibling touched the back of my hand. “It’s okay,” he said, and his voice was so gentle that tears smarted, like acid, behind my eyeballs. “I used to carry you on my shoulders. Help you find Easter eggs. Do you remember?”
I shook my head. Nebulous memories were teasing the far borders of my mind, but I couldn’t seem to corner any of them long enough to take hold.
“We looked everywhere for you.” He spoke quietly, but a muscle bunched in his jaw as he took a sip of his coffee. “My God, it was bad enough, what happened to Evie and Ron, but when you went missing on top of it—”
Evie and Ron Mayhugh. My parents. My work-frazzled, distracted, waitress mother. My moody, chronically unemployed father. For a moment, I could see them clearly in my mind’s eye. It was an image I’d longed for, wracked my brains for, during many a sleepless night, and now, suddenly, there it was, a vivid little tableau branded on the inside of my forehead.
“How did you find Lillian?” I asked. The air seemed to pulse around both of us, as though charged, and there was a slow, dull thudding in my ears.
For a nanosecond, Clive looked confused. Of course, I thought. He’d known Lillian as Doris Blanchard. He made the leap quickly, though, and something eased in his face.
“By accident,” Clive Larimer answered. “Just a fluke, really.” He gave a sigh of benevolent resignation, and his eyes were warm and kind as he Iooked at me, studying my features, maybe searching for a resemblance to his murdered sister. “It’s ironic, really. The day you disappeared, the police put out an all-points bulletin. After a few weeks, the FBI got involved. The case was featured on 60 Minutes. Beyond an occasional sighting, nothing. And then a friend of mine happens to recognize Doris—Lillian—while visiting her sister at the nursing home. I walk in, thinking I’m crazy to still be hoping after all these years that I’ll find out anything, and there you are.”
“How did you know who I was?”
He smiled. “You look like your mother,” he said.
Well, that answered one question. I found it curiously comforting, even though I had no aspirations to be anything like the woman I barely remembered.
“What happened, Mary Jo?” he asked, after a long pause.
Mary Jo. lt was odd, hearing the name. Familiar as it was, like the words of a ditty learned in childhood, it made me feel like an impostor, or maybe an eavesdropper. Anybody but Mary Jo.
“What happened?” I echoed. Was he asking about the murder or the years afterward, when Lillian and I and, later, Greer, lived like the proverbial gypsies?
“You were there, and then you were gone.”
I wondered how much to tell him. On the one hand, he was my uncle. He might have given me away at my wedding to Nick, ill-advised as it was to marry the jerk, if Lillian hadn’t snatched me. I might have had a father figure in my life. On the other hand, Lillian must not have trusted him, back in the day, or she wouldn’t have grabbed me up and hit the road. And she’d seemed startled, even scared, when he appeared in the doorway of her room at Sunset Villa.
I shrugged, picked up my coffee, set it down again, untasted. Some of it sloshed over the rim of the cup and burned my fingers. I almost welcomed the pain, because it jarred me out of the muddle of surprise that had fogged my thinking and limited my vocabulary from the moment the thought formed in my mind: This is my uncle.
“It wasn’t a bad life,” I said. “Lillian took good care of me. We . . . traveled a lot, but I thought it was fun.” Except, of course, for the times when I’d just settled into a new school, made some friends, gotten myself another library card and then had to go on the run again, usually in the middle of the night.
“Catch me up,” Clive urged, after another extended silence. “What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have kids?”
I bit my lower lip. Clive Larimer was a state senator, with a socially connected wife named Barbara and four big-toothed, impossibly blond, Harvard-educated children. I’d Googled him whenever I got into one of my Norman Rockwellian moods and turned nostalgic. I figured when I answered his questions, he’d think the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, that I was as shiftless as my dad and as codependent as my mom, and I wished I could whip out pictures of two-point-two munchkins, a dog and a successful husband, and refer circumspectly to my part-time job as a rocket scientist.
“I work at home,” I said instead. “Medical billing and coding. Doctors like to outsource that stuff these days.” Feeling stupid, I blushed, but then plunged on. Telling the truth is good for you, Tucker had taunted me, not so long ago, during one of our screaming fights. You ought to give it a try sometime. “No kids. I was married for a couple of years, then divorced.”
The truth, I told Tucker silently, is overrated.
My uncle’s face reflected a calm, intense interest as he listened.
I left out the part about seeing Nick’s ghost, of course, and I didn’t get around to mentioning that I lived in a rented apartment over a biker bar in Cave Creek, either. I’d save that for when I really wanted to make a major impression. Show him my stack of dog-eared, highlighted Damn Fool’s Guides, too, and tell him how I’d educated myself on every subject from psychic pet communication to private investigation. Who needed Harvard?
“So that’s about it,” I said, letting the words dwindle to a sigh.
Uncle Clive settled back in his chair, tented his fingers together over his chest. “You must have a few questions yourself,” he remarked.
Hell, yes, I had questions.
The first one, which I didn’t voice, was: What ever happened to that no-good, scum-sucking, parent-murdering brother of mine? Correction, Geoff was a half brother—but the whole topic congealed in my throat, like some gelatinous mass, and the words my brain framed were slithering along, flattened against the side walls, trying to squeeze past it.
I’d run a hundred Googles on Geoff if I’d run one, after finding his last name in the newspaper archives. I didn’t remember it, for reasons already stated, and Lillian had always clammed up whenever I raised the subject. Geoff Waters, born to my mother by her first husband, had gone to a juvenile detention facility in California after confessing to shooting Dad in the back of the head and Mom through the throat. At twenty-one, he’d been released and his record expunged. lt galled me a little—and scared me a lot—to know that he was out there somewhere, lily-white as far as the law was concerned. Going on just as if nothing had happened.
“Geoff,” I finally managed. “Where do you suppose he is now?”
I hadn’t realized Clive was tense until he visibly relaxed. “Who knows?” he replied, followed by an unspoken, Who cares?
“He killed my cat,” I said. The words just came out, without my consciously forming them.
Clive leaned forward slightly in his metal chair. His bushy brows lowered a little, and his eyes narrowed.
I blushed again, rubbed my right temple with my fingertips. “I don’t know why I said that,” I admitted, flustered. “I don’t remember owning a cat.”
My uncle bent a little further at the waist and laid a hand on my shoulder. “This is too much, too fast,” he said. “I’m sorry for springing myself on you out of the blue, Mary Jo. It’s just that I’ve wondered for so long, what was happening to you—if you were all right. When I saw you, I . . .”
I wasn’t used to that kind of concern, and I’ve got to admit, it felt damn good. After I married Nick, Lillian and I weren’t exactly estranged, but we weren’t as close, either. She flat-out didn’t like him, and she didn’t mince words about it. Around the same time, Ham, Lillian’s husband and Jolie’s father, had been diagnosed with liver cancer, with all the attendant sorrows for all of them. And Greer had been too involved in stealing her rich doctor husband away from his former wife to care much what was going on in my life, so I’d coped as best I could.
I swiped away a tear with the back of one hand.
Clive took out his wallet, produced a card, and laid it beside my coffee cup. It was official, with raised print and the Arizona State Seal in the upper right-hand corner. “When you’re ready, Mary Jo,” he said, “give us a call.” He pushed back his chair, soundlessly this time, and stood. Collected his jacket from the armrest of the seat next to his. Waited.
I finally realized I was supposed to reciprocate with my own information. I took the pen he offered and wrote my cell number on one of the napkins that came with the coffee. I guess I should have added the address in Cave Creek, but I was afraid he’d MapQuest it when he got the chance, and find out I lived over Bad-Ass Bert’s. Maybe before the next mini family reunion, I could swing a decent place.
“Thanks,” my uncle said. He took the napkin, folded it carefully and tucked it into the pocket of his coat, now draped over one arm. “It’s so good to know you’re all right, Mary Jo,” he added gruffly. “I used to worry that Geoff might have found you . . .”
I swallowed, felt the soft fur of a cat brush against the underside of my chin. A cat I didn’t remember owning.
Chester, whispered one of innumerable wraiths haunting the depths of my subconscious mind
Clive, who had been about to turn and walk away, paused and frowned. “Are you all right, Mary Jo?”
“Mojo,” I corrected. “Nobody calls me Mary Jo.”
He registered this information with a half nod, his eyes still narrowed with concern. “Just then, you looked—”
“I’m fine,” I insisted. Like I’d wanted to tell Tucker, the truth is not what it’s cracked up to be.
Still, he hesitated. “You’ve had quite a shock. Maybe I should walk you at least as far as your car.”
I shook my head. “I need a few moments to work through all this,” I said.
Score one for the truth.
“The memories must be tough to deal with,” Clive ventured.
I favored him with a thin, wobbly smile. “That’s the problem. There aren’t any memories.”
Uncle Clive looked taken aback, and sympathetic. “No memories?”
“Zip,” I said.
He surprised me then. He leaned down and kissed the top of my head, just lightly, the way I’d kissed Lillian at Sunset Villa. Something in my heart locked onto the feeling, like a heat-seeking missile, and launched itself into unknown territory.
When I got home an hour later, still shaken, but with a copy of The Damn Fool’s Guide to Tarot under my arm and a spanking-new deck in my purse, the parking lot was full of Harleys and pickup trucks, and Bad-Ass Bert’s was jumping, even though it was still early afternoon. I probably should have rescued Russell from the steady flow of pepperoni and hot dog scraps, but I was already upstairs before I really focused on the idea.
I would take a shower, I decided, fall into bed—Nick or no Nick—and sleep until I could face the world again. After that, a couple of hours at the computer, coding and billing, and I could meet my quota, hold on to my various jobs and reasonably expect to pay next month’s rent when the first rolled around.
I fumbled for my keys, dropped one of the Tarot cards Lillian had pressed on me in the process, and watched as it slipped between the boards of the landing and fluttered to the ground beneath.
With a groan, I unlocked the door, tossed my purse and the book inside, and went back down the steps to retrieve the card.
The skeleton on horseback stared up at me.
Death. Of course it would be that card.
I picked it up, hiked back up the stairs and got a fresh shock.
No, Nick hadn’t come back.
But the cat had. He was fat and white and fluffy, with china-blue eyes, and he sat on the cheap rug just inside the door, switching his lush tail back and forth.
“Meow,” he replied.
I dropped to my knees, reached for him, drew back my hand. If it went through him, I was going to lose it. I couldn’t deal with another ghost.
“Chester?” Okay, so I was repeating myself. I’d automatically called him by name, so I must have recognized him.
Another meow, this one a little less patient than the last.
Tentatively, I touched his head. Warm. Solid. Soft.
I saw a flash of crimson in my mind. The cat—this cat, lying on his side, dead, shot through with an arrow. I swallowed a rush of bile and sat back on my haunches, still on the landing, still clutching the Death card in my left hand. I had to take four or five deep breaths before I could be sure I wouldn’t either faint or vomit.
“How did you get in here?” I asked. Like he was going to answer.
The way things had been going, he might have. I had definitely tumbled down the rabbit hole at some point. Let’s just say, if I saw a bottle marked Drink Me, I wasn’t planning to take a swig.
Chester gave his bushy tail another twitch, turned and strolled regally back into the apartment.
I heard the side door open downstairs and, afraid somebody would see me kneeling on the landing and ask a lot of questions I didn’t want to answer, I scrabbled inside, with considerably less grace than the cat had exhibited, and hoisted myself to my feet.
My mind was racing.
I remembered what Bert had said earlier, about how his Aunt Nellie had seen her dog, gone to Bingo and died.
I peered at the Death card again, then made my way into the living room. Chester was perched on the back of the couch, delicately washing his right forepaw with a pink tongue.
“Nick?” I demanded. “Is this your idea of a joke?”
No answer, of course.
Chester paused in his ablutions and regarded me with pity.
“This is not funny,” I told him.
“Meow,” he agreed.
I looked around the apartment. No one had a key except Bert; I’d had the locks changed after Tucker and I called it quits—not because I was afraid of him, but as a statement, as much to myself as to him—and besides, he’d never have pulled a mean trick like this. Even if he’d been so inclined, he couldn’t have known about Chester.
“Get a hold of yourself, Sheepshanks,” I said aloud. “This can’t be the same cat.”
“Meow,” said Chester, sounding almost indignant.
I saw the blood again. The arrow sticking out of the animal’s side.
I ran into the bathroom and dry heaved until my empty stomach finally shriveled up into a tight little ball and stopped convulsing.
“I thought you’d like him,” a familiar voice said mildly, from the doorway.
I whirled from the sink, my face still dripping water from the frantic splashing, and there was Nick, in his funeral suit, leaning casually against the doorjamb.
Nick’s mouth quirked at one corner, and he nodded his head. “It’s me, all right.” He wasn’t glowing, I noticed fitfully. Must be a nighttime phenomenon.
“I found him wandering in the train station,” Nick said.
I stared at him, goggle-eyed. My stomach threatened more mayhem.
“What train station? What the hell are you talking about?”
Chester arrived on the scene, wound himself, purring, around Nick’s ankles.
“It’s a kind of cosmic clearinghouse,” Nick explained. “On the other side.”
“Right,” I agreed. “You just head for Platform 9 and 3/4 and catch the Hogwarts Express.”
Nick looked blank. He’d never been much of a reader.
“Forget it,” I said. I pushed past Nick, noting that he was neither cold nor nebulous. Maybe the bone-freeze was a night thing, too.
Maybe I was out of my freaking mind.
“He was your cat when you were a little girl,” Nick wheedled, following me. “I thought—”
I made it to the kitchen, wrenched open a cupboard door and ferreted around until I found a can of tuna with a fairly recent expiration date. “Do dead cats eat?” I asked, furious with confusion.
“I don’t know,” Nick said uncertainly. I jumped when l realized he was standing directly behind me, peering over my shoulder into the cupboard. “Are those Oreos?”
I grabbed the package of cookies off the shelf and threw them at him. “Yes. They’re old, but what the hell. It’s not like you could be poisoned.”
“You could be a little kinder,” Nick pointed out, affronted. But he took the cookies.
“Excuse me,” I snapped.
He stuck his nose into the Oreos, sniffed with decadent appreciation. His eyes rolled closed in ecstasy, the way they used to do when we had serious sex.
“Delicious,” he said.
The can opener whirred jarringly as I opened the tuna. I dumped the contents onto a saucer, crumbled them with a fork and set the whole shooting match down on the floor.
Chester nosed the food with interest, but didn’t eat.
I looked up at Nick.
He was holding a cookie in one hand and staring at it as though it had just tried to bite him.
“Damn,” he muttered.
I glanced at the cat again, partly to make sure he was still there and partly to see if he would eat.
“Problem?” I asked, shifting my attention back to Nick.
“I bit into the thing, and nothing happened.”
“I’d like to see that,” I said. “Do it again, while I’m watching.”
Nick did his ironic look. “This is not a performance designed for your amusement,” he told me.
“Duh,” I shot back. “I am definitely not amused.”
Just then, a familiar knock sounded at the outside door.
Nick arched an eyebrow. “Company?”
“Disappear or something,” I whispered. “It’s Tucker!’”
Nick folded his arms. “Oh, well, if it’s Tucker—”
“I mean it, Nick. Go back to the train station or wherever it is.”
He didn’t move.
“Boogie!” I ordered, and made for the hallway.
Tucker let himself in, since I’d forgotten to lock the door when I encountered Chester on the mat, and we practically collided. By that time, I was wishing I hadn’t told Nick to get lost. I would feel a lot less crazy if somebody else witnessed the dead-husband demo.
“Come in,” I said cordially. “I was just about to whip up a grilled cheese sandwich.” The last thing I wanted to do was eat, but I knew if I didn’t, I’d get sick. My stomach needed something to digest besides its lining.
Tuck looked surprised by my reception. He’d clearly expected a rebuff, given our agreement to take a step back, not to mention the bristly meeting downstairs, and he’d probably had some speech all prepared, like Ten Reasons Why We Should Have Sex.
No way was I doing the deed with the Great Deceased watching.
Sometimes I wish I were a little less principled.
The biker-cop followed me into the living room, and I waited for him to acknowledge Nick, who was standing in the middle of the room, his arms still folded, grinning like an idiot.
Tucker didn’t react. Not to Nick, not to the cat.
They might as well have been invisible.
“He can’t see us,” Nick said.
“Shit,” I said.
Tucker gave me a wounded look. “I didn’t expect you to be glad to see me,” he said, “but you don’t have to swear.”
This from a guy who hung out in a biker bar when he wasn’t on duty.
“He’s right,” Nick said smugly. “It’s very unladylike to curse.”
“Shut up!” I snapped.
Tucker squinted. “What?”
I felt heat sting my cheekbones. “Never mind.” I glanced at Chester, who was grooming himself again. I won’t go into the details. After all, I wouldn’t want to come off as unladylike or anything.
“Never mind?” Tucker retorted. “First you ask me in for a grilled cheese, then you—”
“Just never mind,” I said, rubbing my temples. “You didn’t drop off a cat earlier today, did you?”
“Drop off a cat?”
I was losing patience, and possibly hemorrhaging brain cells at the same time. “Can we just stop doing the echo thing?”
“It’s very annoying,” Nick submitted.
I bit back another “Shut up.” Said nothing, because that seemed safest.
“Mojo, what the hell are you talking about?” Tucker demanded.
“You haven’t—well—seen a cat around? A white one with blue eyes and a fluffy tail?”
Tucker crossed to me, took me gently but resolutely by one arm and squired me to the couch. “Sit down,” he said, somewhat after the fact. “Put your head between your knees or something.”
I glared at him. Tucker caught me and followed my gaze. And saw nothing, of course.
“What’s going on, Mojo?”
“It’s been a difficult day.” More truth. My God, I was getting good at it.
“I’ll get you some water,” Tucker decided. He looked pretty worried, and that pleased me. When he went into the kitchen, I waved at Nick to get out.
He must have been running on alkaloid. Not even a flicker.
I heard the refrigerator door open, close again.
A pause followed.
I tried to sound normal. “Yes?”
“How come there’s a plate of tuna on the floor?”
Nick gave me a pointed, how-will-you-get-out-of-this-one look.
“Go screw yourself,” I told him.
Tucker appeared in the kitchen doorway, with a bottle of water in one hand. “Did you say something?”
I smiled endearingly. “No,” I lied. Hell, it’s just easier to do what comes naturally.
“So what’s with the fish?” Tucker pressed.
“I was sort of hoping to get a cat,” I said.
Chester nestled against my side, purring. I just barely caught myself before I would have stroked his back.
“O—kay,” Tucker said.
I went for perky. “Do you still want that grilled cheese?”
Tucker looked around the room and, for a second or so, I thought he might have sensed something. “No,” he decided. “I think you need to get out for a while. How about a steak and some vino at my place?”
I wanted to go home with Tuck. I really wanted to go. He was a great cook and an even better lover, but there were solid reasons for the decision we’d made. He was still entangled with his ex-wife, and I didn’t want to be Transition Woman. Hot sex, easy promises, and then either back to the old setup or on to a new one. And here’s me, in the middle, trampled.
With most guys, that experience would have been a mere bummer. With Tucker, it might mean checking into Heartbreak Hotel and never checking out again.
“Bad idea,” I said. “Steak, vino and your place, I mean. For reasons previously stated.”
“Bad idea for a lot of reasons,” Nick interjected. Shut the frick up, I thought fiercely, smiling tenderly at Tucker, and I think Decease-o picked up on the brain waves, because he looked insulted and tugged at his shirt cuffs, the way he always did when he was miffed.
Tucker sighed. His broad shoulders sloped slightly. “Listen, Mojo, I know we agreed—”
“To be friends,” I finished for him.
“Friends,” Nick scoffed.
I ignored him. I’d tell him off later, if his batteries didn’t run down before Tucker left.
Chester nudged me again. It was harder to ignore him.
“This is no good,” Tucker lamented quietly. “Our being apart, that is. And it’s not as if I’m married. Allison and I are legally divorced.”
“Go home, Tucker. Go catch a bad guy. I’ve got nothing to offer you but grilled cheese.”
Nick rolled his eyes.
Tucker brought me the water. He hesitated, then said, “You’re sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, Tucker.”
I set the water bottle aside on the end table, stood, and sort of steered him to the door. There, he laid his hands on my shoulders and brushed a kiss across my forehead, beneath my bangs.
I hoped he didn’t feel the tremor that went through me
“Call me if you need anything,” he said.
“Call me if you need anything,'” Nick mimicked, from about a foot behind me. “Gag me with a kickstand.” If he’d been breathing, I probably would have felt it on my nape.
Tucker left. Reluctantly.
I closed the door and turned on Nick, ready to rip a strip off him.
But he was gone. I looked around. “Chester?”
My cat was gone, too.
For a long time, I just stood there, trying to make sense of it all. Then, disconsolately, I went into the kitchen, picked up the plate I’d put out for Chester and dumped the tuna down the disposal.
I didn’t miss Nick. If he never came back, it would be too soon.
But I sure as hell missed the cat.