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“We’re done. I can’t thank you enough for taking time out of your busy life to pick flowers for me mid-week, Angel. You’re really good at this!” My sister Crystal’s smile is its own ray of sunshine from under her wide-brimmed hat. Wisps of her silvering strands of brown hair frame her raspberry-red face.
“Please, it’s the least I could do. Especially since I’m making you dress up like a witch tonight, and for the next month.” We’re a little over a month out from Halloween but my new side gig of hosting Historically Haunted Stonebridge walking tours has already become a family effort. My brother Bryce and his husband Nico have joined our team, as has my boyfriend Nate. Plus all of our furry and feathered family members, including a parrot and two dogs.
Crystal chuckles. “I never thought I’d be portraying a local healer in a ghost tour. I have to admit, life has brightened up around here since you’ve come back.”
By “back,” Crystal means since I retired from my twenty-plus-year Navy career—I was a naval aviator, flying helicopters—and set up shop and home in Stonebridge, Pennsylvania, my native town.
“I’m glad to oblige. And it’s a historical tour with haunted legends, not really ‘haunted.’” I don’t want ticket buyers expecting a paranormal experience except for what their imaginations conjure.
“Call it whatever you want, but people come out for the spooky this time of year.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” I look around at the autumnal scene. “To be honest, the flower harvest didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I had visions of working long into the afternoon.” We’re standing amidst Crystal’s acres of central Pennsylvania farmland on which she grows flowers for her florist shop and plants for her husband Brad’s landscaping business. She cultivates everything from the sunflowers we just harvested to dahlias, zinnias, lavender, and many more flora I have zero clue about.
“Three hours of broiling heat isn’t enough for you?” Crystal laughs, and the sound reels me in, in the same way my sister’s warm embraces do. I’m again reminded of why I moved back to my hometown, why my heart tugs whenever I see what I missed out on while I was on active duty. I loved serving my country and relished my time as a Navy pilot, but I have to say I’m living the best part of my life so far right here and now. Simple times with family, no matter how sweaty, are the sweetest. Before my thoughts get too deep I trudge across the sunflower field, now bereft of its yellow happiness.
“I don’t mind the heat as long as I’m on a chaise lounge at the shore,” Crystal quips.
We’re having an unusually warm start to fall, though technically it’s still a week out. The heat has been great for Crystal’s sunflower crop.
“But almost eighty degrees mid-September does seem a bit much, doesn’t it?” I inspect my forearms. “I think I have prickly heat.” I used to break out something fierce when I was a kid, and as an adult when I deployed to the desert.
“I’ve got aloe in the back room. It’ll knock that rash right out.” She hops onto her tractor and motions for me to grab a spot on the tractor trailer. “Take a seat. You can move the baskets to make room.”
“That’s okay, I’m good. I’ll walk.”
Crystal turns the ignition and drives across the field. Her profile and the backdrop of a weathered red barn, surrounded by rolling hills that eventually lead to the Appalachians, are the epitome of bucolic.
Cold water is all I can think about as I walk back to the commercial greenhouse after spending the morning picking all varieties of sunflowers in the Pennsylvania heat.
I make a beeline for the glass building that has a Finnegan’s Lawn & Landscaping sign hanging from the main entry, my itchy scalp no longer able to discern drops of hard-earned sweat from creepy-crawly bugs. Jumping into a shower will have to wait until I get home, so I’ll settle for a serious wash-up in the greenhouse workroom. I’m greeted at the door by the florist shop’s retail manager, Mariah Webster.
“Hey, Angel. I just caught a glimpse of what Crystal’s bringing in on the trailer. You did great today.” Mariah looks as wiped as I do no matter that she’s been working inside with the relief of air-conditioning. Her long chestnut hair, streaked with silver and blonde, is plaited in a thick braid down the middle of her back and she wears a pair of pale blue short overalls with the company logo embroidered across the bib pocket.
“I can’t say I’m not grateful that I usually work in an air-conditioned space but it’s great to get outdoors, too.” I take my hat off, wipe my brow with my shirt sleeve.
“We can’t get some of our hourly employees to venture into the fields for time-and-a-half, yet you stepped up for free. Crystal’s lucky you’re her sister.” Mariah’s expression turns wistful. I know from Crystal that she lives with—and is the caretaker for—her sister, who is a person with a disability.
“Crystal is lucky to have me, isn’t she? Just like your sister is lucky to have you.” I smile. “I can’t say I blame the other employees for passing on the flower harvest but then I’m a sucker for working up a good sweat.” We walk through the greenhouse and to the air-conditioned florist work area. My sister Crystal owns Finnegan’s Lawn & Landscaping with her husband, Brad. She created the florist shop from literally the ground up and it’s become a year-round extension of their business.
Crystal pulls the trailer up to the door and the three of us move the baskets brimming with yellow petals from the flatbed and into the flower refrigerator. When the cold storage is full, we make space on the work counter to place more.
“Here, I’ll finish up with the last two baskets,” Mariah says to Crystal.
“Thanks.” Crystal wipes her face with a bright pink bandana. “I’ll go get us some drinks while you two wash up. Mariah, anything you can do to start preparing these for sale before you leave is great. Angel, I’ll meet you outside in five.”
“Sounds good. I’ll get cleaned up in here and be out.”
Mariah and I take turns washing up at the oversized stainless sink. She only needs to rinse her hands but I’m covered in sunflower detritus up the length of my forearms and all over my front.
“I thought Crystal went over the top when she installed these foot-operated spigots, but they’re perfect for this, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, they make me think I’m in a hospital surgical unit, but they’re indispensable when we’re covered in flower crud,” Mariah replies.
I watch the layers of dirt and pollen swirl down the drain. Flower farming is complicated and my sister is nothing short of brilliant at it. Figuring out which seeds work best in our limestone-riddled Pennsylvania soil, excising the plants that don’t, making sure to change up each section of field to avoid soil depletion. Crystal’s mastered it all to provide locally sourced blooms to Stonebridge and beyond, including the greater Harrisburg area. I’m learning a lot from her about expanding my business reach. I own Shop ’Round the World, an international gift shop that features treasures I discovered while living both here in the States and abroad.
Mariah and I each grab a paper towel and dry our hands.
“What’s the rest of your day look like, Mariah?”
“Do you mean what’s my POD?” She grins. POD is both a Navy and Marine Corps acronym for Plan of the Day. We both happen to be veterans. “I’m headed out shortly, actually. Wednesday is my half day.”
I look at my watch. “Noon already, wow. I have no idea where the morning went.”
“It’s like that when you let the flowers talk to you.” She pauses. “I’ll bet you never heard an expression like that when you were flying helos, did you?” Her dark eyes flash with humor.
“No, can’t say I did. But I have spent time in sunflower fields before, overseas. I got the cutest photos of my girls in the middle of a bunch of giant sunflowers when they were younger.”
“When you were stationed in Belgium?”
“Yes. Our tiny village was surrounded by sunflower fields. And a pig farm.” I hope my light tone hides my chagrin. Mariah knows far more about my life than I hers. Since I left home after high school graduation, my family—my parents, Crystal, and my brother Bryce—have kept our friends, family and acquaintances up-to-date on my whereabouts. I’m still playing catch-up with all the local news since moving home last year.
“When I first came back—what, almost fifteen years ago now—I kept comparing every sushi restaurant to how I ate in Misawa, Japan. It’s not fair to compare such different cultures, but we do, don’t we?” Mariah’s observation matches mine.
“That we do. Especially when a menu says it’s ‘authentic’ to whatever culture.”
Mariah is younger than me by a few years but I remember her from high school. She’s a sister veteran who “gets” me more than my siblings on many things. My understanding is that she spent time as an active-duty Marine before transitioning to the reserves so that she could move back to Stonebridge. Unlike me, who retired and moved back only after I’d served for my entire career, at my choosing, Mariah left active duty much sooner.
I smooth the cooling aloe gel over my skin and groan with relief.
“That aloe’s the best.” Mariah takes a dollop of it for herself and massages it into her skin. “My hands get so raw at times.”
“I can imagine. Back to my original question, do you have anything fun planned for the rest of the day, Mariah?”
“Actually, yes. My fiancée and I are picking up our wedding bands at the jeweler’s.”
“I had no idea that you’re engaged. Congratulations! How exciting.” I really have minimal clues about Mariah’s personal life. Crystal doesn’t gossip about her employees, or anyone for that matter. Another reason I love my sister. Anything I tell her remains with her—unless she’s compelled to share it with our brother, Bryce. “Have you two been together long?”
Mariah blushes and her obvious joy makes my heart smile. “We had crushes on each other back in high school, but then I joined the Corps…” She doesn’t have to elaborate. I get it.
“And found each other again when you moved back?”
“Oh no, not right away. We didn’t get back together until this time last year. It…it’s taken me a while to allow myself to have a life. You know, after the service, and then making sure things were going well for my sister. I’m not complaining—please don’t get me wrong. My sister gave up everything to take care of my father, and then her mother. They’d married thinking they’d have a lifetime together, but well, life isn’t always fair. We both learned that in the military, right?”
“Absolutely. I’m happy that you’ve found your special someone, Mariah.”
“Oh, I have.” She nods with vigor. “I’m so excited about the wedding. It’s this Saturday. Crystal’s letting us use the gazebo and lawn for the ceremony. It’s very sweet of her. I’m so grateful.”
“She said she was having a shindig of sorts.” Come to think of it, Crystal had been very vague about “some early fall event” she wanted to use the sunflowers for, besides her usual floral arrangements. “She never said it was a wedding, or your wedding, though.”
Mariah’s smooth cheeks take on a dusky rose hue. “We’re keeping it small, to save money. Originally we were going to elope, but my fiancée wants her parents there and travel isn’t an option for them right now. So it’ll be her folks, my sister, and our two best friends. Our besties are standing up for us. You know how Stonebridge can be. It’s not quite a small town, but small-town rules apply here. If our bigger group of friends and acquaintances find out, they might be at best offended, or at worst have their feelings hurt, because they weren’t invited.”
“I hear you on the small-town rules!” I laugh. “And the bigger-town feel, too. I had no idea you were engaged, for example, and yet you work with Crystal. As far as who to invite or not, aren’t we past the age of worrying about what others think? You deserve all the happiness, Mariah. I hope I wasn’t too intrusive.” It’s in my nature: curiosity. A character trait that’s great for solving a puzzle—or murders—but can come across as prying. “Do I know your fiancée?”
“I’m pretty sure you do know my soon-to-be bride. Do you remember Patti Garret, from Stonebridge High?”
An image of a girl I knew in high school flashes across my mind. “Patti, as in her father is a taxidermist?” No wonder Mariah and Patti want to keep their wedding on the private side. Besides the budget-friendliness of an intimate service, I see how it could get out of control in a hurry. Mr. Garret had to know most of the families in town, at least he did thirty years ago at the height of his business. At a minimum he knew just about every hunter in the area.
“Yes, that’s Patti. Otherwise known as the love of my life.” She grins.
I smile back. “I remember Patti from our track and cross-country team days. And I totally get why you’re keeping it small, with Mr. Garret’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He probably knows half of the Harrisburg metro area, right?”
Mariah grins. “You’ve got that right.” She glances away, and bites her lower lip. “If I may ask you a question—I heard that you’re doing ghost tours? And that you need extras?”
I laugh. “Well, historical, haunted-for-fun tours is more like it. They’re really walking history talks with a lot of local legend thrown in. Do know Barb Crandall?”
“Of course! The wedding boutique owner. Patti and I got her mother’s dress for Saturday from Barb’s shop.”
“Didn’t we all get our prom dresses at Stonebridge Brides & More?” We both chuckle.
“I didn’t go to prom, but I’ve had my share of bridesmaids dresses that I’ve only ever worn once. Except for one I bought there over ten years ago. I still wear it,” Mariah says.
“Well, Barb’s husband Leo is a retired history professor and was a longtime historical guide in Gettysburg. The crowds have grown so much over the years that he wanted a break from it. Or thought he did, anyway. He discovered that he missed the history-telling part, not to mention the fun of meeting folks from all over the world. He decided to start a smaller program here in Stonebridge, with more haunted—real or imagined—stories included. We certainly have plenty of history here, with the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution, and of course the Civil War.”
Mariah nods. “And now that they’ve discovered the eel weir in Jacob’s Run, there’s even more to intrigue people with.” She’s referring to an underwater V-shaped rock formation that was built by indigenous peoples to trap the nutritious eels that once teemed North American waterways. Jacob’s Run is the Stonebridge local tributary of the Conodoguinet waterway that feeds into the Susquehanna River. If the eel weir is proven ancient, it will predate the Egyptian pyramids. I know so much not because I’m a history buff or even because of the walking tour gig, but because my mother is a long-time member and current president of the Stonebridge Historical Guild.
“Tell me about it. My mother is on the historical guild and they’re knee-deep in the research of its origins, alongside Penn State. They have a heavy-hitting researcher who’s been funded to work here full-time until they have confirmation one way or the other.” I happen to have the inside track on the verification of the eel weir’s ancient authenticity as my BFF—Stonebridge PD Detective Trinity Colson—is dating the archaeologist assigned to the site. “I don’t know about you, Mariah, but I find local history way more interesting nowadays than I ever did in high school.”
“No kidding. It took moving away and coming back for me to appreciate Stonebridge and central Pennsylvania more. The thing is, Angel, I’m asking about your walking tours because I overheard Crystal say that you’re looking for something on the spooky side to add to the Halloween lineup. If you need someone, I’m willing to help. I know both of your daughters are back at college, and finding last-minute hourly help is difficult this time of year.” My heart squeezes at the mention of my twin girls, Ava and Lily. I miss them tons, while thrilled that they’re each enjoying their college experiences at the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University, respectively.
“That’s so nice of you to offer. We’re having a dress rehearsal for the Halloween tour tonight, in fact. But you’re planning your wedding. Isn’t that enough for one week?”
“Actually, I happen to love Halloween, and Patti has to work tonight. I’ll be away for our honeymoon next week, but back in time for all of October.”
“In that case, I’d love to have you on the team. I promise I’ll figure out a costume for you by October.”
“No need! My sister and I went on a tour of Sleepy Hollow in Upstate New York a couple of years ago. We took one of the recreation service’s bus tours. It was a lot of fun. I came back with a headless horseman costume. It’s a jack-o’-lantern head with a horse bottom. The bottom’s lame—two horse legs stick out of my chest, basically—but the pumpkin head part is very convincing. The trick or treaters loved it last year.”
“Great. We’ll start downtown in front of my shop at seven sharp, which will place us back here, and walking through the woods, by eight. All you have to do is wait at your spot until we walk by.” I fill her in on the details, which include the creepy walk in the woods that run between Crystal and Brad’s fields and an older subdivision of homes. There’s an old farm family cemetery that gives perfect Halloween ambience. “Can you be ready to do your thing by eight o’clock, Mariah?”
She nods. “Yes. This is incredibly convenient for me as you’ll walk right past our backyard. I saw you out there last week, with the LED candles. It looked like you were checking out the old cemetery. My sister and I watched from our back patio.”
“Yes, that was our first practice run. I didn’t realize that your house backs right up to the woods, but I’m familiar with the subdivision.” I wonder how many more of her neighbors have seen our motley group as we attempt to educate, entertain, and spook our groups.
“Our house is practically in the woods. Which is fine with both of us, since my sister is a big bird watcher and I’m into forest bathing.”
“It’s the Marine in you. You’re not happy unless you’re rolling around in the dirt,” I tease, and am rewarded with her wide grin.
“No doubt.” She walks to a row of cupboards and opens the door with her name on it. “Thanks again for your help today, Angel.” Mariah takes out a small backpack and swings it over her shoulder.
“Congrats again.” I give her a little wave. “And I look forward to seeing you—the headless horseman, that is—pop out from behind a tree.”
“Can’t wait! See you then.” She exits through the employee door, out to the graveled parking lot. As I watch her stride toward the footpath between the Finnegans land and the woods, I think of how selfless Mariah’s been her entire life.
Did I make a mistake, staying in the Navy for a full career, instead of moving home sooner? The twins would have known their grandparents better. Tom would have had time here…
The reminder of Tom strums a low heartstring but doesn’t bring tears like it did in the first year or two. Cancer stole him away from us six years ago but life does move on. So do hearts. To my complete surprise, my heart opened to a new man last year. I’ve found love again with the owner of Latte Love.
Nate. Just thinking about the sexy silver-haired barista who’s become my confidant, best friend, and lover makes me grin.
It wasn’t easy getting together as I investigated two local murders I’d inadvertently become involved with. A lesser man would have run the other way. But not Nate. He loves me as I am—independent, driven, a little too curious at times. It doesn’t hurt that these same qualities translate well in bed, where we both enjoy spending time together.
And I’ve assured Nate endlessly that I don’t usually find dead bodies. The two murdered corpses that landed in my path were flukes. Stonebridge is not the murder capital of central Pennsylvania, no matter what the true crime docudramas want to make my overactive imagination believe.
No, this is a very quiet, peaceful, safe place to live.
Keep telling yourself that.
End of Excerpt