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The marble gravestone lay at her feet. Unremarkable, except that it was her own. All she had to do was look down.
Her eyes flickered to the inscription. Melisandra Frances Logan, beloved daughter of Frances and John. And then the inevitable two dates, as if that somehow comprised a life.
She'd been sent here on business, to set things to rights, but Sandy couldn't help thinking of her parents, her friends, her life, all out of reach now. Perhaps forever.
"Someone spent a lot of money on you," said a voice from behind. "White oak casket, a spray of white roses. Quite the celebrity, weren't you?"
"At least I had friends," she snapped, and instantly regretted it. But that didn't stop her from adding. "Unlike some people."
Jared took the barb in good grace. "My personal failings aside, we do have work to do."
They walked away across the neatly manicured lawn of the cemetery, past headstones with their wreaths of gaily-colored flowers. Marble statues stared after them with sightless eyes.
"Did you ever--" she began. But he shot her a warning look and she lapsed into silence.
In truth, they had little in common. Not in this life or the last. His had been a brief and violent existence. Hers more a flower unfolding, barely a life at all, cut off before she had a chance to become whatever she would have been.
She felt that loss keenly with every passing moment.
"Did I ever what?" he asked, breaking into her thoughts.
"You know..." She gestured to the neat rows of headstones. "Visit your own grave."
He looked at her as if that was the strangest thing she could have asked. "Why would I do that?"
"I don't know."Sandy began to wish she'd avoided the subject all together. "Just to see it. To make it real. So you can move on, I guess."
He was quiet. She didn't expect him to add anything further. But he surprised her by saying. "Can't say that I've got one. No one left to see to such things."
So that's what lay behind his sullen rebuke of her visit. No one had even cared enough to see to his final resting place. But then, she suspected Jared's hadn't been a life well lived.
No wonder he was doomed to walk the earth forever.
Jared turned, blond hair flashing in the bright sun. Green eyes caught her gaze, looked through her. It unnerved her when he did that.
"We do have work to do," he reminded her.
And stalked off.
She followed him down the gravel road that led between rows of tombstones. Judging by his looks alone, Jared could have been an angel despite his misspent youth. Tall, blond, and broad-shouldered, he had a smile that would tempt a saint. Sandy shook her head. Mix those looks with an arrogance that had followed him beyond life and that was bound to get a man into trouble. Which was likely why he was sentenced to an eternity as a disembodied wraith.
The gatehouse loomed before them. It would have been just as easy to go around, but Jared dematerialized and drifted through. She saw the gatekeeper shudder as he passed and made the effort to walk around.
"That was unkind," she chided. Jared merely shrugged.
Normally she ignored Jared's idiosyncrasies; his irreverent dislike of authority, even the ultimate authority. He scoffed in the face of death, laughed at eternal banishment, and continued on as if nothing had happened. Most days that was status quo, but this morning she found herself strangely irked.
"What is it with you?" When he opened his mouth to protest, she charged ahead. "You have a chance to do a considerate thing, but no, you do something unkind. You have a choice of a noncommittal comment, and instead you say something mean. No wonder you're--"
"No wonder I'm what?" Far from being offended, he seemed amused by her outburst.
"No wonder you're here!"
He shot her a measuring stare. "Indeed. And what about you?"
The question hung between them, suspended like dew on the morning air.
"What about me?"
"What terrible crime have you committed to land yourself in this nebulous existence?"
Sandy shut her mouth and turned away.
"Aha!" Jared followed her. "You prod like a badger at my shady past, but when it comes to herself, The Lady Melisandra is decidedly closed-mouthed."
"Don't call me that," she snapped. "Only my mother calls--" She stopped, swallowed, fixed him with a steady gaze, "Called me that."
He grinned that saint-tempting grin. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"
Jared's smile widened.
"Suffice it to say I left something important undone." Damned if she'd tell him more. It hurt too much to think about it. Even in the privacy of her own mind.
From the gatehouse, the graveyard branched out into two distinct sections. By the size and opulence of the headstones and shrines in the first section, it was easy to tell in which side the rich were buried. Guilt churned in Sandy's stomach as she realized the privilege she'd been born into had followed her into death as well.
The proverbial silver spoon had been her birthright, private schools, exotic holidays, and lavish gifts merely a part of her life. Only later did she realize wealth was not an equal opportunity proposition. Until her privileged life was over, she had never questioned her father's assertion that being poor was a personality flaw.
On the other side, headstones crumbled until they were indistinguishable from the tall grass itself. Scattered amongst the deteriorating headstones was the odd brass plaque. In some places, wooden crosses marked the dearly departed, in others, nothing at all.
"Come on," Jared said impatiently. "We'll miss him."
She followed him under ancient trees so thick they blocked the sun. Vegetation on this side of the graveyard grew with abandon, as if to taunt death itself.
Jared strode ahead, oblivious to the stark differences between the two sides as he was to most things. Unlike her, he seemed to take his fate in stride. He believed he deserved it, she guessed.
Lost in thought, she didn't notice Jared had stopped until she bumped into him. Incorporeal bodies merged. She felt the shock, sensed Jared's mental curse. For a moment, chaos reigned, until with a force of will, she solidified. A glance of sheer annoyance materialized out of the swirling mist as Jared did the same.
Anxious to avoid the rebuke coming, Sandy looked where he bid her.
In the shadows cast by the branches of an overgrown tree stood a man. Pain marred his youthful features, making him seem much older than he was. Head bent, he contemplated the grave before him. Dark curls tumbled over his forehead, making him look even more boyish. Sandy moved for a closer look, but Jared put out his hand.
"Thomas D. Geffen. His beloved wife Nancy lies in yonder grave."
"She died young." Sandy couldn't take her eyes off the young man whose grief drifted like fog across the crisp spring air.
Jared nodded. "Eleven months after their wedding, at the age of twenty-three. He knew she had cancer when he married her."
"He must have really loved her."
"Perhaps he merely pitied her."
"How can you say that?" Sandy demanded. She gripped Jared's arm and turned him so he was forced to regard the subject of their study. "You can feel his grief from here. He loved her with all his heart. He was grateful for the time they had, even if it was numbered in days."
"Yes," Jared agreed. "And that's the problem. He hasn't moved on. Their house is exactly as she left it. Her toothbrush still lies on the bathroom sink. He won't even sleep on her side of the bed. He sees no one, and the business he so meticulously built languishes from lack of attention."
"He's grieving," Sandy snapped. "Not that you'd know what that's like." She sighed, glanced again at the dark-haired man, whose grief tore at her own heart. "He still loves her. Not even her death could change that. It's so romantic..."
"Romantic," Jared scoffed. "Maybe, but the Chief has other plans for him." He shot her a pointed look. "And he ain't going to accomplish any of the Chief's business as long as he's stuck in a time warp mourning his lost love."
Anger shot through her, sharp and pure, unlike anything she'd felt in this incorporeal existence. "You don't just get over the loss of your one true love like that. It's not something you can turn off and on like a tap. Love is a rare and priceless commodity. Some people search their whole lives and never find it. Others squander it, use it to wound in the cruelest of ways..." She stopped, breathing hard. Jared laughed at her. "What?"
His smile faded. "That's where we come in."
Jared couldn't think of anything he wanted less than this assignment. Not that his feelings were often taken into consideration. His boss, the Chief Spirit of the Ghost Realm, did what the Chief thought best. No one questioned his decisions.
He had been elsewhere when the summons came. Incorporeal bodies had their advantages, he had reflected as he "checked up" on one of his former charges. Not that the Chief would consider observing a young lady during her bath supervising of any sort.
Jared was doubly chagrined to be caught in the lady's bathroom. Especially since he expected a reprimand from the mishandling of his previous assignment.
Instead of the anticipated punishment, he found himself summoned and placed on another project.
One that involved managing an inexperienced operative.
"So?" the Chief asked, breaking into his thoughts. "What do you think?"
Jared glanced around the gray office, feigning disinterest. Gray ruled the Ghost Realm. Not a uniform, featureless gray, more like all color had been leeched out of the world and the brightness turned down. Shades of muted gray dominated everything: walls, floors, furniture and scenery.
He hated it there.
Jared sprawled in the chair in a vain attempt to convince the Chief he could care less about this new assignment. Though his posture might be nonchalant, the effort was wasted. No one fooled the Chief. Still, Jared told himself, the Chief would expect him to try.
"Sandy will be difficult," he hedged when the Chief's disconcerting gaze lingered a moment past comfortable. He couldn't help looking into those blank gray eyes. Like blundering into the Ghost Realm itself, one could fall into those vacant eyes and be lost forever.
He had to find a way to ditch this job. The last thing he wanted was to be challenged. He loathed change, gloried in the predictability of his situation. He'd become complacent; assuming things would stay that way.
The Chief leaned forward in his chair, always a bad sign if the Chief chose to emphasize a point. "This assignment represents a test for you." His booming voice echoed off the walls in the gray chamber. "The time has come, Jared. Now you must choose."
Choices meant mistakes, Jared thought bitterly. Mistakes, consequences and regrets. He managed a non-committal shrug.
The Chief seized his gaze and held it. Jared gazed into his nondescript, bland face off-set by those startling eyes and for a moment he wondered who the Chief had been, if he'd ever had a life or a name and more importantly, what he'd done to land himself in the spirit realm forever. "I have given you many opportunities," the Chief began. "And in thanks, you have squandered every one of them." The floor beneath their feet vibrated.
Jared ground his teeth against the urge to dispute the point. One didn't argue with the Chief. And he refused to beg for mercy. Not for himself, at least.
But involving a new staff member in his sordid way of working just didn't seem fair. Especially one as enthusiastic and hopeful as Sandy. She deserved a better supervisor. Someone who could actually help her. Anyone besides him. For her own sake, he had to make the Chief understand what was at stake.
"She believes she'll be allowed to return." Jared wrenched the conversation away from himself and focused on Sandy.
"No one goes back," the Chief said. "You know the rules."
"Perhaps Melisandra should be the exception," Jared dared to say and waited to be punished.
But the Chief merely shook his head. "Can you imagine how many times I've been begged for one more second, one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more lifetime. If I granted them all, no one would move on and we'd end up processing endless lives."
Jared had the sense to remain mute.
Caught in the Chief's disturbing stare, he could only sit helplessly while the Chief pondered his fate. "Everyone wants to go back," the Chief said softly. "Everyone but you, Jared." His gaze sharpened, pinning Jared to the chair.
No! He wanted to scream. Going back meant descending to the depths of Hell on Earth. The Chief couldn't seriously be considering sending him there.
Sandy might want to return to the business she'd left unfinished in her life, but a life in the spirit realm suited Jared just fine. Somehow he had to separate the Chief from this new line of thought.
But one didn't dispute the Chief's will or his proclamations. So he stayed, sprawled in his chair as if he didn't give a damn that his life was falling apart around him.
While his life did exactly that.
"Here are the terms of this assignment." The Chief counted off the points on his fingers. "One: Melisandra must assist Thomas Geffen in putting his life back together. Note that I said assist him; not live his life for him. Two: this will be difficult for her. Thomas will remind her of all she left undone and make it harder for her to remain objective. Which is why you must. Three: under no circumstance is Melisandra to get involved with this man, do you understand?"
Jared nodded woodenly.
"You must guide her toward this goal. Accomplish it, and I will take your observations regarding Melisandra under advisement. Fail, and this time there will be dire consequences!"
Consequences! Now that had an ominous ring to it. No, no and no! Jared wailed inwardly. The last thing he wanted to do was discuss verdicts with the Chief. Somehow he had to divert the course of this conservation.
He summoned the strength to ask calmly, "And Melisandra?"
"If she fails, you fail. Melisandra will pay for her misdeeds. Nothing goes unaccounted for. You are well aware of the regulations."
And so it was decreed.
Dismissed, Jared felt his body dissolving, raining down through the clouds to solidify in the darkened hallway of Thomas Geffen's house.
Changes and more changes forced upon him. First the Chief carved his predictable life into a thousand pieces and then set him loose to deal with the mess. Jared swallowed the last of his resentment. He had to do his best to help Sandy succeed. Regardless of his personal feelings.
Jared sighed as he appeared beside Sandy in Thomas' house. He, who had never done anything good for anyone, not even himself, in any of his lives. Now the Chief expected him to be a hero.
He couldn't tell her the truth. If she had even an inkling of what was at stake, it would slant the whole project in ways the Chief was bound to object to. No, it would have to be business as usual. Guide her, the Chief said. Not burden her with his problems. And if he acted in any way other than his cynical self, Sandy would guess something was wrong. With an inward groan, Jared squared his shoulders and placed his fate in Sandy's hands.
Regrettably, Jared was right, Sandy reflected. Thomas's house was a shrine to his dead wife. Closets still held all her clothes, her toothbrush and makeup still sat on the bathroom sink, albeit coated with a thick layer of dust. Her desk revealed a half-written letter never sent.
The whole house bore evidence of a woman's touch. From the flowers rotting in a vase on the dining room table to the chintz furniture and ruffled valances gathering dust, the house waited for the return of its mistress. Except she wasn't coming home.
"Spooky," Jared proclaimed. If it bothered Jared, it had to be bad.
"He's lost himself," Sandy said. "Just like we have."
"Not like us. He still has his life. He should be grateful and get on with it."
"Hard-hearted, aren't we today?" she asked sarcastically. But she couldn't help wondering what had Jared on edge today. Despite the devil-may-care attitude he tried to project, his tension was tangible.
Jared stared off into the shadows beyond the bed. "A life is a terrible thing to waste," he said as if he knew that for certain.
Sandy let the uncharacteristically introspective comment pass without comment. Though the moon blazed like a silver beacon overhead, she cast no shadow. Thomas slept, his dark curls black against the white sheets. Tossing restlessly, he still never strayed to the other side of the double bed. His tangible grief clutched at her heart.
No stranger to heartache herself, she watched him uncomfortably. She knew what it was like to lose everything, to ache, to hurt, to be helpless. She had spent her whole life being helpless. And now the Chief wanted her to help someone else. She had no idea where to start. "So what do we do?"
Jared glanced at her, his façade sliding back into place. She read mischief in that look. "That, Lady Melisandra, is up to you."
"Me?" Oh no, the situation grew worse with every passing second.
"But I don't--" She would have given anything just to wipe that victorious expression off Jared's face.
"Of course you don't know what to do. But that's the point of this whole exercise, isn't it? For once, there isn't going to be a nanny or a maid or a chauffeur to take care of things for you. There won't be a daddy to pay your maxed-out credit card bill or send you on a trip when you're stressed out or buy you another car to replace the one you smashed up." Venom dripped from his words. There wasn't much she could say in return. He described events from her past life like he'd witnessed them himself.
"You don't understand," she countered hotly. "My father never did those things to make my life easier. He gave me things to ease his guilt. To make up for never being there. To make up for tearing our family apart with his affairs. But they never made up for anything, because they were only things!"
"At least you're starting to understand," Jared said. "But the assignment stands. You need to learn to help others. You need to learn to help yourself."
"You certainly excel at that. You're so self-sufficient you don't need anything or anyone."
While she'd had private schools, Jared learned painful lessons at a young age. He'd never said as much, still, misery etched itself into every plane of his face. The nonchalance with which he shrugged off her accusations angered her even more.
She glared at him, hating that he didn't care. That even the fires of Hell didn't scare Jared. His early life had been worse than any Hell she could imagine. But she had everything to lose, including her soul.
"It's not so great at the other end of the spectrum, is it?" she asked quietly.
Sea-green eyes looked into her soul. "No, but like I said, that's the point."
"What point?" she asked. Until now it hadn't occurred to her that there might be a point in being stuck here between one life and the next.
"To grow in this life because we didn't have a chance..." Pain shadowed his face, but nothing bothered Jared over-long and he continued, "Or because we wasted that chance in our last life."
She could have let the point drop. She could have just continued on like he hadn't spoken at all. But instead, she said, "It doesn't seem to me like you're working very hard to change things."
To her surprise, he fixed her with that disarming stare. "Of course not. Because then, I'd have to move on. And this life suits me in a way."
"How can it possibly? We're stuck here."
Again, she expected no answer, but Jared said, "Well, the last life sure sucked. What makes you think the next will be any better?"
"Faith," she said. "I have faith."
"Good for you."
"Don't let the Chief hear you say that."
Jared smirked. "The Chief knows everything I say and do. How do you think I got here in the first place?"
On the bed, Thomas stirred and muttered in his sleep.
"I don't know how to help him," Sandy said. "I don't know how to heal a broken heart."
"Funny thing that," Jared said. "You certainly knew how to break them."
He knew. The knowledge hit her like a blow to the gut. All her secrets, the things she wanted no one else to know. But somehow he did know. Did the Chief share things like that when he gave out assignments? She glared at Jared. To her shock, he looked chagrined.
"Ah, so it's true."
"How would you know?" she demanded.
"The Chief wouldn't have given you this assignment if it wasn't."
Sandy dragged in a breath of relief. Jared didn't know, she suspected, he only guessed. As usual, he was all bluster and no substance.
"Think what you want. I still don't know how to fix him. Healing a broken heart can't be done in a day. It takes time to get over a lost love."
"They say time heals all wounds."
"How much time do we have?"
"Not long. But if we're making progress, we might be granted an extension on the project."
"Not long! You can't get over a wife who died of cancer in a minute or a day." Sometimes Sandy suspected Jared was dense beyond all repair.
"His wife died months ago," he pointed out, as if that said everything.
"But he loved her--"
"And his love can't bring her back," he said with finality, annoying her further.
"What do you want me to do? Tell him that?"
Jared unformed, drifted across the bed until he stood on the other side, looking down into the face of its sole occupant. For a moment, she suspected he might just cause some mischief, as Jared was wont to do. Poke the sleeping man. Whisper something horrible in his ear. She'd seen him do both. She'd had to stand through more than one of the Chief's tirades on the subject.
"What you do," Jared said finally, "is entirely up to you. This is your assignment."
"Mine? What about you? Don't tell me you're just going to leave?"
Jared's smile glinted in the moonlight. "Wouldn't dream of it. I'm here to observe. And I'm dying to know how Melisandra Frances Logan, heartbreaker extraordinaire, is going to mend the heart of one Thomas D. Geffen."