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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2010 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
"What the hell were you screaming about in the wee hours this morning? You just about scared the hell out of me," Sophie said, while Toots made coffee. "It was all I could do to get back to sleep. I thought you were being attacked."
Toots debated telling her what had happened but remembered Sophie's new enthusiasm for anything in the realm of the occult. She sniffed. "So much for rushing to my aid. I'd hate to depend on you for protection, but luckily for you it was ..." Toots turned away from the counter and gave Sophie the evil eye, unsure whether or not to tell her about last night. When she saw no sign of amusement or mockery, she continued. "Don't laugh, but I swear I saw a ... a ghost, or at least something ghostlike, hovering around my bed. It was like a cloud. Woke me out of a deep sleep. And the cold." Toots shivered at the memory. "I felt such a strange, cold sensation in my room — like I'd opened a window on a frosty morning. You know that instant gush of freezing air that smacks you square in the face?"
She let her words settle, waiting for Sophie to make some smart-ass remark. Or tell her she'd lost her mind. Or worse, that she needed to visit Dr. Sameer, whom Sophie had recently deemed a whack job since he'd started sending Ida prayer rugs after Ida's miracle cure from her obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Toots had been meaning to sit Ida down and have a real heart- to-heart talk, but ever since their move to Los Angeles, neither seemed to have a free minute for that kind of discussion. Toots added that to her lengthy shit-to-do list.
"Interesting." Sophie took a slow pull from the mug of coffee Toots placed in front of her. Toots kept both hands securely wrapped around her own cup as though it were a lifeline of sorts.
Toots made a big pretense of searching inside the tacky hot-pink cabinets. Using her thumbnail, she traced the purple grout that surrounded the lavender tiles on the countertops. She even went so far as to mutter a few jumbled words that she knew Sophie could barely hear, much less identify. She opened and closed drawers, pretending to search for something. She also added another item on her shit-to-do list. Never, ever, no matter what, buy the music of her new home's former tenant. Though she was lucky to have purchased the former estate of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz for what amounted to a song in California terms, it was costing her much more than a song to restore the estate to its former glory. However, with its endless view of the Pacific, the beach just steps away from her deck, and the convenience of living close to Abby, it was worth the aggravation and the remodeling expense.
"Cut the crap, Toots. I'm thinking, okay? And you know I can't think clearly when you're banging around drawers and doing all that mumbo-jumbo stuff."
Toots smiled. She liked it when Sophie had to think. "Don't think too hard, you might scare me," she added, just to have the last word.
Coffee spewed from Sophie's mouth, showering the tabletop of white Formica with cream-colored dots. "Isn't that what this is all about? You're being such a wuss. I'm not even sure I believe you."
Toots turned around and reached for the pot of coffee. "Give me one good reason why I would lie about something so ... crazy."
Sophie used her napkin to mop up the coffee she had splattered across the table. "You wouldn't; I was just saying that to get a rise out of you, which I did. Now I need to think, Toots. Seriously. I know you and the others consider my fascination with the supernatural abnormal. It's not, and I'm not the only one on the planet who believes that spirits, ghosts, whatever you want to call them, linger on in this world. There's a new television show about ghosts. You call them up, and they come to your house. Want me to give them a call?"
"Hell no! I don't need TV ghostbusters, Sophie. I just need to know that I'm not completely off my rocker. I could have Alzheimer's or a brain tumor! This isn't funny to me."
Just then Toots finally realized just how terrified she'd been last night. She hoped she wasn't losing her grip on reality, not now, when she was just starting to have some ass-kicking fun in her old age.
Sophie had the grace to appear remorseful. "I don't think it's funny either, Toots. Really. I've read a lot of stuff on the subject. It's scary, if you don't know what to expect or what to do. I've even read that some people resort to suicide while experiencing a haunting. There are a number of procedures you can do to remove a spirit. I need to decide which one is most appropriate. Come here." Sophie motioned for Toots to take the chair next to her. "Now tell me every single detail from start to finish, and don't leave anything out. You never know how important it may be."
Toots went into great detail as she retold the events that had left her shaken and so uncertain. She had always been solid, all nuts and bolts, hammer and nails, not prone to seeing whispery puffs of clouds and faces of the unknown. She'd always told herself she could deal with anything. Hell, she'd buried eight husbands. With that track record, she should've been able to fight off Satan himself. Fearful, she was not.
"So did you recognize their faces, could you make out what they were trying to tell you?"
Toots rolled her eyes. She couldn't quite believe she was having this conversation. "You know, I didn't think about total recall as I lay there scared half out of my mind. I guess I should've taken notes, maybe a picture or two. Seriously, Sophie, I was frightened. I know it sounds crazy. I know you're into this type of thing, but it's not something you want to experience, trust me on that. Why don't we change rooms? You can sleep with the spirits and fill me in on all the gory details."
Sophie lit a cigarette, handed it to Toots, then lit another for herself. "Yes, that's a good idea. I'll take notes, too. Something else. When a house is disturbed" — Sophie made finger quotes when she said the word disturbed — "it's possible, hell it's more than possible, it's highly probable that you've riled a few spirits who were content to live in this dump as is. You can thank that pop tart's overzealous publicist for the tip she gave you telling you this house was about to go on the market. I wonder if there is some kind of haunting clause, something along the lines of buyer's remorse."
Toots glanced over her shoulder to make sure Ida and Mavis weren't up and about. "I'm sure there isn't, and whatever you do, don't tell the girls. Or Abby. They'll insist I've lost my marbles. I want to keep this between the two of us. At least for now."
Sophie inhaled deeply. "I won't say anything. I wouldn't want to be responsible for causing Ida to get whacked out again. And Mavis, well, she's so full of herself now since she's lost all that weight, I'm not even sure I like her anymore."
Right after burying her eighth husband, Leland, who'd been a pompous, self-righteous ass, Toots had strictly adhered to her usual ten days of mourning, then tossed out her widow's garb for good. Wanting to add some excitement to her golden years, she'd immediately sent e-mails to Abby's godmothers, Sophie, Ida, and Mavis, her dearest friends of more than fifty years, inviting them to Charleston, where she'd lived for the past twenty years. They had all instantly accepted her invitation.
Ida lived in New York City, where she'd spent most of her adult life in three or four serial marriages. Toots had lost count. After her last husband, Thomas, had died from E. coli, she became obsessed with germs, rarely venturing into the world outside her penthouse apartment. Ida and her traveling circus of germ-fighting paraphernalia made the trip South. When Toots realized just how dire the situation was, she cajoled and threatened until Ida agreed that it was time to do something about her obsessive-compulsive disorder. It hadn't hurt that Toots had threatened Ida with following her to New York City and forcing her to ride in the dirtiest taxicab she could find. She'd also made a few other germ-related threats before Ida succumbed to the lure of being able to lead a normal life, or as normal a life as anyone associated with Teresa Amelia Loudenberry could lead.
Mavis, a retired English teacher living on the coast of Maine with her dog Coco and barely surviving on a small pension, had been thrilled when Toots invited her for a visit. Toots had been shocked when she saw her friend emerge from the plane. Mavis had gained more than a hundred pounds since their last visit at Abby's college graduation. Fearful for her friend's health, Toots knew immediately that she had her work cut out for her.
And then there was Sophie. Toots had been closer to Sophie than any of the others, but she'd never tell them that. Sophie was tough, strong, and street-smart. Or so she wanted the world to believe. But Toots knew better. She'd seen Sophie at her lowest point in life. Living with her husband, Walter, whom she'd married when he was an up-and-coming Manhattan banker, Sophie had endured years of abuse at his hands while he spent life with bottles of booze as his only friends. He'd finally died while Sophie was in California. Toots helped arrange a quick funeral, or event, as she now called funerals, and Sophie was happier than she'd ever been.
Making no bones about how she felt about it, Toots assured Sophie that she fully agreed with her that Walter's dying alone was well deserved. Toots prayed that he was roasting in the fires of hell for all that he'd put Sophie through.
Sophie had, in fact, been looking forward to Walter's dying for a long time. Since her Catholic upbringing made it impossible to walk out on Walter, however badly he treated her, she had spent more than thirty years working as a pediatric nurse to support a man who did nothing but drink and smack her around whenever he chose. Poor Sophie.
Well, actually, rich Sophie. Knowing she couldn't plan on spending her golden years with a loving and caring husband, she was not at all unhappy when the nonfunctional, alcoholic partner she had married years before was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Luckily, she'd had the foresight to continue to pay the monthly premiums on a five-million-dollar life insurance policy. Now that Walter had finally departed for wherever he would land, Sophie was a rich woman, finally able to enjoy life without fear of getting the snot beaten out of her. And her passion just happened to be anything paranormal.
"For shame, Sophie. Mavis has worked her tail off, quite literally I might add, and you should support and encourage her."
Sophie stubbed out one cigarette and immediately fired up another. She took a deep drag before she said, "I am proud of her, Toots. You of all people should know that. I'm just tired of watching her admiring what's left of her ass when she walks past a window, a mirror, anything that shows a reflection."
Toots laughed. "Lately I've noticed her doing that, too, but you have to realize how hard she's worked to lose all that weight. Six months ago, I feared she was nothing more than a heart attack waiting to happen. Now I suddenly find myself wanting to ask her for fashion advice."
Sophie grinned. "Yeah, that stylist you hired for her didn't hurt either. Mavis is a quick one; it's no wonder she's advising the rest of us on what not to wear."
Toots eyed Sophie up and down. "You might want to take her advice."
Sophie wore a pair of fading purple baggy sweatpants with what once had been a bright pink UCLA sweatshirt. "What's wrong with my outfit? It's the thing to wear out here. I found these in the back of the closet in my room."
"And I'm sure they belonged to that pop star who lived here, too. So what does that tell you?"
Sophie looked down at her baggy, fading sweats. "Pink and purple aren't my colors?"
Toots couldn't help but laugh. "Seriously, I don't care what you wear, but I would change into something else before I went out in public."
Sophie chuckled. "Probably a good idea. Now let's get back to the problem at hand. You think you're seeing ghosts or spirits in your room. I want to spend a few nights alone in the room before I make my decision on what ceremony I want to perform."CHAPTER 2
If Toots rolled her eyes any more, she felt sure they would get stuck in a cross-eyed position or worse, one eye viewing east and the other west. She forced herself to stare straight ahead at the horrific pink wall. The remodeling couldn't begin soon enough. If she had to look at these walls much longer, she would go bonkers.
"You haven't heard a word I've said," Sophie said, loudly enough to break through Toots's preoccupation with things ocular.
"Yes, I have. I'm just mesmerized by these walls. They need to go, and the sooner the better. Remind me to toss everything I own that's pink, or even close. Purple, too."
Sophie grabbed the pot of coffee and refilled both of their cups. Toots dumped at least a quarter of a cup of sugar in hers before taking a sip.
"That's disgusting, Toots."
Before she could roll her eyes upward, Toots stopped as a mental image of her wearing inch-thick glasses flashed before her. She glared at Sophie. "I like sugar, so what? It could be worse. I could smoke cigars." Toots reached for her pack of Marlboros. She planned to quit someday. Maybe. At her age, she wasn't sure it mattered. Even with her sugar addiction and chain-smoking, she'd suffered no ill effects. So far, she'd been lucky. No diabetes, no lung cancer, no emphysema. Maybe she should write a book about the virtues of living a life filled with bad habits and rich husbands.
Sophie offered up her usual smirk. "Someday we're gonna be old, or at least feel old. Then we'll both wish we'd lived healthier lives."
Toots examined her friend closely. To be so morose wasn't like her. "What is it with you this morning?"
Sophie pushed her chair away from Toots. "You don't have to get in my face. For Pete's sake, there is nothing wrong with me! You're the one who's seeing ghosts floating around in your bedroom. And I will never understand in a million years why you bought this dump. It's beyond ugly. Hell, it was ugly when it was new. I pity the poor jerk who has to make this place livable."
"I would be 'that poor jerk,' I'll have you know. You don't have to live here, smart-ass. Last time I heard, you had a few million tucked away. Go buy your own damned house." Toots smiled wickedly when she saw that Sophie was about to bust a gut at her outburst.
"You're a real bitch, Toots, you know it?"
"You'd best remember it, too," Toots added affectionately. "And for your information, this dump cost me three-point-eight million dollars, and that was a bargain-basement price."
"Then I say someone got screwed."
Toots eyed the pink-and-purple kitchen, the white Formica kitchen furniture, and knew she and whatever contractor she hired were facing an uphill battle. If she'd been really smart, she would have consulted with the HGTV crew. It was going to take time and more money than she'd originally planned, but when she looked out at the view, she decided that it would be worth every penny.
Today the beach was empty of the usual crowds, the view of the Pacific endless, the sky a clear robin's-egg blue, and the smog a distant memory. This view and being close to Abby was worth every single penny of the $3.8 million and a lot more, which it was obviously going to take to make the house inhabitable by ordinary humans, not pop tarts.
"So what's your suggestion?"
"Sell it and buy a condo?" Sophie replied in the blink of an eye.
"You know I won't do that. I don't mind the remodeling, it's the other that I'm ... not so comfortable with."
Sophie took a deep breath, crushed out her cigarette, and lit another. "Yeah, okay. We'll start by switching rooms. Tell Ida and Mavis the mattress hurts your back if they ask, though I doubt they'll even question it. They're too involved in their own lives right now to notice either of us."
Toots considered this. "I agree. Ida and our good Dr. Sameer can't seem to get enough of each other's company. When she's not on the phone with him, she has an appointment at his office. Something is going on between the two of them, I'm sure. He sent another prayer rug yesterday, too. And Mavis is either jogging with Coco or designing her next outfit. It's hard to believe how much the two of them have grown in the past six months."
"Mavis has shrunk, remember? Okay, okay, I know what you mean. It's Ida who worries me, though. She and that doctor spend too much time together, if you ask me. I know they're more than just friends. Ida keeps telling me that, but I don't believe it for one minute." Lowering her voice and looking around, Sophie continued, "She simply cannot be without a man."
Since the fire at The Informer, Toots had been so involved in its cleanup and rebuilding, getting the paper ready for production without revealing to Abby that it was she who'd purchased the failing rag — not to mention the time she'd spent searching for the perfect home — that she'd hardly given much thought to Mavis's and Ida's activities. "I think we all need to have a sit-down to catch up with one another before something happens."
Excerpted from Exclusive by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2010 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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