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It was a bad sign when you were feeling envious of the person in the casket.
Chloe Malcolm winced at her own thoughts, which were highly inappropriate and completely out of character. Chloe was always appropriate; it was one of the things Aunt Jane had teased her about. Swallowing a knot of emotion, Chloe smiled at her aunt's peaceful face. As far as Chloe knew, Jane Walters had never once in her sixty-three years worried about decorum. It was that free-spiritedness Chloe envied.
Aunt Jane had appalled Chloe's parents by nicknaming her niece "Wheezy," making the childhood asthma Chloe later outgrew seem like more of an in-joke than a handicap. I'm going to miss you. Jane hadn't spent much time here in Mistletoetoo busy running with the bulls in Pamplona or, more recently, hot-air ballooning over Flagstaffbut each of her visits had been memorable.
"How are you holding up?"
Chloe turned to see blond and beautiful Natalie Young, her best friend and manager of the town's flower shop. "Okay. I know she wouldn't have any regrets and wouldn't want any of us moping. She was just so full of life that it's hard to believe "
"Yeah. She was a force all her own." Natalie grinned. "I'm amazed at some of the stories I've heard this afternoon, but I guess you grew up with them."
Not exactly. Chloe's parents had loved Jane, but they hadn't minded her keeping a geographical distance from their impressionable daughter and had deemed some of Jane's exploits unfit for young ears.
Back in the sixties, Aunt Jane had shocked her own parents and her older sister when she'd eloped with a local boy who'd left shortly after for Vietnam. When he'd come back,he'd been unable to assimilate to small-town Georgia life; he and Jane had restlessly roamed the country for the remainder of their marriage, part of which she'd spent dancing in a Vegas show and perfecting her blackjack skills. Chloe's mother, Rose, had commented more than once that her younger sister had the devil's own luck. She'd said it with neither jealousy nor censure, but worry. Fear that Jane's exuberant, outrageous ways would catch up to her one day.
But Chloe believed Jane left this world exactly as she would have wantedafter a day of parasailing in the Caribbean and a romantic evening with a forty-nine-year-old divorced tax attorney, she'd died of a blood clot in her sleep. Jane had dated a wide range of men in the past two decades, never lacking companionship. She'd aged beautifully, like Helen Mirren or Diane Keaton. Still, Chloe thought that what really attracted admirers was her aunt's confidence and vervetwo qualities Chloe lacked, except when it came to computers.
During Chloe's teen years, Jane had insisted her niece was simply a "late bloomer." At twenty-seven, Chloe had resigned herself to the fact that she was as bloomed as she was going to get.
Trying to push away vague pangs that she might have let her aunt down, Chloe redirected her attention to Natalie. "The arrangements are beautiful, by the way. I'm sorry I didn't say so earlier."
"Thanks." The blonde pursed her lips. "You don't think the flowers seem too formal? I filled people's orders, but I feel like Jane would have preferred sunflowers or daisies. Something bright or funky. The remembrance wreath and spray of roses are a little at odds with everything else."
"Like the music and the open bar? I thought Mama would have a conniption."
Jane's final wishes had been well-documented with her lawyer, right down to the slide show and five-song sound track for the memorial. It had been designed to follow Jane's life, ending a few minutes ago with "Spirit in the Sky." But it was the earlier "It's Raining Men" that seemed to have left an impression on guests. Jane Walters hadn't wanted a funeral; she'd wanted a party at which the people she'd known could celebrate her life. If she'd picked out Chloe's attire for the service, it probably would have been the flowered sarong Jane had once sent her niece from Maui. Instead, Chloe had paired a lightweight blouse with her navy skirt, her only touches of whimsy the polka-dotted yellow headband holding back her long dark hair and pomegranate-flavored lip gloss.
"Speaking of your mother." Natalie looked around. "Is she doing all right?"
"Hard to say." Chloe's parents, aside from making sure their only child knew how adored she was, didn't make a point of discussing their emotions. What Chloe had deduced for herself was that restrained and proper Rose, dutiful first daughter, had always had a complicated relationship with her free-spirited younger sister. "Mama mentioned that she didn't think Jane had ever truly stopped loving her husband and that the two of them can be together now. She was talking to some old schoolmates the last time I saw her, but I should check on her."
As soon as Chloe said school, Natalie opened her mouth.
Chloe headed her off at the pass. "Let's not discuss the reunion now, okay?"
"Of course not." Natalie's blue gaze was suddenly bright with innocence. She should have joined drama club as a student instead of the cheer squad. "I wouldn't nag you at your aunt's memorial service."
A refreshing change. Natalie had been nagging on a daily basis since she'd signed on as a committee member for the Mistletoe High reunion. During their senior year, Natalie had made a few uncomfortable attempts at socially assisting Chloe, her erstwhile algebra tutor, but had felt ever since graduation that she, as popular cocaptain of the cheerleaders, should have done more to boost her nerdy friend's status. Whenever Natalie talked about the reunion, she got an overzealous gleam in her eye and morphed into a stubborn fairy godmother hell-bent on dragging Cinderella to the ball. Nat harbored unrealistic dreams of making Chloe over so that everyone could be dazzled by her a decade later, the once-shy brunette voted prom queen or reunion queen or whatever.
"Girls." Vonda Kerrigan approached, nodding her respects. In her midseventies, Vonda was closer to Rose in age but closer to Jane in personality. The two women had shared a cheerful disregard for conventionalism and had spent time together whenever Jane visited town. "Kasey and Ben are taking me home now, but I wanted to say goodbye to you, Chloe."
Chloe hugged the older woman gently. "I'm glad you came."
"Wouldn't have missed it." Vonda's wizened face split into a grin as she looked over her shoulder at the bar and handsome bartender. "Even from the hereafter, Jane throws a good party. You know, I think she accomplished just about everything she wanted to during her lifetime. Not many people can say that."
True. Some people had difficulty even figuring out what they wanted, much less achieving it.
Vonda patted Chloe's shoulder. "I can see a little bit of her in you."
Chloe smiled politely. She wanted to be flattered by the comparison, but it was too hard to believe. I couldn't be less like Aunt Jane if I tried. Chloe's idea of rebelling was taking two complimentary mints instead of one after her Greek salad at the deli. When it came to dealing with programming errors or challenging code, Chloe was self-assured and quick-thinking. When it came to tackling life
Well, she could learn a thing or two about living from the dearly departed.
Three days later, as she returned from running errands, Chloe discovered that Aunt Jane didn't just throw parties from the hereaftershe sent gifts.
Chloe had worked at home that morning, updating pet-sitter Brenna Pierce's professional Web site and brainstorming ways to incorporate new features Brenna wanted to add. Then Chloe had joined her parents for lunch at the seniors' center. Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm had moved into a small apartment in the complex last winter, deeding Chloe the modest two-bedroom home she'd grown up in and explaining that it was getting difficult for them to maintain the house and yard.
"We're not spring chickens, you know," her dad had joked.
Because Chloe had been an unexpected late-in-life baby, her parents had always been much older than those of her peers. When she was little, she hadn't noticed, but the first time she ever spent the night at Natalie's, she'd been struck by the difference. Natalie's mother had double-pierced ears and laughed as she asked them who the cutest boys were at Mistletoe High.
The name rose so suddenly in Chloe's mind that she almost tripped over a crack in the sidewalk. Other female classmates might have sighed over the Waide brothers or brooding and vaguely dangerous loner Gabe Sloan; in Chloe's mind, however, there'd been no contest. Dylan Echols was the best-looking guy in all of Mistletoe. But her unrequited infatuation had been ten years agohe'd left town after graduation on an athletic scholarship. Though she'd seen him since then in the newspaper and on television clips, he rarely visited Mistletoe. Surely she'd moved on from an unrequited adolescent crush?
Then again, it was difficult to move forward when you spent your time with the same people year after year, had barely updated your wardrobe to reflect the new millennium and lived in exactly the same place. She frowned at the house, and a brown box on the porch caught her eye. Was I expecting a delivery? Not that she could remember. Curious, she quickly took the three steps leading up to the front door. The label was penned in familiar loopy cursive. Although Chloe's middle name was Ann, the packages always came addressed to Chloe W. Malcolm.
W for Wheezy, an epithet that was suddenly, alarmingly appropriate.
Chloe's chest had tightened at the sight of her aunt's handwriting, and for a moment she couldn't breathe. She sat on the top step and closed her eyes, waiting for the initial panic to pass. The more she fought for air, the worse the situation became. Besides, this was not one of the long-ago respiratory incidents that had landed her in the E.R. or prevented her from chasing other kids in the neighborhood while they played tag. She was just temporarily dazed.
Intellectually she knew that packages from other countries could get held up in customs and take extra time to reach their destinations. Emotionally she was startled to be receiving mail from someone she'd said her final farewells to over the weekend.
After a moment, Chloe stood, fishing her keys out of her windbreaker pocket. She carried the box inside, set it on the kitchen table and stared at it. Then she picked up the cordless phone and dialed.
"Mistletoe Berries and Blooms," Natalie chirped on the other end.
"Hey, it's me." Chloe sagged into one of the straight-backed chairs that had been in the kitchen since the late eighties.
"Chloe! I was going to call you later. You won't believe what came in the mail."
"She sent you something, too?" Unusual but not unheard-of. Jane had been generous as well as spontaneous. "Because I have to tell you, I'm a little"
"She who? I was talking about a him."
"Oh. I got a package today. From Aunt Jane."
"What did she send?"
"I haven't opened it," Chloe admitted. "Knowing it's the last one of these I'm going to get, it felt disrespectful to tear into it like a five-year-old at a birthday party. But treating it with a lot of pomp and circumstance seems silly when, for all I know, it's an obscene T-shirt she thought was funny." Chloe had two such ribald tops from New Orleans that she'd never wear in public. Heck, she practically blushed just sleeping in either of them.
"I'll close the store early and come over."
"You sure?" Chloe asked, grateful but feeling melodramatic.
"Yeah. It's been kind of slow today. We did some nice spring arrangements just before Easter, but it won't get seriously busy again until prom, Mother's Day and summer weddings. I'll be so swamped in June you'll forget what I look like. Give me about half an hour, okay?"
True to her word, Natalie showed up right at the thirty-minute mark. She was holding a bag from the local grocery.
"Provisions," she declared. "They're not perfect, but it was short notice."
Once inside the kitchen, Natalie pulled out a plastic container of macadamia-nut cookies andpiña colada wine coolers. Chloe smiled at the impromptu tropical theme.
Natalie opened a wine cooler and passed Chloe the still-cold bottle, then opened one for herself and held it aloft. "To Aunt Jane."
"To Aunt Jane."
They clinked the bottles together and each drank. Then Chloe slit the packing tape with one of the kitchen knives and pulled back the cardboard flaps. On top was a postcard, showing a beautiful white sandy beach and crystal-blue waters. Chloe flipped it over.
I got you a card with a half-naked cabana boy, but then kept it for myself. Put this by your computer and daydream about future vacations. I saw the enclosed dress and thought of youyou still don't know how beautiful you are. Give some local fellow a chance to show you! Or come with me to the tropics, and I'll introduce you to a nice cabana boy. I'm proud of you, Wheezy, but don't spend all your time at the computer and taking care of your parents! Shake things up from time to time.
Love and mai tais,
Chloe had to blink away tears to read the end of it, but she grinned when she got there. She held the postcard out to Natalie.
A second later, Natalie chuckled. "Think there are cabana boys in heaven?"
"If not, Aunt Jane's talking Saint Peter into it even as we speak."
"So what's this dress look like?"
Good question. Chloe pushed aside some plain tissue paper and got a glimpse of deep red. The silky material slipped through her fingers like water.
"Whoa," Natalie said, looking over her shoulder. "Now that's a dress."
Chloe held it up, stunned. Her aunt had seen this and thought of her? Perhaps Jane had been under the influence of a mai tai at the time. The so-called sleeves were wide, off-the-shoulder bands, hardly more than straps; the skirt, while the same color, was a different material. It fell in gauzy, staggered layers to form a handkerchief hem. Even at its longest point, the skirt would barely reach her knees.
"Try it on," Natalie urged. "That's what she would have wanted."