Burl Davis checked out of this life a little earlier than expected—before Holly could serve him with divorce papers over his extramarital flings. Unfortunately, it was not before he nearly bankrupted her beloved B&B, Holly Grove, a converted plantation that has been in her family for generations. Holly would never wish anyone dead, but three months later she's feeling a lot more relief than grief.
Until Burl's ghost appears as an unwelcome guest. Before his spirit can move on, her not-so-dearly departed needs Holly’s human help to bust up the drug smuggling ring he was involved with. She has reservations, to say the least, but agrees to assist him if he’ll make a show of haunting the B&B to draw in visitors. But when Holly’s former love, Jack McCann, mysteriously resurfaces in town and checks in, she has to wonder if her B&B is big enough for the ghost of her husband and the very real physical presence of her old flame . . .
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Holly Davis wanted a divorce, not a funeral.
The young widow eased her desk drawer open and removed two files. The first held the divorce papers her husband hadn't lived to receive. The second was filled with every reason to divorce him in full-color, glossy prints. She strolled to the fireplace in the parlor of her bed-and-breakfast and dropped both files onto the cold ashes.
Two drops of brut slid between her lips as she tilted her crystal flute. "This requires another glass of champagne," she announced to her Yorkshire terrier.
Rhett's ears perked up.
Holly frowned and shook a finger at him. "Don't you tell me I'm drunk."
As she turned toward the armoire that concealed the bar, she wobbled on her stiletto sandals. "Lordy. Good-looking shoes are just like good-looking men. Dangerous."
She kicked off her shoes. One hurled through the air and bounced off the wall, barely missing a portrait of her great-great-grandfather.
Holly returned to the fireplace with a full glass of champagne and a box of matches. She lit the files, then perched on the antique settee in front of the fire. The files curled as the flames consumed them and their secrets. She owed Burl that much.
At least he'd done his philandering out of town. The good people of Delta Ridge, Louisiana, had turned out for his funeral, and they'd poured sympathy her way for the past three months. Holly couldn't make them feel like the fool she was. She'd keep Burl's secret, but she'd accept no more sympathy. Tonight was her last night as a grieving widow. She'd dressed up to celebrate her new life and bid her old one good-bye.
Raising her glass, she made a toast on what would have been their tenth anniversary. "I didn't wish you dead, Burl Davis, but thanks for setting me free."
Smoke curled over the mantel.
"Oh, crapola. I forgot to open the damper." She scrambled to flip the metal catch open as the fire licked her arm. Without thinking, she doused the flames with her champagne.
The fire hissed. Thick billows of smoke swirled and grew. A hazy figure took shape in front of the fireplace.
She gasped and stepped back.
"Is this any way to mourn your dearly departed husband?"
"B-Burl?" She blinked, hoping the image would disappear. Glass shattered as her flute hit the hardwood floor. Her heart jumped from her chest into her throat. Raising her hand to her neck, she took another step back and stared at the silhouette of her dead husband.
The wind howled, sucking the smoke and Burl up the flue. A surviving flame flickered between the logs as silence fell around her.
Holly fingered the Mikimoto pearls Burl had given her last year, on their anniversary, and shook her head. She swallowed hard. She'd buried Burl three months ago. Trying to compose herself, she smoothed her hands over her red silk dress.
Nothing but the wind and her imagination. Guests at her Louisiana bed-and-breakfast often insisted they'd seen the supernatural. Holly didn't believe in ghosts, but visitors expected an antebellum plantation to have a spirit or two roaming around. She played along to boost her business.
She blew out a long sigh. Guilt and too much champagne. Both self-inflicted. She didn't have anything to feel guilty about. Burl had crashed his airplane, and she couldn't help it if her life was better without him.
Holly tiptoed around the shards of glass and retrieved one of her stilettos. The room tilted as she tried to balance on one foot to slip on her shoe.
Rhett peeked from under the antique settee.
"Guess I scared you to death when I dropped that glass." She scooped him up and rubbed his head, then sat him down a safe distance from the glass. "You didn't see a thing, did you, boy?"
She scanned the room for her other shoe, then eyed Rhett. "Where is it?"
He wagged his entire backside, as though he had nothing to hide.
"Just like a man."
The opened bottle of brut chilling in the ice bucket was too expensive to waste. She poured another glass of champagne and downed it, hoping for a good night's sleep. Since she had no guests, she'd have the luxury of sleeping until eight o'clock.
Carrying the champagne bucket, she hobbled on one shoe to the kitchen. Then she armed herself with the Dustbuster and a fire extinguisher to clean up her mess.
Even tipsy, she considered the possibility of the ancient damper closing in the middle of the night, filling the place with smoke or burning down her home and business. Luck had never sided with Holly.
When she returned to the parlor, the logs above the ashes had caught fire. The charcoal scent of the old fireplace floated through the room. Focusing on the tiny shards of glass challenged her alcohol-impaired vision, but she vacuumed, anyway. She didn't want to chance Rhett stepping on a sliver of glass. Besides, the Delta Ridge Bridge Club had rented the parlor for nine o'clock in the morning for their weekly game. She couldn't have broken glass on the floor.
Holly tossed the Dustbuster on the settee, then picked up the fire extinguisher. She couldn't trust the damper to stay open. One spark and the fire could ignite again while she slept.
She'd never used a fire extinguisher before, and reading the label was out of the question tonight. Holly closed one eye and aimed the fire extinguisher toward the flames. Swaying, she squeezed the trigger, and a wide spray of white foam gushed onto the hardwood floor. She tilted the nozzle upward and lost her balance, sending the spray up the fifteen-foot wall to the carved crown molding.
A Casper the Friendly Ghost version of Burl coated in white foam stood before her. She dropped the fire extinguisher and dashed to the kitchen like a peg-legged pirate.
She grabbed the bottle of champagne off the counter and poured it down the drain. "I swear, God, if you'll get Burl out of my parlor, I'll never drink another drop," she said, with as much sincerity as she could pump into her plea to God, since she hadn't talked to Him lately.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Rhett scooted backward into the kitchen and barked all the way.
"What I wouldn't give for a drink right now. And there you go, pouring my best bottle down the drain."
Holly spun around to the powdery face of Burl Davis smiling at her. She strangled the neck of the empty bottle and wagged it at the apparition. "Y-you're not here. Yyou're dead. I buried you three months ago."
"Yeah. I'm dead. You buried me. But I am here." He opened his arms, as though she'd rush to hug him.
"No!" She shook her head. "I don't see dead people. Bruce Willis sees dead people. My guests see dead people."
She slammed the bottle into the trash. "I'm just drunk, and you're my pink elephant."
"Afraid not, Blondie." He shrugged. "Besides, Bruce was dead. The kid saw dead people."
Holly rolled her eyes and hiccuped. "Whatever."
She hated it when he called her Blondie. "In the morning, I'll have a hangover, and you'll be gone."
Stepping from high heel to bare foot in an awkward upand-down motion that made her dizzy, she backed out of the kitchen.
"Definitely," she said with as much diction as her thick tongue would allow.
He matched her step for step through the entrance hall. "I'm telling you, I'm not going anywhere."
Old anger bubbled up from the pit of her stomach. "You always have to win, don't you?" "I don't want to argue."
"That's a first." Their entire marriage had been a debate.
Burl laughed. "First time I've been dead."
"That's right. You're dead. Now, get out of my life." She flung her arms, as though shooing him away, and stumbled forward.
He bowed his head and mumbled, "Can't."
She plastered her hands on her hips. "What do you mean, can't?"
"Peter wouldn't let me in."
She leveled her eyes at her dead husband in disbelief. "Do you mean St. Peter, as in the one at Heaven's gate?" He nodded.
"I'm not surprised," she huffed. "Finally going to hell, huh?"
Death hadn't changed him one bit. "Can you just spit out the truth without twisting it into a pretzel?" "I have some unfinished business." He lifted a shoulder. "Until I make it right, I'm stuck here."
"Here? As in on earth?" She took another backward step into the parlor.
He shook his head and pointed to the floor. "Here, with you, in this house. One step outside and I burn, so I'm stuck here."
"You're not staying here." I just got my life back. "You can't."
Jealousy from the past pinched her heart. "Go haunt your girlfriend."
She spun around to stomp away and stepped from stiletto to bare foot. In one quick motion, she snatched off her shoe and hurled it at Burl. "Better yet, go to hell!" The stiletto sailed through him. "It's a possibility."
Holy moly. The first time her aim hit the target and it didn't faze him. "I know the devil will let you in."
"You don't want me to burn for all eternity. Do you?" His pale face drooped.
"I don't care." She glared at him, wishing he'd disappear.
Spots of the powdery foam clung to his outline. Where the foam had flaked off, Burl was transparent.
"You're the only one who can see or hear me."
"You called to me like I was still alive. You brought me back." He shrugged. "Sort of."
"The toast? That was to say good-bye. Did something get lost in the translation from the real world to the" — she drew quotation marks in the air — "other side?"
Burl grinned. "You called. I came."
"I'm having a nightmare, I'm drunk, or you've finally driven me completely out of my mind." Holly clapped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut, blocking Burl out of her world. She stood as still as she could, but the floor rolled beneath her feet like the deck of a boat in rough seas. The rocking motion churned her stomach. If she didn't open her eyes, she would either faint or puke. The thought of living with Burl again prompted the same symptoms.
Holly landed on the hardwood floor with a thud but didn't feel the pain she'd expected. She dared to open one eye. A powdery white dust peppered the cypress planks. She pried her other eye open to find the source. Pieces and parts of the dried foam had flaked off Burl onto the floor. "Are you still here?"
"Barely." He sounded weak.
She closed her eyes. "Good. Maybe you'll be gone when I wake up."
"I have only until midnight on Halloween to make things right, or I'm stuck here forever. You're the only one who can help me." His voice faded.
"No problem, Burl. I have thirty days to get you into heaven and out of my hair. We'll talk about it tomorrow, when I'm sober," she said, waving him off without opening her eyes.
Tomorrow I'll be sober, and Burl will be dead and gone, again.
"Sarcasm doesn't look good on you, Blondie. I have a shot at getting in if you help me."
Holly opened her eyes and looked up at Burl. "Let's see." She lifted her index finger and laid it against her cheek. "You cheated on me, robbed our 401(k), left me in debt for your funeral, and you want my help to get into paradise." She tapped a finger against her cheek, as if she were thinking, then gave a forced laugh. "I don't think so, but what can I do to get you into hell?"
"Very funny. If you don't help, I'm stuck here at Holly Grove for all eternity, and you're stuck with me for life." He raised a brow. "Unless you plan on moving."
Holly had sunk every dime of her inheritance into converting Holly Grove into a B & B three years ago, and Burl knew it. This was the year that Holly Grove was finally supposed to make a profit. She sighed. It had to.
She closed her eyes, and the room spun. Seven generations of her family had held on to Holly Grove through the Civil War, the Depression, and the Great Flood of 1927. Holly Grove and the people who worked there were the closest thing she had to a family. She'd never give up Holly Grove for a ghost or anything else. "What do I have to do?"
He didn't answer.
She opened her eyes. "Burl?"
White powder sprinkled down like salt from a box onto the hardwood floor, and he was gone.
Rhett's yaps pierced Holly's ears and bounced from temple to temple in her aching head.
She cracked one eye open. Sunlight flooded through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the parlor. She squinted and tried to lift her right hand to shield her eyes from the glare. The useless arm tingled and throbbed. No wonder. Her arm was dead asleep from spending the night on the hardwood floor. Blasted Burl. She couldn't even toast him good-bye without him causing trouble in her life.
Still groggy with sleep, she remembered what had to be last night's nightmare. Definitely, no more champagne for her.
Shifting her weight and trying to pry herself from the floor to begin her recovery, she noticed Miss Martha Jane Shaw's face, framed by cupped hands, staring at her through the window.
"Y'all. She moved." Miss Martha Jane turned and then crooked her arthritic finger in a motioning gesture toward the other end of the porch.
A cattle clomp of heels tromped across the porch. Oh, no. The Deltas had arrived. All four members of the Delta Ridge Bridge Club pressed their faces against the glass.
Holly dropped her sore head back to the floor. Just shoot me now.
Miss Martha Jane rapped on the 150-year-old glass. "Don't move. We've called 911."
Holly opened her mouth to protest as glass shattered. Miss Alice reached through the gaping hole where the windowpane had been and unlocked the window. The ladies heaved open the walk-through window, as Holly struggled to get up with a numb arm and a pounding headache.
Miss Alice Fort stormed to her side, followed by the rest of the club. She pushed Holly's shoulder back to the floor and lunged over her, trapping her under no less than forty pounds of grandmother boobs.
Grabbing Holly's numb wrist, Miss Alice zeroed in on her large-face watch to check Holly's pulse. Miss Alice's husband had been the only full-time doctor in Delta Ridge before dropping dead from a heart attack four years ago. She probably thought she'd earned a medical degree through osmosis in the course of her fifty-year marriage. "Lie still," she commanded.
Holly squirmed. If she wasn't afraid she'd break the old gal's hip, she would've struggled harder.
"Help me hold her down," Miss Alice ordered.
Knees cracking, the other three Deltas scampered to the floor. All four geriatrics pinned her down.
Holly pried her numb wrist free with her good hand. "Miss Alice. I'm fine," she said, dodging a boob.
Miss Alice stared down at her. "How much did you take?"
The old lady leaned over Holly, nearly smothering her. Then Miss Alice swept her hand across the floor. She held her wrinkled fingers, dusted with white powder, in front of Holly's face. "It's cocaine, isn't it?"
Holly remembered showering Burl with the fire extinguisher last night and the white powder that had flaked off him just before she passed out. The fine hair on her neck lifted as she wrapped her mind around the fact that she'd had no nightmare. "Oh, my God. It's Burl."
Miss Alice's eyes widened. "What?"
"That's Burl's dust," Holly blurted.
Miss Martha Jane gasped and covered her mouth.
"She's hallucinating," Miss Alice said to the other biddies.
A wail of sirens drew their attention. Miss Martha Jane rushed to open the front door.
Sandy Wright jogged into the parlor, pushing a gurney. She gave her pants a yank and tilted her chin up. "What happened here?"
"It's an OD," Miss Alice snapped with medical precision.
"No sh —" Sandy covered her mouth. "Sorry, ladies. This is the first OD call I've had since I got my EMT license."
Holly's throbbing head spun back to Miss Alice. "It's not cocaine. It's Burl's dust."
"She's hallucinating, too," Miss Martha Jane added, wringing her hands.
While Miss Alice was distracted, Holly took the opportunity to wiggle out from under her and bolt to her feet. "See. I'm fine. This is just a mis —" Black and red splotches danced across her vision, and she staggered.
Sandy grabbed Holly's arm and steadied her. "Don't worry, Holly. Everything is going to be fine. Just lie down here." She helped Holly to the gurney, then strapped her in.
Holly's vision cleared. "No. I just got up too fast."
"You could have a concussion from passing out, too," Sandy said. She gave the straps an extra tug, then eyed the old ladies. "Among other things."
In the distance, Holly heard Burl laughing his tail end off.
"It's not funny," she snapped as she struggled against the straps.
Sandy patted Holly's arm. "No one's laughing. Just try to calm down."
Excerpted from "Better Dead"
Copyright © 2018 Pamela Kopfler.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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