Read an Excerpt
Sweet Pepper fire chief Stella Griffin stood on the back deck of her rented cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. She was looking down at the Little Pigeon River as she drank the last can of Coke from her refrigerator. She preferred Coke to coffee in the morning, though more often than not since she’d come to Sweet Pepper, she had coffee.
It was hard to remember to keep the remote cabin well stocked. Stores were harder to get to than in her hometown of Chicago. Now when people offered coffee, or any other beverage or food, she was likely to take them up on it.
Hero, the young Dalmatian that had been adopted by the members of the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade, was jumping at red and gold leaves that fell from the oak tree that gracefully arched over the deck. It was late November. Most of the leaves were gone. It had been a good game while it lasted.
“So you’re determined to do this?”
Stella turned, the strong wind whipping her shoulder-length red hair around her face. “Yes, I am.”
The angry, questioning voice belonged to her roommate at the old cabin, former Sweet Pepper fire chief Eric Gamlyn. He stood well over six feet with a broad chest and wide shoulders. He wore blue jeans and a red Sweet Pepper T-shirt, his blond hair tied back from his face with a leather strap.
Eric had been dead for forty years. Since his death, he’d haunted the cabin that he built. He was usually a good roommate, but there were some difficult aspects of living with a ghost.
“You know how I feel about this, Stella. It’s a mistake,” he said in a loud voice that shook the cabin around them.
Hero barked at the sound. Stella believed he could hear and see Eric. The two seemed to have a special bond. Eric frequently called the puppy to the cabin from the firehouse and Hero had begun spending the night with them.
Stella was unimpressed with Eric’s bellowing. She was used to it. He liked to throw his spectral weight around when he wasn’t happy about something. She finished her Coke and went inside.
The cabin interior looked like an old hunting lodge, made of large, smooth logs that were stained a light brown color. There were three big rooms—living room, kitchen, and bedroom—with a small area off the kitchen that had a rough-hewn table and a few chairs.
There were deer antlers everywhere, used as a cup holder in the kitchen and as light fixtures throughout the cabin. The living room had a stone fireplace, a large brown leather sofa, and a matching chair. There were colorful Native American rugs on the rough, wood floors. The single bedroom contained an oversized log-framed bed, two dressers, and a side table.
Tall windows overlooked the deck and the Little Pigeon River. The Smoky Mountains rose up beyond the river, their majestic face changing with each passing hour. Stella loved the deck. She thought she could sit outside on one of the old rocking chairs and be happy there forever.
“I know you think you can handle everything, but you can’t clean out the chimney. You’ve already tried and it didn’t work. I’m going to need the extra warmth this winter, even if you won’t. I think it’s best to hire someone else to do it.”
“You know I don’t like strangers in my cabin,” he growled, following her through the glass door that led to the deck.
Stella sat in the brown leather chair with the puppy at her feet. “He’s got good references,” she assured him. “People hire others to do these things, Eric. Not everyone is an expert at everything.”
“I’m the expert on this cabin.” His blue-eyed gaze was able to see the entire structure, inside and out. He could control most things that happened there, even out to fifty feet from the cabin. He could stop bats, southern scorpions, and other pests from invading his space.
It was humans—living humans—he had a problem with. Especially Stella.
Most of them he could scare away easily. Stella was a different matter. He’d given her some leeway since she’d come to save his beloved volunteer fire department.
Now she was taking advantage of his weakness. “He’s not even from Sweet Pepper. The least you could do is hire a local person.”
“I’m not local either, remember?” She put two slices of bread in the toaster, frowning because they were the last two slices of bread. She was running out of everything. She hated driving into Sevierville or Pigeon Forge for supplies. “He’s been here as long as I have. People speak highly of him. I think he’ll be okay.”
Stella had been acting fire chief in the small Tennessee mountain town since August when she’d come from Chicago to train the new volunteers. She was supposed to have finished with the job and been back home within three months.
Three months had stretched into four after the grizzly discovery of Eric’s remains, which had been entombed in the old firehouse. He’d been murdered, not killed in a grain silo fire as people had thought. She wanted to help look for whoever had done that to him.
She still planned to go home as soon as all the questions were answered. Eric had saved her life and had been a fellow firefighter, even though it was before she was born. He couldn’t remember how he’d died. He deserved to know what had actually happened to him.
Hero whined a little in his sleep and kicked his long legs. Stella rubbed his neck. He was probably dreaming. The puppy had been abandoned, along with his mother, and rescued by a couple in town. The fire brigade had taken Hero in after a call when they’d saved his rescuers’ home. He had been a gift to the fire department.
“You’re a different story.” Eric paced through the living area of the cabin, walking right through furniture and tables.. “We agreed that this is still my cabin.”
“It is still your cabin. You can have it back all to yourself as soon as I leave. Since it doesn’t look like that’s going to be anytime soon, we need to have the chimney cleaned. The last time you started a fire, there was smoke everywhere.”
“I can try again. Soot and creosote have built up. It’s not something lodged in it.”
“My point exactly. I don’t know how to clean a chimney, and I don’t want to learn. For whatever reason, your ‘ghostly powers’ keep you from cleaning it. Patrick will do a good job, and the fireplace will be ready for colder weather. It would look bad for the fire chief’s cabin to burn down because of carelessness.”
Eric ignored her. He pushed himself up inside the chimney again. If blasting his ghostly form through the chimney opening would have helped, the problem would be solved.
The problem was he could only accomplish one or two physical tasks at the same time. It wasn’t easy being a ghost, and holding on to a corporeal form. He couldn’t grasp the chimney broom and force it up and down within the space with enough strength. It was ridiculous!
He didn’t want to admit he couldn’t clean the chimney. It seemed like such a simple task.
He came back, defeated again. Hero jumped up and started barking at him as he emerged from the fireplace.
“If it was actually clogged with something, I could get it,” he told Stella. “The problem is the soot on the walls needs to be scrubbed out.”
“Stop whining about it,” she said. “I have to run down to the fire station for drills and drive to the grocery store for supplies. I’m putting Hero out for a while. Let him run down to the station if he wants to. I’ll bring him back with me.”
“And the chimney sweep?” Eric’s not-quite-solid muscular legs were spread apart like a defiant sea captain, his arms folded resolutely across his chest.
“I told him the door would be open when he got here. Please don’t scare him off like you did the line repairman from the electric company. We didn’t have power for days until they found someone else to come back after the storm.”
He looked into her pretty brown eyes and freckled face. His heart softened, as it always did. “I know. I’ll be careful. I wasn’t expecting the lineman. I don’t like surprises. I’m ready for this.”
Stella smiled at him as she pulled her hair back into a ponytail to keep it out of her face while she went through drills with her recruits. Her mother’s strong features gave character to her face. Her father’s Irish heritage gave her hundreds of freckles.
She’d been a firefighter for ten years, following in the footsteps of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather—another legacy of Irish blood. That blood made her stubborn too.
Coming to Sweet Pepper to train raw recruits wouldn’t have been on her radar if she hadn’t been injured in a fire, and had a bad break up with her boyfriend. She’d gotten so much more than she’d ever imagined by coming to this small town—including new friends and the intimidating ghost who stood before her.
It wasn’t easy living with a ghost, especially one who could be contentious at times. She’d heard ghost stories from her father’s Irish family her whole life. She’d never expected to live with a specter. There was so much the old stories left out, like ghosts popping in and out of the bedroom and the bathroom. Even though she’d tried to set limits on walking through walls, Eric wasn’t good with limits.
She’d cut him some slack. He’d lived alone for forty years before she arrived. She seemed to be the only one, besides Hero, who could see and hear him. Other people reacted with panicked screams to his tricks as he floated items around the room or shook the cabin. No one had wanted to live there for a long time.
She supposed Eric also made allowances for her. After all, he liked to talk. It had to be hard for him, all those years not being heard. He also liked to cook—another story entirely.
“Do you need anything from the grocery store?” She tucked her red Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade T-shirt into her jeans.
“Maybe some cocoa powder,” he said. “I was thinking about making a chocolate-pepper soufflé.”
“Are you already working on recipes for next year’s pepper festival?”
“You can’t start too early.”
The Sweet Pepper Festival was a yearly, three-day celebration in October. It involved everything pepper, from people dressed like peppers to pepper-recipe contests, pepper-eating contests, and pepper music.
Hot peppers had put the little town on the map. Sweet Pepper worked it for all it was worth. Stella had enjoyed the festivities. She hadn’t thought she would, but she loved the town spirit during the event. People went a little overboard with costumes for her taste, otherwise it was delightful. She’d even put together a recipe for the pepper recipe contest. Stella wasn’t much of a cook— she didn’t win anything. It had still been fun.
She’d quickly found out that Eric loved to cook and had won prizes almost every year during the festival when he’d been alive. Now she was encouraging him to participate. She wondered what everyone would say if she put his name on a recipe.
Of course, the next festival was almost a year away. She didn’t know where she’d be by then.
“You’ll need eggs too,” she finally said. “Anything else?”