This week’s Romance Roundup includes a duke who can’t read, a scorned woman whose meltdown goes viral, and a cowboy who wants to make a home.
After a career on the rodeo circuit, Ben Sterling longs to settle down on his farm and start a family like his brothers. He’s searched all over for the woman of his dreams. Yet the only one to spark his interest is the new owner of the local café. Getting her attention, however, won’t be easy.
Sissy Sue Bentley has worked hard to make it on her own, and she doesn’t need another man in her life. From her alcoholic father to the men she’s dated, who were after only one thing, they are nothing but trouble. Except Ben keeps showing up whenever she really needs help. Sissy struggles to deny her growing feelings for him—but soon Ben’s tender concern has her hoping for a happier future. Then her past comes barreling back into her life, and it will take more than the love in Ben’s heart to hold them together.
NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Catherine Anderson
With the taste of tacos lingering in his mouth, Ben Sterling opened the door to leave Taco Joe’s on West Main and hollered good-bye to Joe Paisley, the owner. A rush of icy, pine-scented air surrounded Ben as he donned his tan Stetson and stepped onto the sidewalk. It smelled like home and reminded him how glad he was to be back in Mystic Creek, not just for a visit, but living on his ranch again.
Liquidating his business as a rodeo stock broker hadn’t been an easy decision. He’d made damned good money. But it kept him on the road most of the time, often in flat, arid country where only a few bushy trees dotted the landscape. He’d quickly grown tired of the constant traveling, but he’d stuck it out to build a nice nest egg. Now he had finally quit, returned to his roots, and was trying to build a real life.
Because it had been sunny when he left home, he’d forgotten a jacket, so all he could do was hunch his shoulders against the frigid temperature. His new Dodge Ram waited along the curb only paces away. Against the backdrop of late nineteenth-century storefronts that characterized Mystic Creek, it looked futuristic in the grayish light that always bathed the town as the sun started its slide into oblivion.
The smooth soles of his riding boots lost traction, warning him that the concrete was icy. In mid-September, Mystic Creek sometimes had weather fluctuations, warm one minute and freezing the next. Stupid not to bring a coat, he thought. This is high-elevation Oregon. He guessed he’d been gone too long. Climatic habits ingrained in him during boyhood had lost their hold on him.
Walking to his vehicle, he saw his dog, Finnegan, watching him through the back cab window. Eight months old, the blue merle Australian shepherd had the mottle of black, gray, and white fur common to blues, but his markings were distinct, his narrow nose and forehead sporting a tapering white blaze. He bounced from side to side on the bench seat, acting as if he’d been alone for hours.
A smile touched Ben’s mouth. A bachelor and now thirty years old, he enjoyed having a dog. When Ben first returned to live on his ranch, the big, rambling house had felt empty when he stayed there alone. He’d grown up in a large family. He preferred noise buzzing around him. Finn had provided the perfect antidote, snuggling with Ben in the recliner while he watched TV or read novels, always eager to play, barking joyously, and offering a warm presence beside him in bed at night. Hello, when a man couldn’t find Miss Right, no matter how hard he searched, sometimes he had to settle for companionship from a four-legged friend. There were worse fates than being loved by a dog.
Not that Ben didn’t keep company with women. He just couldn’t find that one special lady he wanted to be with for a lifetime. Dating at thirty was a crapshoot with lots of promising beginnings followed by disappointing endings. He couldn’t find anyone who truly loved animals, for one thing, and his life revolved around all kinds of them. He’d met a few gals that had a cat, bird, or goldfish, but they didn’t want a dog in the house. Or they were afraid of horses. A number of them had even visited his ranch in high heels and gotten pissed if they stepped in manure. He couldn’t build a future with someone like that. He needed a down-to-earth person who didn’t run in terror from his free-range chickens or pick dog hair off her fancy clothes.
As he circled the truck to the driver’s door, delicious aromas drifted across the street from the Straw Hat, which served Mexican cuisine, and the Cauldron, another eatery in Mystic Creek, which specialized in home-style fare. Ben enjoyed eating at the Cauldron, and apparently so did many others. Through the front windows, he could see that the place was packed. The menu offered a wide variety of homemade choices, and the prices were also easy on the wallet.
There was only one fly in the ointment for Ben where the Cauldron was concerned, the café’s owner, Sissy Sue Bentley. She was a petite woman with cropped dark hair, blue eyes that dominated her heart-shaped face, and a figure that was perfection on a small scale. She’d caught his attention over a year ago, and he’d started patronizing her establishment, hoping to get better acquainted. Despite his efforts to be friendly, she’d treated him as if he had a contagious disease. After a couple of weeks, he’d started to feel like a stalker and chalked it up to bad chemistry. Now he avoided the place.
Sissy wasn’t the only pretty female in the area, after all. On weekend nights, he sometimes frequented the nightspots in nearby Crystal Falls, hoping to meet someone he could relate to. So far, he’d run across several gals who were stunning, and a few intriguing enough to date for a couple of months. In the end, though, even if the sex was great, there was always something to put the kibosh on the relationship. It was just his luck that the only local woman he found attractive had taken an instant dislike to him.
As Ben pulled open the truck door, Finn leaped forward and slathered his face with doggy kisses. Ben laughed and gave the pup an enthusiastic scratch behind both ears. “I missed you, too.” He gently pushed the shepherd off the driver’s seat and started to climb inside the vehicle.
A familiar sound stopped him dead in his tracks. Berk, berk, berk. He swung around and did a double take. A white hen was strutting eastward along the street. Ben had seen some strange sights in Mystic Creek. One time a skunk had joined the participants of a Fourth of July parade and cleared the sidewalks of people with one threatening lift of its tail. More recently, a black bear had moseyed onto East Main and pushed its way through the swinging doors of the Jake ’n’ Bake and devoured everything in the pastry section while Jake hid in the cooler until law officers arrived.
Now it was a chicken invading the downtown area. Where had it come from?
Just then, two more hens fell in behind the white leghorn, all three of the fowl covering ground at a pace suggesting they were late to an appointment. Finnegan barked. He was used to seeing chickens at home, but never within the city limits.
What the hell? Ben looked in the direction from which the chickens were coming and saw more feathery pedestrians appearing from behind the last building on the opposite side of the street. It housed Marilyn Fears’s One-Stop Market, a small mom-and-pop shop. Had Marilyn decided to raise chickens? It was a popular hobby, and so far as Ben knew, the town had no ordinances against it.
Marilyn had space behind her building for a coop and run. A small distributary of Mystic Creek flowed behind the shops on that side of West Main, so the land back there hadn’t been developed. Diverting the stream’s natural course wasn’t an option. In this town, nobody messed with Mystic Creek. The waterway was thought to be magical by many people, and even a narrow brook originating from it was revered.
As Ben watched, the flow of hens didn’t abate. How many chicks had Marilyn ordered? As Ben stood there, dumbfounded, even more chickens appeared. Beckoning Finn out of the truck in case he needed the dog’s help with bird herding, he gingerly headed toward the store. If Marilyn’s chickens were loose, she’d need help collecting them. The ones he’d seen were pullets, not yet full-grown, and at an age when hens were sometimes warier of humans than they might be later. He didn’t want that nice older lady to fall on the ice and get hurt.
As Ben circled the store, he noticed the dim interior beyond the front window, which sported a glowing sign that read CLOSED. It was Friday night and only shortly after six. Though a gloaming heralded the approach of nightfall, full darkness wouldn’t descend for a while. He guessed the market mostly got business from nine to five on weekdays, allowing Marilyn, who lived in the upstairs flat, to lock up early.
The oncoming birds made Ben feel as if he were going the wrong direction on a one-way thoroughfare. As he turned the corner at the back of the building, his gaze followed the line of fleeing chickens to the property behind the Cauldron. Shit. Through the deepening gloom, he saw a tiny coop in Sissy’s backyard—one of those DIY kits. Attached to it was a pathetic wire run. She probably didn’t know her chickens were loose, and even if she did, the Cauldron appeared to be packed with customers. The last time Ben had eaten there, Sissy had still been doing a one-woman show, rushing to service tables, pinning slips to the order wheel, and then racing into the kitchen to cook.
Just then Ben saw her dart from behind the coop in pursuit of a brown hen. She lunged at her target, slipped, and did a belly flop on the ground. Ben winced. The lady had been unfriendly to him in the past, greeting his polite overtures with icy disdain. He owed her nothing and almost made a U-turn. But the fowl had fled in all directions, and Ben’s dad, Jeremiah, had raised him to always offer his help when someone else was in a jam.
Snapping his fingers to keep the dog beside him, Ben hurried across Marilyn’s lawn to Sissy’s dirt yard. Finn trembled with excitement. “Do you need some help?”
Startled by Ben’s voice, Sissy whirled to face him. Even with dirt smeared on her cheek and across the front of her white chef’s coat, she was still cuter than a button. Her short, dark hair, which covered her ears in wisps to frame her cheeks, was tousled and peppered with wood chips. Some of the old folks in town said Sissy was the spitting image of Audrey Hepburn. Not long ago, Ben’s mom and sisters had insisted that he watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s with them. Except for the difference in eye color, Sissy definitely resembled Hepburn.
His gut tightened. He didn’t get what it was about Sissy that drew his interest, but when she turned that wary blue gaze on him, he wanted to reassure her.
She gestured at the fleeing chickens and cried, “Nobody ever told me they can fly! What kind of hatchery sells chicks to people without telling them that?”
Ben wondered if this was a trick question. “Um, well, they are birds. Right?”
She placed her fine-boned hands on her hips. “Not all birds can fly. Penguins, for instance! And emus! Name me one time you saw a chicken soaring in the sky!”
Ben struggled not to grin. For once, she was actually speaking to him without an order tablet in her hand. Now was not a good time to pop back with a smart-ass comment. “Not often, I have to admit.”
“Not often? I’ve never seen a chicken fly!”
Ben glanced at the hens going airborne to get over the sagging wall of the run. “That could be because all the chickens you’ve ever seen had their wings clipped.”
“Clipped?” She rolled her eyes. “What parts are clipped? All I know is my whole flock is loose, my café is filled with customers, I have food on the stove, and—”
She gulped and her cheeks puffed out with her deep breaths.
“I’ll be happy to help,” he offered.
With a jerk of her shoulders and a lift of her chin, she stood tall—well, as tall as someone of her diminutive stature could manage. In her ice queen voice, she informed him, “I think I can handle it by myself.”
That stuffs it, Ben thought. She hadn’t even bothered to thank him for offering. His father may have raised him to be a good guy, but not a fool. Just as he turned to walk away, thinking up a rejoinder he’d never say aloud to her, a white leghorn flapped past him. Before he could stop himself, he shot out a hand, caught both its legs in his grip, and tipped it upside down, a quick, humane way to prevent all the struggling and squawking that might have ensued.
I need lessons in how to be a convincing jerk, Ben thought. She doesn’t want my help. She’s made that clear. And now I’ve caught one of her damned hens. Angry with himself for being a pushover, he started toward her pathetic excuse for a run. The brown hen she’d been chasing now perched on the sagging wire. Ben snatched it up by its legs, turned it head down, and met Sissy at the jerry-rigged gate.
She flashed him an incredulous look. “How did you do that?”
“There really isn’t much to it.”
She glanced at the two birds hanging almost lifeless at his sides. Not wanting her to think his technique was abusive, Ben said, “This is how many poultry wranglers do it. All the fight goes out of the chickens, and it’s safer for them.”
Ben nearly told her she couldn’t afford him. But in good conscience, he couldn’t let the hens run free all night. They might die of exposure, or fall victim to predators. He glanced at his dog, still quivering with excitement. The pup was already proving to be a good herder, and Ben had used him often to round up his chickens after a day of free range.
He snapped his fingers and pointed at a buff Orpington. “Good boy, Finn! Bring ’em in.”
Finnegan leaped into action. While he expertly steered three terrified hens toward home, Ben dumped his captives inside the run, caught two more, and opened the makeshift gate to facilitate his dog’s efforts. After Finnegan had done his part, Ben entered the enclosure, pulling the gate closed behind him. He caught all the buggers and stuffed them into the coop to prevent more escapes. The run was useless. The wire sagged so low, even chickens with clipped wings could probably hop over it.
After securing the door, he exited the run. He looked at Sissy. “How many chickens do you have? I saw at least fifty on the street.”
In a small voice, she said, “Eighty.”
“Eighty?” Ben studied the structure. “That coop isn’t big enough for eighty grown birds. Twenty, maybe.”
She pushed tendrils of dark hair from her brow. “It seemed a lot bigger when they were small. I want to increase my breakfast business, and since a lot of my customers are farmers, I thought.” She flapped a limp hand. “Well, you know. They dislike commercially grown eggs. So I took courses online and passed a test so I’d be legal to raise layers and sell eggs. I even know how to grade them for size.”
In other words, she knew a lot of useless stuff about chickens and nothing practical. “And you think your breakfast crowd will go through eighty eggs a day?”
“There’s a mortality rate with chicks.” She pushed her fingers through her hair, making it spike in all directions. “I can’t remember the percentage, but I ordered plenty of chicks just in case some of them didn’t make it.”
She looked exhausted. Even worse, an expression of utter defeat played over her face.
“But then nobody died!” Her tone was laced with frustration. A horrified expression flashed in her eyes. “Not that I wanted anybody to die.” She dropped her hand from her hair to press it over her heart. “I love them. They were such cute babies. I kept them in troughs in my bedroom under heat lights like they tell you to do. And then they got pasty butt, and I had to wash all their bums every night.” She gave him an imploring look. “They became my pets.”
He tried to imagine washing the encrusted butts of eighty chicks every night after a hard day’s work. As for loving chickens, they were just livestock, filthy creatures and so dumb they took dumps in their drinking water.
Ben went after another hen. Before he closed in, a rooster just old enough to be feeling randy grabbed the chicken by her neck feathers and threw her to the ground.
Sissy, hurrying along beside him, cried, “Some of them are getting vicious with the others. Just look at her, being so mean! It started a couple of days ago. I don’t know what’s gotten into her. Margie! You quit that!”
Ben realized that Sissy didn’t know how to tell the difference between male and female birds when they were still so young. The ground had grown slick with a layer of ice, and his boots provided little traction. He barely managed to slide to a stop before he knocked the birds over with his shins. Startled, the two chickens parted company, the hen going one way while Margie the rooster went the other. He chased the hen, letting Margie escape. A male bird was less likely to skedaddle. No guy in his right mind abandoned a place where he could score countless times a day.
Finn had herded several chickens into the run and was standing guard at the open gate to make sure none of them tried to dart back out. It would be a race against time before they took flight over the short wire walls of the enclosure. Ben needed to stuff this hen and all the others into the coop.
Sissy ran in to help as Ben deposited birds inside the shelter. Her black work shoes, soled for grip on smooth floors, didn’t perform well on ice. Just as she neared the coop, her feet shot out from under her and she landed hard on her backside, losing the captured bird in the process. With so many hens squawking, Ben didn’t hear her teeth snap together, but he felt certain they had.
She scrambled erect and began helping him get hens into the coop. The first two she caught squawked, twisted in her arms, and flapped their wings. From then on, she grabbed them by the legs and flipped them upside down. Quick learner, he noted.
When Ben exited the run, he saw Finnegan disappear around the corner of the building. Ben guessed the dog was going out to the street where hens were running helter-skelter along West Main. Finn was accustomed to cars. On the ranch, Ben had started training him early to respect them. If the pup saw an automobile coming, he’d dart out of harm’s way.
Within seconds Ben heard hens approaching, and an instant later, they came around the corner of the building, legs scissoring and wings flapping to take them airborne in fits and starts. Finn ran back and forth in a broad fan pattern behind them, blocking the way of any bird that tried to retreat.
“Wow!” Sissy exclaimed, her face even dirtier now than it was earlier. At her side dangled a hen, wings spread and motionless. “He’s really good at this.”
Ben’s chest swelled with pride. “He’s a great herder.”
Soon at least ten chickens were racing around inside the run. Ben and Sissy wasted no time in capturing them. Once it grew dark, it would be difficult to find them.
After securing all the captives inside the coop, Ben turned to see Sissy kneeling outside the gate with her arms around Finnegan. “Thank you so much,” he heard her say above the raucous cries of the birds behind him. “You’re a wonderful—no, fabulous—dog!” She ruffled Finn’s fur and planted a kiss on his forehead before releasing him. “Good boy! Bring ’em in!”
After scrambling to her feet, Sissy began chasing other escapees. Ben joined her. Finn had left to bring in more strays from the street, so they were temporarily on their own. Ben regretted telling Sissy that catching chickens was easy. Without his dog, he pretty much sucked.
Ben lunged after a black rooster that was determined to avoid capture. The male darted behind a pine and used the large trunk as a barricade. The yard was dotted with smaller trees near the back boundary. Ben wished the gump had chosen to hide behind one of them. He feinted to the right, one hand on the bark of the ponderosa to help steady his balance. The rooster shrieked and circled the other way. This is my chance, Ben thought. Pushing for speed, he switched direction to meet the bird head-on. His boots slipped on the ice. His legs shot sideways. All that saved him from doing the splits was his momentum, which, as he waved his arms to keep his balance, flipped him onto his back.
Ben’s head hit the frozen earth with such force it stunned him, and in the second it took for him to regain his wits, he felt his sprawled body sliding at a fast clip over the ground. He thought he heard Sissy scream. The next second he plowed into something, groin first. Pain exploded between his legs. He saw stars. His stomach clenched on a wave of nausea. Blinking to clear his vision, he heard someone groaning. It took him a moment to realize it was him.
Through a reddish haze, he stared up the slender trunk of a new-growth pine. The canopy of green branches at its top seemed to swirl above him in an eerie pattern against the darkening sky. He couldn’t move, couldn’t cuss. All he wanted was to roll on his side and curl up into the fetal position, but he couldn’t manage that, either. He’d taken a few hard blows down there over the years, but nothing had ever hurt like this.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Sissy’s voice trilled above him. “Are you all right?” He felt her drop to her knees beside him. Ben blinked, swallowed back another wave of nausea, and finally got her face in focus. “There was nothing I could do!” she cried. “You sped toward that tree like a race car. I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. You wouldn’t be out here if not for my stupid chickens.”
She rested a hand on his shoulder and kept talking. Nothing she said made much sense to him until the pain subsided a bit. Even then, he was so captivated by the raw emotion in her voice that her words didn’t register in his brain.
For the first time, Ben was seeing her without the mask of indifference, allowing him to glimpse the young woman she really was under the façade, a person with feelings that ran deep, not only for chickens, but also people. She wasn’t as cold as she pretended to be.
“I can run inside and make an ice pack,” she offered. “Maybe that’ll help.”
The suggestion startled Ben back to reality. Considering the location of his injury, he almost groaned again. Finn had returned. Opposite Sissy, the dog stood over Ben, licked his face, and whined. Ben realized that the throbs of pain under his cupped hands were growing less intense, and he was starting to see a glimmer of humor in the situation.
In a high-pitched, soprano voice, he said, “I think I’m going to be fine.”
Caught off guard by his joke, Sissy giggled and sat back on her heels. Ben gazed up at her pixie face, taking in her large, expressive eyes, her delicate bone structure, and the softness of her lips. The thought flitted through his mind that he wanted nothing more in that moment than to kiss her senseless. If a woman could turn him on now, when his nuts still ached, he guessed he really was going to be fine.
He dug his elbows into the ice-encrusted dirt to lever himself up into a sitting position, which prompted Sissy to scramble back to her feet. She leaned forward with her arm outstretched.
“Here, I’ll help you,” she said.
Ben accepted the offer, noting that his hand nearly swallowed hers. She inched closer to the tree and braced her body against the trunk to pull him up. Her shoes slipped on the ice, but she caught her balance.
Tightening her grip, she said, “Ready? On the count of three. One. Two. Thr—”
The next instant, Ben lay flat on his back again, only this time with her weight angled across him. “Well, if this isn’t a hell of a situation.”
Finn gave a happy bark and bounced forward to slather the side of Sissy’s face with kisses. Two humans were down and at his mercy. She sputtered and then started to giggle again. As dazed as Ben still was, he appreciated the melodious sound of her laughter. It reminded him of his mom’s dainty wind chimes.
She held up her hand to shield her mouth, not seeming to mind when Finnegan licked her cheeks. “I think he’s lost interest in chickens. Two people tumbling around in the dirt are a lot more fun.”
“He’s still a pup.”
After Sissy rolled off him, Ben sat up. “I’ll try standing by myself this time.” He shifted onto his knees, curled his arm around the tree, and finally gained his feet. The pain had ebbed to a dull ache. Still using the pine for stability, he grasped Sissy’s hand and helped her stand. The rooster, watching from a distance, cackled in dismay because his pursuer might soon be back in the game.
“Well, that slowed us down.” With a glance at the sky, Ben added, “We’re losing daylight. If the cold doesn’t kill those hens, predators might. We have to get them inside the coop.”
Just then, hungry café customers spilled out the rear door of the building. Leading the crowd was Crystal Malloy, a striking redhead about Ben’s age who owned Silver Beach, an upscale salon and spa. Her coppery hair, which fell nearly to her waist, sported brilliant stripes of pink and green. She wore a fitted black jacket over a green knit top and a gathered black skirt that ended well above the knee. Spike-heeled black boots that clung to her shapely calves finished off her outfit.
“We decided to come help!” she called. “I turned off the stove so nothing will burn.”
Ben wondered how she hoped to walk on ice wearing footwear more suited to a dominatrix.
In a deep voice, someone behind Crystal yelled, “It’s our only hope if we want to eat before midnight!”
The speaker, Tim VeArd, co-owner of the VeArd Boat Dock on Creek Crossing Lane, threaded his way through the people on the porch. Around sixty with a thick thatch of white hair, a tall, robust build, and blue eyes that always twinkled with humor, he was still a fine figure of a man. Ben had heard that Tim had been in the navy, acquired a love of boats, and turned his passion into a thriving business. His wife, Lynda, more often called Lighthouse Lady because she loved lighthouses, was a spirited redhead with a kind heart who worked tirelessly at her husband’s side. The majority of their profit came from buying old vessels and restoring them for resale.
“You know how to catch chickens?” Ben asked.
“Do horses know how to buck?” Tim’s boat shoes didn’t appear to slip on the ice. “I was raised on a farm, son.”
Crystal stepped off the porch behind VeArd, and she, too, seemed able to keep her footing. Ben guessed the spikes on her boots acted as picks. Before Ben knew it, everyone else descended the steps, some slipping and sliding, others wearing shoes with soles made for slick surfaces. Ben saw Chuck Berkeley, a lofty young guy with black hair who’d just purchased Beer, Wine, and Smokes, a business near the town center on Huckleberry Road.
Tim pointed a finger at Sissy. “You, back to the kitchen to fix our dinners. The cavalry has arrived.”
Sissy glanced at the chickens darting around the yard. Ben noted her worried expression. “I’ll show everyone how to catch them. Your hens won’t be hurt.”
As she walked toward her building, brushing at the grime on her apron, she called over her shoulder, “I’ll have to clean up before I cook. Otherwise you’ll have feathers and wood chips in your food.”
A rumble of approval followed her into the building.
After Sissy disappeared, Ben taught the volunteers how to catch chickens. He wondered if these people had offered to help only because they were hungry, or if they considered the café owner to be a friend. He decided it had to be the latter. Apparently Sissy wasn’t an ice queen with all individuals, only him.
After everyone knew how to catch a chicken, Ben allowed them to spread out. There followed a comical roundup. At one point, Crystal Malloy bent over to grab a hen, lost her footing, and sprawled on the ground with her skirt flipped above her waist. She flashed a red thong at every man still in the backyard. Even Ben froze in midmotion, and he’d never found Crystal to be that attractive. Her brand of beauty, as flashy and stunning as it was, did nothing for him. Even so, the sight made him momentarily forget his mission was to rescue pullets.
When people spilled out onto West Main in pursuit of Sissy’s flock, Fred Black, aka Blackie, the local pawnshop owner, slipped on the ice and wrapped himself around a parking meter like the stripe on a barber pole. Tim VeArd, while attempting to save Lynda from a spill, lost his footing and fell spread-eagled over the hood of someone’s car. Chuck Berkeley nearly rammed his head through the display window of Needles in a Haystack.
When every last bird had been caught and put away in the coop, Finnegan received many congratulatory pats for being such a fine helper. After all the volunteers had reentered the building for dinner, Ben, still a bit achy between his legs, cast the pup an accusing look.
“I wanted to be hero of the day,” he told the dog. “How can I catch Sissy’s eye if you steal all my thunder?”
Finn barked and wagged his stubbed tail as if to say, “I’m sorry, bro. It’s not my fault you can’t measure up.”
Ben crouched to hug his dog. “Thanks, buddy. Sissy’s flock is safe for the night.” He settled a thoughtful gaze on the tiny coop. “At least it soon will be,” he amended. “Unless I miss my guess, it’ll be really cold tonight. Without some heat, those chickens could freeze to death.”
Sissy gave the stainless steel counters a final swipe, then tossed the rag at the laundry hamper. It landed on the floor. Stifling a groan, she bent to pick it up. After the wild chicken chase and hours of hard work, she was too tired to grumble. Her butt hurt from falling on the ice. Her feet ached from being on them for so many hours. All she wanted was to sip a glass of wine while she soaked in a hot bath.
That lovely thought was rudely interrupted by a persistent hammering sound from out back. What now? Curious about the noise, she removed her coverall, then groped with her fingers along the shelf where she always put her wristwatch and ring while she worked. Her ring was there, but her watch had vanished, and in its place lay a crinkled piece of foil. A tingly sensation spread over her nape. Not again. She had either been misplacing things with alarming frequency, or someone or something was trying to drive her crazy. She had no idea where the foil had come from. It looked like something she might have dropped on the floor while cooking.
Feeling eyes on her, Sissy whirled to look behind her. Darkness crowded against the window, and shadows hovered in the recesses of the room. She saw nothing unusual, but she couldn’t shake the sensation that she was being watched. Over the last few weeks, she’d begun to wonder if the building was haunted. Her aunt Mabel, the original owner, had died of a heart attack in the upstairs flat. Sissy didn’t believe in ghosts, but there was no denying that peculiar things had been happening. She’d heard weird noises. Things clattering over the floor. Stuff being dropped. And nearly every day something went missing. Now my wristwatch, she thought. She was surviving on a shoestring budget to save enough money to build a new coop and run, and after that, she would reinvest her profits in the business. She couldn’t comfortably afford a new timepiece.
The banging sound snagged her attention again. She hurried to the storeroom, grabbed her winter jacket, and exited the building onto the back porch as she yanked the garment on. A shudder marched up her spine. It was so cold that ice crystals had formed in the air. Standing under light coming from an outdoor fixture, she tensed as her eyes picked out a large, dark-colored pickup parked near her chicken run.
Finn, barely visible in the darkness, rocketed up the steps. He danced around Sissy’s feet and whined in greeting. Now Sissy knew for certain to whom the truck belonged. At least it wasn’t a burglar.
As disgruntled as she felt about Ben Sterling being on her property again, she couldn’t be cross with the dog. He was cute and such a friendly fellow. She loved his fur. He looked as if he’d been sponged with dabs of paint, the colors blending together to give his body a bluish hue. His lower legs were the color of curry powder. A white blaze marked his forehead. When he wagged his stub tail, his whole body wiggled.
“Hello, Finnegan!” She briskly ruffled the silky fur on his back. “You’re such a good boy! Yes, you are. And a champion chicken catcher!”
The pup bathed her hand with his tongue. Smiling, Sissy lost a piece of her heart to him. It wasn’t Finn’s fault that his master embodied everything that she most distrusted in a man. Ben Sterling was suave, charming, and successful. The first time she’d seen him, nearly a year and a half ago, all of her inner alarms had gone off. Hair the color of honey had protruded from beneath the brim of his Stetson to lie in a gleaming wave across his forehead. His hazel eyes, deep amber flecked with green, brown, and black, had twinkled with mischief and gleamed with masculine appreciation when he looked at her. Dressed in a Western-style work shirt and leg-hugging Wrangler jeans, he’d been a country version of Mr. GQ. Any woman under seventy would have salivated.
Any woman, she amended, except her. According to the gossips, he’d been born into a wonderful family. He and his siblings had gotten college educations handed to them. Ben had acquired more than one degree and used them to become a successful businessman who now owned a nice chunk of arable land, a remodeled farmhouse, and several expensive horses, not to mention a small herd of beeves. He was well respected in Mystic Creek, and so were all members of his family. His brother Barney, a recently married deputy, would probably run for office someday and become the county sheriff. Not her kind of people, not by a long shot. Sissy’s father had the not-so-distinguished honor of being the town drunk, and her parents had lived in lots of towns.
When Ben first made it clear that he was interested in her, Sissy had made it equally clear that she didn’t share the sentiment. Men like Ben often felt entitled to get what they wanted from a woman. They acted like Mr. Nice Guy until they gained her trust or got her at a disadvantage. She’d learned the hard way how that story always ended. No, she wanted nothing to do with him. She had her life planned, and she was determined not to take any detours that might set her off track.
Now here he was again. Last time he’d come sniffing around, it had taken her two weeks to get rid of him. He was determined. She had to give him that. Well, watch out, Mr. Sterling. I’m not playing that game again.
Sissy stiffened her spine and descended the steps onto icy ground. She’d closed the café at ten, later than usual because she’d been running behind schedule. Now it had to be after eleven, far too late for a man she barely knew to be on her property.
Finn, walking beside her, was having as much trouble keeping his footing on the ice as she was. She saw the beam of a flashlight bobbing inside the closed coop. Judging by the squawking, her hens were not happy to have a man in their midst. Who in the heck did Ben think he was? He had no right to be out here.
The gate to the run hung open. Sissy marched toward the coop, prepared to blister the man’s ears. She twisted the door handle and barely cracked open the portal, knowing her hens would bolt for freedom if she offered them an avenue of escape.
Rawk, rawk, rawk! A bird jumped and nearly smacked Sissy in the face. She fell back to protect her eyes, but didn’t open the door any wider.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Finn barked as if to warn Sissy that she’d better not hurt his human. Shoving a writhing mass of feathers aside, she yelled to be heard. “This is my coop, my property, and you don’t have authorization to be here.”
Ben, crouched with his back to her near the right end wall, was frontally illuminated by the glow of a flashlight lying on the floor. Sans Stetson, his bangs and sideburns gleamed like a horseshoe-shaped halo around his head. At the sound of her voice, he didn’t flinch, but she did see his shoulder muscles tighten under the yoke of his shirt. He shifted to look at her, his chiseled features falling into shadow.
“Okay. I get you. Maybe I should have asked before I started this.”
“Maybe?” she retorted. Finn growled. “You’ve got no right—”
“You already covered that.” He glanced at his dog. “Finnegan, back off! She isn’t going to hurt me. She’s no bigger than a minute.”
“I’m stronger than I look!” Sissy glanced at the dog. The flashlight played over Finn’s face, and she could tell that he truly was worried. Altering her tone to reassure him, she said, “It’s okay, Finnegan. I won’t kill him.”
Ben huffed, clearly not amused. “Look. I’m aware that I should have knocked to get an okay from you. But I knew you were exhausted, and I saw no reason to keep you up even later by asking before I did this. You would’ve felt obligated to help, and it’s really not a two-person job.”
“Well, I’m out here now, and you’re right; I’m so tired I postponed breakfast prep for the morning, which means I’ll have to hit the deck by four.” She glanced at the paraphernalia around his feet. A silver dome with prong grips shimmered against the wood chips. “Just what are you doing? Is that a heat lamp?”
“Yes. I saw that you needed one. I had an extra at home. Around here, we call it doing a favor for a friend.”
Her voice dripped ice. “Since when did we become friends?”
He pushed to his feet, his ascent ending in a stooped stance because the ceiling was so low. The chickens started to squawk again.
“You’re right. My bad. I’ll gather up my shit and get off your property.” He picked up the heat lamp, his tools, and the flashlight. “Just so you know, though, you may find all your chickens dead in the morning. The weather app on my phone predicts temps as low as twelve degrees before dawn, and that doesn’t account for the wind-chill factor.”
“Twelve degrees?” She hadn’t had a moment all day to check her phone for e-mail, let alone look at the weather forecast. “It’s only September sixteenth!”
“It’s an unseasonal cold snap. Mystic Creek weather is unpredictable.” He arced the light beam over the coop interior, sending the chickens into a brief panic. “There are cracks in the walls of this enclosure large enough to accommodate my middle finger.” He held up his fist with that one digit lifted and illuminated by the beam. “As you can see, it isn’t exactly little.”
Sissy felt a reluctant giggle welling at the base of her throat. “Are you, by any chance, giving me the finger?”
“It’s up to your interpretation. What’d’ya think?”
Sissy struggled not to smile, probably because he wasn’t making nice now, and she felt in no danger of getting her socks charmed off. “I think I’ve made you angry.”
“Hell, no. I went past angry when you reamed my ass for being on your property without permission. Now I’m royally pissed off.”
One arm cradling his stuff, he shuffled to the door, forcing her to step back as he exited in a rush to keep any hens from escaping. Sissy felt her shoe lose traction on the ice and thought, “Oh, no.” The next instant, she went down, hitting the back of her head so hard on the frozen earth that fireworks went off before her eyes.
She heard Ben say, “Holy fricking shit!” Then metal clanked as it struck the earth. “You’d better not be hurt, damn it. That’s not fighting fair.”
Finn nuzzled Sissy’s cheek. She blinked to clear her vision. From her prone position Ben suddenly looked like a giant. “I fell. Do you think I did it on purpose?”
He crouched beside her and pushed his dog back. “Let’s just say it happened at an opportune moment. How can I make a grand exit, flipping you off as I leave, if your head’s cracked open?”
Sissy checked the throbbing place for injury. She felt a knot forming on her scalp, which would probably hurt like heck tomorrow, but she wasn’t seriously wounded. She levered up on one elbow. “I’m fine. You can carry on with your grand exit.” Gazing up at his bulky silhouette, she squelched a smile. “And, FYI, when you’re royally pissed off, gesturing with one finger doesn’t quite cut it.” She held up her hand with all her fingers and her thumb extended. “Back at you times five.”
A rumble of laughter came up his throat. “You’ve got a sassy mouth. Has anyone ever told you that?”
An unpleasant memory of her father flashed through Sissy’s mind. “More than once. What I lack in size I make up for with brass.”
In the silvery glow of a full moon and the canting beam of the flashlight, his firm lips shimmered as they slanted into a crooked grin. “This isn’t funny, you know. I can’t leave until you’re on your feet and I’m sure you’re all right.”
Sissy pushed to a sitting position, and even as a wave of dizziness assailed her, she said, “I’m good. Flip me off and get out of here.”
“I can’t leave until I’m sure you’re okay.”
“Oh, bother.” Sissy rolled over onto all fours. Her palms stung as she pressed them against the ice. She got one foot under her. “Don’t try to help me. We already did that gig today.”
“I changed into Western boots with studded soles. Modified them myself for conditions like this.” He stood and extended a big hand to her. “I’m steady as a rock. Let me give you a lift up.”
Sissy gave him a measuring look before she accepted the offer. “Steady as a rock and possibly as dumb as one, too? Any idiot knows to wear a coat in weather like this.”
“I left it in the truck. It’s too bulky to work in.”
The grip of his hand over hers sent a shock of heat up her arm. Once on her feet, she weaved slightly. “Blood rush,” she told him. “Just give me a sec.” Finn whined and sniffed Sissy’s leg. “I’m okay, Finnegan. Don’t be worried.”
Ben grasped her shoulder. “Urgent care on Red Barn Road is open twenty-four seven. It couldn’t hurt to get checked out.”
Sissy straightened. “See? I’m right as rain. You hit your head today, and you didn’t see a doctor. Mine’s just as hard as yours is.”
Sissy truly did feel okay. The dizziness was all but gone. Finn nudged her leg again. She patted his head. Careful to keep her footing, she turned and studied her coop. Ben’s prediction that her birds might die during the night made her heart squeeze. “I read online that chickens don’t need heat lamps. Besides, I don’t have electricity out here.”
“I brought an outdoor extension cord that’ll reach the outlet on your back porch.”
“Oh.” She glanced up at him. Concern won over pride. She loved her feathered babies. “Do you really think my chickens might freeze to death?”
“Nah.” He rested his hands on his narrow hips and hunched his shoulders against the cold. “I just used that as an excuse to come over and possibly get lucky with a woman who hates my guts.”
She tried not to laugh and lost the battle. “I don’t hate you. You’re just not my type.”
“Fair enough. And just for the record, I didn’t come here hoping to score. That’s the most pathetic excuse for a coop I’ve ever seen, and I honestly believe your chickens will die if it drops to twelve degrees. They’re young and they don’t have extra layers of protection yet. Even if they did, that’s pretty damned cold.” He angled his head to peer down at her through the moon-washed shadows. “I don’t doubt you read an article disparaging heat lamps, but did it occur to you that the person giving that advice may live where people seldom see snow? Chickens do freeze to death, and this is Mystic Creek, where it sometimes gets too cold to snow.”
“Those hens are packed in there like sardines. Can’t they share body heat?”
“Chickens are cold-blooded. They have a lot less body heat to share than mammals.”
Just the thought of finding Sonya, Pearl, and the others stiff and cold in the morning roiled her stomach. “Can I borrow the extension cord? I have a lamp and the tools I need. I can hang the light myself, no big deal, and I’ll replace the cord.”
“I’m sure you can hang a lamp. But you shouldn’t be out here working alone at night in these conditions. What if you fall and get hurt? Marilyn is undoubtedly asleep, and José Jayden doesn’t live over his restaurant. Who’d hear if you yelled for help?”
“You were out here working alone. Wherein lies the difference?”
“You didn’t know I was here, so if I’d gotten hurt, you wouldn’t have been responsible. I’ve also got studded boots. If I drive off, aware that you’re out here, I will be responsible if you fall and can’t get up. Therein lies the difference.” His tone was crisp and, limned by a wash of moonlight, his expression indicated that she was frustrating the hell out of him.
Sissy sighed. Independence was one thing, but clinging to her pride when it endangered her animals was something else entirely. “I really don’t want any of my chickens to die.”
Ben held up his hand. In the dim light, she saw that he had all five digits extended. “Back at you times five. Now can I hang the damned light?”
It took Ben less than fifteen minutes to install the heat lamp, and then he started running the extension cord to the coop. As he worked, he talked. “I understand that relationship-wise I’m not your type, but surely you’re not that fussy about a handyman.”
There had been no room for her to help inside the coop, and now she would feel silly if she tried to assist in unwinding a cord. Instead she shivered and petted Finnegan. “What’s your point?”
“The coop you’ve got is a pile of crap. You need a new one at least four times bigger. Insulated, too. And unless you want to regularly clip the wings of eighty chickens, you need a huge run with framed, wire walls at least eight feet tall.”
“Even at that height, your chickens will still perch on top of the frame sometimes. Mine do. But they seldom fly away. They know where the food and water are.”
Sissy bit her lip. “You’re describing a very costly coop and run.”
He punched a hole in the coop wall, then bent to shove the end of the extension cord through it. “It won’t be so bad if a friend does the work.”
“I don’t take charity.”
He stepped inside the enclosure, stirring up a chorus of cackles. Seconds after the door shut, Sissy saw a glow of light that gleamed through every crack in the walls. Ben hadn’t lied; the coop was a wind tunnel, offering little protection for her hens.
When he emerged, he resumed the conversation as if there had been no lull. “If you want these chickens to survive, you don’t have a choice.” He walked toward her with a loose-jointed shift of his hips. “Eighty birds will get sick without more room, both inside and outside. You have two little roosts. The rest of the birds have to sleep on the floor. Maybe when they were chicks, you thought the coop would provide enough space, but now you’ve got to realize it doesn’t. When you take on critters, you assume a responsibility to provide them with good care.”
Sissy felt as if he’d slapped her. “I’m fully aware of my responsibility to my chickens, and I’ve gotten bids on a bigger coop and run. The prices quoted to me were astronomical. It will take every dime of my savings and then some. And I don’t have the ‘then some.’” She paused to catch her breath. “I ordered too many chicks. I admit it. I was an ignorant twit. And now I can’t scrape up the money to give them a proper home. Maybe I should just put up an ad on Craigslist and give them away.”
He shook his head. “Not a good plan. When you give away chickens, they can end up in a stewpot.”
“What?” Sissy stared at him. “People may eat them? That’s horrible.”
“To your way of thinking. To other people, it’s no different than eating a chicken from the store, except it’s free.” He tossed his stuff onto the bed of the truck and turned to rest his hips against the dropped tailgate. Tendrils of light from the coop bathed the area with faint illumination. “There has to be a way that you and I can strike a bargain.”
Sissy bent her head. “It sticks in my craw to take charity. I know it sounds prideful, but I’ve got my reasons, and I just can’t do it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being prideful.” He fell silent. Then he said, “Damn it. I owe you an apology.”
“More than one,” she informed him. “Would you like me to make you a list?”
He slanted her a look that was far from apologetic. “I count one actual offense. I’m pretty damned prideful myself. If the situation were in reverse, I couldn’t accept your help for free, either.” He sighed. “Shit. I’m a male chauvinist and didn’t even know it.”
Feeling defeated, Sissy joined him to lean against the tailgate. Finn came to lie at their feet. Light from the coop bathed the run and cast a golden glow over them as well. “I’ve created a mess; that’s for sure. Lesson learned. When you don’t know jack about raising hens, don’t go online and order eighty chicks.”
Ben chuckled. “You did go a little overboard. But that doesn’t mean there’s no solution.”
Sissy could see no humor in the situation, and she found herself wishing that he’d go back to being sarcastic. She felt safer when they were bristling at each other. “I can’t think of one.” She gestured at her crooked, tumbledown run. “It’s clear I’m not gifted when it comes to construction, so I can’t save money by doing it myself.”
He laughed again. “You’re a great cook, though, and maybe, because you are, we can negotiate a deal so you are paying me.”
She noticed that the tailgate hit him at his hips. The metal edge touched her well above the waist, an unnerving reminder of how tall he was. And he was put together nicely as well. She fixed her gaze on the sagging wire so she wouldn’t notice anything else unsettling about him. He had it right. For the sake of her chickens, she had to negotiate a deal with him. If she kept it businesslike, she’d be all right. She’d seen better looking men. She just couldn’t remember when.
“So, what kind of deal are you offering me?”
He rubbed his jaw. “I eat out a lot, so here’s my idea. I get four square meals for every full day of work I put in. The way I see it, I’d pay full price if I just dropped in, and with my appetite, I’d probably drop fifteen bucks a pop. So you’d essentially be paying me sixty dollars a day for my labor.”
“Four squares? For most people, it’s three.”
“I start working as soon as it turns daylight. When I’m about two hours in, I eat a big breakfast. I burn that off by midmorning and need more fuel. I normally eat lunch a little late so it’ll last me until dinner.” He held up four fingers. “Add ’em up, and no, that isn’t back at you times four.”
He’d left something out, and she couldn’t let it pass. “What about materials? They must cost a fortune, or the bids I got wouldn’t be so high.”
“I can get a lot of stuff at the ReStore in town, the one that recycles used building materials, and I’ve got several rolls of wire that have been sitting at my place for years. I might as well give myself some extra storage space by using them.”
Sissy shifted her gaze skyward and chuckled in spite of herself. “I never saw this coming. Me, hiring Ben Sterling to build my chickens a coop and run. God must have a sense of humor.”
“Am I that bad?”
Sissy shook her head. “No. It’s just that you really aren’t my type, and having you around all the time, even short term, may not be a good plan.”
He joined her in gazing up at the full moon. “I get the feeling that I am your type, and that’s why you act like a porcupine around me, because I scare you.”
“Not a chance.” She would never admit to him that she found him attractive.
He expelled a breath and slanted his head upward. “Well, that’s good, because that’s a mulberry moon.”
It looked like an ordinary moon to Sissy. “What’s a mulberry moon?”
“A September full moon. It’s an old Native American name for it.”
“That’s strange. Mulberries ripen in June, so far as I know.”
“True, but the American Indians fermented them and made wine, which they couldn’t drink until sometime in September. They marked the fermentation time needed by watching for the September full moon.”
“Ah.” Sissy kept her gaze fixed on the sky. The moon under discussion was enormous and the color of churned butter with wisps of crimson and mauve ringing the bottom of its sphere.
“There’s a legend about the mulberry moon.” His voice pitched low and husky. “They say that any man and woman who stand together under a mulberry moon are destined to fall in love and live happily ever after.”
“Really? How fascinating.” She made sure skepticism edged her tone.
“Worried yet?” When she shook her head, he added, “Even riskier for you and me, we’re not only standing together under a mulberry moon, but we’re near a distributary of Mystic Creek, which also comes with a legend about falling in love.”
“I’ve heard all the different versions of the one about Mystic Creek.” Sissy gave him a sideways glance. “And both legends are undoubtedly a bunch of crap.”
He nodded. “Yep, just BS. The way I see it, the Native Americans who fell in love under a mulberry moon were probably drunk from their wine.”
She laughed. “I like that. BS with a cynical twist!”
“But possibly correct. If you drink enough wine, practically anyone looks good.”
“I’ll remember that and never serve you any fruit of the vine.” Sissy pushed away from the truck. “Moving on to the construction of my coop and run, it’s too cold out here to discuss the details. You’re shivering without a coat. And, after hearing about your appetite, I’m fairly sure you’re hungry by now. Does a Coney Island hot dog and fries sound good?”
“You’re tired. I’ll just go home and grab a sandwich. We can discuss the details tomorrow.”
Sissy beckoned for him to follow her. “I’ve decided to do my breakfast prep tonight so I don’t have to get up so early, and I didn’t have time for dinner. If I cook for one, I may as well cook for two.”
He fell into step beside her, one arm positioned to grab her if she slipped. “You heard my stomach growling.”
“Yep. I’m not deaf.”
Once inside the café, with Ben perched on a stool at the counter, Sissy wondered if she’d lost her mind when she invited him in. He had nailed it on the head; he was her type, and she was scared to death of him. Now her task was to make sure he never realized it. Bristling at him constantly didn’t seem to do the trick.
As she hurried to throw together their meal, she assured herself that her salivary glands were working overtime only because she was hungry and smelled food.
“This won’t take long. The fryer is still hot from dinner and will reheat fast.”
“No hurry. This coffee hits the spot.”
When the hot dogs were prepared and in the warmer, Sissy went to stand facing him at the business side of the counter. She propped her elbows on the stainless steel work surface, a foot lower than the service bar. It offered a comfortable leaning spot for a short person. And she liked the security of a solid counter between them.
“Like I said earlier, I don’t accept charity. I’ve had work done here, and paying a man only sixty dollars a day to do any kind of carpentry would be highway robbery on my part.”
“Ah, but that’s my offer, and you really shouldn’t turn it down. You could hire someone else—somebody who doesn’t have my appetite and a habit of eating out—but he’d very likely know as little as you do about chickens and charge three times more.”
“And you know a lot about them? Chickens, I mean.”
He winked at her. “I’ve been around chickens since I learned to walk. I know how to design a coop and run that will work and keep them safe from predators. I’ve already built one for myself. If you put your chickens in the coop at night, they’ll be fairly safe. You’ll need a good latch, of course. Raccoons are nocturnal and pretty clever.”
Sissy nodded, trying to envision the structure.
He obliterated the picture forming in her mind with, “That wire you built your run with is deadly.” He created a large O by touching his index finger to the tip of his thumb. “A hen can poke her head through openings that large. Skunks love chicken heads.”
“Exactly. I’ve seen chickens lying headless in their runs without another mark on them. True fact.” He settled that twinkling, mischievous gaze on her face. “If you want a coop and run that’s safe, you’ll hire me.”
Sissy toyed with her lineup of salt and pepper shakers. “I still don’t think sixty a day is enough to pay you.”
He winked at her. “We’ll negotiate it out, fair and square. I’ll want extra desserts.”
Sissy shook her head. “We need to have a clear understanding now. No negotiating later. When the job is done, I don’t want to feel indebted to you.”
He shrugged. “So what’s your offer?”
She could scarcely believe that she was about to hire him. He’d be on her property for God only knew how long, and even worse, he’d be eating at her café four times a day. The thought unsettled her so badly that she nearly changed her mind. But what about her chickens?
“Here’s my idea,” she said, her chest tightening with reluctance. “After you finish the job, I’ll provide you with four square meals a day for an extra two weeks. Paying you with food works for me. The actual cash outlay is less than the menu price. So if I feed you for two extra weeks, your daily pay will go up to a fair level, but it won’t be as expensive for me as paying cash.”
“Deal,” he said.
He agreed a little too quickly for her peace of mind. But just then she heard an odd sound in the kitchen. She left the bar and entered the cooking area. After she glanced around for anything out of place, her gaze settled on the shelf where she normally kept her watch and ring. Earlier there had been a piece of foil on the shelf. Now it was gone. She knew she hadn’t removed it. So who had taken it? A chill ran over her skin. And, again, she felt as if someone were staring at her.
Just then, the fryer reached cooking temperature and beeped. The sound made Sissy jump. Stomach fluttering, she lifted the vat lid, lowered the fry basket into sizzling oil, and then turned the wheel to batten down the hatches. She set the timer so the fries would be cooked to a perfect golden brown.
Once back at the bar, she asked a question that she thought, until that moment, would never pop out of her mouth to anyone. “Do you believe in ghosts?”