In this warm and witty series debut from New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub, a widowed young mom plans a fresh start in Chicago--but instead finds her way to a quirky lakeside village that just happens to be populated by mediums.
When reluctant road trippers Bella Jordan and her son Max detour to Lily Dale, New York, they're planning to deliver a lost cat to its home and then move on, searching for one of their own. But the footloose feline's owner Leona Gatto has unexpectedly passed away, leaving behind a pregnant pet without a mistress, a busy inn without a keeper--and a lovable circle of neighbors who chat with dead people.
After agreeing to help out temporarily, sensible Bella doesn't need psychic gifts to figure out that a houseful of tourists and a litter of kittens lie in her immediate future--or that Leona was murdered. It's up to her to solve the case so that she and Max can leave town, but their new home--like Leona's killer--might just lurk where she least expects it.
About the Author
New York Times and USA Today bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning author of more than eighty novels and has twice been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She lives in the New York City suburbs with her husband, their two sons, and a rescued stray cat named Chance.
Read an Excerpt
June 18 Lily Dale, New York
Less than two weeks from now, when Lily Dale’s official summer season is under way, Leona Gatto’s guesthouse will be teeming with overnight visitors. But on this cool and gusty June night, she and Chance the Cat have the place all to themselves.
The mackerel tabby is lounging on the bay window seat downstairs in the front parlor, watching the world go by on Cottage Row. At this time of year, the world mainly consists of fireflies and the occasional flitting moth, though tonight, the breeze has sent all sorts of fascinating thingsto a cat, anywayskittering past the window.
Soon, however, the annual human parade will begin. Lily Dale might be the tiniest of tiny towns, but as the birthplace of the Spiritualist religion well over a century ago, it remains populated almost entirely by psychic mediums. A handful, including Leona, are in residence year-round. Most prefer to spend the rigorous western New York winter elsewhere. They return just ahead of the throng of summer visitors who find their way to the Dale because they’re seeking something: a connection to a lost loved one, psychic counseling, physical or spiritual healing . . .
No exception, Leona arrived fifteen years ago, middle-aged and newly widowed, paralyzed by grief and hoping somebody here could connect her to her late husband.
Inevitably, somebody did. Her husband’s message: that she should stay for a while instead of hurrying back home to Wyoming.
“Are you sure Edgar said that?” Leona asked the medium in surprise. They’d built a wonderful life together out west, and she couldn’t imagine that he’d want her to abandon it. “Maybe it’s not him.”
“He’s wearing a black cowboy hat and he’s very insistent,” Patsy Metcalf said with a smile. “He wants me to tell you that it’s about time you’ve come to your senses and put on a practical pair of shoes.”
“That’s Edgar! He was always yelling at me for wearing heels when I travel. But I can’t believe he wants me to stay out east. He was born and raised on a ranch, and so was I. Wyoming will always be home.”
“Remember, my dear, I’m not here to tell you what you expect or even want to hear. I’m here to relay what your loved one wants you to know.”
Truer words were never spoken. Little did Leona realize then that she herself would eventually be capable of parting the delicate veil that separates this world from the next. She knows now that Edgar did, indeed, want her to sell their dude ranch to the hotel chain that had been sniffing around it for years. He’d always said they’d get the place over his dead body. In the end, that was what had happenedbut with his blessing.
Wyoming was her old home. Lily Dale is her forever one.
This house had a long history as an inn but had been turned into a private residence when she bought it. She reclaimed its roots and transformed it into a guesthouse very much like the one she’d left behind, only with a Victorian theme instead of a Western one.
She’s always enjoyed welcoming new people into her home, getting to know them, and making them feel comfortable.
But that isn’t the only reason the terrible loneliness is behind her.
After years of mediumship training, she remains in touch with her late husband, along with countless other folks. Some are old friends, and some are just plain old. Centuries old. She’s grown quite accustomed to having them around. Most of the time, the spirits coexist with her just as seamlessly as Chance the Cat does.
Tonight, however, one of her regular spirit guides is as twitchy as the weather. Typically a benign presence, Nadine has been wreaking havoc around the house. At first, Leona attributed the flickering lights and random creaks and thumps to the night wind.
And she attributed her missing laptopwhich she hasn’t seen since this morningto good old-fashioned old age. But now that it’s failed to turn up in any of the usual spots where she might have misplaced it, Leona isn’t so sure Nadine is to blame. This wouldn’t be the first time Nadine or the others have played hide-and-seek with her belongings, but it should have resurfaced by now.
Then the usual drip from the upstairs sink faucet turned into a gush that overflowed onto the floor. While Leona was wiping that up, the downstairs faucet mysteriously turned on and flooded the kitchen sink and then the floor.
“That’s enough!” Leona said sharply after slipping and nearly falling.
Harmless little pranks are one thing, but she could have been hurt. And water damage in an old house is no picnic.
This just isn’t like Nadine.
The last straw was when, minutes ago, a fuse blew with a popping, sizzling sound, plunging the whole house into darkness.
“Oh, for the love of . . .” Leona stood with her hands on her hips. “What’s going on? Are you trying to get rid of me? You’ll have to try a whole lot harder than that.”
After a grueling trip to the ancient fuse box in the spidery cellar, she decided that a snack would settle her nerves. But when she opened the fridge and started rooting around, she discovered that the full carton of half-and-half she bought this afternoon was somehow empty.
Nadine again. Leona hasn’t touched a dropthe carton is still sealedand cats can’t open refrigerator doors.
Some might argue the same about Spirit. Funny how even that particular wordSpirit, as the energy is called here in the Dalehad sounded awkward to Leona’s ears when she first arrived. Funnier still to think that she, like so many newcomers, was steeped in skepticism.
If you spend enough time here, the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
Now, thanks to Nadine’s antics, she stands in the bathroom mirror trying to make herself presentable for a late-night trip to the closest store a few miles down the road. She takes her morning coffee with plenty of cream, and Chance the Cat, unlike most felines, isn’t exactly lactose intolerant. She laps it up, especially in her current state, which
Hearing a creaking sound downstairs, Leona frowns at her reflection.
“Oh, Nadine, now what are you up to?” she asks, and she is startled to see the spirit guide fleetingly take filmy female form in the room behind her.
That’s unusual. Nadine rarely materializes. Like the others, she is usually merely a presence Leona can feel but not see or hear, other than inside her own head.
Framed in the doorway, the apparition holds up a transparent hand, her palm facing Leona as if to stop her from leaving the room.
Leona scowls. “Make up your mind. I thought you wanted me out of the house, thanks to your Houdini act with my half-and-half. Now you want me to stay put? I don’t . . .”
She trails off, realizing that Nadine is no merry prankster. Nadine’s shaking her head, and her glittering eyes are wide with concern.
“What is it? What’s wrong? Are you trying to warn me about something?”
But the spirit has already faded, leaving Leona alone.
The silence in the bathroom is punctuated by wind chimes tinkling below the window. That’s not unusual. Wind chimes are as common as porches in the Dale.
But to Leona’s ear, they’ve drastically multiplied: a tintinnabulation as ominous as the alarm down at the old firehouse. The clanging grows to a fever pitch and is abruptly curtailed.
Unsettled, Leona goes back to brushing her hair.
Her strokes slow as she hears another creaking sound, this time in the hallway outside the door.
She isn’t alone after all.
She uneasily attempts to tune into the energy, wondering if one of her other guides has come to pay her a visit. But the presence doesn’t feel familiar, and it certainly isn’t Edgar, whose proximity always fills her with light and warmth. This energy is dark and oppressive.
Maybe it’s not Spirit at all.
Maybe it’s a living person: a stranger, a prowler.
Wielding the hairbrush in one hand like a weapon, she uses the other to painstakingly turn the knob and pull.
She was right about one thing. She isn’t alone. But she doesn’t find a stranger on the other side of the door.
Her eyes widen in shock at the sight of a familiar face. “What are you doing here?”
June 29 Bedford, New York
“If one more thing goes wrong today . . .” Bella Jordan steps over the broken vase on the floor and grabs the broom propped in a corner of her tiny kitchen. She’s been tripping over it all morning, but there’s no other spot amid the clutter, and it doesn’t make sense to store it back where it belongs: jammed into the usually overcrowded pantry cupboard that triples as a linen and broom closet.
Her goal today is to empty that closet, transferring its contents to the cardboard moving boxes she also keeps tripping over, along with the big black trash bags stuffed with household items that are, like all their furniture, destined to be tossed or given away.
Most of it is perfectly useful. She’d keep it if she only knew where she and her son Max will wind up living. But she can’t fit much into her small car, she can’t afford a moving van or storage unit, and she refuses to borrow money from her mother-in-law, to whom she’s plenty beholden as it is. So the Salvation Army will get the lamps, books, decorative glassware . . .
Minus one vase.
With a sigh, she begins sweeping the shards of crystal into the dustpan she’d tossed onto the already crowded countertop following a previous mishap with a glasswhich was how she’d then knocked over the vase.
Maybe I should go around with a dustpan hanging from my belt like some klutzy handyman. Or rather, nonhandy nonman.
She’s never been the most graceful gal in town, but the move-out process has produced more mishaps than usual. Earlier, she’d chipped a plate and broken the handle off a coffee mug. Neither had value, sentimental or otherwise. But this latest casualty was an expensive one.
Not as expensive, by any stretch of the imagination, as the collection of vintage Carnival glass pieces she’d inherited from her godmother and sold off over the past few desperate months to pay the rent and bills.
There may not be hordes of antique dealers lining up to buy a fancy vase like the one she’d just broken, but it had been a wedding present from . . .
Who was it? A friend? One of her coworkers? Sam’s late great-aunt Doris?
Funny how easy it is to forget things you probably should remember and remember things you’d rather forget.
Oh, Sam . . .
Bella doesn’t want to forget him. Just the illness that had stolen him away late last year after long, dark months of suffering.
As if mustered by the mere thought of Sam, a breeze slips through the screen. It’s slightly cool, fragranced by the blooming mock orange shrubs her husband always loved and silvery with tinkling wind chimes he gave her for her last birthday.
She was charmed by the strings of pretty stained-glass angels cascading from delicate chains, but he kept apologizing.
“I wanted to get you something more, but . . .” But he was sick, and money was growing tighter by the day.
“I don’t want anything more. I don’t need anything but these.” And you. I need you, Sam ...
“Your Christmas present is going to be great,” he promised her. “I already know what I’m getting for you, so don’t worry.”
She did worry. Not about Christmas presents. About Sam.
She can hear his voice amid the swaying wind chimes, calling her his “Bella Angelomy beautiful angel,” the literal translation of her name. His version of it, anyway.
Her ancestors were from Sicily, and her maiden name was Angelo. Her given name is Isabella, but Sam never called her that.
To him, she was Bella Angelothat, or Bella Blue, she remembers, staring at the gently fluttering curtains he said exactly matched the cobalt color of her eyes. She’d made them from fabric remnants, using a sewing machine in the domestic arts classroom at the middle school where she taught science.
“Why are you so good at everything you do, Bella Blue?” Sam was so impressed, you’d have thought she’d just hand-stitched a designer gown.
“Oh, please. You’re the only one who thinks so.”
“Not true.” He ticked on his fingers the people he felt were equally enamored of her: their friends, her colleagues and students, and, of course, Frank Angelo, her own doting, widowed dad, still alive at the time.
Conspicuously missing from the list: Sam’s mother.
Millicent Jordan had made up her mind long before Bella even met her that no woman could ever be good enough for her son. The fact that she lives almost a thousand miles away in Chicago was a blessing throughout Bella and Sam’s marriage. Sam loved his mother, but Bella privately called her Maleficentafter the villainess in Sleeping Beauty.
Now, however, life would be easier if she were nearby. For all her faults, Millicent’s the only family they have left. She’s a lousy mother-in-law, but she was a good mom and would probably be a decent grandmother, given the opportunity.
Which I’m about to give to her.
Sam was young and brash enough not to have made life insurance a priority and had accidentally let his meager policy lapse. Even with health insurance coverage, expensive treatments for his illness had consumed the money they’d been saving to buy a home of their own one day. On the heels of losing him, Bella lost her teaching position to budget cuts. As she began a futile job hunt, the landlord decided to put the house on the market. A wealthy buyer snapped it up, planning to turn it into a majestic private home.
Her lease expires at the end of June. Which is tomorrow. With nowhere else to turn, she and Max are driving out to visit Millicent for the summer and figure out their next step.
If only she didn’t have to uproot Max after all he’s been through. This is the only home he’s ever known, the only home that’s ever mattered to her.
She’d grown up in rental apartments all over New York City. She was a new bride when she moved into the first-floor apartment of this Victorian triplex in Bedford, just eight short tree-lined suburban blocks from her first teaching job and three to the commuter railroad that carried Sam to his Manhattan office.
Even now, whenever she hears the rumble and whistle of an evening train, her heart stirs with expectant joy: He’s coming home!
But he isn’t, ever again.
She and Max are alone now.
With a wistful sigh, Bella steps out the screen door to deposit the broken glass into the garbage pailand trips over a lump of gray fur with black ticking. Somehow, she manages not to fall and even keeps the shards from flying through the air.
“Well, we meet again,” she tells the fat tabby cat perched in a patch of dappled doormat sunlight. He was here yesterday morning, too, but darted into the bushes as she stepped out the door, scaring the heck out of her. Later in the day, she glimpsed him stalking chipmunks in the yard, and last night around dusk, he was snoozing under a shrub.
“Are you lost?”
He seems quite certain that he isn’t, looking up at her as if he belongs here.
He doesn’t, of course. The landlord has a strict no-pets policy. That’s always been fine with Bella, whose last apartment came with a neighbor’s dog that barked twenty-four-seven. Besides, Sam is severely allergic to dander.
She expects the cat to bolt as she steps around him and dumps the broken glass into the metal garbage can, but he doesn’t even flinch at the clattering din. Impulsively bending to pet him, she’s rewarded with loud purring.
Hmm. He’s wearing a red collar, so he’s not a stray.
“Mommy?” Max calls from the kitchen.
“Can I watch TV?”
“Nope. You know the rule.” Only an hour a day, and only in the early morning or before bed, unless it’s raining.
“Then can we play Candyland?” he asks.
She sighs. Playing the interminable game is questionable anytime. But now?
Sam would have dropped everything to play Candyland with Max.
“I was an only child, too. I get it,” he’d say.
Bella had been an only child as well, and of course, she got it, too. But she and Sam each had their forte when it came to occupying their son. Books and puzzles were her department; board games and anything involving wheels or a ball were Sam’s.
Now it’s all up to me, and how the heck am I supposed to squeeze playtime into this crazy day?
“Maybe we can play later,” she tells Max as he appears in the doorway with the Candyland box and a hopeful expression.
He’s still barefoot and wearing the pajamas she’d told him to change earlier this morning. A five-year-old version of his late father, he has the same sandy brown cowlick above his forehead and the same solemn brown eyes behind his glasses. Now they widen when he sees the cat.
“Where did he come from?”
“I’m not sure. You have to get dressed, Max. It’s almost noon.”
“I will.” He crouches beside the kitty. “Can we keep him?”
The timing of the question is so ludicrous, it’s a wonder Bella manages to keep from blurting, Are you nuts?
Instead, she counts to three before gently reminding her son, “We’re leaving tomorrow, and I’m sure he already has a home.” Lucky him.