Excerpt for Ghost Walk by , available in its entirety at Smashwords















GHOST WALK





Linda Rettstatt











Ghost Walk


© 2017, Linda Rettstatt


3rd Act Books

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 9781370660803


Cover design: Linda Rettstatt


All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in whole or part, by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, is illegal and forbidden.


This is a work of fiction. Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination and bear no resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places or settings, and/or occurrences. Any incidences of resemblance are purely coincidental.










DEDICATION





With gratitude to my family for raising me in a small town where doors were left unlocked, neighbors knew their neighbors, life was simpler and, yet, full, and where memories were made that have lasted a lifetime.


FOREWORD




“The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.”



I’ve seen this quote attributed to various people, most noteworthy the legendary actress Mary Pickford. I have a similarly stated version on a framed cross stitch—a gift from a friend. It is with this spirit that I wrote my books A Falling Star and, now, Ghost Walk. Disclaimer: They are fiction, sprinkled with facts. Some facts have been slightly bent to fit the fiction. They are in no way intended to present a factual history. Both are tales set in my hometown of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, but under the name of Clarkston. Both are built on the fantasy and the hope that the future is yet in our power. This hope is evidenced in the bandstand and park that was the result of the vision and determination of a group of high school students who saw possibility in a space where once stood a dilapidated building—where once before stood several vital businesses over many years.


Readers of my books, A Falling Star and Ghost Walk, might—if they grew up in Brownsville—find themselves caught in the nostalgia of places and people of our past. We baby boomers remember a town vibrant with life and promise, with bustling crowds and thriving business, and with a community that came together to celebrate its history. Time and circumstances have stripped away that vibrancy and left us with what many might call a ghost town.


But ghosts are spirits. And spirit is that which drives us. Spirit derives from the Latin spiritus which means breath. Where there is breath, there is life. Where there is life, there is hope. For many of us, we hold the spirits of Brownsville’s past within our hearts and our memories. They are our ancestors, our friends, teachers—the people who influenced our lives as we grew up in this great small town along the river. It is that spirit that drives us to hope and to believe that the future of Brownsville is in our power. For those who doubt, I challenge you to visit the Snowden Square Park and witness what the faith of a handful of teens can do. Change happens one step at a time, and every step forward carries us closer to a new future. I pray I live to see my hometown find new life once again. Well, I’m sure I’ll see it—in person or in spirit.


~ Linda Rettstatt



Chapter One




“Tell me again why we’re doing this.” Nick Barton strode behind his twin sister, Rose, as they hurried toward their gate for departure.

“We haven’t gone to one single class reunion. It’s been fifteen years. None of us is getting any younger.” She handed her boarding pass to the gate agent.

Nick did the same, then followed her down the jet way. “As I recall, neither of us could wait to get out of Clarkston after graduation. You left on the back of Fitz’s motorcycle three days later, against mom’s stern order otherwise. We all know how that worked out. I at least waited until August to move onto campus.”

Rose hiked her carry-on into the overhead bin and slid into her first class window seat. “That doesn’t mean I never intended to look back.”

“Do we really have to spend the entire week? The reunion is on Saturday night. We could fly back on Sunday.”

“I want to visit with old friends. Besides, Clarkston is our home.”

“No, it’s not. I’ve made my home in New York.” Settling into the seat beside her, Nick glanced sideways. “What’s this really about?”

A blush rose in her face. “You’re so suspicious.” She fumbled with the clip of her seatbelt, avoiding his gaze.

“Oh, crap. This is about Fitz? You’ve only been divorced from Kevin for three months. Is Fitz the reason?”

She glared at him. “You know that’s not why I divorced Kevin. And this has nothing to do with Fitz. Haven’t you ever just wanted to go home?”

He snorted. “I thought we already covered that. What’s there now? Mom and Dad moved to Arizona. Our cousins are scattered all over the place. The town is barely a blip on Google Maps.”

“But it’ll always be home to me.” Tears glimmered in her blue eyes.

Nick frowned. “What’s going on, Rosie?”

His sister looked out the oval window. “Nothing.”

He pulled a magazine from the seat back in front of him. “Fine. I’m not begging for the details. I just want to get this trip over with.”

As the flight attendant acted out the safety instructions, Rose blew her nose then turned to face him. “That’s no surprise. You always just want to get things over with and move on. Why do you think you’re still single? You can’t commit.”

“I can commit. I’ve built my architectural firm from scratch. It took me ten years to do it. That takes commitment.”

“I mean where it counts. It must be a guy thing.”

He narrowed his gaze. “Is there something you haven’t told me about what happened with Kevin?”

She pressed her lips together, but her chin quivered. “He left me. Okay? He left. He. D-Divorced. M-Me. Not the other way around.”

The flight attendant stood over them. “Something to drink?”

Nick stared at his sister. “Two glasses of white wine, please.”

Once Rose’s sniffles subsided, Nick reached for her hand. “I’m sorry. Kevin’s an idiot. So, what does that have to do with this reunion?”

“I want to go home. I want to reconnect with my friends. I’ve only stayed in touch with a couple of people since high school with a phone call or email once or twice a year.”

“And I had to come along because?”

“I didn’t want to come alone. Besides these people are your friends, too.”

He shook his head. “They’re not my friends. I haven’t seen a single one of them since I left for college.”

“All the more reason to come with me. Don’t you want them to see how successful you’ve become?”

He drained his glass. “I don’t care what they think. That’s where we differ, twin. You worry about what people think. Probably a girl thing.”

The flight attendant announced freedom to use electronic devices. Nick removed his iPad from the seat flap in front of him. “I have work to do.”

While he scrolled through design plans for a new building in Lower Manhattan, memories of his high school days distracted him. Why hadn’t he stayed in touch with friends from high school? He did have friends back then. Good friends. He, Marcus Simmons, and Fitz had been dubbed The Terrible Trio when they were in fourth grade. They proudly defended the title through high school. Last he’d heard, Fitz was selling real estate somewhere in the Southwest. Marcus had joined the Air Force, serving a few stints in Afghanistan. He wondered, too, about Caitlyn Kennedy. She had pursued Nick until he caught her. They were prom king and queen. He got accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design. Caitlyn went to the Savannah College of Art and Design. They’d ended things abruptly and completely, so why was he thinking about her now with a smile on his face?

“What are you grinning about?” Rose asked.

He pressed his lips together. “Nothing.”

“Uh-huh. There’s a lot of that going around.” As if reading his mind, she asked, “Do you ever hear from Caitlyn?”

“Who?” His voice squeaked, betraying his effort to sound surprised. “Oh, Caitlyn. No. Not for years.”

“Do you hear from Fitz?”

Nick shook his head. “Nope.” He tried to refocus on the blue prints in front of him.

Rose sighed. “Do you ever wish you could go back in time? We had a great childhood.”

“You had a great childhood. Mine was okay.”

“How can you say that?”

“Just because we’re twins doesn’t mean my experience of life has to match yours.”

“You’re impossible.” She unfurled the thin blue blanket still afforded first class flyers, rolling the marshmallow-sized pillow under neck. “Wake me when we land.”

Nick lifted his wine glass to signal the attendant for another drink. He had a feeling his iPad and alcohol were all that would get him through the next week. Weren’t reunions usually a one-day event? What was he going to do for a full week? If he’d had the leg room, he’d have kicked himself for agreeing to this trip. He could never resist his twin sister’s pleading. Perhaps it was big brother syndrome, since he was older by seven minutes. He would always have a soft spot in his heart where Rose was concerned.

He finally had to admit the truth. He was curious as all hell about how his high school classmates had fared, what they looked like now and, yes, he hoped just maybe Caitlyn would be there.

Unable to concentrate on work, he stowed the tablet back into the seat pouch. Reclining his seat, he closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before the flight attendant tapped him to bring his seat to an upright position to prepare for landing.

Rose sat up, looked out the window, and motioned for him to lean across. “There’s the city—the fountain, the bridges. We’re home.”

“Not quite. That’s an actual ‘living’ city. We have a ninety minute drive to the middle of nowhere.”

“When did you become such a snob? Oh, wait, don’t tell me. When you became Nicholas Barton—the boy genius of architecture.”

He sighed. “Can we at least have a decent dinner in the city before we drive south?”

“Your treat?” She grinned at him.

“So far, everything about this trip is my treat.”

She retrieved a compact from her purse to examine her hair and makeup. “I told you I’d pay you back for my share. As soon as I find another job.”

“I’ll hold my breath.”

“Please do.”

The plane touched down smoothly. The engines whined as the brakes were applied. Nick always appreciated that one of the perks of flying first class was being able to get off the plane without waiting for other people to gather everything they stowed. He tugged Rose’s bag from the overhead, handed it to her, then picked up his briefcase.

He presented his reservation information at the car rental counter.

“Yes. Mr. Barton. Let me see….” The young woman scrolled down her computer screen. “I’m sorry. We aren’t able to provide the exact car you requested. I’m afraid we only have a compact available.”

“I reserved a BMW.”

Color flushed the woman’s cheeks. “I understand. Of course, you won’t be charged for a luxury car. I assure you the Fusion will be quite comfortable.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “A Fusion?”

Rose shifted beside him. “It’s just a car, Nick. It’ll be fine. I thought you didn’t care what anyone else thought.”

“I don’t. I need leg room. I like driving a BMW.”

“Who wouldn’t?” Rose smiled at the clerk. “Right?”

Nick slapped his platinum credit card down on the counter. “Why did I even bother making a reservation?” he muttered.

The clerk directed him to insert the card into the chip reader. She handed him a stack of papers fresh from her printer. “Here is your rental agreement. The car has a full tank of gas. If you refill it before turning it in there will be no extra charge. If you don’t, the charge is four-fifty a gallon.”

“What?”

The woman startled at his volume.

“He’ll fill it first.” Rose tugged on his sleeve. “Come on, grump. The car’s at the curb.” She smiled at the reservation clerk. “Have a nice day.”

Nick strode out the door. He frowned at the metallic ruby red Ford standing at the curb. A kid in jeans riding too low on his hips and in need of a haircut practically tossed the keys. “Here you go, bro.”

Nick reached to catch the keys. “I’m not your bro.” He handed the boy a ten dollar tip. “Get a haircut.” Nick tossed their bags into the trunk.

“Dude, what’s your problem?” At Nick’s glare, the kid backed up. “Have a nice day.”

Rose fastened her seatbelt. “You sure have a way of bringing out the best in people.”

Nick punched a button on his phone. “Siri, find a five star restaurant near my location.”

He pulled from the curb. After a few moments, the phone voice responded, “There are no five star restaurants in your vicinity. Turn right in three hundred feet. A Wendy’s will be on your right in one-quarter mile.”

“Wendy’s!” Rose said with enthusiasm. “Can I get a Frostee?”

Nick glared at her. “We’re not going to Wendy’s.” He wove into traffic on the parkway. His phone instructed, “In one quarter mile, take the exit to your right.” Nick shut off the GPS.

He drove south for most of an hour before he spied a diner. He was starving. It would have to do. He pulled into the crowded parking lot.

“It’s busy. That’s a good sign,” Rose said.

“It’s the only restaurant in a twenty mile radius.”

Rose turned to him “Are you going to be in this pissy mood for the next four days?”

He clicked the key fob to lock the car. “Probably.”

“Great. And I thought this might be fun. What was I thinking?”

He held the door for her to enter the diner. “This was your idea. Live with it.”

He was behaving like a sullen teenager, but couldn’t seem to help himself. From a distance, he could maintain objectivity about his past. But standing in the middle of it was sure to stir up feelings. He’d never been good with feelings. They scared him.

Nick’s senses were assaulted when he opened the door—the smells of home cooking, music blaring from a jukebox, and high-backed booths with worn red faux leather seating. A covered three-tiered display on the counter revealed several dessert choices. His mouth watered.

“This place is great,” Rose said, leading him to a vacant booth. “I came here once with Fitz.”

“It’s fine.” He pulled his phone from his pocket to check for messages. As they sat, he said, “I need to respond to this text.”

A waitress delivered water and two menus. “Our specials are pot roast or the shrimp basket. I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“What are you having?” Rose asked.

“I haven’t decided.” He studied the menu.

The waitress returned. “Ready to order?”

“I’ll have the shrimp basket, please,” Rose said.

“And you, sir?”

“Do you have any salads with field greens?”

The waitress lifted an eyebrow. “Field greens? You mean like dandelion leaves?”

Nick frowned. “Just give me the pot roast.”

“Anything else to drink?” she asked, taking their menus.

“I’ll have iced tea,” Rose said.

“Coffee,” Nick said.

He turned his attention back to his phone.

Rose drummed her fingers on the table. “Ahem.”

“What?” He looked up.

“We need to get our stories straight.”

“About what?”

“My breakup with Kevin. If anyone asks, I left him.”

Nick drew his eyebrows together. “Why would anyone ask?”

“You know some of the girls we went to high school with. Trust me, they’ll ask if I’m married. When I say I’m divorced, they’ll want to know what happened. Most of them thought I was a loser back then. They’ll think I’m a loser now.”

“They never thought that. If you believe that, why are we here?”

“Just promise me you’ll back up my story.”

“If they ask if you’re married, just say no.”

She rolled her eyes. “That’s even worse, that I’m still not married. Nick….”

He held up a hand. “Never mind. I got it. You were married, but you left Kevin. So, why’d you leave him?”

She shrugged. “He was boring.”

“Really?”

Her lips tightened. “No. That’s what he told me, that I was boring.”

Nick felt a rush of anger. If he had Kevin MacDonald in front of him right now, he’d punch him in the face. “You’re not boring. Kevin is an ass.”

She grinned. “Thanks, Nick.”

The waitress delivered their drinks and set their dinners on the table. “Enjoy.”

“What hotel are we staying in?” Rose asked.

“The Hilton.”

“I remember that place. They have a great pool. Remember when Misty Nelson’s family had to move out for two days to have their house treated for fleas? They stayed there. She invited me to go swimming. It’s a nice place.”

“That was twenty years ago. I doubt it’s the same now.” He forked up a bite of pot roast. As the meat melted in his mouth, he nearly groaned. How long had it been since he’d eaten a simple, home-cooked meal.

His phone vibrated again on the table top.

“Do you ever turn that thing off?” Rose asked.

“No, why?”

“It’s annoying. Can’t we just have dinner conversation?”

“One minute.” He replied to the text from his business partner, then set down the phone. “What would you like to talk about?”

Rose chewed a bite of shrimp. “Caitlyn Kennedy.”

“I don’t want to talk about…”

“No. She just walked in.”

Nick looked toward the door. Sure enough, there stood Caitlyn. He’d recognize her anywhere. She hadn’t changed that much in fifteen years. Well, except that the girl had definitely become a woman.

And that woman met his gaze, flashing a breath-taking smile.



Chapter Two




“I can’t believe it.” Caitlyn Kennedy crossed to the booth. “Hi, Rose.” Her gaze shifted. “Nick.”

Nick stared at her, dumbfounded. Then he remembered his manners and slid out of the booth to stand. “Caitlyn. Good to see you.”

She kissed his cheek. “Good to see you, too.”

Rose moved over, rearranging the food on the table. “Join us.”

“I’d love to.” She glanced again at Nick. “If that’s okay.”

He shrugged, trying to be casual, even though his mouth had gone desert dry. “Yes, please.”

Caitlyn took the seat beside Rose. “I wondered if you two would be coming to the reunion. Hard to believe it’s been fifteen years.”

“I practically had to drag him here by force,” Rose said.

Nick motioned for the waitress.

“Not eager to visit old haunts?” Caitlyn asked.

“I’m very busy.”

“I know. I saw that write-up about you in the New York Times. You’re quite a celebrity in the world of architecture.”

A warm flush crept up his neck. He picked up his water. “I’ve been fortunate.”

Rose snorted. “Listen to Mr. Humble. Fortunate.”

“I have been. What about you, Caitlyn? Where are you these days?”

“Boston. I own an interior design business there.”

“Good. Good for you. That’s what you always wanted.”

Her gaze locked on his. “It’s one of the things I wanted.”

Rose gave him a smirk. “Interesting. You two are in similar lines of work. So, Caitlyn, are you married? Kids?”

Caitlyn shook her head. “No. I came close twice. To marriage, that is. But it wasn’t meant to be. What about you?”

“Divorced. Three months ago. That wasn’t meant to be, either.”

“I’m sorry. Things don’t always work out the way we plan them, do they?”

Again she spoke to Rose, but fixed her gaze on Nick. He squirmed.

The waitress returned to take her order.

Caitlyn nodded to their plates. “You two eat while your dinners are warm.”

“Want a breaded shrimp?” Rose offered.

“No, but thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the ladies room. I’ll be right back.”

Nick watched her walk across the diner.

“Nick? Yo, Nick.” Rose snapped her fingers in his face.

He blinked. “What?”

“Jeez, you practically undressed her with that look.”

Now the flush burned his face. “Stop it.”

“Caitlyn looks great, don’t you think?”

“Uh-huh. I mean, yes, she’s aged well.”

Rose laughed. “Aged well? You say that like she’s sixty or something. What happened between you two?”

“We graduated. She went her way. I went mine.”

“Seemed to me—and most everyone else—something happened before graduation.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Nick filled his fork with potatoes and shoved it into his mouth. He wished he could reach across the table and shove an entire breaded shrimp into his sister’s mouth, as well.

Before Rose could pursue her questioning, Caitlyn rejoined them. She picked up her fork, stabbing the salad the waitress had delivered. “I love this place, don’t you?”

“You’ve been here before?” Nick asked.

She gave him a puzzled look. “You don’t remember?”

“Uh—no. Should I?”

“I can’t believe you. We came here to eat a few times, once after a concert and again when you took me to a Steeler’s game. How could you not remember this place?”

He looked around, trying to find something that jogged his memory.

Caitlyn laughed. “It’s changed a bit, Nick. The only things remaining are the jukebox and these booths. I stop here any time I come home. It’s kind of an anchor for me, a way of stepping back into my past.”

“You come back to Clarkston often?” he asked.

“A few times a year to visit my family. I heard your parents moved to Arizona. I guess you don’t have reason to come home much.”

He shook his head. “No, not much.”

“Not much?” Rose asked. “This is Nick’s first time coming back home since he graduated from school in Rhode Island.”

Caitlyn arched an elegant brow. “Really? You haven’t been back to Clarkston in over ten years?”

Nick glowered at his sister. “It is not. I came back twice, once for Christmas. Again for Mom and Dad’s anniversary. They were happy to come to New York to visit. Once they moved away, there was no reason to return,” Nick said. Even to his ears, he sounded like a petulant child.

“It’s not the same town anymore.” Caitlyn sighed.

“I know,” Rose said. “I visited before Mom and Dad sold the house. It was sad to see the decline. So many boarded-up store fronts. I haven’t been back, either, since they moved four years ago.”

“It’s pretty much a ghost town now. I hear Phil Ashby organized a ghost walk through town tomorrow night.”

“Ashby. It figures the undertaker would lead a ghost tour. The only ghosts in Clarkston are in our heads. I’ve managed to exorcise mine.” Nick motioned for the waitress to order dessert and refill on his coffee. “Rose?”

“No dessert for me. I’m watching my waistline.”

“Caitlyn?”

“Absolutely. I’ll have the deep dish apple pie with a scoop of pralines and cream ice cream.” She glanced up at Nick. “That’s why I ordered the salad. They have the best pie in six states. Always did.”

For the life of him, Nick did not remember ever eating in this diner, much less being here with Caitlyn. But he’d worked hard to erase the memories of his past small-town life. He had no doubt managed to erase that one, too. It was the memories that kept lunging up at him now that bothered him the most—working with Caitlyn on articles for the yearbook, dancing with her at the prom, making love in the back of his dad’s Suburban.

“Nick, are you okay? You look like you’re in pain,” Caitlyn said.

“I’m fine. Excuse me.” He strode toward the restrooms. Once there, he stared at himself in the pocked mirror over the hand sink. With any luck, by the time he returned to the booth, Caitlyn would have finished her dessert. They could all be on their way. Their separate ways. Once again. At least until the reunion.

Nick insisted on paying the bill for all three of them. “I guess we’ll see you Saturday.”

“Sure. But aren’t you coming for the ghost walk tomorrow night?”

“We’ll be there,” Rose said, giving Nick an elbow in his side. “Won’t we, Nick?”

“I don’t know. I….”

She elbowed him again, harder this time.

“Ouch. I might see you there. I always admired the old architecture of Clarkston. If any of the buildings are still standing.”

“Oh, they’re there. Just boarded up.” She stopped by a sleek BMW. “This is my car. Where are you two staying?”

“Hilton,” Rose replied.

“I am, too. Well, I’ll see you there, no doubt.”

A light breeze carried her scent past Nick’s nose. She smelled like roses. He didn’t know her favorite perfume, but it hadn’t changed over time. He opened the car door for her.

“Thank you.” She tossed her purse onto the leather passenger’s seat. “I hope we have time to really catch up, Nick. I want to hear more about your success.”

“I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk. Have a safe drive.” He closed the door.

Rose stood beside him, watching Caitlyn turn onto the highway. “That was interesting.”

“What do you mean?”

“You two still have a thing for each other.”

“We do not.”

“Do too.”

“Do not.” Then he realized she’d pulled him into on of their childish arguments. “There is nothing between Caitlyn Kennedy and myself. The past is the past.”

“Yeah, dinner became awkward when she sat down because three is an uneven number.”

“You invited her to join us.” He beeped the Ford open.

Rose got in the other side. “It would have been incredibly rude to leave her standing there. And you weren’t budging.”

“It’s not rude. There was an entire restaurant of available tables. I’m sure Caitlyn is quite comfortable dining alone.”

“Seriously? You’re acting like a total ass, Nick.” Rose stared at him. “Oh, I get it. She took you off guard. You weren’t prepared to see her again. Not yet.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“Really? Then why are you still carrying your napkin in your hand?”

He looked down to see the white paper napkin still clutched in his left hand. He tossed it into the console. “What does that prove?”

“It proves you’re human.” She turned on the radio as soon as he started the car.

It proved he should have trusted his gut and stayed home. What point was there in dredging up the past, awakening old ghosts. He’d be damned if he went on that stupid ghost walk tomorrow night. Just thinking of the ghoulish Philip Ashby sent chills up his spine. If anyone ever looked like a poster child for his profession, it was Ashby. His entire family fit the image of undertakers—gaunt features, sallow pallor, and no sense of humor. He’d had enough of his ghosts for this trip.

Nick took his time. He did not want to get to the hotel at the same time as Caitlyn and risk another awkward encounter. He slowed down to give her ample time to check into her room. He could only hope her room wasn’t anywhere near his. He didn’t need to be bumping into her at every turn.

“Are we going to get there tonight?” Rose asked.

“I’m being careful. The state police often watch for rental cars and pull them over for a minor speeding infraction. Red is the color most frequently stopped. And this one glows in the dark.”

She turned to stare at him. “They do not stop red rental cars at whim. You’re making that up.”

“Am not.”

“Are too. Hey, that ghost walk sounds like a lot of fun.”

“It sounds like a boring waste of time to me. You can go. I still need to get some work done while I’m here.”

“You’re pathetic, you know that?”

“I’m successful because I take my work seriously.”

“Oh, and I don’t, I suppose.”

“I did not say that, but need I point out the obvious. You don’t currently have a job.”

“But you think it. You think that all the time. Poor little Rosie. She does the best she can, but it’s never enough.”

He shook his head. “Not now. I am not coming to your pity party tonight.”

“Who said you’re invited?” After a few minutes of silence, she asked, “Are you seeing anyone right now?”

The sudden switch in topic nearly gave him whiplash. “What? No.”

“Good.”

He hesitated, but then asked, “Why is that good?”

“Less complicated.”

“For whom?”

“You and Caitlyn.”

He gritted his teeth. “There is no me and Caitlyn.”

Nick pulled into the brightly-lit parking lot of the Hilton. He studied the check-in area, but didn’t see the BMW. He pulled into a parking spot, cut the engine, then popped the trunk release. The lobby was crowded with couples in formal dress.

“Must be a party,” Rose said.

“Looks like it. I’ll get us checked in.” He stepped up to the registration desk, checked them in, and got the key cards for two adjoining rooms. He handed a card to his sister. “Here you go. Fourth floor.”

In the elevator, Rose said, “We should have made arrangements to meet Caitlyn for breakfast.”

“I’ll order room service. I’m not much of a fan of breakfast.”

“But they serve a free continental breakfast off the lobby.”

“And you’re welcome to enjoy it.”

The elevator dinged and the doors whooshed open on the fourth floor. Nick looked at the room numbers on the wall. “We’re down this way. We have adjoining rooms.”

“What if I get lucky at the reunion and bring someone back with me?” Rose said.

“That’s under the category of too much information that I don’t need to know. But if you do, remind Fitz I’m bigger than he is.” He located their rooms. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

He unpacked, then opened his iPad to work. His mind kept drifting to Caitlyn. God, she was beautiful. He shut down the iPad in frustration. The party downstairs had likely cleared by now. He headed to the bar.

He rounded a corner and stood at the bar entrance, letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. He was ready to move forward when his gaze fell upon Caitlyn seated at the bar, turned to the side to face a man. She was holding a glass of wine and laughing at something the man said.

Her laughter vibrated through him. He’d always loved her laugh. It was even richer now, deeper with maturity. Sexy. He took two steps backward, then bolted for his room. Nick Barton was a legend in his arena, a genius of architecture, bold and courageous in his designs. At least that’s how one interviewer had described him. Nothing scared him. Nothing except that woman seated at the bar, laughing with another man. She didn’t scare him nearly as much as the feelings seeing her dredged up. Those feelings scared the hell out of him. Ghosts were to be feared, after all.



Chapter Three




Nick was finishing the cup of coffee he’d made in the Keurig the hotel provided when a knock sounded on the door between his and Rose’s room. He pulled his side open.

She stood holding a huge muffin and a Styrofoam cup filled with fresh fruit. “I brought you something. Oh, good, I hoped you’d made coffee. The stuff downstairs is like dishwater.” She brushed past him, setting the food on the small round café table. “I think I’ll have another cup, too.”

He studied the muffin. “What is this?”

“Apple cinnamon.”

He picked up the muffin, sniffed before cutting it in half and slathering on cream cheese. “Thank you.”

Rose settled in the chair across from him and set her coffee cup on the table. “Okay, so here’s the plan. We’re all meeting in the lobby in twenty minutes. Fitz told me several folks are driving up to the falls, then grabbing a late lunch at the truck stop, just like we used to.”

Nick halted in mid-bite. “Fitz?”

Rose’s smile broadened. “Yes. Everyone’s staying here, just about. If they don’t still live in town. He asked about you.”

Nick bit into the muffin and grunted.

“What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re acting like you’re too good for anyone here.”

“I am not.”

“I know you’re not. You’re just acting that way. You know, this weekend will be a lot more fun for both of us if you stop behaving like a stuffed shirt and go with the flow. Who knows? You might enjoy it.” She drained her coffee. “Fifteen minutes. Downstairs. And before you object, yes, you are coming with us. I know you’re disappointed in the rental car, so Caitlyn said we could ride with her.”

Before he could protest, she closed both doors separating their rooms.

She was right. There was something wrong with him. He’d felt out of sorts ever since he agreed to this trip. When he’d left Clarkston, then after his parents moved to the southwest, he was convinced he’d shaken the dust off his shoes, to never look back. Returning now, seeing high school friends he’d not seen in fifteen years, rattled something loose in him. If he didn’t know himself better, he’d think he was afraid to see them again. “Shit.”

The elevator door opened. Nick faced a foursome who were chatting and laughing. The women both smiled, then one said, “Hey, Nick Barton.”

He blinked, having no recognition of her.

One of the men held a hand across the elevator door. “You getting in?”

“Uh, sure. Yes. Thank you.” To the woman he said, “Hi. It’s…uh…good to see you again.”

“You have no idea who I am.”

“Sure. You’re…uh….”

“I’m Susie Mitchell. This is Grace Sullivan.”

He recognized the names. “Of course. How are you?”

Susie introduced her husband, then Grace introduced hers.

“Do you have a wife with you?” Susie asked.

“No wife. I’m here with my sister.”

“Rosie’s here? Oh, good. I can’t wait to see her.”

The doors opened. He backed out of the car, letting the two couples walk ahead.

In the lobby, the women ran to Rose. All three squealed like teenagers. It was going to be a long day.

He spied Fitz striding through the crowd along with Marcus. Both men grinned. Fitz looked pretty much the same, but Marcus—the skinny kid he remembered—had filled out.

“Nick,” Marcus said in a deep timbre, slapping him on the back.

“Look at you. Just like an ad for the military.”

“Fifteen years. Ever since graduation. The Air Force made a man out of me. Unlike this guy.” He nudged Fitz. The nudge sent Fitz stumbling off balance.

“Hey, Fitz,” Nick said, extending his hand. “It’s been a long time.”

“Too long. Oh, your folks send their best.”

“You’ve seen my parents?”

“Sold them their condo in Scottsdale. I am the Condo King of the Southwest. Not as famous as you are, though. Marcus, we have here an ‘architectural design genius.’ Isn’t that what an interviewer called you?”

“Since when do you read Architectural Digest?”

“I don’t. Your mom made me read the article. They have me over for dinner occasionally. Have ever since the divorce. They feel sorry for me. I think they also miss having a son.” He patted his soft stomach. “I’m not complaining.”

Nick had a vague recollection of his mother mentioning Fitz once during his obligatory monthly phone call to his parents. “Divorced, huh? Haven’t found the woman who can put up with you?” Nick asked.

Fitz glanced over his shoulder to where Rose stood with her friends. “Not yet, but I’m optimistic.”

“I’m not so sure about this little walk in the woods,” Nick said. “Why don’t the three of us stay behind and catch up?”

“Because my wife is already caught up in this reunion stuff. She’d kill me,” Marcus said.

“Your wife?”

“Sabrina. She’s over there.”

He pointed to a tall, slender woman with mocha-toned skin. Sleek black hair cascaded down her back.

“That’s your wife? What is she—fourteen?”

Marcus grinned. “Twenty-four. She’s a model.”

Fitz slapped Marcus on the shoulder. “You have done well for yourself, my brother.”

“Don’t I know it? She’s insisting we participate in every event this weekend. She’s never been to a class reunion. Even wants to do this ghost walk tonight. But when a woman who looks like that tells you to walk, you don’t question her.”

“You’ve got that right,” Fitz said. “Hey, Nick, have you seen Caitlyn yet?”

“Yes. We ran into each other last evening.”

“I’m surprised we didn’t see the fireworks.”

Nick shook his head. “No fireworks. That was a long time ago.”

“No, I meant the fireworks when she chewed out your ass. You broke that girl’s heart after you took off for Rhode Island and never looked back. She was hurt until her friends piled on the wagon, then she was just plain pissed off.”

Nick lifted an eyebrow. “Really? She seemed fine last evening. As I recall, she broke up with me to go to Savannah. Rhode Island wasn’t even on her list. At the very least, it was a mutual decision.”

Someone from the crowd announced that they would be departing and would meet at the falls overlook.

Fitz said, “Women always seem fine—right before they rip your head off with their bare hands. Come on. You driving?”

He sighed. “No, Rose and I are riding with Caitlyn.”

“Good thing I’m coming with you, then. I’ll have your back.”

Nick followed Fitz to the parking lot. Rose waved from where she and Caitlyn stood beside the BMW. Fitz held a door for Rose to get into the back seat, then got in beside her. “Just like old times, Rosie.”

Caitlyn held up the keys for Nick. “At the risk of being sexist, I’ll ask—would you like to drive?”

“Me?”

“I saw the way you drooled over this car last night.” She tossed him the keys and walked around to the passenger’s side. “Be careful.”

He hurried to open the door for her. “Thanks. I have one similar to this at home.” He got behind the wheel, adjusting the seat back to make room for his long legs. “I had requested a BMW as my rental, but they didn’t have one available. Who’d you rent this from?”

“It’s mine.”

“I guess the interior decorating business is lucrative?”

She laughed. “I’m not in the business of decorating, exactly. It’s called interior design. But, yes, my business is lucrative. I also teach.”

Nick only heard half of what Caitlyn said because he had one ear tuned to the purr of the engine and the other to the murmured conversation in the back seat. Fitz had been one of his best friends at one time, but that didn’t mean he trusted the guy with his sister. Rose was just coming off a breakup. She was vulnerable, fragile.

“Nick?” Caitlyn asked.

“Uh…huh?”

“I asked if you’d reconsidered the ghost walk this evening. It sounds like fun.”

“I’ll go, I suppose. I can use the exercise.” He really did need to get out of this funk and into the spirit of things.

She laughed. “Remember that time we decided to walk home from a school dance because Jamie Wallace had given us all vodka and we were tipsy? You almost fell over the railing on the creek bridge. I wouldn’t recommend drinking before tonight’s walk.”

He looked at her, the car swerving. He jerked the wheel to pull back into his lane.

She frowned. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” At least for now, he thought. Was that a subtle threat? Was Caitlyn still pissed with him, like Fitz had suggested, and planning his topple from the bridge? “Sorry. I thought I saw an animal in the road.”

He kept his focus straight ahead until they reached the parking lot at the falls. Several of their classmates were already gathered on the grass near the overlook.

After a few more exchanges of greeting, Marsha and Dave Risher called for their attention. Marsha handed out maps of the walking trails. “We’ll meet back here in two hours, then head to Garland’s for a late lunch. Remember, the point is to walk with folks you’ve not seen for a while. Get reacquainted.” With that, Dave smiled at Marsha and then turned to a petite blond whose name escaped Nick. It was clear Marsha wasn’t fully invested in the idea of her husband reacquainting himself with the woman.

Fitz put an arm around Nick’s shoulder. “What say the six of us stick together and get reacquainted? We’re practically strangers after all these years. Maybe we can find Marcus and his child bride.”

On the trail they’d chosen, they naturally split into two groups, with the women taking the lead. The three men lagged behind. While the women seemed to fall into an easy conversation, Nick struggled to find some common place at which to start with his two former best friends. “It’s been a long time.”

“Fifteen years. But we each followed the path we’d planned. Look at us now. I’m telling you, real estate in the Southwest is a gold mine. Especially among retirees. Hey, Nick, you should think of building out there. Condos sell well. We could team up.”

“My work is more along the lines of commercial buildings for corporations. If you read that interview, you saw the photos of my last project in Manhattan.”

“I did. It looked impressive, inside and out. You always did like to build things. Though I hope your skills have improved since we built that tree house that dropped us twenty feet into your back yard.”

Marcus laughed. “I thought your mom was gonna have a stroke when she ran outside to find the three of us all tangled in a heap.”

Nick rubbed his left wrist. “You two were laughing. I was howling in pain with a broken wrist. And, for the record, I don’t build, I design buildings. My design for that tree house was perfect. You two scrimped on nails. So, Marcus, don’t tell me you’re in charge of Air Force housing.”

“Nope. I pilot Black Hawks.”

“Wow. Now, that’s impressive. You’ve seen some action then?”’

“Enough. I’ll be going AGR and assigned to training at Fort Rucker, Alabama.”

“AGR?” Nick asked.

“Active Reserve. Sabrina’s happy about it. Her clock’s ticking. She wants to start a family.”

“And you?”

Marcus grinned. “I wouldn’t mind a few little Marcuses and Sabrinas running around. I’m ready, too. What about you? Any plans to settle down.”

Nick followed Fitz’s gaze that settled on Rose.

Fitz smiled. “I tried it once. Didn’t work. But I think I learned enough to make the second time a charm.”

Nick took hold of Fitz’s arm. “Hey, Fitz. Be careful.”

“What do you mean?”

“Rosie’s a little…fragile right now. Just be careful, okay?”

“Who said anything about Rose?”

“You did, just now.”

“Maybe I was lookin’ at Caitlyn. You have a problem with that?”

“Go for it. Good luck.” But he felt the tension in his neck at the thought of Fitz with Caitlyn.

The women moved to the side of the walking trail at a rocky outcropping.

“Marcus, come see this,” Sabrina called, holding out a hand to him.

Marcus took her hand, then stood behind her, his arms circling around her, his chin resting on the top of her head.

Fitz moved up beside Rose, leaving Nick standing awkwardly with Caitlyn. “What are we looking at?”

“The train on the other side of the river. The cabin nestled in the trees. It’s a beautiful setting, don’t you think?”

“Uh, sure. I suppose.”

The other two couples headed back onto the trail, pairing off. Nick followed Caitlyn, his hands shoved into his pockets. Because if he left them to their own devices, one of them might take hold of Caitlyn’s hand.

“It’s beautiful up here. I miss this place. Don’t you?”

He shrugged. “There are running trails in Central Park.”

She smirked. “Seriously? You can compare Central Park to this?”

He was being a jerk. What he didn’t know was why. “The falls and these trails along the river have a certain appeal,” he said.

“A certain appeal? You sound like a travel brochure. A very stiff travel brochure.”

He gazed at her. “You think I’m stiff?”

“Okay, detached might be a better word. You don’t seem to want to be here, but here you are.”

“Rosie needed me to be here. She just went through a nasty break-up. She didn’t want to come alone.”

She nodded. “So I misjudged you. You’re being noble, then.”

“Do you analyze all of your friends? Because if you do, I’m surprised you have any. Might explain why you’re still single.” Had he just snapped at her like that? He wanted to suck the words back in, but it was too late.

She stopped moving as color drained from her face. “And you’re obviously still single because you’re a jackass.”

“Caitlyn, wait. I was teasing. I didn’t mean anything by that.” Then he saw the tears brim her blue eyes. “I’m sorry.”

She drew in a breath, exhaling. “Nothing. Never mind.”

She resumed walking, but he took her arm and spun her around. “I said something that hurt your feelings. What was it?”

Caitlyn cleared her throat. “I was engaged two years ago. My fiancé died in a skiing accident. It was two months before our wedding.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Without thinking, he reached out to swipe away a tear from her cheek.

Caitlyn pulled back as if stung. “It’s okay. You couldn’t have known. Bryce loved the outdoors. He would have loved this place. We’d planned a trip here to go white water rafting.”

He felt lower than dog crap on a shoe. “Do you want to find a place to get coffee? We can catch up with the others later? As I recall there’s a café a block up from the falls, if it’s still there.”

She gazed up at him under long lashes. “You’re not going to ask me to talk about Bryce and then offer grief counseling, are you? That’s what most people want to do because they think it will help. Truthfully, I’ve been through grief counseling, and I’m doing well. Most of the time. It’s just that, once in a while, something reminds me of him.”

“No grief counseling. I promise. Just coffee.”

“I’d like that.”


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