Excerpt: Poisoned (Celeste Files)
Book 4: Psychic CORE
THE EARLY MORNING sun rose behind the mansion, giving it a halo effect. Painted a light green, with chocolate brown accents, and surrounded by large, budding maple trees, and lush bushes and plants, the house reminded Celeste Kain of an overgrown cottage nestled deep in the woods.
“So much for sleeping in this morning.” Her husband, John, smothered a yawn with his hand as he pulled into the driveway. “We finally get a kid-free weekend, and I’d planned on staying in my underwear all day today.”
Her dad, Ian, and soon to be stepmom, Cami, had taken their two-and-half-year-old daughter, Olivia, for the weekend. Celeste, like John, had also been looking forward to doing nothing, just not in her underwear. “What about when we’re eating?”
“Even then. You should try it.”
She stared at his handsome profile. “I think we’d both lose our appetite.” At thirty-six weeks pregnant, her stomach, breasts and butt were huge. No one should be subjected to her naked, distended, dimpled, pale body. As it was, she avoided looking at herself in the mirror, and couldn’t wait to have the baby and get back into shape.
“When you’re naked, I’m always hungry.”
She cringed and fought a smile. If she wasn’t feeling as large as a fire truck, that comment might have made her hot. “I can’t see past my stomach and haven’t shaved my bikini line in months.”
“I can do it for you,” he offered with a wag of his brows.
Knowing John, he’d shave her in a heartbeat if she asked. But, for some reason, she’d grown incredibly self-conscious about her body during this pregnancy. When she’d been pregnant with Olivia, she’d enjoyed the way her body had changed, and had focused on the baby growing inside her, not the cellulite coating the back of her legs.
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Well, if you change your mind, I’m at your service,” he said as he parked their car on the apron of the driveway near the coach house. “I think the square footage of the coach house is bigger than our old condo.”
“I know it is,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt.
He killed the ignition. “Hang tight and I’ll help you out.” After he opened her door and took her hand, he looked around the backyard which, although freshly mowed, was in dire need of landscaping. “I think I know what Hudson will be doing in his spare time.”
“If they could afford a house like this, they could afford to hire a crew to work on the yard.”
“True. So remind me again why I’m not at home lying around in my underwear with you?”
She grinned. “I told you, I don’t have a clue. Eden said they needed our help.”
“At nine o’clock on a Saturday morning?”
She’d wondered about that, too. But her sister never asked for help. Ever. Eden was stubborn. Until she’d met her husband, Hudson Patterson, her sister had always been determined to deal with her problems head on, and alone. When Eden had called her an hour ago, saying she’d needed Celeste to come to the house to help her sort out an issue, she had been overly…chipper. Celeste had immediately asked her if something serious had happened, or if Hannah, Eden and Hudson’s three-year-old daughter, was ill. Eden had assured her that Hannah was fine, and that her niece was having a sleepover at their brother, Will’s. Then Eden had quickly ended the call.
At first, the less than five-minute conversation had left Celeste concerned. But while she and John had been changing to head over to the mini-mansion, she’d thought back to how Eden had been acting lately—stressed, high-strung and edgy. Her sister had been dealing with buying a new house, renovating it, and meeting publishing deadlines, while raising a three-year-old. Since she and John had bought their home less than a year ago, Celeste understood, all too well, how much pressure came along with moving. During her move, she’d dealt with a traveling husband, an eighteen-month-old, The Sugar Shack—the bakery she owned—and dead people.
Being a psychic-medium had serious drawbacks. God forbid she could settle her family into a house without being bothered by possessed toys.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said as they reached the side entrance. “I think the move has her stressed. How’s Hudson been?” John and Hudson both worked as agents for CORE, her father’s criminal investigative agency.
He shrugged and knocked on the door. “We’ve been crossing paths, and haven’t had time to talk.” John had just finished working a cold case with the FBI that’d had him traveling back and forth between Chicago and St. Louis for nearly three weeks.
“Did you see him at CORE yesterday?”
“For a second. I passed him as I was leaving Ian’s office. Hud was coming off a case, too, and was heading in to talk with your dad about it.”
The door opened. Hudson filled the doorframe, his face strained with concern. “Thanks for coming.”
Now worried something was definitely wrong, Celeste used the stair rail and rushed into the house as quickly as her pregnant body would allow. “Where’s Eden?” she asked as she walked past Hudson and through the mudroom. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m right here.” Eden met her in the kitchen. “I’m sorry we dragged you out so early.”
Eden’s pale face, the dark circles under her eyes and the way she was hugging herself set Celeste immediately on edge. Her sister wasn’t a worrier, she didn’t dwell on the small stuff, and when it came to big problems, she didn’t lose sleep over them. She attacked and found a way to solve them. Celeste didn’t like seeing her sister look so fragile, as if a strong wind could knock her over, or the slightest barb could cause her to drop to her knees in tears.
“You’re scaring me,” Celeste said, slipping out of her jacket and resting it on a stool in front of the large island. “What’s happened?”
Hudson and John entered the kitchen. Eden looked to her husband. “Is the video cued?”
“Ready when you are.”
“Video?” John asked.
Hudson stepped over to the island, where a laptop sat. “I set up a camera in the living room using one of Hannah’s stuffed bears,” he said, opening the laptop.
“Is one of your contractors stealing from you?”
Hudson pressed a button on the keyboard, lighting up the screen. “I wish it was that easy,” he said, the fear banked in his eyes unnerving her. Before working for her father and CORE, Hudson had been a Marine, and in the CIA. Her brother-in-law had seen things that would require most people to spend a lifetime in psychological therapy. John and Ian had both agreed that nothing scared Hudson, and that the man was a certifiable badass. But something was scaring him now, which only compounded her concern.
“What’s on the video?” Celeste asked, not liking surprises and needing to prepare herself for whatever had been filmed.
“Hopefully you can tell us,” Eden said, nodding to Hudson, who clicked PLAY.
“We’ve had the bear-cam set up on the living room mantle for the past three nights.” Hudson turned the laptop so she and John could view the screen. “This was from last night.”
Eden and Hudson’s living room filled the screen. “What’s with the timestamp?” Celeste asked. The time, not the date, rewound or moved forward at an erratic pace, yet the backdrop of couches, chairs, tables and lamps remained normal, and nothing was out of place.
“No clue. I checked the camera and it’s working just fine. Keep watching,” Hudson suggested. “What we need you to see is coming up any second.”
Celeste stared at the laptop screen. “What should we be looking for? Does someone enter—” A black cloud burst from the wall and over the camera lens, momentarily darkening the screen. “Oh, my God!” She jerked back into John’s chest, just as the cloud undulated and rolled over itself until it formed the shape of a human face. Then it quickly disappeared back into the wall. With her knees slightly weak, her heart still racing and her mind trying to decipher what she’d seen, she pulled out the stool and rested her rear against it. “You could have warned me. Do you want to scare the baby out of me?”
“Seriously,” John added. “I can’t stand the jump-scares. It’s why I don’t watch horror movies.” No, her husband didn’t watch horror movies because he saw enough monsters in his line of work.
Hudson paused the video. “Sorry, man, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” John said. “I’m more concerned about Celeste.”
Hudson closed the laptop, then moved to stand next to Eden. “Maybe you two are used to seeing things coming out of walls, but I’m not. I have no problem admitting that the video scared the hell out of me.”
“I don’t, either.” Eden leaned against Hudson. “Well, Celeste, what do you think? We played through the rest of the video and there weren’t any other…things showing up in our living room.”
What did she think? She had no idea what she’d seen in the video, or what her sister and brother-in-law believed they’d filmed. She also wasn’t sure what Hudson was implying by stating she and John were used to seeing things coming out of walls. As far as Hudson and Eden were concerned, Celeste no longer had her psychic gift. She’d never told her sister that her gift had simply been in remission, or that with its return she wasn’t just clairvoyant, but regularly communicating with the dead. Celeste had wanted to share this huge part of her world with Eden, but anything to do with the supernatural upset her sister. The psychic gene Celeste had inherited from their mother had skipped Eden. Until a few years ago, Celeste hadn’t realized how much resentment Eden had harbored toward her, or that she’d been jealous of the psychic bond Celeste’d had with their mom. While the resentment and jealousy were behind them now, and they were closer than ever, to keep the peace, Celeste had chosen to keep the reappearance of her gift from Eden.
“What do you think was recorded?” Celeste asked.
Eden’s eyes filled with tears. “A ghost.”
Ghost? She wasn’t sure about Hudson’s take on paranormal activity, but knew her sister all too well. Eden was similar to John. She liked science and evidence. But Celeste had made a believer out of John, and her husband knew that sometimes the things that go bump in the night weren’t always explainable. Could it be that Eden had finally opened her mind to the supernatural world? The idea excited her. She’d love to be able tell her about some of the experiences she’d dealt with since her gift had returned, and talk to her about anything else that might happen in the future.
“How can you be sure?” Celeste asked.
“I can’t,” Eden said with exasperation. “But what else could that thing be?” She stabbed a finger at the laptop.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with the camera, or there was a strange shadow.”
“Made by who or what?” Eden placed her hands on the island and leaned forward. “You of all people know how I feel about the supernatural. I used to expose criminals and con artists for a living.” She nodded toward the laptop. “But this video wasn’t created with computer graphics and special effects.”
“How do you know?” Celeste held up a hand before her sister could argue. “I’m not saying I don’t believe it’s possible that your camera captured a ghost. But, in my experience, things like this can usually be explained.”
Hudson ran a hand along his stubbled jaw. “I’ve got something I’d like you to explain then.” He stepped over to the pantry, then pulled out a shoe box filled with a set of keys, one of Hannah’s toys, silverware, a little gnome figurine that Celeste had given Eden, along with a few other small knickknacks. “We found all of these things in one of the attic bedrooms.”
“I thought I was losing it,” Eden said, tucking her dark hair behind her ears. “I would set the table for dinner, then turn around and find that the plates and silverware were moved, and forks and spoons were missing.” She reached into the box and pulled out one of the rings she had inherited from their mom after she had died. “I was beside myself because I thought I’d lost Mom’s ring in the move.” She picked up the set of keys. “Yesterday, I turned this house upside down looking for these.”
“You’ve had a lot of workers at the house. Are you sure one of them didn’t collect your things, or maybe Hannah? Liv is always taking things.” Celeste’s daughter, Olivia, was a certifiable packrat who liked hiding her treasures in odd places.
“Why would the workers leave our things in the attic?” Eden’s eyes filled with tears. “I blamed Hannah. I was so mad at her, especially when I couldn’t find Mom’s ring. And I yelled at her and put her into time-out.” She swiped the tears from her face, then dragged in a deep breath. “I’m the worst mom.”
Unable to bear the pain in her sister’s eyes, Celeste pushed off the stool, then went to Eden. When her protruding belly got in the way of a hug, Eden laughed on a sob and shifted so they could embrace. The baby Celeste carried stirred, as he always did when she touched Eden. “Baby Boy is worried about his Auntie E.” Celeste leaned back and smoothed Eden’s hair from her face. “So am I.”
“Because you think I’m crazy?”
“I don’t think that.”
“But you think the video and our missing things can be explained.”
Possibly. She’d been to Eden and Hudson’s new house three different times—the day before they’d put an offer on their house, weeks later when Eden had wanted to show her the plans she had for the renovations, then just three days ago when they’d had a play date with their daughters. Never once had she sensed anyone was in the house but them. Given the age of the home that had surprised her. Plenty could happen in one hundred and ten years.
“I’m not sure what to think about the video,” she answered honestly, and needing a break from standing, she went back to the stool. She knew there were television shows claiming to have captured paranormal activity on film. Since she saw dead people on a regular basis, she chose not to watch any of them. “The missing items being found in the attic…it’s definitely strange.”
Eden looked to Hudson. “I’ve spent my entire life blowing off my sister’s and mom’s ability to see things we can’t, now I have to convince Celeste we have a ghost. This is karma taking a bite out of my butt.”
For the first time since they’d walked into the house, Hudson’s face relaxed, and he gave his wife a genuine, affectionate smile. “It’s a nice butt.”
Eden took Hudson’s hand and smiled. “Let’s show Celeste the lily-knocking room and make a believer out of her.”
“Lily-knocking room?” Celeste asked, then added, “And I never said I didn’t believe you.”
Eden cocked a dark brow. “Then are you saying we have a ghost?”
Celeste looked to John for a little help. He held up both hands as if surrendering. “I’m just the non-psychic sidekick. But that video…you saw the face, right?”
Yes, she’d seen the face. But over the years she’d also seen photographs of the image of Jesus on a pizza, in a cloud formation and even on the inside of a candy bar. They weren’t talking about strange pictures splashed across social media. They were discussing the possibility that there was a ghost in this house. “I saw it. And, yes, I thought it was weird.”
“Well, I have something else weird for you. Come with me.” Eden came around the island. “What I’m going to show you should convince you we have a ghost problem.” She took Celeste by the elbow, led her from the kitchen, into the foyer that wrapped around the entire first level, then up the stairs.
Celeste’s sister and brother-in-law’s house had been built over one hundred and ten years ago. Located in the desirable suburb of Oak Park, and only twenty minutes from Chicago, they’d bought the six bedroom, seven bath and nearly eight thousand square foot home for a steal. Although the price tag was higher than anything Celeste and John could afford, Eden’s last true crime novel had become an international bestseller. Her agent had also sold the book’s film rights to a Hollywood producer, and simultaneously secured Eden a seven-figure contract for her next release. This had allowed Eden and Hudson to afford the mini-mansion, and renovate the parts of the house that had needed updating, along with the yard and old coach house. Although Celeste thought the house was beautiful, it was simply too big for her. But she was happy for her sister.
Once they’d reached the second floor, Eden turned left. They passed Hannah’s bedroom, also on the left, then walked further down until they came to the first of two guest rooms on the right. Eden slipped her hand into the doorway, then flipped on the light before entering the room. The strong scent of lilies barely masked the heavy odor of fresh paint still hanging in the air.
“What do you smell?” Eden asked.
“Good. When we first toured the house, I smelled it, too. I figured since the place had been closed up for months, the real estate agent probably sprayed air freshener to get rid of the musty smell.”
“Year,” Hudson said, coming up behind them with John. “The house had been closed up for over a year.”
“Anyway,” Eden continued. “Six weeks and two coats of paint later, it still smells like lilies. What do you think it means? Do you feel anything just being in here? You and Mom claimed that you could touch things and get flashes of what could’ve happened, or will happen. I thought this room might be a good place for you to get a vibe or whatever you call it.”
Celeste placed a hand on her hard stomach and smoothed the soft cotton of her maternity top. “What makes you say that? I thought the missing objects were found in the attic,” she said, stepping farther into the unfurnished room. There were times when she’d entered a space and immediately experienced the joy or pain of the spirits still lingering there. Now wasn’t one of them.
“Listen.” Hudson went to the wall and knocked. When nothing happened, he frowned, then knocked again. Seconds passed. Still nothing.
Eden’s face reddened as she let out a nervous chuckle. “We smell lilies in this room, and three days ago, ghosts started knocking on the walls. I guess they’re too tired to respond. Um, are you sure you don’t feel anything?”
Her sister had studied dozens of crime scenes and murders, then retold the stories in horrifying and graphic prose, launching her career and turning her into a bestselling author and an award-winning investigative journalist. Celeste was a baker and mom, and had no interest in solving murders. Unfortunately, the dead had other plans for her. And, right now, the only thing she felt was the baby pressing on her bladder. “Sorry, I’ve got nothing.”
“This is ridiculous.” Eden walked over to where Hudson stood by the wall. “We finally move into the house of our dreams and it’s occupied by a ghost.” She made a fist and pounded on the plaster. “What’s even more ridiculous is that I don’t believe in ghosts, yet here I am, hitting a wall, trying to wake the ghost up so I can convince my psychic sister it’s haunting us.”
Guilt gave Celeste a kick, just as the baby gave her bladder a jab. Eden had swallowed her pride when she’d called her this morning. Her sister had no issues about calling for advice, or to ask for a favor or an opinion about decorating the house, but ghosts and anything to do with the psychic phenomena weren’t subjects Eden would bring up without good reason. While she wasn’t sure there was a haunting happening at the house, her sister certainly believed in it, and that was good enough for Celeste.
“Then there are the missing objects,” Eden continued, before Celeste could respond, and kept pounding away. “The video…constantly feeling like I’m being watched when there’s no one else in the room.”
“I don’t think workers or Hannah hid those things in the attic.” Hudson joined his wife, and also hit the wall. “The alarm is always on, so we know no one broke into the house. Plus, a break in doesn’t make any sense when nothing was stolen, just moved.”
“The dog and cat have been acting weird, too,” Eden added. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve tripped over them because they can’t stand being left alone. Whatever is doing this is inside our house.”
“I agree.” Hudson stopped pounding. He took Eden by her reddening fist and pulled her close to him. “It’s in these walls.”
Whatever, not whoever.
“You don’t have to convince me,” Celeste said. “I believe that you believe you have a ghost.”
Hudson chuckled without humor. “But you don’t believe there is one.”
“I didn’t say that. If you want, I’ll do a reading. If there’s a ghost, I’ll try to connect with it.”
The walls vibrated with a booming thump.
Celeste jerked back, and gripped John by his shirt. Heart racing, she held her breath and glanced around the room.
The light fixture above them tinkled and swung as if it had been given a gentle nudge. She looked to Hudson and Eden, who both stared at the wall, their bodies tensed, their eyes fixated.
“Is this usual?” Celeste asked.
“Yes,” Eden whispered, never taking her gaze from the wall. “Go knock. It should answer back.”
As Celeste made to move, John stopped her. “I’ll do it.” He walked to the wall, then rapped his knuckles against it. Seconds ticked by without a response, and he tried again. After another moment passed, he shook his head. “What year was this house built?”
“The construction was finished in 1906,” Eden responded.
He looked to the ceiling where the small antique chandelier slowly swayed. “What’s above this room?”
Hudson stepped forward. “The attic. The realtor said that at one time it’d been used as servants’ quarters. Later, it was converted to one large rec room.”
“At some point, it was made into bedrooms again,” Eden said. “When the knocking first started, Hudson checked the attic.” She swallowed. “That’s when he found the missing things.” Tears misted her eyes. “I was going to convert one of those bedrooms into a playroom for Hannah.” Eden glanced away from the wall. “Now I’m afraid to go up there.”
Celeste hated seeing her sister so spooked. Between their daughter, careers and this house, Eden and Hudson had so much going for them. Their home should be filled with laughter and excitement, not tears and dread.
“Have you considered contacting the previous owners?” John asked. “Maybe they’ve experienced strange things, too, and could offer up an explanation, or at least give you a little history about the house.”
Eden nodded. “The day Hudson found our things in the attic, I looked up the previous owner, hoping to ask those very questions.” She let out a shaky breath. “It was a stretch, but I needed to do something proactive, you know? This is our house. We want to raise our family here. Hud and I picture grandchildren running around the backyard.” She leaned into Hudson. “But guess what I found out? The owner died in this house.”
John lurched back from the wall.
The room shook. The small chandelier danced and jingled. The door squeaked on its hinges.
As John took Celeste’s hand, she tried to connect to whatever was causing the disturbance, but the thunderous assault filled her head. Her belly contracted, making her legs weak. She waited for the air to grow oppressive, for darkness to ensue. But there was nothing. Just noise and, beneath that, her sister’s angry cries. She looked to Eden, who had covered her ears and buried her head against Hudson’s chest.
Hudson took his wife by the shoulders. With his gaze locked on the folded stepladder leaning against the wall near the window, he set Eden aside and hurried across the room. He lifted the ladder. Holding it by the rungs, he ran toward the wall.
“Wait,” Eden called just as Hudson connected. “Are you crazy? We just had these walls painted.”
“I’m not just crazy, I’m pissed off.” Plaster chipped onto the wood floor. When the pounding continued, Hudson shifted the ladder back to take another swing. “John, there’s a sledgehammer in the room across the hall. Let’s end this now,” he shouted, and slammed the ladder into the wall again.
“Don’t you dare!” Eden blocked the door. “You’re not knocking down walls or putting holes in them,” she yelled, just as the pounding ceased.
Breathing hard, Hudson looked from the slightly damaged wall to the gently swaying chandelier before meeting his wife’s gaze. “If this doesn’t stop, I’m going to give a whole new meaning to the term open concept.”
A menacing growl rumbled from the floor vent. Holding John’s hand, Celeste stepped forward and reached the antique cast iron heat register at the same time as Eden.
“Oh, my God,” Eden whispered, and looked up at her husband. “The dog.”
Swearing, Hudson dropped the ladder and ran out of the room.
“The dog,” Eden repeated, following behind. “I left him in our room.”
Before Celeste could go after her sister and Hudson, John tightened his hold on her hand, stopping her. “Did you feel anything?” he asked. “Do you think the place is haunted?”
More growling echoed from the heat register, followed by several what the hells and son of a bitches from Hudson.
“Sounds like the dog is stuck. Maybe you should see if Hudson needs help.” She dragged him through the doorway. “Eden,” she called. “Where are you?”
Holding her massive golden-haired Maine Coon cat, Eden stepped out of the room at the opposite end of the hall. “Here,” she shouted, her tone panicked. “Hudson can’t get Brutal out of the vent.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” John said as they made their way to the master bedroom.
“I don’t know what to think. All I know is I didn’t sense anyone in that room but us.”
“There’s no way the pounding is from old pipes. And it’s nothing like that issue we had with our water heater.”
“Agreed. I kind of wish Hudson would’ve put a hole in the wall. I want to know what’s inside.”
“Or trying to get out,” John countered.
Celeste’s experiences with ghosts were limited. Although she’d learned to control some aspects of her gift, there were others she knew she had yet to discover. The spirits she’d connected with in the past had sought her, had used her to tell their stories. Could it be the ghosts in this house weren’t interested in communicating with her? Could that be why she’d sensed nothing?
The morning sunlight streamed into the sitting room which connected to Eden and Hudson’s master bedroom with beautiful reclaimed barn doors. Celeste caught the flip of Eden’s dark ponytail and her cat’s furry tail as they rounded the corner, then turned into the main bedroom.
“Their bedroom is the size of two of ours,” John whispered.
“Three. The two walk-in closets combined are the same size as the baby’s room,” she whispered back, then led him through the barn doors. Hudson sat on the floor, his arm shoulder deep inside the wall vent.
Eden paced the hardwood floor. “Be careful with him. He’s so tiny.”
“I know the size of the little rat.” Hudson grunted, then swore. “If he would just move an inch closer to my hand. Actually, if we had a normal-sized dog, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
“Maybe if you talked nice, and accepted his size, he wouldn’t be scared of you.” Eden’s triceps deepened as she cradled the large cat to her chest. “You know Brutal doesn’t like it when people yell.”
Hudson plastered the side of his face against the wall and reached deeper into the vent. “No one is yelling,” he shouted, then let out a breath. “Got him. Ouch! Damn it. He’s biting me.” He finally pulled the three-legged Chihuahua from the wall. Brutal let go of Hudson’s finger, then cuddled into his neck and licked him. “You’re okay, Rat. Daddy saved you.”
“Oh, thank God.” Eden knelt next to Hudson. After giving her husband a kiss, she set Fabio down and took Brutal into her arms. “The poor thing is shaking.”
“He’s always shaking.”
“Yeah, but more than usual. And his little heart is going crazy.”
“Why did you have the grate off the vent?” John asked.
“I didn’t.” Hudson checked the metal grille, which was new, and nothing like the original antique registers in some of the other rooms. “Screws are missing.” He looked up at Celeste. “Can a ghost work a screwdriver?”
Unease settled on her chest. She placed one hand beneath her stomach and the other onto John’s arm. She’d watched possessed children’s toys come to life, had seen ghosts move objects across a room. But each time she’d witnessed the unexplainable, she’d been in contact with the dead. Either the ghost terrorizing Eden and Hudson wanted nothing to do with her, or… “Someone’s in the house.”
Eden held Brutal close. “Impossible. The security system is on, and has been.”
“Maybe whoever’s here knows the code.” Celeste tightened her hold on John. “Before we assume a ghost unscrewed the vent and put Brutal inside, I think we should at least check the house.” The possibility of a live person roaming the house scared her more than the possibility of ghosts.
The dead were unpredictable, but the living could kill you.
“Good point.” Eden looked to Hudson, who rose and walked toward one of the closets. “Do you want me to call the police?” she asked.
“And tell them what? Someone is moving stuff around our house, knocking on our walls and shoved our dog into a vent? There’s no way someone is in the house,” Hudson said, opening the closet door. “But just in case, I’ll take a look around. John, are you carrying?”
John moved his jacket to the side, revealing his shoulder holster and Glock. “As always.” When he wasn’t working, John usually kept himself armed. Over the years, he’d put away quite a few deadly people, and worried about himself or his family being targeted by anyone looking to seek retribution for those criminals.
Hudson pulled a small gun case from the shelf. “Good. We’ll check the house. I want you two to stay here.”
After he looked under the bed, John stepped into the master bathroom, then came out a few moments later. “Is there any other way to access this room?” he asked Hudson.
“Only through the window.” He looked to Eden. “Keep your phone within reach and the door locked.”
John kissed Celeste’s cheek. “What he said.”
After their husbands had left the room and Eden had locked the door behind them, Celeste followed her sister into the sitting room. She sat in the dark plum wingback chair positioned near one of the house’s seven fireplaces. Eden’s decorating style was elegant and traditional. The light gray walls, the plum accents, the plush area rug, chandeliers and artwork tied together nicely. What probably took Eden no time at all to put together would have taken Celeste months of scouring the Internet or magazines just for ideas.
“Does this fireplace work?” she asked as Eden sat in the opposite chair.
Eden shook her head and glanced to the closed door. “No. We’re going to have an electric one installed. It’ll still give off heat and will look nice.”
“And you won’t have to deal with smoke or ash.”
“Just ghosts.” Eden met her gaze. The worry in her sister’s eyes unsettled her. Eden was one of the toughest women she knew. She studied murder cases and interviewed murderers for a living. This was supposed to be a happy time for her and Hudson. Both of them had killer careers, they’d just moved into a gorgeous house and their daughter, Hannah, was a smart, funny and beautiful child.
“There could be a logical explanation for what’s been happening.”
“A stalker hiding in my house? I think I’d rather deal with a ghost.”
Fabio rubbed his yellow body against Celeste’s leg, then stared up at her expectantly with his one good eye. Before Eden had rescued the cat, Fabio had lost the other eye, along with an ear, in a fight against a Pit Bull. She reached down and scratched his head. “I want to know how Brutal ended up in the vent. I’ve been around ghosts, and have seen unexplainable things. I’ve never seen a spirit remove screws and, or, carry a dog.”
Eden stared at her. “Do you see ghosts all the time?”
“Only when they want to be seen.” She used the arm of the chair to push to her feet. In the last week, her stomach had become heavier and bigger, making it difficult to rise quickly. “Let’s go look at the vent.”
Eden stood with ease, and Celeste envied her sister’s lithe body. With her stomach protruding, her boobs the size of cantaloupes and her ass a jiggly, fleshy mass of dimpled fat, she was more aware than ever of how physically opposite she was to Eden. Even when she wasn’t pregnant, because she was short and curvy, Celeste could never be as slim as Eden, and only four-inch heels could help her match Eden’s height.
“When you see ghosts, what do they look like?” Eden asked as they walked back into the main bedroom.
Eden had never asked Celeste about her gift. Ever. No matter what she’d said to Eden, her sister had refused to accept that being psychic wasn’t easy or fun. While her gift was part of her, and something she would miss if it were taken from her again, communicating with the dead was also a burden. Dead people didn’t care that she ran a bakery, that she had a daughter who demanded her attention every second possible, or about her marriage or finances. Just like toddlers, spirits were intrusive, selfish and expected instant gratification.
“They come to me in different ways,” Celeste replied. Now that she was standing, she had the urge to use the bathroom again. She welcomed the distraction before her memory latched on to the images of the ghosts she’d dealt with during the year since her psychic gift had returned. Then again, distraction had been her new best friend lately. The baby she carried not only weighed on her body, but her mind. She couldn’t wait to meet him, hold him, kiss him. At the same time, she worried how Olivia would react to her baby brother. She’d been sure to include her daughter in decorating the nursery and buying things for the baby, all while assuring Livy that Mommy and Daddy would always love her to infinity and beyond.
“And?” Eden prompted her.
“And…sorry. I’ve got pregnancy brain. My thoughts are all over the place and I need to pee.”
Eden grinned. “I remember those days all too well. I think it’s why I’m still hesitating about having another child. Hud says I’ll change my mind the moment I hold my nephew. He’s so itching for another baby.” Her grin fell as she reached over and rested her hand on Celeste’s stomach. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you to come here. Dealing with ghosts can’t be good for you or the baby.”
“A ghost told me I was pregnant, and that I’d have a boy.” Celeste placed her hand over her sister’s. “But we might not be dealing with a ghost.”
“You think I’m imagining things.” Eden cocked a brow. “Is this payback for all the years I didn’t believe in you being psychic?”
Celeste chuckled. “Nope. For the record, I didn’t care if you believed in me or not.”
“Yes, you did.” The baby kicked Eden’s palm. She smiled and met Celeste’s gaze. “If we’re going on record, I have to confess that I wanted to believe. Maybe a part of me did, but I was too stubborn to admit it, even to myself.”
“It’s hard to accept something that’s unexplainable, especially if you can’t touch, see or hear it. While we’re still on record, I don’t think you’re imagining things.” She took her sister’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “I hate to break up this moment, but the baby is sitting on my bladder.”
Eden laughed. “You go. I’ll check out the vent.”
After Celeste took care of business, she washed her hands. While rinsing, she checked her reflection. The maternity top stretched across her stomach, revealing her bellybutton which had popped out just last week. John claimed that when her nipples were hard, he could draw a perfect triangle along her torso. She’d replied that if he dared to try, she’d draw sideburns and a handlebar mustache on his face while he slept. In permanent marker. As she toweled off her hands and smiled at the memory, Eden called for her.
“Are they back?” Celeste asked, exiting the master bathroom and looking toward the door to the sitting room.
“Not yet. Come here. Look what I found in the vent.”
Celeste made her way across the room. Eden sat cross-legged in front of the hole in the wall, holding what looked like a pint-sized dumbbell. “What is that?” Celeste asked. Knowing there was no way she’d be comfortable sitting on the floor next to Eden, she stood over her sister.
When Eden gave the object a shake, it sounded as if it was filled with uncooked rice. “A baby rattle.” She used the front of her shirt to rub off the grime. “The sterling silver is badly tarnished. I have stuff in the kitchen we could use to clean it.” She gave the toy another shake. “With this place being one hundred and ten years old, I figured we’d find random surprises as we renovated. But this is weird. Why would a baby rattle be in the vent?”
“I’d say it was random if your dog hadn’t been trapped inside the same vent.”
Eden looked up at her. “Do you think the ghost is trying to send us a message?” Her face lit with a combination of excitement and fear. “It put Brutal in the wall knowing we would rescue him, because it wanted us to find this rattle,” she said, punctuating her theory by shaking the toy.
Celeste still wasn’t convinced they were dealing with the dead, but also couldn’t dismiss Eden’s suggestion. In her experience, when spirits tried to connect with her, the messages they sent weren’t as clear as a text or email. They were convoluted, confusing and oftentimes made little sense. Eventually those cryptic messages had become clear, but getting to that point had never been easy. If they were meant to find this rattle, who was trying to reach them, and why?
Damn. She had four weeks before her due date, and was too exhausted to go on some sort of ghostly scavenger hunt. While she had managers to run The Sugar Shack during her maternity leave, there were still several things she needed to wrap up at the bakery before the baby came. There were a few touches she wanted to add to the nursery, and she had planned to do them over the weekend. Plus, she wanted to spend extra time with Olivia. Once the baby arrived, they wouldn’t be able to just pick up and go to the park, or do much of anything for the first month.
“Look,” Eden continued. “This probably sounds nutso…even to someone like you, but I don’t know what else to think.”
To someone like her?
Celeste crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re not too offensive.”
“Oh, don’t be sensitive. I didn’t mean it in a negative way. I just meant, well, you have to admit what we’ve been experiencing has been strange.”
“Strange is having a teddy bear communicate with you, or a dead man possessing your body. What you’re experiencing can be explained.” Celeste waved her hand silencing Eden before she could speak. “That being said, I do wonder about this rattle. Let me have it. I’ll see if I can get a reading from it.”
Eden stared at her with disbelief. “Now? Just like that? Don’t you need to be in a dark candlelit room or some such thing?”
She reached her hand toward Eden. “Only if I was in a Hollywood movie.”
Her sister didn’t move. “Maybe we should wait for John to get back. I haven’t seen you do a reading in twenty years. And I was making fun of you the entire time.”
Celeste grinned at the memory. Eden had been hoping the boy she’d liked would ask her to the prom. Celeste had grown tired of listening to Eden drone on about the guy and whether or not he liked her, and decided to do a reading. She’d been so distracted by her sister, she’d been unable to do anything but get into an argument with her. When the guy had ended up asking a different girl to the prom, that had given Eden just another reason to not believe in Celeste’s gift.
“You were such a bitch,” Celeste said, her smile broadening. “I don’t know why I put up with you.”
Eden chuckled. “And you were such a saint?” She pushed herself off the floor and grew serious. “Are you sure about this? I mean, I know I asked you to come here, but now I’m not so sure.” Eden looked at Celeste’s stomach. “I don’t want to stress out you and the baby.”
“You being indecisive is what’s stressing me out.” She opened and closed her hand. “Come on, gimme.”
“Fine. But if your voice changes or your head starts spinning, I’m screaming for John.”
“Good Lord. If that happens, just wake me up. I’d like to stay married.”
“Does your psychic abilities cause problems between the two of you?”
“Not at all,” Celeste replied, not interested in going into any detail. Although she loved and trusted Eden, there were certain aspects of her relationship with John that were too private to share. Plus, she and John were in a great place, and had been for a long time. At one point, she’d worried her psychic gift would tear them apart. Instead, it had brought them closer together. Which was a good thing, considering Olivia also had it. And if the ghost who’d told her about the baby she now carried was to be believed, her son would also be psychic.
“Stop stalling and give up the baby rattle,” Celeste said.
With a sigh, Eden handed over the small, metal object. “Don’t do anything that’s going to freak me out.”
“I won’t.” She curled her fingers around the tarnished rattle. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’m just going to…” Eden’s image doubled. The walls surrounding them bowed, then hollowed as if made of rubber.
“Going to what?” Eden asked, her voice distant, tinny.
Celeste’s breath quickened. The room faded. As the baby stirred, another filled her head with its laughter.
Then everything went black…