Lazy mist wraps around me, clouding my vision. I swear it’s thick enough to taste and sticks to my skin like cotton candy. My body feels light as a feather.
I turn in a circle, the voice so familiar it hurts. “Aunt Willa?”
Heavy silence meets my ears. My mind must be playing tricks on me again. Aunt Willa is dead, I remind myself.
“Aaavaa…” The voice again, whispering as if it’s flying right past me. It’s definitely my aunt’s.
Just a dream.
The dream takes shape, though, and the mist parts. Her face appears. “The trunk in your bedroom—there’s a false bottom…”
She swims in and out of the soupy air, as if something is trying to pull her away. I step forward, lifting a hand to reach for her. “Come back!”
She does, her upper body coming into a hazy focus. “All you need is inside, Ava.”
My hand goes through her. “Need for what?” My voice seems to echo against the mist in the air, bouncing back to me.
“My armoire…secret compartment…” Her voice drifts, her face begins to fade again. “Push the top left cor…”
My logical brain kicks in. “Aunt Willa, you know you’re…”
I can’t say it.
“Dead,” she supplies. “Yes, I know, dear. Don’t you cry for me, now, sweet girl. You’re not dead, and you have to…”
She fades again.
“Have to what?” I’m losing her. Grief floods me. “Oh please, Aunt Willa! Come back!”
“In the attic,” her voice drifts past me, incorporeal. “The book…”
I lose her again, but a few feet away I see the outline of her. Her head turns to her left to look at something. I squint in that direction as well but see nothing but the cotton candy fog.
“I have to go.” She looks over her shoulder at me. “It’s up to you, Ava. I love youuuu.”
She fades away.
“No!” I yell.
And then I hear her voice once more, “Now wake up!”
A heavy weight depresses my chest, hard and fast, shoving the air from my lungs. Once, twice—
It stops, and then out of nowhere, I feel the warmth of lips against mine. My mouth is open, breath rushing in. I taste mint and…
“Dead, is she?” a raspy voice asks.
“Not anymore,” another answers, and I recognize them.
I gasp, eyes flying open.
I’m still on the ground, wet and cold. The most beautiful cornflower blue eyes are looking down on me.
The man’s face comes into sharp contrast. Tousled hair the color of toasted pecans, classic nose, tanned skin. He’s clean-shaven and the smell of his faint aftershave fills my nostrils as I inhale a huge gasp again. For half a second, I see the boy he used to be floating under the man he is now. “Logan?”
Relief is like a washcloth wiping the worry from his brow. He sits back, blows out a breath between his lips, and rakes his hand over his face. “You just took ten years off my life.”
I wonder if I’m still in the dream or whatever it was. Logan Cross. What is he doing here?
The sky above his head is golden now with the rising sun, pale strips of peach streaking across the sky between clouds. His face blurs, and I see two of him. My ears ring with a coarse blare that makes me flinch. “What happened?” I ask.
“You tell me.” He keeps a firm hand on my shoulder to stop my struggle to rise. I feel something warm and slippery drop onto my hand, and see a basset hound on my right. His sad eyes stare at me as another string of drool slides out of his mouth. “Mox and I were just coming back from our run. I saw you fall off the porch. By the time I got here, you weren’t breathing, and I thought you were dead.”
“Dead?” The memory of the fall sends fresh pain from my head down to the base of my spine.
The blare in my ears grows louder, but it’s not from the head injury. It’s a siren.
I draw a deep breath, reassuring myself I’m very much alive, and a new pain hits. I’m going to have a sore rib cage from the CPR he was administering.
The feel of his hands on my chest, his lips on my mouth, surfaces, causing my head to throb and my heart to kick. As a teen, I dreamed of Logan Cross’s attention. I would have died, figuratively, to have his lips on mine.
“Told you,” one of the voices I heard earlier says.
I tilt my chin to look toward the porch. The cat gargoyles at the top of the bannister stare back, the rising sun reflecting in their eyes and making them glow. One’s lips move ever so slightly. “She’s alive.”
The basset hound turns his head, as if he hears them as well, before he looks back to me.
I struggle to come up onto my elbows, ignoring all the various waves of pain, as an ambulance, siren blaring, careens to a stop at the curb.
“EMTs are here,” Logan says, as if it’s not obvious. “Stay put.”
Logan Cross is a lawyer these days. The only one in Thornhollow. A good one from what I’ve heard. His parents run the famous Cross Winery north of town, and his brother has a brewery two towns over. For whatever reason, Logan decided to go a different direction with his life, and his office is directly across the street from The Wedding Chapel.
People in Thornhollow either come from old money, like Logan, or they survive at the other end of the spectrum, like Reverend Stout. He rushes up to us with a plastic medic’s box and plunks down beside me.
Gray-haired and wrinkled, he’s wearing a white shirt and navy pants, a name tag penned over a pocket of the shirt that has a protector filled with pens and a tiny flashlight. Today he’s an EMT, working on physical bodies rather than souls. “Second time I’ve been here in the last twelve hours,” he murmurs in his deep Southern voice. His gaze rests on my face and softens. “Ava Fantome, my goodness, young lady. What in the world happened? So sorry about your aunty.”
Logan tells him what he knows—he saw me trip, fall down the steps, and hit my head. When he reached me, I wasn’t breathing.
I interject a few details, trying not to sound like a scatterbrain or klutz. Neither man seems to listen.
“Thank the Good Lord you were here,” Stout says to Logan. “We might have lost her, too.”
“I wasn’t dead,” I insist, but the voice in my head casts doubt. Was I? “I did have a weird dream though.”
“Did you see a bright light? Go down a tunnel?” the pastor asks.
“No. I saw my…”
Logan and Stout stare at me.
“Never mind.” I wave it off. “I’m fine. I fainted, that’s all.”
Reverend Stout’s partner rolls a gurney through the yard, bumping over the limestone pavers. Stout flashes his light in both of my eyes, declares I might have a concussion, and they insist on carting me to the hospital.
A flurry of activity continues around me. A police officer arrives—in Thornhollow anytime the ambulance is called out the police are, too. Preston Uphill, the owner of the B&B next door, runs over in a tartan-colored robe and slippers. I sense others gathering on the sidewalk outside the gate, their voices a background hum.
“Avalon?” Uphill calls. “Oh my goodness, are you okay?”
“Just tripped.” I push up to sitting and Logan grabs me as my vision blurs and I nearly tip over. “I’m fine.”
“Sure you are,” Logan murmurs. “You just died, Fantome.”
I send him a glare to silence him. That’s all I need—all Mama needs—is for word to get out I died and Logan Cross saved me.
“Is she okay?” a woman’s voice calls. I don’t look toward the fence, but recognize it all the same. Prissy Barnes, my nemesis.
“All I need is to check on Tabitha.” I ignore her and point toward the house for Logan’s benefit. “And take something for my pounding head.”
“I’ll take care of the cat,” Logan assures me. “She and Mox get along just fine, don’t you Mox?” He pats the dog’s head, and they move away to let Stout and his partner, a young kid named Wesley, wrestle me up onto the gurney. “You go to the clinic and let Doc check you out.”
Everyone is insisting on this, including the police officer—one who used to work under my father, before Mama insisted he quit the force and sent him off to pursue his dream of being a rock singer. If I weren’t still hearing the cats—including the door knocker—continuing to discuss my clumsiness and the fact Aunt Willa’s killer is near, I’d refuse.
I push Wesley out of the way and look at the gargoyle cats. Then at the gathering crowd. Most of the faces are familiar…I can’t believe any of them would hurt my aunt.
Since last night, I’ve felt, heard, and seen things that I haven’t since I was a girl. And the more I hear these voices in my head, the more fearful I become of the truth. Did Mama truly overhear Aunt Willa arguing with someone last night? Did that someone contribute to her death?
“Ava?” another woman’s voice calls. “Do you want me to call your mother?”
This one sounds familiar, but I can’t place her face when I meet her eyes. “No,” I call back. “I’m fine!”
A firm hand lands on my shoulder, and I glance at the owner, Reverend Stout, who stares me down with the righteousness only a preacher or Sunday school teacher can deliver adequately. “Ava, dear. You are going to the clinic.”
My eyes swim and the memory of Aunt Willa in the mist rushes over me.
If I’m seeing ghosts and hearing inanimate objects speak, maybe I do need my head examined.
“You’ll need a key, Logan. I’m sure Tabitha is safe and sound inside, but we need to check.”
He motions for me to lie down. “Got one. Don’t worry.”
How does he have a key to my aunt’s house? The pounding in my head is too much now, and the lightheadedness is returning with a vengeance. With Wesley and the Rev’s help, I ease down onto the gurney. “My cats…” I point in the direction of my car. “They’re inside.”
Logan pats my leg. “Ava, I’ve got it. I promise to take good care of them.”
All three gargoyles snort.
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