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1

Claire Tucker turned her face up to the sun hanging in the cloudless sky.  The slight breeze rustling her black dress teased her with the promise of a warm early summer afternoon.  A perfect day, she thought.  A day her Aunt Gert would have loved and embraced to the fullest.

Claire brought her gaze back down where it settled on the coffin in front of her.  She blinked back tears and flinched when the minister touched her jacket sleeve.  His deliberate nod indicated that she had a moment before Aunt Gert would be lowered into the ground.  She laid a white rose on top of the wooden box and watched as the casket sank into the earth.

The crowd stirred with a wave of hugs and condolences.  Claire remembered a few of the faces from her childhood summers, spent with Aunt Gert, but most of them belonged to strangers, gathered townspeople who had loved her aunt as much as she had.  She stood frozen to her spot, alone and tired, as the long line, with consoling smiles and respectful words, marched past.

When everyone scattered, taking the gravel path leading them away, Claire slowly followed.  She wandered through the field with its strewn tombstones, holding a smile for Aunt Gert.  That’s what her aunt would have told her to do.  Smile and look forward.

A snippet of their last conversation drifted into Claire’s thoughts.  One of their ordinary phone talks when, as always, she had told Aunt Gert how much she missed her and the memories of times they had spent together.  Claire loved letting her aunt know she held such a sentimental place in her heart.  Gert loved reminding her time was slipping away.  “Claire, dear, I hope I see the day you find a nice man to care for you.  You deserve love and a place to call home.”  If only it was as easy as her aunt made it sound, but it wasn’t, and she had never felt more alone.

Claire’s smile faltered.  She pulled a silk handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her tears, before straightening up and composing herself.  There would be time enough to cry later, in private.  Right now, the people filling the stately white clapboard church across the street from the generations old cemetery waited for her and the prospect of the luncheon given in Gert’s honor.

After answering all the questions, making obligatory small talk, and giving out hugs until her arms ached from their weight, Claire made her escape from the church.  With the long afternoon behind her, she stood on the empty sidewalk in front of her aunt’s home.  In the shadows of the setting sun, Claire scrutinized the Victorian beauty which had fallen on hard times.  It belonged to her now, repairs and all.

Claire removed her shoes and wiggled her bare toes on the warm concrete.  Visions of summer evenings floated through her mind like the fireflies she used to chase as a child, while Aunt Gert sat on the front porch knitting.  She dangled her pointed heels over her shoulder and smiled once again.  No matter where she was, Gert could always make her smile.

2

Parker King’s hefty German Shephard paced in front of the door consumed in a fit of barking.

“Jonas, enough,” Parker said, as he attempted to wrangle the dog and clip his leash.  “What has gotten into you?”

The dog scratched at the front door and Parker glanced at his watch.  “We were outside not that long ago.”  He didn’t miss the unsettled look in the animal’s eyes.  “I hope you’re feeling all right.”

As they headed down the quiet sidewalk Jonas broke into a run through the thickening shadows.

“Where are we going and why are you in such a hurry?” Parker asked.

Jonas tugged harder.  The instant yank of the dog’s weight gave Parker’s shoulder a jolt, ripping the leash free of his grasp.  Jonas bolted around the corner.  Parker gave chase grumbling under his breath until a piercing scream stopped him in his tracks.  A few feet ahead the outline of a woman in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk, with Jonas standing over her, brought his heart to a skidding halt.  He ran up to assess the situation and the damage.

Jonas wagged his tail and stood tall, proud of what he had done.  Parker blinked at the dog, then at the woman.

“Are you okay?  What happened?  Are you hurt?” he questioned.

Claire blew her curly hair from her face and glared up at the stranger.

“Is this, thing, yours?” she asked.

“The dog you mean?  Yes.”  Parker held up a palm.  “Jonas, sit.”  The dog plunked down, thumping his tail.  Parker shook his head.  “Now you decide to listen.”

He turned his blue gaze back down at Claire still sitting on the sidewalk.  He extended his hand to help her up.

“Are you okay?” he asked again.

His casual smile irked her.  “Do I look okay?”

Claire could feel his eyes staring at her bare legs and feet.  His smile widened.

“You look like a woman knocked out of her shoes,” he answered.

Claire glanced over at the pair of heels lying on the sidewalk next to her where she had dropped them.  His quiet chuckle made her want to laugh, too, easing her annoyance.  Ignoring his offered hand, Claire stood up and rubbed her palms together, then brushed the small pieces of crumbled concrete from her dress.  Her eyes flickered to the dark house and she let out a sigh.

“This is just the icing on top of a crappy day,” she said.

“Is there anything I can do to help?  Are you hurt?  Can I pay your dry cleaning bill?”  He motioned to her dusty dress.  “I’m really sorry if Jonas scared you.  He’s harmless and not usually interested in bothering people.”  The dog let out a soft whimper and his perked up ears twitched.  Parker patted his head.

“No, I’m fine.”  Claire gathered up her shoes.  “I was standing here lost in thought and I should have been paying attention.  I didn’t even hear him coming.”

Parker pulled a small card from his pocket.  “In case you change your mind, here’s my information.”

“Parker King,” Claire said, reading over the card.  “You’re a lawyer, great, there goes my chance to slap you with a lawsuit.”

Parker said nothing.  A faint, teasing smile crept up Claire’s cheeks until her gaze wandered back toward the house.  She pursed her lips and hugged her shoes to her chest for a long drawn out moment.  The only sound heard in the purplish coloring of the evening was Jonas panting and the chirping of crickets on the warm breeze.

“Well I guess there’s no time like the present,” she said.

“To do what?”

Claire jumped, forgetting she still had company.

“To go inside,” she answered.  She held out her hand and Parker took it in a light shake.  “I’m Claire Tucker.  This is,” she paused, “was my aunt’s house.  I’m staying here for a few days until things get settled.  We had her funeral this afternoon.”

Parker’s expression softened.  “I read it in the paper.  I’m sorry.  Gertrude was a sweet woman.”

“Thanks.  Did you know her well?”

“Aside from having lived here in town all my life, I did some work for her, and she loved giving Jonas treats when we walked by.  We talked quite often.”

“Yes, that sounds like my Aunt Gert.  You say you did work for her?  Did she need legal assistance?  What possibly for?”  Claire braced herself for whatever can of worms might be opened.

Parker smiled.  “Not legal work.  My day job is in the courtroom, but my real passion is carpentry.”

Claire didn’t know how to respond to the odd remark, or the lawyer standing before her donned in sweatpants and running shoes.  She turned her focus from his blue eyes to the picket fence dripping with a flowering mass.  “I always loved the smell of Aunt Gert’s honeysuckle.  It’s such a fond reminder of summers I spent here with her as a kid.”

Parker folded his arms and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  He remembered her now, but he wasn’t about to say anything, unless she connected the dots, too.

“You stayed here in the summer with your aunt?”  Parker wanted to kick himself.  He knew the answer, she had just admitted it to him, but he had nothing else to offer.

“I did until I was twelve.  After that summer my parents enrolled me in a boarding school.”  She dropped her hand from the bush and looked up at him.  “So, you’ve lived in this town all your life?”

Parker nodded.

“I don’t remember you.”  Claire rolled her eyes and smiled.  “I am so sorry.  That sounded terrible.”

Parker shrugged.  Her admission didn’t surprise him.  “It’s okay.  I was a shy kid.  I kept to myself.  The only thing memorable about me would have been my hair.”

Claire opened her mouth then closed it again as she stared at his bald head, shiny and smooth in the rising moonlight.  He chuckled.

“I began to lose my hair at a young age.  Instead of dealing with it, I helped the process along.  Are you planning to keep the house?” he asked, changing the subject.

“I, uh,” she drew her eyes from him to the house.  “I’m not sure what I want to do yet.  I suppose I need to let everything settle down for a few days.  I wasn’t aware how much work the place needs.  If I had known I would have had someone look after it for Gert while she was still alive.  As it stands, I don’t have much cash flow, so I suppose only necessary repairs will be made for now.”

Claire blushed from her easy confession.  At least the man standing in front of her had no idea she was broke from paying off the extravagant costs she had incurred planning the social wedding event of the year.  One her fiancé insisted they have, before he ran off with her best friend, leaving her holding the bills and making the apologies.  She refused to think about it and concentrated on the subject at hand.

“Ideally, I’d like to restore the house to its original Victorian appearance.  I guess I have some decisions to make,” she said.

Parker rubbed his bald head, giving her a half grin.  “I’d love to help.”

Claire’s friendly gaze narrowed.

“I’m willing to work out a deal with you,” he stated.

She hadn’t forgotten he was a lawyer.  “Why on earth would you want to work out a deal with me?  And what for?”

“To be nice.”

Claire’s eyes closed further into a squint.  “In this day and age, people aren’t nice without a catch.”

Parker’s brows shot up in a stunned expression almost resembling offense, but he dropped them as quick.  “Listen, I realize you have had an emotional day.  We can talk about this another time, but suffice it to say, I can help you with the repairs and maintaining the authenticity of the restoration. You can pay me when you have extra cash, or if you want to sell eventually, I’ll buy the house from you and the work will be free of charge.  No catch.”  He held up three fingers.  “Scout’s honor.”

“Of course, you would be a boy scout, too,” Claire said.

Parker tried not to laugh.

Something about his smile tugged at Claire.  She didn’t have the mental energy to wonder why.  “I’ll think about the offer.  But right now I suppose I should go inside.  Thanks for the conversation.  I enjoyed talking with you.”

“Anytime,” Parker said.  “It was nice talking to you as well, Claire Tucker.  Let’s go, Jonas.”

Claire watched their departure until the hoot of an owl sent her scurrying for the dark house.  She flicked on a light inside the front door and then, after a slight pause, strolled through each memory filled room turning on more lights along the way until the entire downstairs glowed brightly.  Feeling a little more at ease, she headed into her aunt’s sitting room ready to curl up in a comfortable chair and assess the day.

Her eyes fell upon an antique roll-top desk in the corner.  If there were any important papers of her aunt’s they would be in there.  Although it was late, and she was too tired to bother rifling through whatever contents lay inside the closed space, something compelled her to take a peek.  She questioned, in her state of sheer exhaustion, why she cared and even odder, why the room was gradually growing colder.

An icy draft brought goosebumps to Claire’s arms as she neared the desk.  She scanned the room.  All the windows were closed tight and not a curtain rustled in any of them.  The night air was warm anyway.  She shivered and rubbed her chilled arms.

“This is weird,” she said into the silence.

Ignoring the ominous sensation, Claire wiped her fingers over the dusty desktop and raised it open.  Nothing of interest popped out at her except a closed photo album.  On top lay a picture of the house, taken in its original state.

Claire studied the photo, grateful for her luck.  Now she had a blueprint for a future renovation if she decided to go that far.  As much as she cherished the memories of Gert’s house she wasn’t sure if it would be enough to make a life for herself in the small town.  She already had an apartment in the city several hours away, and a decent job.  Still, a part of her couldn’t bear the idea of parting with the old place.  Fortunately, she had some time to think about it.  A good night’s sleep would clear her perspective.

She laid the photo back down, making a mental note to share it with Parker the next time she saw him.  The man who turned up out of nowhere, thanks to his dog, and distracted her thoughts with something more pleasant than her grief.

Claire gripped the desk lid to close it when another photo caught her attention.  Its corner peeked from between the pages of the closed book.  She pulled it out and smiled at the sight of her eleven-year-old self, with some of the kids from town.  All the happy faces and the warmth they brought chased the chill that seemed to be getting stronger.

Tired and ready to get off her feet, Claire held her hand over the desk to drop the photo but a flash of something made her tighten her hold.  She lifted the image up to inspect it closer.  In the background, caught almost as if by accident poking out from behind a tree, was a boy with fire red curls.  Parker’s comment drifted back to her.  The only thing memorable about me would have been my hair.

“It’s a shame you don’t remember him.”

Claire froze with the photo hanging inches from her nose.  There shouldn’t have been any voices in the house, especially not the one that no longer existed.  Her heart hammered in her chest.  She was hearing things.  She blinked at the photo in her grip.  The memories were playing havoc with her imagination.

Prepared to prove it to herself she whirled around.  The picture fluttered to the floor as her hand flew to her mouth to stifle a scream.

Her aunt smiled.

“Black was never your color dear, but nevertheless, you look lovely.”

“Oh…no…you…can’t…what is happening?” Claire gasped between her fingers.  “You’re dead,” she added for good measure.

“Currently, I am a soul in limbo,” her aunt replied.

Claire dropped her hand from her mouth.  “Limbo?  I don’t understand.  You’re just my exhausted imagination.”

Her aunt’s shimmery gray shoulders rose a bit.  “I understand your shock.  I mean it came as a complete surprise to me to be turned away from my final resting place, but here I am, sent back to help you.”

“Help me?  How?  With what?” Claire whispered.

“You, child, according to the powers that be, are a soul requiring restoration.”

“Ah, ha,” Claire said.  She picked up the photo of the house and let out an unsettled giggle.  “I was just looking at this picture, and probably overthinking how to get this house back in shape.  Restoring,” she said with a snip of triumph.  “You are just the residual effect of my overworked mind.  I don’t need saving, or help, or,” she waved the photo around her, “whatever.”

Her aunt’s smile glowed brighter.  “I see their point now.  You do resemble a modern day Scrooge.”

The woman floated closer to the center of the room.  Claire tried to back up but the desk blocked her retreat.

“I had no idea the true despair of your situation,” Gert said.

Claire’s hands clung to the edge of the desk.  “What situation?”

“Your loneliness and your disbelief in love.” The ethereal figure hovered for several silent seconds.  “And even more, your doubt that you deserve someone special.  That is why I have been sent back.  To convince you to give love a chance.  Until I complete my task, I am doomed to be an aimless wanderer.”

Claire squeezed her eyes closed to shut out the fearful hallucination.  She counted to ten hoping only to see reality.  Her aunt smirked at her.

“Well my dear, are you planning to ignore an old lady or are you willing to help me, help you?”

“H..H..” Claire cleared her throat.  “Help you, help me,” she shook her head, “do what?”

“We need to find you someone special so I can find peace.”

“What does my love life have to do with your admittance to…the other side?” Claire asked.

“I don’t make the rules,” Aunt Gert answered.

In a hushed voice, with as much as bravery as Claire could manage, she asked the question plaguing her.  “How am I going to find someone in this tiny town, of all places, to sweep me off my feet and make me believe in love again?  It’s a fairy tale.  I doubt a man exists than can change my mind.”

A knock at the front door made Claire jump.  She wanted to get to it as quickly as possible.  She had no idea, at this time of night, who might be standing on the other side, but it couldn’t be worse than an exiled ghost.   At least she hoped not.

“I’ll be right back,” she said to her aunt.

Claire shuffled around the edge of the room with her back pressed to the wall.  It would be quicker to cross the space, but she had every intention of avoiding the image watching her with a smile.  She prayed the visitor knocking at the door stayed put and didn’t walk away.  “I’m coming,” she yelled, in case.

“This is so bizarre,” she whispered to herself.  “I must have hit my head when that dog knocked me over, or maybe I’m asleep.  That’s it.  Wake up!  Wake up!”  She slapped her face several times.

When she reached the front door she flung it open.  Parker stood on the porch holding two brown bags.  She blinked at him.

“Are you okay Claire?” he asked.  “Your face is bright red but you look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

3

Claire stirred as a stinging odor penetrated her brain.  She opened her eyes and instead of her aunt, Parker’s face hovered over her.  She was sprawled on the sofa with a pounding headache.  The cotton ball in Parker’s hand and the concern in his eyes gave her the relaxing confirmation that somehow he was trying to help.

“What is that smell?” she managed to ask.

“Vinegar,” Parker answered.  “Old family remedy.  My grandmother used to say it worked every time.  I guess she was right.  Are you okay?  Do you feel like anything is broken?”

Claire rubbed her nose then her head.  “What happened?”

“I don’t know.  I hoped you could tell me.  You answered the door and the next thing I know I’m catching you.”

Claire’s face burned, whether from the vinegar or the thought of Parker catching her in his arms, she didn’t know.

“Why are you here?” she asked, trying to sit up.  She winced and Parker grasped her shoulders, guiding her back down.

“Go easy there,” he said.  “The doctor is on his way.”

“A doctor who makes house calls?” she asked.

“It’s a small town,” Parker answered.

Claire glanced out the corner of her eye.  She scanned the room and found no sight of her aunt.  “Listen, I don’t need a doctor, thanks.  Maybe a stiff drink, though.”

Parker’s laugh eased some of her anxiety.

“I can help with that,” he said, moving away from her. “Your aunt had a great secret stash.”

Claire groaned and Parker dropped back down by her side.

“Maybe I should stay here until the Doc arrives.”

“No.  I’m fine.  Trust me.  Just get me that drink,” she said.  Parker stared at her.  She slapped her forehead.  “Please.”

Parker disappeared from the room and Claire heard a knock at the front door.  It seemed her house had become Grand Central Station for ghosts and people.  The squeak and scrape from the heavy front door drifted into the room letting her know Parker had taken care of whoever might be standing there.

Male whispers from the front hall followed.  Claire knew they were discussing her.  She wanted to get up and stomp over to their pow wow, but she didn’t have the energy.  Her eyes drifted closed.  Moments later they were pried open and a bright light pierced her vision.

“Hey!”  She pushed at the hands holding her eyelids captive.

“Relax,” Parker said.  “This is Doc Murphy.”

“I just want to make sure you don’t have a concussion,” the unfamiliar voice chimed in.  The light disappeared and her eyelids fluttered back into place.

“I’m tired,” Claire said, on the brink of whining.  Her whopping yawn filled the room as she tried to curl up in comfort, finding it difficult on the scratchy sofa.  “I’ve had it today.  Leave me alone, please.”

She heard the men’s voices trail out of the room.

“She appears to be fine.  Nothing out of the ordinary to worry about.  I think she simply needs some rest.”

Then the world went quiet and she let it carry her away.

4

The soft morning light bathed her aunt’s sitting room in a soothing warmth.  Claire blinked her gritty eyes as they adjusted to the surroundings.  She had no idea why she woke up on the sofa.  Parker and the doctor drifted into her hazy mind.  She recalled fainting, but why?  The familiar voice reminded her.

“Poor dear.”

Claire turned her face in the direction of the chair across the room.  For a displaced spirit, her aunt seemed rather content, rocking and knitting.

“Ah.  You’re still here,” Claire said.

“Of course.  I haven’t had a chance to do my job, yet.  But oh my, if you had seen how Parker carried you in his arms last night.”  Gert fanned herself with her ghostly knitted object.

Claire dropped her hands over her eyes.  “Let’s get something straight.  I can’t afford love.  Not emotionally, and especially, not financially.  My ex-fiancé and best friend taught me that lesson.”

Her aunt’s nose wrinkled in its usual fashion like it had every time she discovered something distasteful.  “I remember that fink.”

Claire’s thumping forehead rose.  “I don’t want to be bothered.”

“You’re looking at the experience all wrong, dear.  Those two gave you a gift.  The lesson they taught you turned out to be priceless. ”

“I can’t even imagine what you’re talking about,” Claire said.  “Have you seen my stack of bills lately?  How could I have been so stupid and blind?”

“You weren’t stupid or blind dear.  You thought it was love, but you were lucky Claire, most people don’t get to see someone’s true colors until it’s too late.  Those two saved you the grief of walking down the aisle, and finding out afterward.  You deserve better.  Even deep in your heart, you know that.”

“I don’t know what I deserve.  Except maybe a shower,” Claire said.

She rolled off the low sitting, tweed sofa and stretched.  She headed for the stairs with her aunt floating behind.  As she reached for the staircase banister, the orb-like object sitting atop the newel post wobbled and fell off in her grip.

“Oh,” her aunt said.  “I had been meaning to ask Parker to take a look at that.  Now you have a reason to call him.”

“I’m not going to call him.”

Her aunt sniffed.

“Are you crying?” Claire asked.

“Don’t be silly, dear, ghosts don’t cry.  I’m simply feeling nostalgic.  This home has been my life and it makes me sad.”

“What makes you sad, having to leave it?”

“No thinking I might become your roommate for eternity because that’s what will happen if you don’t call Parker,” she answered.

Claire tossed the wooden orb up and down in her hand.  “Fine, I’ll do it.  After I get cleaned up.”

“Check out what’s on the bed in your room,” Gert called out as Claire jogged up the stairs.

“I can’t wait to find out.”

Claire entered the room where she had dropped her luggage the morning before when she had arrived.  A series of unfortunate obstacles had made her late, so she had thrown her bags into the room before rushing off for the church.  Thank goodness she had made the funeral on time.

She brushed off the avoided disaster and reached for the haphazard pile of bags blocking the doorway.  An enormous splash of pink grabbed her attention.  She looked up and into the beady eyes of a humongous teddy bear covered in hearts and wearing a bow.  It sat propped up on the bed as Gert had promised.  Her eyes went wide and the bags fell from her grip.   The bear hadn’t been there before, she didn’t think.  Surely she would have noticed, but maybe not in her panicked hurry.

Claire settled on the bed next to the pink animal wondering where her aunt had kept it all those years and why she had dragged it out of its storage place.  The touch of its smooth fur transported Claire back in time.  The annual town fair had been her favorite week of childhood summers spent with Gert.  Each morning her aunt had given her chores and paid her in handfuls of nickels.  In the evenings she sent her off to play games with her earnings.  She had tried one summer, night after unsuccessful night, to win the pink bear.

On the last night, with another pile of nickels and some of Gert’s optimistic support, she had gone back to the fair for one more try.  The vacant space where the bear had sat dashed her hope.  When she turned to walk back home, empty-handed, the pink animal had appeared in front of her.  Someone, hidden behind the stuffed monstrosity, stood in her way.  She hadn’t known how to react when the person had pushed the prize bear out toward her.

“Do you want me to take it?” she had asked.  An answer never came, so she had hefted the bear into her arms.

She stared at it now, sitting before her, as she struggled to see clearer the memory lingering in her head.  Who had been standing behind the bear?

Like a bolt of lightning, the answer struck, and she saw the shy, curly red headed boy.  Claire slapped her hand to her mouth with the sudden reminder of what had happened next.  In her desire to thank him, she had done the only thing that had come to her mind and she had kissed him.

“Oh, my,” she whispered.

In her defense, it had been an innocent gesture.  She had been twelve at the time, and he had made her little girly heart extremely happy.  How else would you thank a hero?  After the simple kiss, she had run off for home so excited to show off the bear to Gert.  The boy had never said a word.

How could she have forgotten that moment?  It might have been quick but he hadn’t been a bad kisser.  Her face warmed.  It had been sort of nice.

That was the last summer she had gone back to stay with her aunt.  Her visits became sporadic afterward.  Although over the years she had called Gert often they hadn’t seen each other much.  She never saw the red headed boy.  Until tonight.

“Ah, I can tell by the expression on your face you remember.”

Claire’s eyes fell shut.  When she turned and opened them her aunt hovered near the bed, but something about her appeared different.  The woman was a shade lighter, a touch more transparent. Claire ignored it.

“Yes, I remember, and now I feel more foolish than I did before.  I think I’ll fix that newel post myself.”

“Dear, think about your consequences.”

Claire threw her hands into the air.

“How can I think about consequences when I can’t even make sense of the situation?  You died and left me.  Sort of.”  She flicked a hand in the ghost’s direction.  “You were my one and only remaining relative and the one I loved most.  I haven’t had time to properly mourn my loss and you’re telling me I have to find love, which I’m not sure exists.  I can’t possibly explain this to anyone because they’d think I’m crazy.  Maybe I am.  I’ve finally gone off the deep end, and this is what insanity is like.”

An odd harrumph leaked from her aunt.

“As long as you’ve known,” her ghostly image shimmered and shook slightly, “make that knew me, have I ever steered you wrong?”

“No.”

“Did I ever give you any reason not to trust what I said?”

“No.  You were one of the few people I did trust.”  Claire stilled for a second then reached for the old rotary phone sitting on the stand next to the bed.  She lifted a brow, and asked, “Does this thing still work?”

Her aunt nodded.

“Alright then, give me Parker’s number.”

5

Parker showed up carting an old wooden box filled with various tools, not at all what Claire had expected.

“So glad to see you are feeling better this morning,” he said.  He inspected the broken bits poking from the top of the newel post.

Claire nodded although she knew he didn’t see her.  She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat.  “I’d like to thank you.”

Parker lifted his head.  The simple statement rehashed the memory Claire didn’t want to ponder again at the moment but couldn’t help thinking about now that Parker stood in front of her.  She wondered if he remembered, too.  Her face flushed as he returned his attention to the contents of the box.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

She leaned against the stair rail and asked, after a long minute, “Why did you come back last night?”

“You didn’t look in your fridge?” he asked, fidgeting with a drill.

She shook her head, about ready to burst from chasing riddles.

“What does my refrigerator have to do with anything?  Is something wrong with that, too?” she asked.

“Nope.  It’s full now, though.”

She blinked at him.  He looked up and his mouth lifted in another of his half grins that made his eyes sparkle.  She wondered if he ever gave a full smile.

“I came back to bring you a few groceries.  I felt bad about Jonas knocking you over and you looked like a woman who had had a long, rough day.  It was least I could do, for your aunt, to make sure you had something in the house to eat.”

“Aunt Gert would have appreciated that.”  Claire craned her neck, looking around to see if the woman was listening.  When she turned back to Parker he was staring at her.  “I, uh, I appreciate it, too.  Thanks.”  She pressed her lips together in a strained smile.  “In fact,” she hooked a thumb over her shoulder toward the kitchen, “I’m going to get something to eat right now.”

“You might need some help,” Parker said.

“Excuse me?”  She whirled around on him.

Parker held up his hands, palms out.  “Let me show you how to get the stove working.  It needs a little finagling.”

“Finagling?  Yes, of course, it would.”  Claire sighed and motioned for Parker to lead the way.

“What sort of groceries did you bring?” she asked as she followed him into the antiquated kitchen.

She could see why the old nineteen fifties era stove might need a magic touch.  How did this stove not seem old to her when she was younger?  Back then Aunt Gert had shined it and cared for it.  It had been the gem of her beloved kitchen before time robbed her of the ability to be productive any longer.  Claire glanced down at the chipped linoleum and shook off the melancholy settling in.

“Well,” Parker said, answering her question with a strained breath as he wiggled a knob off the front of the stove and poked at the coil on top, “I brought eggs, some fresh fruit, some vegetables, a pack of cheese…”

“Perfect.  An omelet it shall be,” Claire said.  She reached into the fridge and loaded up her arms.

“Ask him to join you for breakfast.”

“Ooh.” Claire shrieked.  She glared at her aunt peering over her shoulder.

“Everything okay?” Parker asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I almost dropped the eggs.  Sorry to startle you.”

“He hasn’t eaten this morning,” Gert said.

“How do you know?” Claire asked with a slight hiss.

“How do I know what?  Am I missing something?” Parker asked.

“No, no.  Just talking to myself.  Sorry again,” Claire said, her head still buried in the fridge.

“Cook him some breakfast,” Gert said.

“Fine.” Claire nudged the refrigerator door closed with her foot.  “Parker, would you like to join me for an omelet?”

“I am pretty hungry.  Sure, if you don’t mind,” he answered.

Gert levitated nearby smiling in satisfaction.  Claire got to work cracking the eggs and chopping vegetables, determined to ignore the smug apparition.

“The stove appears to be working now.  I just need to wash my hands if you don’t mind,” Parker said.

He stepped around her to the sink and stood almost elbow to elbow beside her as he rolled up his sleeves.  Claire glanced over at his strong hands and taut forearms speckled with auburn hair.  It had been a while since she had been this close to a man.  She slid the ingredients over and scooted a few steps to the side to give herself space.  She hoped she didn’t offend him.

“I’m going to fix that post while you’re cooking if you don’t mind.  After I eat I have to get down to the courthouse.  I have some papers to file.”

“Oh, yeah, sure.  It’ll be ready in a few minutes,” she said.

When they sat down to eat, Parker took a shovel of his omelet.  “This is great.  Your aunt used to cook for me once in a while when she didn’t have money to pay me for a repair. Although I always helped her out for free, she felt the need to repay me somehow.”

Claire looked up into his blue eyes, studying him.  “You are a nice guy, Parker King.  One of the few left in the world I think.  You seem like an eligible bachelor every woman in this town would love.”

She blushed, again, unsure why she felt comfortable enough to say things to him she would normally keep to herself.  Parker finally gave her a full smile and it danced in the pit of her stomach.

“That’s the problem with a small town.  I get a lot of offers but most of them are women who shouldn’t be interested if you know what I mean.”

“Huh,” Claire said.  “You are part of a dying breed.  A man who holds the bond of matrimony sacred, even if it’s not his.”

“I guess that means I shouldn’t ask about your snake in the grass fiancé your aunt told me about?”

She pointed her fork at him.  “You have sharp observational skills, too.”

Parker glanced at his watch.  “I’m sorry.  I hate to eat and run.”  He gathered up his plate and sat it next to the sink.  “Hey, if you’re interested in a dishwasher, I can get you one at a reasonable price.”

“Yeah.  I might be calling you.”

“I hope so,” he said.

Before she had a chance to respond he was gone.

“That turned out lovely.”

Claire’s shoulders bunched up.  “Will you please stop doing that?  I can’t get used to seeing you, let alone having you sneak up on me.”

“I’m not sneaking dear.  Ghosts don’t make noise.”

“Can’t you warn me somehow?”

“You mean like rattling chains and moaning?” her aunt asked.

“Never mind,” Claire said.  She looked her aunt’s hovering figure up and down.  “You’re different.”

“I’m dead,” her aunt responded.

“I mean, you’re lighter.  More transparent.  Why?”

Gert smiled.  “You’re beginning to see nice men do exist.  And you’re interested in Parker.”

Claire crossed her arms tight.  “No, I’m not.  Not really.  Well, maybe a little.  He is sort of interesting.”

6

The birds sang and the bright sun scattered dappled light over the leaning wood shed in the backyard where Claire decided to poke around, hoping to find some treasure.  Any salable items would bring in money to pay for house repairs.  She had no intention of owing Parker.  He might be a Good Samaritan but even nice people deserved compensation.

Claire waved away several dangling cobwebs.  So far she had found a rusted pitchfork, a chipped birdbath, and a myriad of signs and garden statues littering the cramped interior.  Aunt Gert had believed every piece of junk deserved a second life and she had apparently given the wayward objects refuge in the overstuffed outbuilding.

Then behind a pile of wooden ladders mixed with pieces of lumber leaning in a precarious jumble against the wall, Claire spotted something that piqued her interest.  She began to move the mass of wood one piece at a time.  After some heavy duty effort, she unearthed a nineteen sixties woman’s bicycle.

She dragged it out into the sunshine to appraise its condition.  Under the thin layer of grit was a coat of white and rose paint.  The wicker basket attached to the front was in good condition but the same couldn’t be said for the tires.  She poked at the flat tubes of rubber.

Despite its appearance, Claire was thrilled with her find and the idea of taking it out for a test ride.  She skipped like a giddy child over to the garden hose attached to the house.  The water spigot took several yanks before it spun open, releasing nothing but a loud groan.  It didn’t deter Claire’s mood.  She had uncovered a metal bucket in the shed and the kitchen sink worked just fine.

With the bike washed and the brittle tires filled, Claire stood back with her hands planted on her hips wondering how long it had been since she had ridden.  Longer than she wished to admit, but she put all her belief in the old saying that once you learn, you never forget.

She adjusted her weight on the narrow seat, pumped her legs, and set off on a wobbled start.  The freedom felt amazing and she pedaled with more confidence.  She blinked against the wind and the curls whipping around her face as she coasted her way toward the middle of town.

The town square was a large green space with benches and a gazebo.  A magic garden nestled in the center of the intersecting main streets.  Claire dismounted the bike and rolled it along under the shade of the striped awnings lining the sidewalk.  Not much of a crowd milled around the downtown in the middle of the afternoon.

Across the street from where she stood, colorful buckets overflowed with a random assortment of floral bunches.  It was a view straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  The bike basket would hold a bouquet and the color would give Aunt Gert’s kitchen a much-needed brightening.

Claire stepped into the street, to cross, and the sight of a familiar bald head stopped her short.  Parker had appeared out of nowhere.  She put up her hand to wave but he seemed too intent on wherever he was heading to notice.  He approached the floral shop and the woman watering the plants in the window.  They chatted while she gathered an armload of sunflowers and handed them over to him.

Claire stepped back onto the sidewalk.  The sunflowers Parker held reminded her of the amazing sunflower garden Aunt Gert used to grow in her backyard.  She would have to check on that when she got back to the house.  But right now she wondered why Parker wasn’t at the courthouse as he said he needed to be, and who might be the lucky lady to get his bouquet.

She wondered why any of it mattered.  When they ate their omelets over a nice conversation, Parker never admitted nor denied seeing anyone.  She had no right to know any of his business, they were strangers after all, but he knew hers, thanks to Aunt Gert.  A small part of her felt sad now, also thanks to Aunt Gert and her cockamamie problem with crossing over.  She wondered if maybe the woman was in purgatory for reasons completely unrelated to finding love.

Claire climbed back on the bike.  Spending money on frivolous flowers felt a little irresponsible now.  She had more practical things to pay for, and work to do on Gert’s house.  She turned her bike around, glanced over her shoulder at the distracted Parker, and pedaled back home.

7

“That was a short trip.”

“Hello, Gert.”

“What’s wrong dear you seem down,” Gert said.

“I saw Parker buying sunflowers from the florist downtown.”

“And?”

“No and.”

Gert tapped her finger to her chin, or at least she tried, but it seemed to disappear into the haziness of her face.  “Parker wasn’t seeing anyone in particular last time I asked him.”

Claire winced.  “When was that?”

Her aunt’s head swayed side to side.  “Oh, several months ago, give or take.”

“Argh,” Claire said.  “I can’t believe I let you make me think love was out there waiting for me.”

“It is dear.”

“I give up.  I’m going to go…” she rubbed her temples, “scrub something.”  She stomped away leaving her aunt lingering helplessly behind.

In the kitchen, Claire searched for a way to unleash her frustration.  She discovered a half-filled can of oven cleaner in the bottom of a cabinet.  Pointing the nozzle at the oven’s crusty interior, she squeezed until the thick foam oozed out and dripped over onto the floor.  She felt as empty as the sputtering can she held in her hand.

Annoyed with herself for lashing out, she stared at the mess she couldn’t leave unfinished.  She found a threadbare towel and a pair of gloves in a nearby drawer and started scrubbing.  When a knock on the door interrupted her emotional frenzy she pulled her head out of the oven, grumbling under her breath.

“This better be good.”

She peeled off the yellow gloves and tossed them aside on the way to the door.  Parker stood on the porch.  In his hands were the sunflowers she had watched him buy.  She wondered what he wanted, but she bit her tongue.

“Hi, Claire.  I was just passing the house and I wanted to drop these off for you.”

Her wall of frustration crumbled.  He had taken her completely off guard.  Parker saved the awkward silence.

“I hope you like sunflowers.  I thought, maybe, you could plant the seeds to grow a garden like your aunt used to have.  I’m sorry it’s not much, as far as housewarming gifts go, but I’m big into giving gifts that have a personal connection.  I like to cherish the past and I believe in things that last.”

Claire’s chest filled with warmth.  A pleasant sensation much nicer than the empty cold.

“Are you okay?” Parker asked.  “Why do you look like you are about to cry?”

Claire rubbed the back of her hand over the corner of her eye.

“Oh.  Uh.  Fumes,” she fibbed.  Her impulsive smile wavered under his scrutiny.

“Excuse me? What fumes?  Do you need something fixed?”

“No, no.  I meant fumes from the oven cleaner.  I was…,” she wrung her hands in front of her, “never mind,” she said.  She tucked her fidgeting hands behind her back.  “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a man like you before.”

Parker’s fair cheeks colored a slight pink.  Claire hoped to see his full smile and was granted her wish.

“I thought you had to go to the courthouse?” she asked.  The moment the question escaped Claire wanted to take it back.

“Oh, I did.  I had to file Jonas’ papers for his dog license.  I was in a rush because I had forgotten.  Which is not my nature, usually,” he said.

“Would you like to come in?” she asked.  She took the flowers he handed over.  For a second she wondered what it would be like to kiss him again, but she squelched her impulse. “You knew about my aunt’s sunflower garden?” she asked instead.

“Sure.  Your aunt was known for her sunflowers.  My mom used to send me to pick some every once in a while to put on our table.”

His admission didn’t surprise Claire.

“Can I get you anything?  Would you like a drink?” she asked.

“No, thank you.  I have an appointment with a client, but I did have something I wanted to ask you,” he said.

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Would you,” he shoved his hands into his pockets.  “Would you like to go to dinner with me?”

Claire adjusted her grip on the flowers and the rustle of the green paper wrapped around them filled the silence.

“Like a date?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Well, I’m not sure, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a date, thanks to my snake in the grass fiancé,” she said.

Parker pulled his hand out of his pocket with his car keys dangling from his finger.  “I understand.”

He made his way to the door, but she stopped him.

“Despite my string of bad luck, I accept the offer.  You are refreshing, Parker, and I think that might be what I need right now.  So, yes, I’d like to go on a date with you.”

“Does six o’clock work?” he asked.

“Sounds great.  Oh, and thanks for the flowers.”

Claire headed for the kitchen, humming as she pulled out a Mason jar and arranged the bouquet.  She placed it in the center of the kitchen table and her Aunt Gert appeared beside her.

“What do you think?” Claire asked.

“Lovely,” Gert said.

The simple, whispery sound of her aunt’s voice didn’t sit well with Claire.  She studied the glowing woman.  Something was happening, but she didn’t know what, and she didn’t like the sadness settling in.

“Aunt Gert?”

“Yes, my dear?”

“Every time I see you, you are lighter, almost as if you’re fading.”

Gert tried to touch the sunflowers.

“I am,” she said.

8

Claire stood in front of the mirror wearing her last possible outfit combination.  Every piece of clothing she had packed lay strewn across the room.  She sighed and turned side to side in front of the mirror.  She hadn’t anticipated packing an outfit for a date.  If anyone had told her she would be doing this tonight she would have thought them crazy.  Between Aunt Gert and Parker, she couldn’t help but wonder about herself.

“You look beautiful,” Gert said.

Claire stared at the reflection of the glowing specter hovering behind her.  “Do you think so?  You don’t notice anything?”

“Like what dear?” her aunt asked.

“This is the dress I wore to your funeral with a sweater and a scarf added.”

“Make do with what you have, I always say.”  Her aunt bobbed up and down.  “Said,” she corrected.

Claire smiled.  Even in death, her aunt could see the honest sense of humor in a situation.

“I hope Parker doesn’t notice.”

“He won’t,” Gert assured.

Claire turned around to face her aunt.  “I’m glad you were sent back.”

“Really dear?”

“Yes.  I like being able to talk with you.  I’m grateful for the extra time and the company.”

“You have someone else to keep you company now,” Gert pointed out.  “You shouldn’t be sad for me anymore.  I lived a wonderful life, and besides, we’ll always be together,” she placed her ghostly hand over her heart, “right here.”

A distant knock drifted in the air.  Claire headed down the stairs with her aunt on her heels.  Gert made a wispy disappearance as Claire opened up and greeted Parker.

“Hi.”

“Wow, you look fabulous,” Parker said.

Claire relaxed.  “You are too kind, Mr. King.”

“I packed a picnic,” Parker said.  “I hope you don’t mind.  It’s a perfect night, it seems a shame to spend it indoors.”

“A night to be enjoyed,” Claire agreed.

“My sentiments, exactly.  The town square is lovely this time of the evening.”

They arrived in the center of town after a mere half mile ride, and Parker led the way to the octagonal gazebo.  He unloaded the contents of the basket onto their bench and Claire broke the awkward silence that settled between them as they ate.

“Do they still have the summer fair?  The food was always delicious and the games were fun.”

Parker nodded.  “It wouldn’t be summer without it, but like everything, it has changed over the years.  The population of the town has grown older and so they have done away with most of the games once played by us kids.”

“Not the giant stuffed animals?” Claire asked.

“I’m afraid so.”  Parker’s eyes sparkled.  “You tried so hard to win a pink bear one summer.”

Claire’s stomach did a nose dive but she wasn’t about to let it show.  “Yeah, I did, but someone else won it instead.”

“I did it so no one else could walk off with it.  I had to.  You tried so hard, I felt sorry for you.”

She nudged him with her shoulder.  “Thanks a lot.”

Parker clasped his hands and leaned his elbows onto his knees.  “I didn’t mean to sound insulting.  In certain situations, I’m not always as eloquent as I wish, or get across exactly what I mean.  Not like you.  Your thank you was perfect.”

Claire bit her bottom lip.  “I…”

Parker stared straight ahead.  “You don’t have to say anything.  I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.  In fact, I wasn’t even sure you remembered.  I thought I’d take a chance and fish a little.”

Claire’s cheeks reddened.  “I didn’t remember until I came across the bear in Gert’s house.”

She thought about her aunt’s intuition and interference, even in the afterlife.  Parker startled her out of her observation.

“I’m just going to put this out there,” he announced.  “You were my first crush, Claire.  And my first real kiss.”

She fidgeted on the bench seat beside him unsure how to handle his admission.  He turned to face her.

“As I got older I chalked it up to a life experience.  A fond memory that gets tucked away with others.  I’ve thought about you every now and then, wondering if we would ever cross paths again.”

“You did?” she asked.

“Sure.  Your childhood summers meant so much to you because you spent them with your aunt.  They meant a lot to me because I got to see you.”

Claire’s brows fell as she studied him.  “But you never talked to me.”

Parker rubbed the top of his bald head.  “Yeah, well, I was afraid.  You were so pretty you made me nervous.  I spent every summer tongue tied.  By the time I worked up the courage to say something, the summers were over and you were gone until the next year.”

Claire grabbed his face and pressed her lips to his.  He tasted like heaven.  Parker kissed her so sweet, with such longing, he made her head spin.

“I think I might have a crush on you, now,” she said.

A distant rumble of thunder rolled across the air.  Claire dropped her hands.  The impending storm saved them both from having to say anymore.  They gathered the remnants of their dinner and headed for the car.

“I’m sorry,” Claire said, as they walked in silence.

“Why?” Parker asked.

“Because I can only image what you must think of me right now.”

“I don’t presume anything.  It’s the lawyer in me,” he said.

“I’m not an impulsive person,” she stated as if Parker had said nothing and she was talking to herself. “Yet I kissed you.  Twice.”

“I feel honored.”

“I have to admit I am completely out of sorts,” she said.

“That makes two of us.”

“What?” she asked as if she only just heard him.

Parker lifted a shoulder.  “You’re not the only one questioning yourself.  I’ve enjoyed spending time with you, a great deal since you arrived.  Now I’m wondering how long you might be staying and how far I should let myself fall.”

“Fall?” she asked.

“For you,” he answered.

The sky opened up giving them a chance to dodge the rest of the conversation like the raindrops.  Claire settled in the car and pushed a few strands of wet hair from her face.

“You know, a rainy evening is perfect for coffee.  Would you like to stay for a cup?”

“I’d love to,” Parker said.  He held his hands in front of the car vent.  “I’m glad it’s a short ride.”

They stepped into the house, damp and chilled.  Claire turned to Parker as she rubbed some warmth into her arms.  “I don’t have any idea what the status of the heat is in this place.  You wouldn’t happen to have any idea would you?”

“You don’t want to ask.  Needless to say, if you’re cold, I can build a fire in the fireplace.  That, I know, is in safe working order thanks to a friend of mine.”

Claire stopped in her path to the kitchen.

“Did I say something wrong?” Parker asked.

“You took exceptional care of my aunt.”

“Gertrude was a close friend of my mother’s.  I made a promise to my mom, before she passed, to help out as often as I could.”

“Remind me again why you aren’t married,” Claire said.

“Modern day women don’t appreciate chivalry?” he joked.  Parker strolled around the edges of the room, examining each window.  “I think I will build that fire.  It seems unusually chilly in here.”

Claire saw no sign of Gert.  She slipped into the kitchen and her aunt smiled.

“So this is where you’re hiding out, eavesdropping,” Claire said.

“I don’t eavesdrop,” her aunt replied.

Claire filled the coffee pot while Gert lingered beside her.

“Did you have a nice dinner?”

“I did.  Parker took me on a picnic,” Claire answered.

“A picnic?  Isn’t he a romantic soul?  Chivalry should be appreciated.”

Claire lifted a brow.  “I thought you weren’t eavesdropping.”

Gert floated upward and out of the way as Claire loaded a tray with mugs, creamer, and the leftover half of a cherry pie a neighbor had delivered the day before.  She glanced in her aunt’s direction.

“You’ll stay in here, right?” It was more of a statement than a question.

“I’ll do my best dear,” Gert answered.  “But you know I–”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Claire finished for her.  “I know, but maybe, this time, you can make an exception,” she said as she exited the room.

“What’s so funny?” Parker asked.

“Funny?” Claire questioned.

“You have a big grin on your face.”

“Oh, a conversation I had with Aunt Gert.”  The tray slipped in Claire’s hands.  “A long time ago, I mean.  An old conversation…” She stopped talking and sat the tray on a table. “Cherry pie?’’

“Not right now, thanks.”

Claire gave the room another quick check then settled down beside Parker.

“Why are you nervous?” he asked.

“Nervous?  Not me.  I’m fine,” she said.  She slid closer, more than ready to kiss him.  “Not nervous,” she whispered as their lips met.  She savored the electrifying tingle.  It wiped her mind of any thoughts and left her unprepared.

“How sweet.”

Claire’s muffled scream sent Parker flying backward.  She clutched her mouth with one hand and her chest with the other.

“What’s wrong?” Parker questioned.  “What happened?”

Claire’s eyes darted to her aunt then back to Parker.

“Spider.”  She threw her arms around Parker’s neck, shooing away Gert over his shoulder.  Gert’s smile drooped as she faded away.  Claire pulled back and blinked with her best attempt at sincerity.  “Sorry.  I hate spiders.”

“I see,” Parker said.  His uncertain expression wavered as Claire snuggled closer against his chest.

“Now that we’re alone, where were we?” she asked.

Parker paused in his move toward her.  “Now that we’re alone?” he repeated.  “You mean we haven’t been?”

Claire held up her hands.  “Not if you include the spider.”

Parker’s confusion didn’t stop him from picking up where they left off.  Claire reveled in the magic until a phone rang somewhere between them.  She jumped and Parker dragged his hand down his face.

“This night is unbelievable,” he said.  He reached into his pocket.  “If the phone rings this late in the evening, it’s usually the sheriff looking for some sort of legal advice.  I’ll be one minute.”

Claire nodded and Parker stepped away.  She heard his murmur followed by a sigh.  “Yeah, I’ll be there in five.”

“You have to go?” she asked when he returned.

“Yes, I do. I am so sorry,” he said.

“Why?  You have to do your job.”

“I do, but sometimes I think maybe I’m tired of giving my time to everyone but the people I want to get to know better.”

“You have a few people you want to get to know better?” she asked.

He chuckled.  “Only one right now.”

Claire thought she heard an audible crack, quite possibly the melting of the ice around her heart.

“What about tomorrow?” she asked.

“Unfortunately, my schedule is full tomorrow.”  Parker exhaled.  “Although,” he worked his jaw back and forth in thought, “I suppose I could move a few things around and make some time for a lunch date.”

“Perfect.  If you meet me here I’ll have it ready,” she said.

“I can’t wait.  I only wish I didn’t have to go right now.”

“Duty calls,” she said.  She followed him to the front of the house.  “See you tomorrow.”

Claire slumped against the closed door.  Her own disappointment took her by surprise.

“It’s working,” Gert said.

Claire shot her inquisitive aunt a pointed glare.  “No, it’s not working, not until we lay down some ground rules.”

“I don’t think that’s how you handle dating, dear.  I know it’s been a while since you’ve tried it, but I’m fairly sure it doesn’t require rules.”

“I don’t mean between Parker and me.”

Her aunt floated a little closer.  “I’m not sure I understand.”

“I love you, Aunt Gert.  I enjoy your company, I do,” Claire said.

“Spit it out dear.”

“You need to mind your own business and give me some privacy.”

“Oh.”  Gert drifted back and forth as if pacing.  “You’re right.  This won’t be successful if I don’t let it happen naturally.”

“Yes, yes, now you get it.  When two people want to…well, you know,” she forced a smile, “they need to be alone.”

“I may be dead, but I do remember what it was like to have needs,” Gert said.

Claire banged her head back against the door.  “Oh, my.  I’m not sure I can do this.”

9

Claire awoke to the lilting sound of birds drifting into her room on the morning breeze.  She rolled over and smiled at the pink bear taking up residence in the corner.  Its presence had her searching the room for her aunt.  She wondered where displaced ghosts gathered while waiting for their okay to move on to a more permanent existence.  An idea she wasn’t ready to embrace.  Thankfully she had a lunch date to concentrate on instead.

She jumped out of bed and headed downstairs in dire need of caffeine.  With her steaming cup of coffee in hand, Claire peeked into the refrigerator, hoping to find something worthwhile to feed Parker.  It had been a long time since she had to worry about feeding someone else besides herself.  A feeling she never realized she missed.  She ignored the thought, and after much debate decided to prepare a chicken salad.  First, though, she needed a shower and to find yet another presentable outfit.

Showered, and dressed, Claire stood in front of the mirror ready to deal with the day ahead, but something nagged at the corner of her thoughts.  Aunt Gert still hadn’t made an appearance.  It seemed odd for the woman to be quiet for so long.  Claire glanced at the clock. She didn’t have time to worry, she had a lunch to prepare.  It didn’t stop her from worrying anyway.

At the top of the stairs, she paused, wondering if Gert would leave without saying goodbye.  She decided no until it occurred to her that Gert didn’t have a say in the matter.  She might be gone.  When Claire reached the main floor a sliver of panic settled in.  She searched the empty kitchen and sitting room, then propped her hands on her hips and closed her eyes.

“Are you here?” she asked.  She opened her eyes and the faint image of her aunt materialized.  “I’ve been worried about you.”

Her aunt’s image faded in and out.  “I’m using more of my energy for you to see me.  It’s almost time for me to move on.”

Claire dropped her hands and looked around.  Gert couldn’t leave this house.  She was a part of everything in it right down to the walls.

“Parker will be here soon.”  Claire had to change the subject.  It wouldn’t be fair to bring Parker down.  Her gaze settled back on her aunt.  “Will you be okay?”

“Always, dear,” Gert said.

“Wait,” Claire called out as the figure evaporated.  Her heart sank further.  She wished she had not told her aunt the night before to mind her own business.  Regret was a heavy weight to carry especially when it couldn’t be erased.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Parker’s knock brought a promise of comfort.  Something she wouldn’t have believed before Aunt Gert’s return from the beyond.  Claire understood it was the reason why the   woman came back and why she had to let her go again.

She swiped at a tear and headed for the door.  In her desire to deal with her aunt, she hadn’t dealt with feeding Parker.  Claire hoped he had enough time to wait or would be kind enough to take a rain check.

“Come in,” she said.

Parker paused in the doorway and kissed her cheek.  Her pathetic smile turned the sparkle in his eyes to concern.

“Why do I feel like you received some bad news?  Or maybe you are about to give me some bad news?  Either way, what’s wrong?”

Claire led the way to the kitchen and pulled a glass pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator.   “I had a bit of a rough morning thinking about Aunt Gert, and, lunch isn’t ready.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry.  I know it sounds cliché, but it will get easier.  I have to be honest, though, I’m glad your news didn’t turn out to be any of the other dozens of possibilities that crossed my mind.  Missing out on lunch isn’t something worth worrying about.”

Claire touched his hand.  Parker, like Aunt Gert, had the magic to make her smile, even when she didn’t realize she needed to.

“I can at least offer you some iced tea,” she said.

Parker leaned against the doorframe where he stood.  “Perfect.”

Claire filled two glasses and reached for some lemon wedges as a barreling rush of air swept through the kitchen.  The table shook.  She moved to back away but the smashing crystal brought her to a standstill.  The pitcher and both glasses landed in shards encircling her on the linoleum.  She stared down at the floor, trapped by the mess.  Before she registered any of his movement, Parker scooped her up into his arms.

“Your feet are bare.  You could have been badly cut,” he said.

“Thanks for being here to rescue me.  Again.”  She flashed him a shaky smile.  “You sure do know how to sweep a girl off her feet.”

Parker dropped his forehead to hers.  “Gertrude always told me life has a funny way of bringing two hearts together.”

Claire sighed.  “That’s for sure.”

She wrapped her arms around Parker’s neck.  Aunt Gert lingered nearby.  Claire could barely see the woman’s smile and her breath caught in her chest.  She wasn’t ready for her aunt to move on.  She reached out wanting to tell her, to get one last chance to say goodbye, and thank you, but the image of the bigger than life Gertrude Tucker faded into nothingness.