New York Cheesecake Chaos – Addison Moore

I see dead people. Mostly I see dead pets, but on the rare occasion I do see a dearly departed of the human variety—but right now I’m too far gone in unadulterated bliss to see a darn thing. “Oh my God, Everett,” I moan so loud I’m thankful we’re tucked way in the back of the Cutie Pie Bakery and Cakery where nary a soul can see or hear us. The back door is wide open, letting in the first warm April breeze since spring hit, and right about now I welcome it. The bakery is mine; the man is not. Essex Everett Baxter, Judge Baxter, is just a handful of years older than me, and we’ve become fast friends in the past few months we’ve known one another. In the looks department, he’s hotter than a kitchen fire. He rarely shows emotion, and has a propensity of referring to me exclusively by my surname. Another hearty moan escapes me. “Oh, Everett, this is incredible.” The words draw from me, slow and sultry, as I close my eyes a moment and see stars exploding behind my lids in a hypnotic display. “Lemon,” he groans as if I’ve managed to injure him in a sinfully delicious way. “There’s no way I can control myself. You need to give me all you got. And if you don’t, I’ll take it myself.

” My mouth indulges one more time and I can’t contain myself anymore. “Yes, yes, yes!” I shout. “Everett, this is it!” “Just keep giving it to me, Lemon.” No sooner does Everett get the words out than a body jumps through the back door, and I spin on my heels to see Noah standing there with his hand reaching for his weapon. “Everybody freeze!” he shouts, panting as if he just ran across all of Vermont to get here. Noah does a quick assessment of the two of us. “Wait—what are you doing?” He takes a step in and squints. “You’re eating cheesecake?” His verdant green eyes are wild, his hand still firmly on that gun sitting in its holster over his back. Noah Corbin Fox is a detective with the Ashford County Sheriff’s Department, and he happens to be my latest ex-boyfriend. Believe you me, I have no plans on accumulating any more.

I’ve had my heart broken exactly three times now, and as they say, the third time’s the charm. Suffice it to say, I’ve been turned off to relationships for the interim. I’m in no mood to hoist what’s left of my shattered ticker up on the proverbial chopping block again. No thank you. I gave at the sheriff’s office. Noah is strong and handsome, abs of granite, buns of steel—and, believe me, I know that firsthand—a face that makes every person with ovaries sit up and pay attention, dark hair that turns red as fire in the sun, and have I mentioned the dimples that make me melt on cue each time he’s around? Neither Noah nor his disturbingly good looks play fair. I made the mistake of falling too hard, too fast, giving him my all, and by all, I mean every last carnal part of me. I really did think we’d be engaged by now, but his wife strolled back into town about a month ago and quickly put the kibosh on what was left of our so-called relationship. I hate that he seemed to omit that one all-important detail about being legally bound to another woman. And even though he’s since explained that they are in the process of a messy and arduous divorce, I’m still more than slightly peeved about my lack of matrimonial knowledge when it came to the man I loved.

Love, but that’s something I can’t seem to help. “Yes, cheesecake.” My fist digs into my hips in annoyance. “What did you think we were doing?” Noah glances from Everett to me, his anger quickly morphing to what looks to be embarrassment. “I was in the alley. I was going to see if I could help with the delivery and I heard—” A dark chuckle bounces through Everett, but it doesn’t last long. “You thought Lemon and I were going at it right here in the bakery.” I suck in a sharp breath. “Noah!” Without thinking, I chuck a dishrag at him. “How dare you!” The naughty idea settles in a moment.

“And by the way, it’s none of your business what Everett and I choose to do in private. You and I are no longer a thing. We’re nothing more than friends, Noah, so please don’t come barging in on me with your weapon at the ready just because you think I’m getting lucky with something other than cheesecake.” I realize how harsh it sounded as the words left my mouth, but I couldn’t help it. My adrenaline went wild the moment he shouted at us to freeze like we were common street thugs. Everett takes another bite of the cheesecake on his plate that I slathered with blueberry sauce. “You really should try this stuff, Noah. It’s to die for.” Noah takes a moment to glower at his former stepbrother. It’s true.

Way back in high school, Noah’s father both married and financially took advantage of Everett’s mother for a brief time, but, in reality, that was just the beginning of the bad blood between them. And, of course, last month Everett and I shared a few steamy kisses. Noah learned about it, and now there seems to be more bad blood than ever. Noah is most definitely jealous of my friendship with Everett. He always has been, but after those heated liplocks Everett and I shared, all Noah sees is red. I can’t blame him. Just look at the good judge. He’s got on a dark wool coat, and his pale blue tie glows as bright as his eyes. Everett has an unfair amount of animal attraction that makes every woman within fighting distance want to take a bite out of him. He’s the strong, silent type, rarely smiles, and has both a magical and menacing appeal about him.

And in the short amount of time we’ve known one another, he’s been through just about everything with me. Three women dash in through the back door. I recognize Felicity Gilbert, Rhonda Gilbert’s daughter. Rhonda not only owns The Enchanted Flower Shop across the street, but she’s housing a quasi-fugitive at her home—my biological mother, Carlotta Sawyer. Wilhelmina—Willow Lancaster walks in as well—Rhonda’s longtime assistant. She’s a short, burly woman with a feisty attitude and yet a sweet smile to just about anyone she sees. Willow is a few years younger than Rhonda, and I’ve always admired her glossy dark hair. We’ve only had a handful of conversations, and yet she’s been in Honey Hollow longer than I’ve been alive, but since she’s been putting up with my biological mother this past month, I feel like I need to take her a big box of cookies as a thank you, or in the least buy her a cup of coffee. “Hey, Willow. Here comes the best babysitter in town.

” I shake my head wistfully at our inside joke. Willow belts out a hearty laugh. “I know all about mothers and, believe me, compared to mine, Carlotta is a treat.” Felicity bounces over with a wave. She’s about twenty-seven like me, petite and cute in every classic way, button nose, bright eyes, freckles, and a head full of auburn curls like her mother. “Our moms are outside in the van. We’re on our way to the library, and she said you might need help with the transport of all those cheesecakes you made.” The dark-haired girl next to her looks about our age as well. Tall, model good looks, strong cheekbones as if the sculptor were trying too hard, and narrow squinted eyes that look black as night. Before I can answer, the girl holds a hand out.

“I’m Jana March. Felicity and I were college roommates. I’m house-hunting here in Honey Hollow, and Felicity was nice enough to let me stay with her.” “Nice to meet you.” I’m quick to shake her hand. “You can certainly help with the cheesecake. How about you each take a box? My sister, Lainey, is the head librarian, and she’ll direct you where to put them. In fact, I’ll be right behind you.” I load the three of them up, and no sooner do they step out the door than Carlotta steps in, but before I have a chance to greet or scowl at her properly—we don’t have the best relationship just yet—a horrifically large bird, the size of a toddler, a brilliant shade of blue with a red underbelly and a yellow plume on top of its head, starts flying over the kitchen, and I scream bloody murder. “Get it out!” The words rip violently from my lungs as I dart for the broom and start batting at it as best I can.

“Lottie!” Noah shouts. Only he’s not going for the bird. He’s hopping around with a confused look on his face, and his wild eyes are plastered over me as I try my best to shoo that flying menace—gorgeous as it might be, right back out the door. “Out!” I scream as I trap it near the pantry. “No birds allowed in my bakery!” Carlotta laughs up a storm—but does she offer to help? Nope. That about sums up my bio mom in a sloth-shaped nutshell. “Lemon!” Everett barks as he pins me carefully against the wall, his chest panting wild the way it does sometimes after we kiss, and he shakes his head at me just enough. “It’s not there,” he whispers, and I panic. “Oh God!” I drop the broom as if it were a snake and choose to momentarily ignore the squawking terror hovering above me as I glance to Noah. “I guess I—” I look to Carlotta for help.

She’s pretty much my lookalike, or I guess the vice versa would be more accurate, same honey blonde waves, same hazel green eyes, but she’s got about sixteen years on me. “Oh, come on, Lottie.” She nods her head toward Noah. “Tell him about our game.” “Our game?” I breathe a sigh of relief, and for once I’m thankful she’s coming to the rescue. “That’s right.” I look from Noah to Everett and nod. “It’s a game we play. I pretend to shoo Carlotta out and she—doesn’t leave.” That went well.

I can feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment, and I’m slow to look at Noah. Everett knows that I can see the dead, whether it be an animal or a deceased human, but Noah—well, last month he thought I might be a witch—which is the furthest from the truth. I’ve had this peculiar quirk all my life, but I just found out in December that I’m something classified as transmundane, and my specific gift is referred to as supersensual. But right now, I can’t help but feel super stupid. Carlotta picks up a couple of boxes of cheesecake and heads for the door. “We’ll see you all at the library. Can you believe a big author like Pepper Patrick has come all the way to Honey Hollow to do a signing? You won’t believe the crowds once you get down there. She’s singlehandedly putting Honey Hollow on the map!” She takes off, and that overgrown bird flies right out with her. Everett closes his eyes a moment, most likely resigned to the fact of what that ghostly fowl represents—the impending doom of someone in the vicinity. He pats me over the back as if trying to comfort me.

“I’ll start loading up the van with the rest of the boxes.” “I’ll help,” I quickly volunteer, and no sooner do I attempt to follow Everett to the refrigerator than Noah blocks my path. He’s as tall and wide as a doorframe in the sexiest way possible, and it’s an intimidating sight. “Lottie, are you okay?” “Yes,” I hiss, suddenly miffed at Everett for leaving me with nosy Noah. I’m not so hot on telling another living soul about my ability to see the dead. It’s not like I always see them. It used to be that deceased pets or people would appear and hover around their owners or family—and then, well, something perfectly lousy would happen to those owners or family members. It used to be relegated to something as simple as a scraped knee or a broken bone, but it’s scaled up to death these last few months with a frightening consistency. Everett is convinced that I can use my so-called powers to stop an impending homicide, but so far that’s yet to happen. “Lottie”—Noah steps in close, studying my features manically as his concern for me grows by the second—“you said you saw a bird.

” “Did I say bird?” I duck as I make my way around him. “I meant word. I was trying to say a word to my mother, and I must have gotten tongue-tied.” I quickly scoop up my purse and the bakery bag I’ve already laden down with knives and dishtowels. Noah wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me to him. That sorrowful smile blooms effortlessly on his face, and I melt right down to my core. As much as I hate to admit it, a part of me craves to have him hold me just like this. He feels solid and warm, and soothingly familiar. “Lottie, if there’s something wrong, I want to help.” His eyes widen in an instant to the size of silver dollars.

“This has something to do with that secret, doesn’t it?” I peel his arm off me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I glance back to the front of the bakery where my assistant, Lily Swanson, is manning the register. Lily is my best friend, Keelie’s twin sister’s BFF. Ironically, both Lily and Naomi, the twin in question, have a heavy disdain for me. But by and large Lily holds a truce while at the bakery. “Lily? I’m taking off now! If you want to join the fun, make sure we have enough staff to cover.” “I’m not missing it! Tell Essex to save me a seat!” she shouts back. Lily is a brunette stunner who dated Everett for a while. All of Everett’s exes are privy to calling him by his first name.

I’ve yet to reach that status. I’m pretty sure you have to do the mattress mambo to achieve it, so I’m good with just Everett for now. “Will do!” I try to make my way to the door, but Noah gets in my way again. “Lottie, I can get you the best doctor money can buy.” His tearful eyes are practically pleading with me. “Please,” I growl out, incredulous. “I don’t have a fractured mind, if that’s what you’re implying.” My voice cracks as if maybe I do. In truth, there are not that many supersensual people out there. Recently, there was a meeting right here at the bakery with the transmundane community, and not even they knew what to make of the frequency with which I see the dead.

Everett comes back in. “The van is ready. I can drive.” “Thank you,” I say, trying to make my way past Noah, but he steps in and leans in close. “I still love you deeply, Lottie Lemon. And no matter what’s happening, I just need you to know that you can trust me.” “She trusts me,” Everett pipes up, his chest expanding as if he were gunning for a fight. “Get it through your head. She’s not up for talking about it.” “That’s because there’s nothing to talk about.

” My God, I just spewed a lie the size of the Empire State Building as I trot out into the warm spring air and into the passenger’s side of the van, my heart racing as if I just escaped a fire. Everett hops in beside me, and we take off. Noah grows smaller in the rearview mirror, and my heart breaks. “Should I tell him?” I practically mouth the words, and, honestly, I mostly said them to myself. Everett shakes his head as if it were a hard no. “It’s up to you, Lemon. Just know this. Once you share your secret, there is no going back.” No going back. My entire body freezes solid at those words.

Everett taps the steering wheel, his gaze set straight ahead. “What did you see?” “A bird. A macaw, I think. Big, beautiful blue creature with blue and red feathers, yellow intermingled.” “You know what that means.” “Someone is most certainly in trouble.” “Your track record is spotless. Someone is going to die, Lemon. And they’re going to die today.” I slink down in my seat at the stark reality staring me in the face.

Someone is going to die. Noah and I are already dead. I can’t help but note the irony. T C H A P T E R 2 he entire vicinity around the Honey Hollow Public Library is inundated with cars as throngs of bodies clamor to get inside. The sound of people chattering away ricochets off the building like a happy echo as the scent of lavender and honeysuckle fills the air. Everett helps me carry in all of the cheesecake and cookies I baked for the reception out into the library’s foyer. The entire interior of the library as far as the eye can see is done up in roses, peonies, carnations, daisies, you name it. It looks as if Rhonda has emptied all the flora and fauna out of the entire state of Vermont in honor of her favorite author coming to town. Lainey let me know that Rhonda is more than a little obsessed with Pepper Patrick. It’s pretty much a well-documented fact that she’s just this side of a stalker.

Carlotta told me last week that Rhonda’s niece, Rigby Emerson—whom I’ve yet to meet—was essential in helping to secure a celebrity such as Pepper Patrick to Honey Hollow. I’m sure a big author like Pepper is used to far more sophisticated cities and not some tiny speck on the map of Vermont. But since Rhonda was able to pull a few familial strings, here she is. Everett takes off for one last trip to the van, and I bump into Rhonda herself as I’m leaving the tiny staff lounge in the back of the library. Rhonda Gilbert has been a character as long as I’ve known her, with her tight red perm, wide marble blue eyes, and, of course, her calling card, those signature custom sweaters she’s known to wear year-round. No matter what the upcoming holiday or occasion, Rhonda always seems to have a sweater to match, and today is no different. She’s donned a bright blue cardigan with tiny felt books, question marks, and bright red hearts sewn over it. I suspect she makes the embellishments herself and adds them to her sweaters. It’s a look only Rhonda seems able to pull off. “Hey, Rhonda.

You look amazing!” I say as I stand back to admire her handiwork. She takes a slight bow. “Pepper Patrick is the best mystery writer in the country if you ask me. I’ve made replicas of all her covers as best as I could,” she says, pointing to the felt books sewn to her lapel. “And the question marks represent the whodunit aspect of her work.” She grabs ahold of the red heart pendant dangling from a gold chain around her neck. “Of course, I have the official ruby red Heart of Tomorrow that belongs to Alice McDade. And her signature ruby red slippers.” She clicks her glittering red heels when she says her name. “Oh, the You Only Die Once series is my absolute favorite.

Amateur sleuth Alice McDade is the very best at tracking down the killer. She puts the homicide detective that has a crush on her to shame.” She waves it off with a laugh, and I can feel my cheeks heating at the thought of the similarities between good old fictional Alice and me. She zips the red heart pendant across its chain until it sizzles. “In fact, I won this from one of Pepper Patrick’s famous giveaways last year. This, here, is a genuine ruby heart with Alice’s initials engraved on the back.” She flashes it my way, and I spot an artful A and M faintly carved into the precious stone. “It’s beautiful,” I gush, leaning in to get a better look at the treasure. The heart itself is the size of a quarter at least. “And it’s huge.

” “It’s priceless is what it is.” “That must have cost a fortune. I guess if the flower biz goes belly up, you can always sell it and live on easy street for the rest of your life,” I tease, and Rhonda glowers at me as if I suggested she sell her only daughter, Felicity. She shudders a moment. “I just can’t believe I’m this close to finally meeting Pepper Patrick in the flesh. I’ve waited my entire life for this moment. I was born for this.” A small crowd rushes this way, and I turn to see my mother—the one that adopted me, aka my real mother, Miranda Lemon. She’s blonde and perky and happens to have lousy taste in men ever since my father—my adoptive father—died about a decade ago. After Dad died, she opened the only B&B in Honey Hollow, and as fate and my bad luck would have it, it’s currently haunted by the ghost of a girl who died a few months back, Greer Giles, and her new poltergeist of a boy toy, Winslow Decker, who died about two hundred years ago.

It’s a long story, but bottom line, my mother is making a small fortune charging for tours of her haunted abode. “Lottie!” Mom trots over with a red-faced Rich Dallas by her side. Rich is my mother’s newest lousy relationship acquisition. He’s a wealthy older man, fake tan, built like a bodybuilder, perpetually angry, and far too possessive of my poor sweet mother. “She’s here! Pepper Patrick is getting out of a limousine out front!” she squawks so loud half the people in the foyer scream as they stomp their way out the door. “And she’s got a couple of bodyguards! Two big, beefy, strong men.” Rich lands an arm around my mother’s waist and gives her side a quick pinch, leaving her to chortle to no end. She leans in toward Rhonda. “I just live to make this man insanely jealous.” Mom wrinkles her nose up at Rich’s bulging eyes, and his jaw clenches tight as if he were about to rocket through the ceiling if she made one more mention of those beefy strong men.

He’s insane, all right. “Oh, and before I forget, Lottie—great news! Chrissy Nash just asked me to relay the message that Mayor Nash himself—her wily ex”—she squints out her disdain for her best friend’s cheating ex-husband for a moment—“has personally requested that you provide the sweet treats for the Bonnet Festival in the Town Square on Easter morning.” “Oh, that’s huge! Yes, of course, I’ll do it.” “And you’ll be well compensated.” She dots my nose with the tip of her finger before looking back up at that psychotic by her side. “Speaking of beefy hot men, come on, honey. Let’s go check out your competition.” I’m about to suggest she keep the commentary to herself—for her own safety, but she’s already hustled him out the door. I spot my best friend, Keelie, gabbing it up with my sister, Lainey, and I’m about to head in their direction when a couple of girls stride this way, Felicity and another redhead who looks as if she can be her sister. “Rigby!” Rhonda dives over the girl next to Felicity, but the girl’s body remains stiff as stone.

“Aunt Rhonda.” She rolls her eyes before pulling back. “Lottie, you have to meet my great-niece. She’s come all the way from New York with her fancy fiancé.” Rhonda flicks her nose playfully as if to imply he was uppity. And, believe you me, I can understand that to an extent. But I don’t think New Yorkers think they’re better than anyone else. I think others are simply intimidated by their cosmopolitan ways. I used to live in New York. After Otis Bear Fisher broke my tender high school heart, I went to Columbia and had my college heart broken by Curtis Vanderlin, the goof who thought it was a good idea to propose to me then sleep with my roommate.

Suffice it to say, I left New York and came back to Honey Hollow with my heart in pieces. I thought Noah Fox would be different but, so far, I’m three for three in the heartbreak department. Speaking of Curt, he sent an odd text my way out of the blue, on my birthday of all days, saying something about his girlfriend being a publicist and that they’d be coming through town with some big auth—author! Pepper Patrick! “Oh my God.” Suddenly, I find it difficult to breathe. Curtis Vanderlin is the very last person I ever want to see again. “I know!” Rhonda muses. “My Rigby is quite impressive. She’s Pepper Patrick’s publicist! Can you believe it?” I suck in a lungful of air so fast and hard I could have literally inhaled one of my to die for cheesecakes—the entire cheesy wheel. A horrible squawking sound emerges from my left, and I look up to see that overgrown bird flying up near the vaulted ceiling. “Oh my God,” I can’t help but echo the phrase.

Hey? Maybe Curt is here and he had a pet bird? This might pan out to be a lucky day just yet. I cringe that the thought even flitted through my brain. “I need to speak with you.” Rigby yanks Rhonda off toward the staff lounge in the back. Felicity leans in. “I can’t believe my luck. My ex is going to show up today.” She grunts as if she might be sick, and I’m tempted to grunt right along with her. “Not only do he and my mother despise one another, but he’s just as fanatical about this psychotic author as she is.” “You mean you’re not into her books?” Felicity rolls her eyes.

With all those freckles, she has an adorable schoolgirl appeal about her, and I think she’ll have it no matter how old she gets. “They’re okay, but to be honest, I was always second-best to Alice McDade.” She says the character’s name in air quotes. “My mom actually lamented over the fact she didn’t name me Alice. My mother is a real piece of work, if you know what I mean.” “Same here, my biological mother, that is. And don’t get me started on my exes.” I glance to the entry and spot Noah talking to Bear, and I can’t help but cringe. Good God, he’s probably shaking him down for info on that deep, dark secret I’m harboring. As if I would ever tell Bear.

“Speaking of exes, I’ve got two at the door and a potential third roaming the grounds. This is going to be a terrifying afternoon.” Mostly because of the impending murder, but I decide to leave out that homicidal tidbit. “Hey, Lottie?” Felicity hikes her shoulders near her ears as if she were afraid to say what comes next. “You do know that I’m dating Bear, right?” “What? I thought you were dating that guy from the paper, Simon Warwick.” The Honey Hollow Hive might be on life support, as are all other newspapers in the country, but it still has a staff, and last I heard, Felicity was hot and heavy with the head editor. “I am, sort of. He hasn’t been with the paper in months. He’s started his own comic shop down in Leeds. You see, we got in a bit of a fight a few weeks back, and, well, I’ve been trying to make him insane.

I caught him with another girl last month, and even though he swears it was an accidental date, I wasn’t having it. So what if they both happened to walk into the Burrito Factory at the very same time? Did he just happen to sit at the booth with her for an hour straight? I’ve been livid ever since, but it’s as if he doesn’t get it. He’s gone as far as accusing my mother of trying to position me against him. Ironically, he’s the ex she actually approved of. Anyway, I thought if I dated Bear for a while he might get the hint. Are you mad?” “Are you kidding? You can have any one of my exes.” I bite down hard over my lower lip. “Except Noah.” It speeds out so fast I can hardly control it. I can’t help it.

He still very much holds my heart. I thought he was going to propose. I was ready to scream yes at the top of my wedding hungry lungs. It’s hard to disconnect your feelings from someone even if they do end up being a moron. Not that I’m fully convinced that Noah is a moron. More like an inadvertent moron. And a downright sexy one at that. Voices escalate from the staff lounge behind us, and Felicity rolls her eyes. “I’d better get in there. My mother and Rigby are like oil and water these days.

” She takes off, and I make my way down the hall. And as much as I try to artfully dodge Noah and Bear, one of the aforementioned beefy security guards cordons off the area in order to clear a path for her literary highness. Noah nods me over with a crooked grin, and I hate how easily my feet are willing to comply. “Here she comes,” he whispers as he pulls me in close so I can get a better view. His warm arm practically singes my waist as he holds me steady in front of him. In strides a tall woman with a light pink bob that looks absolutely adorable. She has dainty little features, her eyes are heavily ringed in dark kohl, she’s donned a dark blue lipstick, and is wearing nothing but black from head to toe. In a strange way, she reminds me of my sister, Meg. Meg just left Vegas after a rather long stint in the female wrestling circuit. I doubt she’s here today.

She hates crowds, and she sort of hates people when you get down to it. Except for family. She loves Lainey and me to death. Meg has taken to teaching pole dancing at the Red Satin Gentlemen’s club down in Leeds. She was supposed to start part-time at The Enchanted Flower Shop, but Rhonda told her last minute she couldn’t afford another employee. I guess my bio mother, Carlotta, got lucky in a sense since she’s managed to stay on at the shop. She and Rhonda were besties back in high school. And they still are. So much so that Rhonda is letting Carlotta live at her house rent-free until she gets on her feet. Pepper Patrick strides by slowly as she waves at the hysterical masses, most of which seem to be middle-aged women all holding a stack of books thirsty for her signature.

There are loads of books for purchase inside the library as well. I took a peek at the signing setup, a six-foot table loaded with books and a pitcher of water that I’m guessing is for Pepper. A microphone sits at a nearby podium for a brief reading and a Q and A session to follow. Unfortunately, there was no room for too many folding chairs, so most of the crowd will have to stand, but judging by the enthusiasm that’s taken ahold of the masses, that won’t be a problem. Half of them are floating already. Pepper heads on into the library, and the crowd vacuums right along with her in her wake. “That was incredible.” I can’t help but laugh a little at the sight. Bear turns my way. Bear is your typical sandy-haired stud who happens to own a construction company.

He’s just finishing up putting in a conservatory at my mother’s B&B, so I’m all done harboring a grudge against him for demolishing my heart all those years ago. Bear grunts, “She’s not that hot.” I can’t help but roll my eyes. I’m about to lay into him for judging a proverbial book by her cover—pun fully intended—when Everett strides up with a horrible sight next to him. “Lemon.” Everett bows slightly. “This man has been looking everywhere for you.” A series of choking sounds emit from my throat as I look at the bad judgment call before me. Seeing Curtis Vanderlin in the flesh is like living out a waking nightmare. It’s like seeing the dead walk the planet once again.

And this is one potential corpse I might actually prefer in a casket. “Lottie Lemon!” He holds out a hand awkwardly before diving over me with a hard embrace. “What the heck, right?” He pulls back and slaps his chest silly until he’s a good two feet away, that goofy grin still plastered on his face. “Boy, you are still as stunningly sexy as you’ve ever been.” On cue, all three men surrounding us puff up their chests as if suddenly on high alert. Curtis looks about the same as I remember him, a good foot taller than me, but he slouches so it takes that back down by half, dirty blond hair, stone gray eyes, birdlike features, but strikingly handsome in a male underwear model kind of way. He’s bedroom eyeing me—but then, come to find out, that’s his go-to look. Curt has a master’s degree in business, and last I heard, via my internet stalking methods, he works for a hedge fund company and is doing rather nicely for himself. “Lemon?” Everett’s voice drops several octaves, and I come to. A heavy sigh expels from me.

“Curt, these are my exes, Bear and Noah. Everett is my”—I wince because I’m not sure how to classify him—“gentleman caller.” My God, anything but that. My cheeks heat with a volcanic vengeance. Curt slaps his chest, and it’s only then I note he’s donned a flannel. Curtis is a preppy through and through, so I’m sure he’s donned the flannel because he feels he’s in flannel territory, sort of the way a tourist might be moved to dress up in western garb when visiting Texas. “Well, well, it looks like my little Lottie has made the rounds.” Curt belts out a belly laugh, and I want nothing more than to stick my boot in his mouth. He stops cold while eyeing something behind me. “Looks like that battle-ax is at it again.

” The veins in his neck bulge. “I’ll be back, and we’ll catch right up.” He looks down at me, almost lovingly, and my stomach takes a dip. I used to melt when he looked at me this way. I thought I was the only girl he could see. Of course, I said yes when he dropped to one knee all those years ago. I was foolish and eager to get my happily ever after. Little did I know it would never arrive. “You are a little vixen.” He lets out something between a howl and a purr before speeding off behind me, and I couldn’t be happier.

I glance back and spot him passing up Felicity and some unkempt looking man whose skin looks tinged with grime, his jeans are filthy and have gaping holes at the knees, the scruff on his cheeks looks scraggly, and the hair peering from under his dirty orange ball cap looks as if it’s been dipped in oil. For a second I wonder if Felicity might need assistance, but she glances my way before pulling the man farther down the hall and out of my line of vision. And no sooner do they disappear than I spot Simon Warwick heading in their direction. “What was that about?” Bear steps back as if he might chase Curt down and work him over with his nail gun. Not a bad scenario, might I add. “That was about you breaking my heart and chasing me out of Honey Hollow. See what you did? You directly caused the New York Disaster.” And that is exactly how I’ve classified Curt all these years, as the New York Disaster. “Lottie?” Noah takes a step in that direction, his hand feeling for his weapon. “Easy, Noah. You’ve already lost one job because you blew out the tires of your wife’s side guy’s car. You don’t need to lose this job on account of me.” I avert my eyes at the thought. That was the only truth he ever told me about his wife. Sure, I knew he had a wife while we were dating, but I thought she was an ex. Huge difference in my book, but apparently not Noah’s. Although he did apologize profusely and let me know he was about to fill me in on their complicated and yet impending divorce. It wasn’t happening back then, but it is now. Good for them, I suppose. I’m still licking my wounds from the trauma of inadvertently being the other woman. Everett shakes his head. “I don’t like the guy.” “And that makes two of us.” I can’t help but smile at the ornery judge. That’s actually how I met Everett. He was presiding over a court case I was dragged into, and he wisely sided with me. I instantly knew I liked this sexy stack of knowledge. Just as Noah steps in to pipe up, someone calls his name from the entry, and judging by the high-pitched tone, it’s decidedly a female. We look over, and I suck in a quick lungful at the sight. Standing tall and stunningly, savagely gorgeous are not one but two beautiful blondes, Mrs. Britney Fox, as in Noah’s other legal half, and Cormack Featherby, the woman who ripped a hole through Everett and Noah’s relationship back in high school. Rumor has it, Everett had her first, and Noah snatched her away. And she happens to be the very reason Noah is convinced that Everett has masterfully snatched me away. As if. The two leggy blondes trot over like a couple of Clydesdales who command your attention. It’s a boob bouncing shock and awe campaign if ever there was one. “Noah!” Cormack lunges over him and I’m quick to get out of the way before I’m smothered in the undertow. “My little sister, Landon, is somewhere in this mess. Can you believe it?” She looks to Everett. “And don’t think I’m forgetting about my Essex!” She pulls him in and makes a move for his lips, but he turns his head and she smacks him on the cheek instead. What did I tell you? The man is wise beyond his years. I can’t help but give a little wink as he looks my way. Cormack sniffs past the rejection. “I’m in town looking for a place. Landon moved here a few months back and is wild and out of control. She needs someone like me looking after her.” She purrs to both Noah and Everett, and I do not like the way she’s ogling them so freely. My God, she’s like a kid in a candy store. And might I add, both of the aforementioned men are looking mouthwateringly delicious, but that’s not the point. “I’m staying at that cheap little B&B down the road, and that’s where I met this treasure.” She pulls Britney in, and the two of them bray out a laugh in unison. Noah’s soon-to-be ex is a va-va-voom beauty whose hourglass shape knows no human bounds. Her long blonde locks hang heavy over her left eye, and she oozes sex appeal. I’m positive I look like a toad in her presence. I certainly feel it. “Please stop by, hon.” Britney gives Noah’s tie a tug. “The two of us are dying to dig our claws into you.” Noah glances my way and presses out a warm smile. “I’m busy, Brit, but thanks for the invite.” What the heck kind of an invite was that? One that leads to a threesome no doubt. The feedback from a microphone goes off in the depth of the library behind us, and the murmuring crowd grows morbidly silent. I crane my neck and spot Lainey, my sweet older sister by two years, standing before the crowd as she introduces Pepper Patrick to a wild applause. Lainey and I share the same caramel waves and hazel eyes even though we don’t have an ounce of the same DNA. Even though I’ve always known that my birth mother had left me on the floor of the Honey Hollow Fire Department when I was just hours old, I always held out hope that my mother and father would tell me they were just teasing. Lainey and I look so much alike I couldn’t really believe I was adopted. Our sister Meg, on the other hand, was a pretty convincing argument. Cormack links arms with Jessica Rabbit, aka Noah’s other half. “We’d better head inside and join the party.” And they make a mad dash to do just that. “Where’s Rhonda?” I panic for a moment. “She said she’s waited her entire life for this moment.” I press my way toward the gaping doors that lead to the entrance of the library and spot Rigby and Felicity pushing their way deeper into the crowd. I spot Willow, Rhonda’s assistant, near the front, and she looks as if she’s searching for Rhonda herself. A small crowd pushes between Everett and my tribe of exes and me—and soon I find myself speeding toward the back to the employee lounge where I last saw Rhonda. The oversized macaw screeches as it flies my way, and I duck in fear I might actually get tangled in its ghostly talons. It could happen. My powers seem to be growing, and as they increase so do the abilities of those ghostly visitors. Not only can I now see them, I can hear them, and the last few poltergeists have had the unnerving ability to move things in the natural world. It’s terrifying to think what might happen next. “Rhonda, where are you?” I say mostly to myself as I thread my way through the crowd. She can’t miss this. She was born for this. I make my way to the lounge and give a quick look around the vicinity, but I don’t see a single soul. I take step back, and I’m just about to leave when I spot what looks to be red glitter and I freeze. Peering out from underneath the table is one lonely ruby slipper. My feet carry me deeper into the employee lounge, and I can hear the crowd cheering in the distance. I take a careful step around the oversized table, and a scream gets trapped in my throat. Lying on the floor with a slice of my cheesecake upturned next to her is a woman with a white plastic bag over her head. There’s a bright yellow smiley face emblazoned over the front of it as it gives an eerie grimace my way. The poor woman’s neck is as ruby red as those slippers she’s wearing, and it just so happens to be twisted in an unnatural position. But it’s that whimsically embellished bright blue cardigan that tips me off. This is indeed my dear friend Rhonda, and a scream dislodges from me at the thought. Rhonda Gilbert isn’t going to see Pepper Patrick after all. She is undeniably, unquestionably, most certainly dead.

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