A Ghostly Reunion
Emma Lee Raines sees dead people.
As if that “gift” will impress classmates at her upcoming ten-year high school reunion in Sleepy Hollow, Kentucky. Proprietor of the Eternal Slumber Funeral Home, Emma Lee can see, hear, and talk to ghosts of murdered folks. And when her high school nemesis is found dead, Jade Lee Peel is the same old mean girl—trying to come between Emma Lee and her hot boyfriend, Sheriff Jack Henry Ross, all over again.
There’s only one way for Emma Lee to be free of the trash-talking ghost—solve the murder so the former prom queen can cross over.
But the last thing Jade Lee wants is to leave town where she had her glory days. And the more Emma Lee investigates on her own, the more complicated Miss Popularity turns out to be. Now Emma Lee will have to work extra closely with her hunky lawman to get to the twisty truth.
A Ghostly Reunion Excerpt
“Sexy isn’t a firm fanny in a thong, ladies.” Hettie Bell didn’t seem so sexy in her hot pink leggings and matching top as she gasped for breath in her downward dog position in the middle of Sleepy Hollow, Kentucky. Her butt stuck straight up in the air, right there on display for everyone to see. Her black, chin-length bob was falling out of the small ponytail on both sides and her bangs hung down in her eyes. “Sexy is confidence and self-acceptance. It’s exactly what yoga provides.”
Hettie Bell curled up on her tiptoes with her palms planted on one of the mats she provided for us. The rickety old floor of the gazebo, in the middle of the town square, groaned as we all tried to mimic her pose.
“Yes!” Beulah Paige Bellefry hollered out like we were in the first pew of the Sleepy Hollow Baptist Church getting a good Bible beating from Pastor Brown himself. “Amen to a good pose!”
Beulah continued to adjust her feet and hands each time she started to slip. If she wasn’t a bit overweight, I’d say it was her eighties silk sweat suit that was slicker than cat’s guts giving her problems. Or it could’ve been those pearls around her wrist, neck and ears weighing her down. Beulah never took off those pearls. She said pearls were a staple for a Southern gal.
“You said it, sister,” Mary Anna Hardy gasped. She teetered side to side, nearly knocking into Granny. Her sweat left streaks down her makeup. Who on earth got up this early and put makeup on to do yoga? Mary Anna Hardy, that’s who. “God help us!”
“That’s it.” I pushed back off my heels and crossed my legs staring at all the Auxiliary women’s derrieres at my eye level. “I’m here to do some relaxing, not Sunday school.”
Sleepy Hollow was smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt and if God wasn’t thrown in our conversations, then we weren’t breathing. But the last thing I wanted to think about was my butt stuck up to the high heavens and everyone up in the Great Beyond looking down upon me.
Trust me, not a sight the living want to see at eight o’clock in the morning, either. Especially when I hadn’t had my first cup of coffee for the day.
“Emma Lee Raines,” Zula Fae Raines Payne, also known as my granny, gasped in horror. “Where are your Southern manners?” Granny’s disgust of my behavior was written all over her contorted face.
My redheaded Granny only stood five-foot-four, but she was a mighty force to be reckoned with. At the ripe young age of seventy-seven, she’d give you the business while blessing your heart and pouring you a glass of her sweet iced tea no matter how mad you made her.
“My manners are right over there at Higher Grounds Café in liquid form in a large foam cup.” I pushed back a strand of my brown hair that had fallen out of the topknot I stuck it in after I’d rolled out of bed when I decided to join the Auxiliary women and Hettie Bell for their morning yoga class. I needed my caffeine fix to wake my manners up.
“This reunion has helped you misplace them.” Granny’s disapproval of how I was handling the stress of planning my ten-year high school reunion showed in the creases around her tight lips, cocked brows and furled nose. “Doc said you need to take the necessary precautions to keep the ‘Trauma’ away, especially in times of extreme stress.”
What did Doc Clyde know? Nothing.
“I’m sure you are stressed with no one to bury around here.” Granny did a sign of the cross and we weren’t even Catholic. She snapped her finger at me. “Now, downward dog, young lady,” she ordered.
Doc Clyde, Sleepy Hollow’s resident doctor, felt it necessary I do some type of stress relief since he had diagnosed me with what he called “Funeral Trauma” after I had gotten knocked out flat cold from a falling plastic Santa and woke up in the hospital seeing the clients I had stuck six feet in the ground. Being an undertaker can be stressful, but I didn’t have “Funeral Trauma.” I was a Betweener.
I saw dead people. Let me clarify, dead people that had been murdered. It was a gift that plastic Santa gave me. Unlike the annual ugly Christmas sweater Granny gave me, it was a gift that I can’t return. Honestly, I wouldn’t even be able to take the sweater back.
“It’s okay, Zula Fae.” Hettie Bell dipped back down into the stretch that started all this downward dog stuff. “Yoga isn’t for everyone.”
“You got that right,” I grumbled under my breath and watched with a dutiful eye as the white convertible Mercedes whipped into a parking spot right in front of Higher Grounds.
Sleepy Hollow was a tourist town in Kentucky. We were known for our caves and caverns. Tourists to our town were mainly the outdoorsy type that loved to spelunk and stuff that I wasn’t interested in doing. Now yoga was added to that list as well.
“Uh-un!” A woman jumped out of the convertible and wagged her hand at the car trying to park in the space behind her.
The woman had on a pair of big black sunglasses that took up nearly all of her thin face and a black scarf over her hair and tied under her chin. She wore a black strapless jumpsuit and her legs looked a mile long.
“Move!” she screamed at a car that was less desirable than hers. “You aren’t parking that beater behind mine!”
She jumped into her car and backed it up, taking up the only two available spaces in front of the café.
“Is that?” Beulah Paige jumped up, tugged on the hem of her silky zip top and squinted.
“You know your fancy wrinkle cream might work if you got you some glasses or contact lenses.” Mable Claire cackled and jingled all the way down to her mat.
“Oh, hush, Mable Claire,” Beulah warned, keeping her eyes on the little scuffle going on in front of the café. “I do think that is . . .”
Beulah ran her hand over her bright red hair, pushing her fingertips in and fluffing it up. She put her hands on the strand of pearls around her neck and straightened them.
“Oh my God.” Shock and awe came over me. Then anger when I saw who it was.
Jade Lee Peel.
I stood up to steady my shaking body. It took everything in my power not to throw one big hissy fit right there in front of all of Sleepy Hollow or at least the Auxiliary women.
“It is!” Beulah jumped up and clapped her hands together like a little schoolgirl, not the forty-something-year-old gossip queen I was used to seeing.
Beulah did a little two-step and giddyup down the steps of the gazebo and scurried across the town square.
“And it looks like Jack Henry is happy to see whoever that is too.” Granny sure didn’t know when or how to keep her mouth shut. Especially in an emergency such as this.
“Jade Lee Peel,” I grumbled and gave my high school archnemesis the evil eye.
It was a time like this I wished I had some sort of cool gift like casting spells on people, not seeing them after the spell took effect and stopped their beating heart.
Jade Lee had left Sleepy Hollow right out of high school to pursue a modeling career. When she made it on a music channel’s reality TV show where they all lived in a house, she was discovered. She wasn’t the biggest star on the planet, but she was the biggest from Sleepy Hollow.
Reluctantly I had sent her people an invitation to the class reunion hoping they’d think it was fan mail and when I hadn’t gotten back an RSVP, I’d assumed she wasn’t coming. It would be just like her not to RSVP and then make a grand entrance.
“I take it you aren’t so happy to see her?” Hettie stood next to me with her hands on her hips and her leg cocked to the side.
Hettie Bell was lucky and didn’t knowust how evil Jade Lee Peel was as a teenager. Hettie had recently moved to Sleepy Hollow and opened up Pose and Relax yoga studio next to Eternal Slumber. She would’ve definitely been one of Jade’s targets with her Goth girl look. Mary Anna Hardy down at Girl’s Best Friend Spa tee-totally gave Hettie a complete makeover and turned her into a beauty right before our eyes with her new chin-length bob, super white teeth and minimal makeup. Not to mention that she already had a killer body from doing all that stretching and twisting she was trying to get me and the rest of the residents of Sleepy Hollow to do.
“Not in the least bit happy to see her.” I couldn’t take my eyes off Jade Lee. Her talons had hooked Jack Henry Ross, sheriff of Sleepy Hollow and my boyfriend, when we were in high school. And it seemed she was trying to hook him now, right there on the sidewalk in front of Higher Grounds Café. “She’s the one who came up with my nickname, Creepy Funeral Home Girl, when I was in high school.”
It was true. Kids could be so cruel. I was the butt of all their jokes. Granted, growing up in a family business was hard, but mine had to be the funeral home. My granny and parents were also undertakers and we lived in Eternal Slumber Funeral Home. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most popular kid in school. Who in the world wanted to have a sleepover in a funeral home? No one. Least of all, Jade Lee Peel, the most popular cheerleader, prom queen and now small town celebrity. Even in high school she had celebrity status thanks to the community. After her mamma died of a stroke, Artie Peel, Jade’s father and owner of Artie’s Meat and Deli, did everything he could for his daughter, doing her no favors.
All the women in town felt sorry for Jade and took her under their wing. I blamed the town for blowing up Jade’s head as big as the town square.
“That’s right.” Hettie patted me on the back. “Your class reunion is this weekend.”
“Yep.” It was the only word I could muster up. My heart was breaking watching Jade and Jack exchange smiles, giggles, and whatever other else line of bull malarkey she was feeding him. No doubt trying to reel my handsome boyfriend into her lair.
Jade and Jack, their names were synonymous in high school. They even had their own nickname like Brangelina. JJ. Thinking about them with their own combined name made my stomach hurt and the feelings of the past flooded right back as if ten years had never passed. Only now I couldn’t run over to my bedroom in the funeral home, slam my door and bury my head in the pillow.
“And you were in charge of the reunion, right?” Hettie reminded me.
I admit I almost didn’t send Jade an invitation, but my good ole Southern manners, like Granny called it, won out. I can’t say I didn’t have a daydream about Jade coming back to town and seeing me in Jack’s arms, but I certainly didn’t daydream the other way around. I wasn’t even on the high school reunion committee in high school, but the school called me since I lived here and asked me to put it together. Like Granny said, people were living longer, making funerals a little sparse. I had nothing better to do.
A white van with sketchy windows came plowing down the street and abruptly stopped right next to Jade and Jack. A bunch of men jumped out holding a big boom microphone and camera equipment.
Jade grabbed Jack by the arm and smiled as big as the day was long.
“Smile, Jack.” I read her lips and heard her Southern twang in my head.
Jack fluffed up like a bandy rooster, sticking his chest out for all the world to see his sheriff’s badge. The cameraman walked around them with the camera on his shoulder, taking shots from all angles.
“Yoo-hoo! Jade! Remember me?” Beulah waved and patted her chest. “Beulah Paige Bellefry! You used to play with these pearls in my Sunday school class.” Beulah’s grin took up her entire face. The balls of her cheeks squished up into her eyes.
Jade planted that sweet, fake smile across her face, giving Beulah a hug. Both of Jade’s hands planted on the tops of Beulah’s shoulders, giving her a pat on the left and then a pat on the right.
Jade’s eyes grazed the grass along the town square, which drew them drawing them up to the gazebo. Our eyes caught. An easy smile was planted at the corners of her mouth. I glared at her, finding it almost impossible not to return her disarming smile.
She threw her keys to a young girl standing behind her. The girl ran in front of Jade and pulled open the door to the café, cowering down behind it. Her long brown hair was flat to her head. She had brown doe eyes and an olive complexion. She wore large black-rimmed glasses that were entirely too big for her face. But who was I to judge. I was by far no fashion expert. But it wasn’t a surprise Jade surrounded herself with people who weren’t as pleasing to the eye as she was. She always liked being the pretty one, center of attention.
I watched in horror as Jade grabbed Beulah’s hand and tucked her other in the crook of Jack Henry’s arm, dragging them both inside Higher Grounds. My heart sunk. My knees buckled. And any sort of Southern manners I had were thrown out the window.
“How do I look?” I ran my hand over my hair.
“Greasy.” Hettie Bell’s nose ruffled. She was never one to sugarcoat nothing.
I turned to Granny.
“Emma Lee, you are smarter than her. If dumb was dirt, she’d only cover about half an acre.” Granny had her own way of trying to make me feel better.
I wasn’t sure if she had just insulted me or had given me a compliment. My head tilted, my eyes lowered and I stared at her.
“You are beautiful inside and out.” Mable Claire jingled her way over. Mable Claire kept a lot of change in her pockets. She gave out dimes here and there to people who she passed on the street. “It’s early, honey.”
“Stop it.” Hettie stepped up. “You are in workout clothes. She’s gonna know you’ve been working out.” Hettie jabbed my shoulder with her finger. “You are not the creepy funeral girl anymore. You are an important member of this town.”
She was right. I wasn’t that girl anymore and I had Jack Henry Ross now.
Granny scooted closer. She bent her lips to my ear. She smelled of cinnamon and sugar, easing my belly pain somewhat. She whispered, “Emma Lee, you go on in there and get your man.”
I pulled back and we held each other’s eyes for a second. I straightened my shoulders and stomped my way across the square and stood right in front of Higher Grounds.
I looked in the front window. Everyone inside was making a fuss over Jade Lee Peel being back in town, Ms. Sleepy Hollow herself, and everyone acted as if it were Christmas day. They were all crowded around her. Even little children who didn’t know her, but knew of her and her legacy.
A GHOSTLY MORTALITY
That ghost sure looks . . . familiar.
Only a handful of people know that Emma Lee Raines, proprietor of a small-town Kentucky funeral home, is a “betweener.” She helps ghosts stuck between here and the ever-after—murdered ghosts. Once Emma Lee gets them justice they can cross over to the great beyond.
But Emma Lee’s own sister refuses to believe in her special ability. In fact, the Raines sisters have barely gotten along since Charlotte Rae left the family business for the competition. After a doozy of an argument, Emma Lee is relieved to see Charlotte Rae back home to make nice. Until she realizes her usually snorting, sarcastic, family-ditching sister is a . . . ghost.
Charlotte Rae has no earthly idea who murdered her or why. With her heart in tatters, Emma Lee relies more than ever on her sexy beau, Sheriff Jack Henry Ross…because this time, catching a killer means the Raines sisters will have to make peace with each other first.
A GHOSTLY MORTALITY EXCERPT
“Lawdy bee.” Granny scooted to the edge of the chair and lifted her arms in the air like she was worshiping in the Sunday morning service at Sleepy Hollow Baptist and the spirit just got put in her.
I sucked in a deep breath, preparing myself for whatever was going to come out of Zula Fae Raines Payne’s mouth, my granny. She was a ball of southern spitfire in her five-foot-four-inch frame topped off with bright red hair that I wasn’t sure was real or out of a L’Oréal bottle she’d gotten down at the Buy and Fly.
“Please, please, please,” she begged. “Let me die before anything happens to Emma Lee.” Her body slid down the fancy, high-back mahogany leather chair as she fell to her knees with her hands clasped together, bringing them back up in the air as she pleaded to the Big Guy in the sky. “I’m begging you.”
“Are you nuts?” My voice faded to a hushed stillness. I glanced back at the closed door of my sister’s new office, in fear she was going to walk in and see Granny acting up.
I sat in the other fancy, high-back mahogany leather chair next to Granny’s and grabbed her by the loose skin of her underarm. “Get back up on this chair before Charlotte Rae gets back in here and sees you acting like a fool.”
“What?” Granny quirked her eyebrows questioningly as if her behavior was normal.
My head dropped along with my jaw in the “are you kidding me” look.
“Well, I ain’t lying!” She spat, “I do hope and pray you are the granddaughter that will be doing my funeral, unless you get a flare up of the ‘Funeral Trauma.’” She sucked in a deep breath and got up off her knees. She ran her bony fingers down the front of her cream sweater to smooth out any wrinkles so she’d be presentable like a good southern woman, forgetting she was just on her knees begging for mercy.
“Flare up?” I sighed with exasperation. “It’s not like arthritis.”
The “Funeral Trauma.”
It was true. I was diagnosed with the “Funeral Trauma” after a decorative plastic Santa fell off the roof of Artie’s Meat and Deli, knocking me flat out cold and now I could see dead people.
I had told Doc Clyde I was having some sort of hallucinations and seeing dead people, but he insisted I had been in the funeral business a little too long and seeing corpses all of my life had brought on the trauma.
Truthfully, the Santa had given me a gift. Not a gift you’d expect Santa to give you, but it was the gift of seeing clients of Eternal Slumber, my family’s funeral home business where I was the undertaker. Some family business.
Anyway, a psychic told me I was now a Betweener. I helped people who were stuck between here and the ever after. The Great Beyond. The Big Guy in the sky. One catch . . . the dead people I saw were murdered and they needed me to help them solve their murder before they could cross over.
“I’m fine,” I huffed and took the pamphlet off of Charlotte Rae’s desk, keeping my gift to myself. The only people who knew were me, the psychic and Sheriff Jack Henry Ross, my hot, hunky and sexy boyfriend. He was as handy as a pocket on a shirt when it came time for me to find a killer when a ghost was following me around. “We are here to get her to sign my papers and talk about this sideboard issue once and for all.”
Granny stared at me. My head slid forward like a turtle and I popped my eyes open.
“I’m fine,” I said through closed teeth.
“You are not fine.” Granny rolled her eyes so big, I swear she probably hurt herself. “People are still going around talking about how you talk to yourself.” She shook her finger at me. “If you don’t watch it, you are going to be committed. Surrounded by padded walls. Then—” She jabbed her finger on my arm. I swatted her away with the pamphlet. “Charlotte Rae will have full control over my dead body and I don’t want someone celebrating a wedding while I lay corpse in the next room. Lawdy bee,” Granny griped.
I opened the pamphlet and tried to ignore Granny as best I could.
“Do you hear me, Emma Lee?” Granny asked. I could feel her beady eyes boring into me. “Don’t you be disrespecting your elders. I asked you a question,” she warned when I didn’t immediately answer her question.
“Granny.” I placed the brochure in my lap and reminded myself to remain calm. Something I did often when it came to my granny. “I hear you. Don’t you worry about a thing. By the time you get ready to die, they will have you in the nuthouse alongside me,” I joked, knowing it would get her goat.
The door flung open and the click of Charlotte Rae’s high-dollar heels tapped the hardwood floor as she sashayed her way back into her office. The soft linen green suit complemented Charlotte’s sparkly green eyes and the chocolate scarf that was neatly tied around her neck. It was the perfect shade of brown to go with her long red hair and pale skin.
“I’m so sorry about that.” She stopped next to our chairs and looked between me and Granny. She shook the long, loose curls over her shoulders. “What? What is wrong, now?”
“Granny is all worried I’m going to get sent away to the nuthouse and you are going to lay her out here.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. Or did my subconscious take over my mouth? It was always a competition between me and Charlotte, only it was one-sided. Mine.
Charlotte never viewed me as competition because she railroaded me all my life. Like now. She’d left Eternal Slumber with zero guilt, leaving me in charge so she could make more money at Hardgrove’s Legacy Center, formerly known as Hardgrove’s Funeral Homes until they got too big for their britches and decided to host every life event possible just to make more money.
“I . . .” Granny’s mouth opened and then snapped shut. Her face was as red as the hair on her head. “I meant that I didn’t want to be placed at Burns Funeral. I don’t know what they do down in their morgue.”
“Granny.” Charlotte Rae eased her toned heinieon the edge of her desk and rested upon it. She planted a smug look on her face. “Here at Hardgrove’s, we offer a full line of services. It’s the way of the future.”
Was she giving us her sales pitch? My jaw clenched. My eyes narrowed. I glared at her perfectly lined hot pink lips. For Charlotte’s coloring, she did look great in pink. Heck, she’d look great in a burlap sack. I tucked a strand of my long, dull brown hair behind my ear and folded my hands in my lap with my short bitten-off nails tucked in my palms. She spent a lot of money at the nail salon, getting the perfect manicure, and they did look good.
But today she looked a little tired. Not normal for Charlotte.
“Well, that certainly wasn’t the answer I expected to hear.” I shook my head. Since Charlotte had left Eternal Slumber Funeral Home, I had forgotten how much of a bossy person she was, until now.
“I’m sorry, Emma Lee.” Charlotte crossed her arms over top of her chest. Her brows lifted. Her green eyes lit up a little. “Did I hurt your feelings?”
“No.” My voice hardened ruthlessly. “But you could at least say that I’m not crazy and for Granny to stop being ridiculous.”
I grabbed my purse off the floor and pulled out the envelope full of legal papers I needed Charlotte to sign to get her out of the family business she had decided to abandon. Not that Hardgrove’s Legacy Center was much competition since it was in Lexington, Kentucky.
But it was just like Charlotte to up and leave when times got lean. So lean that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pay the three employees, other than myself. When clients who had already made pre-need funeral arrangements with Eternal Slumber started pulling out because they didn’t want the “Funeral Trauma” girl to handle them in death, Charlotte Rae had jumped ship. She’d taken a job with Hardgrove’s at their Lexington location. They had several of these big centers all over Kentucky.
Since they were in Lexington, a good forty minutes away from Sleepy Hollow, they really weren’t our competition. But family was family. And in a small town, family stuck together. Not Charlotte. She bailed, leaving me with all the chips to pick up. And that was exactly what I had done. Over the past few months, business had doubled and I needed her to sign off on selling her half of the business to me. Plus, I was here about the family sideboard that had been sitting in the foyer of Eternal Slumber for generations. In a moment of weakness years ago, Granny had apparently promised the sideboard to my dear sister. Like most of us, I’m sure Granny meant Charlotte Rae could have it after she died. Well, Charlotte was calling for it now. As if she were asking for her inheritance while Granny was alive. Over my dead body.
The sideboard was a beautiful, antique staple in Eternal Slumber and I wasn’t about to give it up without a fight or until Granny was six feet under.
I didn’t have time to sit here and beg Charlotte to do what was right. I had a Betweener client’s funeral to prepare and there was no time to dillydally, especially with Charlotte.
“I don’t think Granny is being ridiculous. I mean—” Charlotte picked up one of the same brochures I still had in my lap and gave it a good, swift yank. It unfolded like an accordion. “Here at Hardgrove’s we are a full-service center.” Her pink fingernail pointed to the first photo. “We offer a full line of funeral services with a state-of-the-art facility. Not like the ones in Sleepy Hollow.” She referred to our small town of Sleepy Hollow, Kentucky. And there was the dig about where we grew up.
“You mean Eternal Slumber without saying it?” I wasn’t going to let her get away with saying we weren’t meeting the needs of our residents.
“No, no.” She shook her head and wagged her finger at me like I was some child. “There is also Burns Funeral.” She mentioned the only other funeral home in Sleepy Hollow, which was my direct competitor. “They are definitely not top-of-the-line, especially since O’Dell was elected Sleepy Hollow mayor.”
“Do tell.” Granny lit up like a morning glory; she was tickled pink to hear any and all gossip concerning O’Dell Burns since he beat her in the Sleepy Hollow mayoral election by only two votes.
O’Dell’s sister, Bea Allen, had moved back to town to take over the funeral home while O’Dell spent all his time in his plush office at the courthouse.
“This is on the down-low.” Charlotte gave the good ole Baptist nod that meant we were supposed to keep our mouths shut because she was about to give us some deep-fried small town gossip, but she obviously forgot she was talking to Granny. “I have had several of Burns’s customers come here and change their pre-need funeral arrangements.”
Several of Burns’s? Her words twirled around in my head like a tornado. The more important question was why on earth would Burns’s customers drive all the way to Lexington for a funeral when everyone was in Sleepy Hollow and Eternal Slumber was an option.
“They have?” Granny put her hand to her chest and sucked in. “Who?”
“I’m not going to say, but let me tell you that I heard they put the wrong clothes on the wrong corpse.” Charlotte Rae’s grin was as big as the Grand Canyon. Granny clapped in delight like a little kid getting a piece of candy, turning my stomach in all sorts of directions at the sight. “Since I know you won’t tell” —Charlotte Rae leaned in and whispered— “Old man Ridley died and he was in some sort of the armed services. His family insisted he be buried in his hat. Also, Peggy Wayne was laid out in the room next to old man Ridley and her family wanted to make sure her family pearls were buried with her. When Ridley’s widow got there, he had on Peggy Wayne’s pearls and Peggy had on Ridley’s hat. Ridley’s widow jerked the hat off Peggy’s ice-cold body, taking her wig off with it.”
Granny gasped in horror, only there was a twinkle in her eye of joy that shone greater than a flashlight, encouraging Charlotte Rae to continue her horrid tale.
“Needless to say, it spread all over the gossip circles and here I am today” —she patted the files behind her on the desk— “working up new contracts.”
“Why didn’t you send them to Emma Lee?” Granny asked. I was a bit relieved to see she was getting her wits about her.
“I’m not going to turn down business.” Charlotte cackled. “I have to make a quota here in order to get my big bonus.”
“The Grim Reaper must be busy because Emma Lee’s got ’em lined up four dead bodies deep waiting to be buried.” Granny was talking way too much. “There’s gonna be a lot of good eating coming up, that’s for sure.”
Although Granny was flapping her jaws way too much, my mouth did water at the thought of the upcoming repass. That was one great thing I loved about our small southern town. Funerals were just as big social gatherings as a wedding. And all the locals put their differences aside to come together, bringing food and giving respect to the deceased. The repass was the meal after the funeral service. And Granny always brought homemade apple or cherry pie. Mmm, mmm, I could taste her buttery crust as if I was eating a piece.
“Is that right, Emma Lee? Business is good?” Charlotte asked, bringing me out of my food dream. There was a trace of surprise on her face.
“Now, Granny.” It was time. I put the envelope in front of Charlotte. “Granny is exaggerating.” I lied. There were five bodies, not four, and I wasn’t going to tell Charlotte Rae that business had picked up until she signed over her half of Eternal Slumber to me. “Here is the paperwork drawn up.”
Charlotte Rae took it and carefully lifted the envelope flap. Gingerly she took the papers out and unfolded them, taking a glance at them.
“I’ll look them over later.” She folded them back up and stuck them back in the envelope.
“Later? How much later?” I demanded to know. “There is nothing in there but you giving up your half of the funeral home. You said you were done and it needs to be final.”
“Calm down, Emma Lee.” Charlotte patted her palms down to the ground. “I’m going to sign them, but I want to show Granny around before it gets busy in here.”
In my head, I jumped up and grabbed Charlotte by her long hair, flung her to the ground—breaking one of her nails of course—and forced her to sign the papers. In reality, I swallowed, grabbed the envelope off her desk and followed her and Granny out of the office.
“Here is where we host some receptions.” Charlotte took us into a room filled with round tables and chairs. There was a serving buffet at the front of the room. The room was painted a pale yellow with dark brown crown molding and chair rail. The carpet was maroon with subtle yellow flecks that matched the walls. Pictures on the wall were paintings of retired Keeneland horses that probably cost more than I’ll earn in my entire lifetime.
“For the funerals or the weddings?” Granny was getting caught up in the pageantry of the big funeral home center.
“We do not have repasses here at Hardgrove’s.” Charlotte gestured around the room with her hands like she was one of those models on The Price Is Right. “We have a catered chef who prepares fruit trays, cheese plates and small dessert options, along with tea or coffee.”
“Why do you need a chef for that?” I questioned, trying to find anything to make Charlotte look bad. “I mean, that’s what makes our small town so wonderful.” I reminded Charlotte of what she’d left behind. “I think it’s comforting how the Auxiliary women put their loving hands in making a special dish for the dearly departed’s family and we all come together to share in the family feel of it all.”
Charlotte couldn’t deny that there was something special about a small town like Sleepy Hollow when it came to a death. Everyone put their differences aside, rallied around each other, supported each other. Not like this big building that seemed so cold and institutional.
Charlotte ignored me and continued telling Granny about how they also used it for wedding receptions along with any other celebration they could think of.
“We have a lot of baby showers too.” Charlotte squeezed her shoulders up to her ears in delight. “I just love those.”
“Baby showers?” Granny drew back. All five foot four inches of her small frame froze. “Charlotte Rae, didn’t we raise you better than that?”
“Granny,” Charlotte cackled. “You raised us in a funeral home.”
It was true. Charlotte and I were raised in the family living area of the funeral home right alongside Granny. Granny, Momma and Daddy ran the funeral home while Charlotte and I tried to lead a normal life; only, sleeping in a bed in the next room over from a dead body was far from normal. But we managed. Charlotte and I went to mortuary school, my parents retired and Granny retired after she inherited the Sleepy Hollow Inn from her deceased second husband, leaving the funeral home to us.
“Oh, Granny, you raised me fine. Times have changed and so does business.” Charlotte pish-poshed Granny’s comment. She continued to show us around the large building, going on and on about how they had had retirement parties, birthdays and christenings.
“Christenings?” Granny snickered. “You mean to tell me I could go over here to see my dead relative and walk over yonder to see my great-grandbaby get christened all in one day?”
Charlotte ignored Granny and continued on with the grand tour.
“I really would like you to sign these papers.” I held the envelope out in front of Charlotte when we walked down the hall to get a look at one of the viewing rooms.
Charlotte skipped around me, not giving any acknowledgment to the papers I practically shoved in her face.
“Shh.” Granny batted my hand away and followed right behind Charlotte.
I sucked in a deep breath and tucked a piece of my hair behind my ear, ran my hand down my white T-shirt before I gave in, once again, and followed them to the next room.
The next room looked more like a banquet hall than a viewing room. Large round tables dotting the entire room had crisp baby-blue tablecloths over them and had at least ten chairs around each of them. White taffeta material was stretched and tied around the backs of each chair with a big, stiff bow on the back.
“There you are!” A woman jumped out from behind a large stereo speaker from across the room. And then, lickety-split, she was snapping her fingers and pointing at Charlotte Rae. “My Candy doesn’t deserve a fine wedding reception where the flowers smell like those of a funeral!” She put her hands on her hips and turned to me. Her dirty blond hair was clipped short and her black roots were creeping out from her skull. “Can you smell that?” she asked me in a demanding tone. “Death. That is what I smell. And I told my Candy I wasn’t going to have a dead body next to my princess as she cut that cake I paid an arm and a leg for. Do you hear me?” She rambled on, not giving Charlotte a chance to even speak.
“I understand.” Charlotte Rae tried to calm the woman down.
“No, you don’t, or this would not be happening.” The woman gave Charlotte a stern look. “This is an outrage and you had better fix it or another one of them rooms will be filled out there!”
“I will take care of it, Melinda.” A crimson color crept up the back of Charlotte’s neck. In true Charlotte Rae southern charm, she gave Melinda a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and said, “I promise, your Candy will have the wedding of her dreams. Which we still have a few weeks for. This is just an example of what the room can look like. The chairs. The linens.”
“Her dreams?” Melinda let out a big fit of laughter with a cough. “Hell, she ruined her dreams when she laid down with the Dennis boy. But it ain’t no skin off my nose, because I told her I wasn’t goin’ to raise no more youngin’s. Not even my grandbabies.”
Granny’s eyes darted between Charlotte and Melinda. A delightful grin spread over her face. Charlotte had her hands full and Melinda was giving her a run for her money.
“Momma! You stop talking about us.” The shrill voice echoed through the room. A woman who must’ve been Princess Candy stood in the doorway with a scrawny-looking boy. Candy’s black hair was permed to death. She grabbed the boy’s hand and bustled over to us, practically dragging him like a rag doll. “She ain’t never been happy for me. She’s the one who insisted on all this!”
“I also insisted you get that hair dyed back to blond, but you didn’t listen to that either.” Melinda jerked her head side to side.
“You know my baby doctor said that ain’t no good for the baby. All them fumes and all.” Candy dropped the boy’s hand and stuck her nose up in the air. She took a few quick sniffs. The boy must have been the Dennis boy. Poor guy. I felt sorry for him. He didn’t look older than eighteen years old. He was shorter than the princess and he was in desperate need of a haircut, his curls unfurled all over the top of his head.
“You smell that?” Princess Candy smacked the Dennis boy with the backside of her hand before she planted her hands on her hips, causing her baggy shirt to become taut, exposing the outline of what looked to be a pregnant belly. “Death!”
A groan escaped from Charlotte’s lips.
“I told you that this place smelled like dead people. Are you trying to piss me off?” Candy came nose to nose with Melinda.
Melinda’s arms flew up in the air. “See, I told you!” She pointed to Charlotte and then faced the Dennis boy. “Boy, she’s gonna rip your heart right out of you, fry it up and eat it on a biscuit and swallow it down with a big swig of iced tea if you don’t run.”
“Fix this!” Candy grabbed the boy’s hand and flung him toward the door, dragging him all the way out. “Or someone will take the fall for this!”
“Fix what?” Gina Marie Hardgrove, owner of Hardgrove’s Funeral Homes, walked into the event room carrying a tray of glasses filled with sweet tea and finger sandwiches, dodging the lovebirds. “Oh my!” Gina placed the tray on the table before she gave Granny a hug. “Zula, it’s been so long.” She held Granny out at arm’s length, getting a good look at her. I couldn’t stop looking at that big, baseball-sized diamond on her finger. “You haven’t changed a bit. And this one.” Gina let go of Granny and patted Charlotte on the back. “She is such an asset to Hardgrove’s. I really am sorry we stole her from you.” She gave me a wink.
In the south, a wink speaks volumes and Gina Marie’s wink was more of a dig than a compliment. Memories of Gina Marie flooded over me.
As kids, we’d see the Hardgrove family at different funeral conventions and all us kids would hang out together. Then there had been mortuary school. Gina Marie was there with me and Charlotte. That damn ring of hers was why I got a C minus in the class. I spent most of my days dreaming of having one. The Hardgroves had several funeral homes across the state of Kentucky to our one.
“Now I can go and visit our other centers, knowing I’m leaving here with our Lexington center in good hands.” Gina Marie nodded over to Charlotte who had gingerly taken Melinda aside and talked to her in the corner of the room.
“I guess we better go.” Granny tugged on my arm.
“When you get a moment, can you please have Charlotte sign the papers?” I handed them to Gina Marie.
“She still hasn’t signed these?” Her face turned white and a scowl swept over her nose. “She did sign a non-compete with us, so I’m going to have to take this up with her.”
Charlotte left Melinda in the corner and joined us, jerking the envelope from Gina Marie’s hand. “It has nothing to do with a non-compete,” she assured Gina Marie before turning toward me and Granny and gesturing for us to get the heck out of there.
A small stab hit my heart as Charlotte Rae quickly recovered from the embarrassing scene with a warm smile. Something I was never able to compete with.
“It was so good of you to come by. Emma Lee, I’ll get these back to you soon.” She waved the envelope in the air with one hand and shooed us out the sliding front door with the other. “I must get back to work. Unlike Eternal Slumber, we are always busy with a life event. Yoo-hoo, Arley!” Charlotte raced over to one of the gardens in the front of the funeral home. “You need to put the ducklings in the fountain!”
There was no reason to fuss with her because she wasn’t going to listen and Granny had already started off toward the car. I recognized Arley Burgin, Hardgrove’s grave digger and evidently lawn boy, standing in the fountain with bright yellow gloves clear up to his elbow and a scrub brush in one of his hands. I didn’t know Arley all that well, but he was on the men’s softball team that was sponsored by Eternal Slumber. He had mentioned he wasn’t a fan of Gina Marie which tickled me pink, and by the look on his face, he wasn’t a big fan of Charlotte’s either.
“Y’all a new client here at Hardgrove’s?” The security guard gave me and Granny the once-over after he moseyed up to us.
“No.” I pointed to our car, a hearse, which should’ve been a pretty good indicator to him that we were in the same business. “I’m Charlotte’s sister and this here is our granny. We are from Sleepy Hollow.”
“Burns?” he questioned.
“Why, I never,” Granny gasped and glared. “Do we look like we come from them good-for-nothin’ . . .”
“Eternal Slumber,” I chirped up and cut Granny off. “Have a nice day. Get into the car, Granny.” My brows lifted.
“I knew I should’ve drove the ’ped.” Granny referred to the moped she drove around town. She huffed, got in the car and slammed the door.
I looked at the security guard and rolled my eyes so hard that I thought I hurt myself.
“Oh my stars.” Granny buckled up. “That was a sight for sore eyes.”
I started the engine and pretended to adjust the rearview mirror when I was really looking back at Charlotte. It was good southern manners to stand outside and wave bye as someone pulled off in their car, but bad luck to watch them completely drive off. When we were almost out of sight, Charlotte stomped her feet and hurried back into Hardgrove’s.
“I’m a little disappointed in how she reacted to that nasty woman.” Granny sat poised with her hands in her lap. “She should’ve told her that there were a few funerals being held and the flowers would be removed way before the wedding.” Granny lifted her hand and nervously tapped her finger on the door handle. “Who on earth ever heard of opening a place like that?”
“Really?” I gripped the wheel, turning on the road that took us right back home to Sleepy Hollow where we belonged. “The fact that she hasn’t signed the paperwork should be what you can’t believe. I mean, she’s working illegally for Gina Marie.”
“Pish-posh.” Granny brushed me off. “She’s not happy there. I can see it in her eyes. It’s just a matter of time before she comes back to Eternal Slumber. Mark my words, that is why she hasn’t signed those papers.”
And that was my fear.