Remi Floren-Gates wiped a bead of sweat off her temple with the back of her hand as she steered the aged Taurus down Nebraska Highway 50. Could she really be doing this? Taking a chance and hoping for a better tomorrow was one thing, but this was utterly absurd. She knew absolutely nothing about this house.
The map quivered in her hands as she glanced at the directions. At the next right, she turned onto Route 66 and continued several more miles, then slowed, and upon seeing the green marker for 364th Street eased the car onto a gravel road, driving north between twin cornfields. Dust billowed up and swallowed the vehicle, obstructing the afternoon sun. She cursed the non-existent air-conditioner and grabbed at the handle to the driver’s window to roll the glass up, though she didn’t know if it was worse to choke on the dirt or bake in the sweltering heat. The dealer said he’d completely overhauled the car when she bought it last week, but the air-conditioner crapped out halfway through Iowa. What could she expect from a dealer who boasted “Manny’s the name and cheap’s the game”?
The car fish-tailed in the thick gravel and she took her foot off the accelerator, willing the vehicle to straighten out and her pounding heart to calm. If she went off the road between the cornfields, she doubted anyone would find them for months, if ever.
She glanced at her daughter’s small cherub face in her rear-view mirror, a miniature version of her, or so people said. Petite, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. “Are you hot, sweetheart?” What Remi expected to do if she was, she didn’t know.
Ariel didn’t answer, seemingly focused on the dust swirling outside her side window. At almost six, her baby girl had suffered more loss than she deserved and now Remi could only hope this new start would breathe life into their existence once again. Lord knows, she didn’t deserve it, but her daughter shouldn’t be punished because of her. She tried to swallow the guilt hanging in the back of her throat.
“We’ll be there soon.” Rocks and dirt clods pelted the floorboards. She grabbed the steering wheel with both hands as the car rattled over the gravel washboard. Her fingers trembled, but not because of the road. The quaking rose from deep inside, excitement or fear or most likely, both. “Just a few more miles, now.” When anxious, Remi tended to talk more than normal. She knew it, but she couldn’t help it. “Then we’ll be home.”
Home. A tiny word with a big meaning…a refuge, stability, security. Something they hadn’t experienced in some time, not since her husband and her father died in the fire a little over two years ago. Remi pushed back the swelling tears, determined not to cry. She couldn’t change what happened. It wouldn't get her anywhere anyway, and right now she needed to be strong, for Ariel.
In less than three miles the terrain changed, the incline too steep and forested for farming. Remi took a left and followed a winding drive through dense trees and up a hill, following the contour of the river. A line of misshapen evergreens formed a wall of muted green to the north of the road, their limbs broken and ragged, tinged with brown. Their fallen branches littered the ground, forcing her to drive around them. As she reached the peak, the trees opened to reveal a clearing with a breathtaking view of the river below. A colossal stone mansion sat in the middle of a courtyard with a graveled circle drive. She pulled the car to a stop and stared at the massive estate as a laugh filled the car. It took her a moment to realize it was her own.
Several of the front lower windows were broken and boarded up from the inside, but the elegance and grandeur of the architecture and design remained evident. Debris littered the wide steps leading to the entrance. Vines crisscrossed the front and side of the building, the green pointed leaves flapping against the grey stone. A sagging garage and two outbuildings, choked with weeds, lay beyond, nestled between the oak, ash and cottonwood trees. Blackthorn Manor had definitely seen better days.
Remi pinched her arm as she got out of the car. Was she dreaming? This house belonged to her? Mabel said it was big, but nothing could’ve prepared her for this.
The scent of wildflowers hung on the humidity, the heat of sunshine baking her skin. She stepped forward into the encompassing shadow of the vast building. Light to dark in one step, and just as quickly, her skin went from heated to cool. Too cool. She shivered... it seemed from more than just the difference in temperature. Shrugging, she stepped back into the heat then opened the back door to unbuckle Ariel from the car.
She too, seemed in awe of the enormous structure and stared up, wide-eyed, her little mouth open. Remi picked her up and hugged her tight. “This is the house Mabel gave us.” Apprehension dragged at her, the hairs on her arm rising, as if someone was watching her. Did someone not want her there?
They’d had a lovely home in Davenport, Iowa, before the accident. A comfortable life. Happy and productive. Remi took care of her family while both her father and husband, Garrett, maintained the small appliance shop out back. Then the fire burned it all to the ground, taking the lives of the two men she loved most. Later she found the insurance had lapsed. She had no family. No home. No money. She and Ariel lost everything.
Ian Price, Garrett’s lawyer and friend, tried to help. Kind and understanding, as he consoled and comforted her throughout everything, even making the appointment with the counselor when Ariel’s nightmares wouldn’t subside. Checked in regularly to see what he could do, always bringing a bag or two of groceries when he came…tried to offer money, but she wouldn’t take any. Groceries were even too much. He was devastated when he told her about the insurance, vowing to try and get to the bottom of it. Garrett would’ve been grateful he had such a good friend helping in her time of need.
Odd jobs helped pay for their expenses, but finding anything that paid enough to cover child care, as well as rent, utilities and food was nearly impossible. Without a college degree, Remi didn’t have the experience or expertise people wanted. It didn’t matter her home had looked like something out of a magazine or she could cook up almost any dish imaginable. When she accepted an interview at the insistence of the lawyer for Mabel Whitmore, she didn’t expect to be hired. What wealthy ninety-five-year-old woman would want her for a live-in care-giver, especially not with a five-year-old in tow? But Mabel only smiled and embraced her when she arrived for their meeting.
“I’ve been looking for you nearly fifteen years and here you’ve been in my own back yard.” Mabel’s silver hair hung loosely down her back as she leaned forward on her cane.
Remi couldn’t help but wonder if the woman mistook her for someone else, but instead of contradicting her, she merely smiled and nodded. She needed the job.
“And you have a little girl? How wonderful.” Mabel glanced through Remi’s resume. Except for her first unusual statement, the old woman was sharp and mobile for her age, insisting to do the interview herself. “Because of your daughter, you probably know more about how to treat an old lady than ninety-nine percent of the other candidates.”
Remi remained quiet, watching the elderly lady.
Mabel glanced up, looking at her over the top of her glasses and chuckled. “See. You’re doing it already. Second nature for you.” She winked. “An old woman is a lot like a child. We live in a fantasy world half the time and don't make much sense the other. But we have a lot of love to give if you shower us with patience and understanding.”
Remi couldn’t help but laugh. After that, they became fast friends. She and Ariel moved into the bedrooms on the third floor and Remi took up the housekeeping and care of the elderly woman. Life became bearable again. Ariel loved being around Mabel and their giggles rang through the house. They shared stories of make-believe friends and super heroes. Mabel’s fantasy favorite was a woman who could fly and appeared in times of need when she was a child staying with her aunt and uncle. Remi laughed at the imaginary heroine, but Ariel loved to hear story after story about her.
Mabel talked endlessly of her aunt and uncle’s home in Nebraska. “It was the loving project of my aunt’s brother, a sea-captain named Ezariah Blackthorn. He built it special for his wife, Annabelle, and daughter, Evangeline. A wonderful man.” The old woman winked at Ariel. “The house has a secret and you’re going to love it. I’m going to take you and your mommy there soon.”
Remi listened in as she dusted and wondered how the old woman thought she could take them on such a trip? A sweet offer, but crazy. Now, looking back, she had fulfilled her promise.
As Mabel shared her stories of the manor when she was young, a far-away look misted her gaze…fishing in the Platte River, hiking through the woods and riding horses along the ridge. Once she stopped in the middle of her reminiscing, the glaze in her eyes gone, and stared hard at Remi. “Don’t you ever believe those terrible things they say about Ezariah and the manor.” As soon as she said it, the glaze returned and she was off again, telling stories.
All went well, until five months ago. Mabel fell during her morning walk in the garden and broke her hip. Remi spent much of her time at the hospital as the old woman’s health deteriorated. Ian stepped in to help with Ariel, and Remi did her best to console her when she could, but knew her little girl feared losing yet another loved one. When Mabel passed last month, their hearts broke. Not only had they lost a cherished friend, but they were now, once again, without a home.
Remi didn’t expect anything when Richard Albright, Mabel’s lawyer, called her in for the reading of the will. Mabel had no children, only several charities she supported. She also had a niece and nephew and the rest of her estate would surely go to them. When the lawyer called Remi’s name, they all three gasped as one.
“And to Remina Floren-Gates, I leave Blackthorn Manor outside of Louisville, Nebraska along with a sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, with the stipulation she restore the house as we planned. I pray the home will bring her as much happiness as she brought me.”
The niece and nephew shared a quick glance and a chuckle, then turned serious again.
As Remi stared up at the mansion, she now understood their snickers. She’d thought it a tremendous amount, but would it be enough? She wasn’t sure. Yet she couldn’t thank Mabel enough. This house could be the answer to her prayers. There would be plenty of work to get it cleaned up and returned to its complete grandeur. She was handy too, and could help save money by doing lots of projects herself.
“Mabel gave us a castle.” Ariel took her hand and squeezed, pulling her from her thoughts.
“It is like a castle, isn’t it?” She squeezed the little hand in return as resolve lifted her shoulders. She would do what she had to do and restore the house. Then she’d sell it and she and Ariel would move on. With any luck, they’d make a nice profit and then they could start over anywhere they wanted, a new beginning.
A dark blue Ford pick-up truck barreled up the drive and skidded to a stop on the other side of the Taurus. A tall man in jeans and a cowboy hat jumped out of the cab and headed her way. “Are you lost?”
Remi stared into the deep blue eyes of the man, holding her breath as if she’d fallen into a bottomless ocean. Finally she shook free of her trance and glanced at the map again, praying the rising warmth in her cheeks didn’t show. “Lost? I don’t think so.” She could only hope she hadn’t gotten turned around in her directions. “This is Blackthorn Manor, isn’t it?”
Surprise registered on the man’s face and then a smile replaced it, starting in his eyes. “Well, I’ll be. So, you’re the new owner of this haunted house.”
The statement echoed in Remi’s head. Haunted house? She gazed back to the mansion, an eerie shiver edging up her spine.
The man in the cowboy hat thrust out a leather-clad hand. “The name’s Shane. Shane Zimmerman, your neighbor.” He pointed to a ridge about a mile away where a log cabin overlooked the river. “I live up there. Saw you drive up.”
“Remi Floren-Gates.” She shook his hand, the greeting firm and welcoming, then let go, and tried to discretely wipe the remnants of grit from the handshake on her jeans.
He caught her. The man whipped off his gloves and a blush crept up his neck. “Sorry. Forgive my manners. Was doing some fencing so my cows don’t get out again.”
She almost chuckled but didn’t want to embarrass him any more than he already was.
He pushed the cowboy hat back from his brow to expose a shock of sweaty black hair. Out of the shadow, his face was handsome and kind.
“Are you a farmer or something?”
“Or something.” He grinned, twin dimples deepening under a scruff of unshaven beard. “I have a small herd, but mostly do construction. Have my own company.”
Ariel peered out from behind her mother, hugging her small pink blanket tight between her arms. Remi side-stepped and placed a hand on her shoulder. “This is my daughter, Ariel.”
The man tipped his hat and offered another warm greeting. The girl dashed behind her mother’s legs again, then peeked out, a shy smile crossing her face.
Remi knelt next to her. “Hey, sweetie, why don’t you see if you can find Clover in the car? Then you can show him around our new house.” With that Ariel trotted off. “My daughter’s a little shy, especially around people she’s never met.” She watched her little girl disappear around the side of the car in search of her favorite stuffed rabbit. It was the last thing her father had given her. She took it everywhere. The first six months Remi couldn’t even put it in the washer without Ariel kicking and screaming. Once she finally realized she’d get it back, her anxiety lessened, though even now she still sat next to the dryer until the stuffed bunny was clean and dried.
Remi’s attention turned back to the Manor. “Why’d you say the house is haunted?” Her words wavered, though she tried to keep the worry from edging in.
Shane blushed again. “I didn’t mean anything by it. That rumor’s been going around since way before I was born. Nobody’s lived here for years. Some rich old lady paid to fix it up from time to time but that’s it. I didn’t even know it was up for sale. Never figured anyone would ever want it.”
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich Remi ate for lunch settled deep in her gut. What had Mabel given her? She loved the place, the house from her childhood memories, but she didn’t say anything about a ghost.
On one hand, the house seemed to leer at her, its dark broken windows daring her to enter and confront its past. On the other hand, with its unkempt demeanor and disheveled appearance, it begged her for understanding and compassion, to proceed with the plea of a silly old woman to bring it back to life.
“I figured you knew about its history since you bought it.” Shane touched her arm, breaking her concentration.
“I didn’t buy it.” Remi couldn’t tear her eyes from the derelict house. “A dear friend left it to me and wanted me to restore it.”
“Oh…” Shane shifted, his boots stirring up dust.
He probably thought it silly to even consider renovating it, but the more she looked at the house, she knew she had to. Despite its condition, its striking architecture and design remained obvious. Besides, she had nowhere else to go. Her car barely had any gas, running on fumes and she had more than she cared to admit on her credit card. She couldn’t use the money Mabel left. It was earmarked to fix the house. Her only hope, to sell the manor after it was renovated. It could be the spring board to get her and Ariel to where they were meant to be.
“It’s a grand place.” Shane continued. “I’m sure with some TLC, it could be something.” He glanced to her Taurus. “Need help unloading the car?”
“I can manage.” There wasn’t much. The salvaged remains of her past life included three suitcases, four boxes, two sleeping bags, and a cooler with water, fruit and a handful of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Cleaning supplies and buckets waited in the trunk.
An awkward silence stretched between them as he paused, and then glanced at Ariel who snuck behind Remi again, her lavender bunny in hand. He set his hat back into place. “Say, why don’t you let me take you two out for dinner tonight? It’s the least I can do as your neighbor.”
“No, we couldn’t impose…” As if on cue, Remi’s stomach growled. Mortified her body would give her away like that, she took comfort in the grin on the cowboy’s face.
“It’s not imposing.” Shane pulled his shoulders back and hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets. “Maybe I can set you up with some names of people to help with the renovations, too. I know a pretty good contractor.” He winked. “Besides, it’s not like it’s a five-star restaurant or anything. It’s the local bar and grill. Steak, chicken and hamburgers.”
Ariel tugged on her mother’s shirt. “I like h’mburgers.”
Shane leaned back on his boots and nodded. “See? Even Ariel wants a burger…and Art’s are the best around.”
“Thank you.” Remi smiled back, allowing the muscles in her shoulders to relax. There was something about him. For some reason, she trusted this kind and genuine man.
After setting a time for Shane to return to pick them up for dinner, he left, leaving Remi with the task of investigating the house willed to her. She hoped Ariel hadn’t picked up on the haunted part. She didn’t need anything more to upset her daughter or causing more nightmares.
The mix of joy and fear quarreled in her gut. Ever since the reading of the will, it had been her intent to fix the place up and sell it. The profit would give her the chance to focus on her daughter’s needs, instead of worrying about how they were going to make it every second of the day. She’d imagined a simple wood farmhouse, making them a tidy sum. Instead, this mansion was huge and would be an incredible place once restored. She imagined it decorated for the holidays or holding great parties. She’d always dreamed of living in something like this one day, but not only did they need the money, she couldn’t afford to keep it. It would cost a fortune to furnish a house this big. Money she obviously didn’t have.
She pulled the keys from her purse and, she and Ariel made their way up the stone steps, skirting the gnarly branches and dead bushes littering the way. The door creaked as she opened it. A musty smell released into the outdoors as the house took its first breath in years. She flipped a light switch, thankful she’d remembered to call and have the power turned on. A dirty glass chandelier glared into the spacious foyer rising a full two stories. Wide, elegant steps set a grand stage to the upstairs. To the right, an impressive sitting room with fourteen-foot ceilings and high rounded windows overlooked the front porch and drive, though now wooden boards filled most of the openings.
“I suppose this was the parlor. Image a large couch and grand piano filling this space.” Remi spoke to Ariel, though her daughter had already moved to the next room.
They passed through a massive pocket door to a smaller sitting room with the same windows and a study of some kind beyond it. A wide hallway led them to an empty library. Shelves lined the vast walls from floor to ceiling and a ladder rolled along it on a special track. A wide round bay window with a wood bench overlooked the patio and river… or least what she could see of it through the vines covering the glass.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to fill this library with books?” Ariel loved reading the hundreds of stories in Mabel’s library. Too bad Remi would never be able to stock it.
A formal dining room came next, complete with an oak wood chair rail, though the thick wall paper peeled from the wall like shedding skin. Next a bathroom and then a large pantry. A huge kitchen opened to the side of the house, complete with a big country sink, a stove and fridge from the fifties. A detached garage rested not far outside the back door, most likely a carriage house when the manor had first been built.
A second set of steps led from the kitchen to the second floor. “Careful.” Remi made sure to keep Ariel close as they wound their way upstairs. The boards creaked as they walked, buckling slightly under their weight, two of the steps missing a good portion of their timber.
They inched around it and continued to the second floor visiting six large bedrooms, complete with walk-in closets and bathrooms, before stopping in a large master suite in the back. Windows stretched from the floor to ceiling with elegant molding completing the trim and a master bath and closet set off to the right.
“This your room?” Ariel’s eyes rounded at the size of the bedroom. “It’s big.”
“Yeah. I bet you could fit six king-size beds in here.” Remi held Ariel’s arms and swung her around. “Or have a big dance.” Ariel giggled and they moved to investigate the balcony.
Glass doors opened to a wide terrace that ran the length of the house. From there they could see for miles, the river and ridges stretched out like a variegated green and brown quilt. Ariel stepped forward to gaze over the stone railing.
“Wait, Sweetie.” Remi held her back. “We don’t know how sturdy this is yet.” As she finished speaking, the porch groaned as if in agreement. She pulled her daughter back inside and locked the door. “Do you want to sleep in this room with me? There’s more than enough space. Or do you want your own bedroom?”
“I’m a big girl now, Mommy.” Ariel crossed her arms, her rabbit, Clover, against her chest. “And big girls have their own room.”
“Well, I thought you might want to be close since it’s a new house and all.” Remi continued to explore, hoping her hint would make her daughter change her mind. The master bathroom opened behind double doors, complete with a claw-foot tub and pedestal sink. How she would love to see it all restored to its original beauty.
“I bet you could take one amazing bubble bath in that tub.” Remi turned to see if her daughter agreed, but Ariel was nowhere to be seen. “Ariel?” She dashed back into the bedroom. “Where are you?” Not there either. Where could her daughter go?
She checked in the bedroom across the hall and the giant closet on the other side of the front staircase. Her daughter wasn’t there either. A door stood open at the last room and she found Ariel standing in the middle of a quaint bedroom with a dormer that looked over the circle drive. Peeling wallpaper hung in small spiral strips over the decorative wainscoting.
“Honey, you scared me. Please don’t take off without telling me where you’re going.”
Ariel spun in a circle, holding her rabbit tight. “This is my room.”
“This one?” Remi tried to hide her dismay. “The other bedrooms are bigger. Wouldn’t you like one of those? Maybe the one right across the hall from mine?”
Ariel shook her head, determination sparking in her eye. “This one! It makes me feel safe.”
No use upsetting her. Her daughter had been through too much already and if it made her feel safe, how could she say no. Besides, they wouldn’t be here long anyway. It was fine for the time being.
Remi made her way back down the grand staircase to the front foyer. She would’ve felt like a princess descending the steps to a glorious ball if she could quit trembling with expectation, searching the shadows for the source of her unease. At the bottom, she turned to the last room. A wide rounded entryway led to a great room spanning the entire width of the house. Floor to ceiling windows and doors lined the back wall and revealed a massive patio behind the house. Big pots, some cracked and broken, decorated the levels of stone porch with patches of wild flowers and weeds growing in raised flowerbeds. Remi stood in the middle of the room and gazed at the far wall, dwarfed by the enormous stone fireplace. Rock crept up to the ceiling and out into the room with an oval hearth, inviting its guests to sit, get warm and be comforted. Funny, but that’s just what she wanted to do in this room, as if the manor beckoned her to stay.
Haunted or not, this was one incredible house.
“Well, let’s clean up what we can, okay?” Remi clapped her hands together as if to command the beginning of the project. “Hopefully, the shippers will bring our beds in the morning.” She wanted to laugh when she thought of how small the twin bed she’d bought would look in her giant bedroom.
After retrieving the supplies from the car, she cleaned while Ariel picked up sticks on the back patio and made a pile at the bottom of the steps. Dust flew as Remi swept the great room, her eye drawn again and again to the fireplace. She washed the wood floors, admiring the beautiful grain and tone once the dirt and grime had been removed. As she wrung the mop out one last time, footsteps startled her.
“Wow.” Shane stood inside the great room, cowboy hat in hand, eyes wide as he gazed at the massive fireplace. “I’ve never been in here before. Definitely needs work, but this place is really something.”
Remi caught herself beaming. Too bad she couldn’t stay here, but what would she do with a huge house like this anyway?
Ariel moseyed in from the back patio, holding a crooked stick in one hand. Her long hair, tousled with tiny twigs poking out, swept to one side and revealed her neckline, damp with sweat. Outside the windows, a lopsided pile of small branches lay next to one of the raised flower beds on the terraced squares.
“I picked up sticks, Mommy.”
“Thanks, sweetie.” Remi motioned her over. “Why don’t you wash up so we can go eat?”
“Wow, look at that pile.” Shane pointed out the back window with his hat. “I could use someone like you on my construction crew. Are you for hire?”
Ariel giggled, and then quickly buried her face into her bunny, before running down the hall to the main floor bathroom. It warmed Remi’s heart to see the joy on her daughter’s face. There'd been too much sadness for too long.
“Since you’ve never been in here…” Remi set the mop in the corner with her broom. “…would you like a tour? Maybe you can give me some direction as to what all needs to be done.”
Shane continued to be impressed with the house as Remi led him from room to room, his face gawking at the commanding architecture. His aftershave smelled delightful and she couldn’t help wanting to get a little closer. Shane seemed not to notice and poked at the wood and walls, sharing his thoughts on what needed repaired or replaced. He pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket and noted the broken windows, the worn steps and missing boards, wobbly balcony, as well as other numerous weakened areas.
Back at the front door, he put the pad away. “There’s a lot that needs fixed, but this house has incredible bones. I expected it to be a lot worse off than it is.”
After a short drive into town, Shane parked in a small lot crowded with dirty pick-ups. As soon as he opened the bar’s door for Remi, the smell of deep fried onions and grilled meat welcomed her to Art’s Bar and Grill. Red checkered tablecloths topped square tables and friendly chatter rumbled through the room. Heads turned as they entered and a number of hands waved at the contractor as well as several shouted greetings.
“It seems everyone knows you.” Remi noted as she coaxed Ariel to an open table, aware of all the eyes watching them.
“That’s small town for you.” Shane looked at Remi and winked.
It was true. Remi remembered small town America. She’d grown up in Blanchardville, Wisconsin, a fly-speck on the state map. With a little over eight hundred people it was hard to get away with anything as a kid. Her dad always knew before she even got home if she’d said a bad word or snuck into old man Gerber’s orchard. As if everyone had their home phone number memorized.
A middle-aged waitress with dyed black hair and white apron strolled up, tablet and pencil in hand. “Hi, Shane.” She smiled at Remi and then to Ariel. “Who do we have here?”
“Hi, Stella. This is Remi and her daughter, Ariel. They’ve just moved here.”
“Well, welcome to Louisville.” Her hospitality seemed sincere. “Where’re you moving to?”
“Blackthorn Manor.” Remi immediately regretted her statement as the room fell silent and heads turned to stare.
The waitress frowned at the collective faces gawking Remi’s way. “You all mind your own business.” She motioned with her hand, like a mother demanding her children sit up straight and mind their manners. Turning back, she laid down a couple of menus on the vinyl tablecloth. “Don’t fret about those butt-heads.” Stella cast an angry glance over her shoulder, forcing those still staring to whirl about in their chairs and grab their drinks. “People around here like a good piece of gossip. Give them two weeks and you’ll be old news.”
Remi gazed at her hands, sure the heat rushing to her face showed in her cheeks. She didn’t want to be anyone’s gossip, even if only for a few weeks. Though she did appreciate the spunky attitude of the waitress in quelling the gawkers, at least for now.
Stella leaned down in front of Ariel and produced a coloring sheet and two colors. “I hope you’ll like it here.”
Ariel’s eyes lit up and she grabbed the red crayon. “Thank you.” She grinned and colored the outlined picture on the paper, her trusty lavender bunny perched in her lap.
The waitress stood back up and peeked over at the last two faces staring Remi’s way. They, too, turned to their plates. “Most folks ‘round here are pretty friendly,” she continued, her voice rising so everyone in the bar could hear. “… even if they are a bit nosey.”
The chatter picked back up, though Remi thought it was a bit more hushed. She focused on the menu, her heart pounding in her ears. Maybe she shouldn’t have come. It seemed the whole town knew about her “haunted” house, and with this kind of story surrounding it, how could she ever sell it?
Dang it anyway. This was Mabel’s favorite home. The rumor had to be false. Probably raccoons or possums. Ghosts weren’t real and she’d prove it.
They ordered cheeseburgers and Stella brought soft drinks for the girls and a beer for Shane. Ariel continued to color, while the contractor took out his notes from the house and discussed the renovation needs, going room by room. Remi’s head swam as the list grew — windows, drywall, cupboards, electrical, plumbing, paneling. Halfway through the discussion on the kitchen remodel, her cell-phone rang and she snagged it from her purse before the gawkers could stare again.
“Hello?” A familiar voice caught her off guard. “Ian. Hi.” She’d found it harder than she expected to leave Davenport and close that chapter of her life. All the hopes and dreams with Garret and her father, gone in a puff of smoke. Mabel had brought joy back to their lives for a time and Ariel even started to relax, the nightmares from the fire decreasing. Then it all spiraled again after Mabel broke her hip.
Ian’s voice interrupted her memories. “I wanted to make sure you made it okay.”
“Yes, we got here this afternoon.” Remi glanced at Shane. He paid her no mind, reviewing his notes.
“How’s Ariel? I’m sure it was a long drive for her.”
It was thoughtful of him to worry about her daughter, especially after she hardly said anything to him when they left. Remi had tried everything, but Ariel only sat in the car, as if isolating herself from the heartbreak surrounding the memories there.
“Ariel’s great. She made the drive like a champ.” She glanced over as her daughter blew bubbles in her soda with a straw.
“Is she really? She seemed so depressed when you left. Maybe you should get her some more counseling. I know of a great therapist in Omaha.”
Remi wasn’t sure how to respond. They’d visited with a counselor in Davenport. She said it was natural for a child to experience mood swings with grief and gave her plenty of tips to help her daughter work through things. But could she be pushing too much, too soon?
Ian changed the subject. “So, what’s the house like?”
Not wanting to share the speculation of a ghost surrounding the manor, Remi hesitated. Ian would want to help and it was time she stood up and did this on her own. Besides, there were still plenty of people in the bar watching her and she didn’t want to draw any more attention to their table. “It’s pretty run-down, but a contractor I met says it has great bones.” Shane glanced up at the comment.