To Free a Phantom is set to release February 14, 2018, so I thought I’d share the first chapter here on my blog to give you a little glimpse of the story.
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Here you go! Chapter One of To Free a Phantom
A proud smile curved Erica Miller’s lips as Amber, her star theater student, delivered the last line of her monologue. She’d spent weeks perfecting the character, putting the right inflection on the words, and timing her delivery perfectly to create a heart-wrenching scene that was sure to win her a spot at the Yale School of Drama.
Erica rose from her seat in the auditorium and clapped, and the rest of her students followed suit. She shuffled onto the stage and pulled Amber into a hug. “That was amazing. With an audition like that, you’re sure to get into Yale.”
A pink blush spread across Amber’s cheeks. “Thanks for all your help, Ms. Miller.”
“I didn’t do a thing but give you time to practice. That was all you, sweetie.”
The rest of the class filed onto the stage, offering their congratulations and wishing her success at the upcoming audition. Jason wrapped his arm around Amber’s shoulders. “I know we’re not supposed to say good luck, but I just can’t bring myself to wish anything bad on you. I hope you do great.”
Caitlyn brushed her brown hair from her shoulder and crossed her arms. “Careful, Jason. You’ll jinx her. I hope you break a leg, Amber. Literally.”
“Caitlyn…” Erica’s sharp tone caused the girl to shrink into the crowd. “That was uncalled for.” She crossed her arms and glared at her class. Caitlyn had been nasty to her classmate since Amber earned the lead in their production of Carrie. Erica needed to nip this in the bud now, before it got out of hand. “I will not tolerate any kind of negativity in my theater. This is a safe place, where we can all learn and grow as actors and people. If you decide to make acting your career, there will be plenty of off-stage drama in the real world. While you’re here, save it for the stage. Understand?”
Caitlyn lowered her gaze. “Yes, ma’am.”
Erica raised her voice, looking each student in the eyes as she spoke. “I’m talking to everyone. Do you all understand?”
The rest of the students muttered their agreement.
“I know Mrs. Spencer didn’t allow that kind of talk when she ran this place, and she taught me everything I know. Don’t think for a minute that you can walk all over your new director.”
Daniel, a brown-eyed boy who’d been taking classes there for years, flipped a hand in the air. “That crazy old lady didn’t know upstage from down.”
Heat flushed through Erica’s veins at the way the students dismissed her former mentor. She put her hands on her hips. “She was not crazy.”
“She strangled her husband and slit her own wrists.” Daniel mirrored her posture.
Her throat tightened. “She was…ill.” When she’d first heard the news, she hadn’t believed it. She still couldn’t believe the woman who had played such a pivotal role in her life would do such a thing. Mrs. Spencer had meant everything to her.
She fisted her hands at her sides. “Everyone get in your places for act 2, scene 3. Let’s run it from the top.”
As the students shuffled across the stage, a loud pop sounded from the back of the auditorium, and then the lights went out, casting the entire room in darkness. Caitlyn squealed and latched onto Jason’s arm, while several students activated the flashlight features on their phones.
“That’s probably Mrs. Spencer’s ghost,” Caitlyn said. “She doesn’t like you talking about her.”
Erica sighed and hopped off the stage. “It’s not her ghost. There’s something wrong with the light board.” She’d seen and communicated with plenty of spirits in her lifetime, so if Mrs. Spencer—or any ghosts—were haunting this theater, surely they would’ve shown themselves by now. “If it is you, Mrs. Spencer,” she whispered under her breath, “I’d love to talk to you.”
She fiddled with the wires connecting the computerized board to the house and stage lights. She’d only been away from the theater for ten years, but in that time, the system controlling the lights and sound had gotten so high-tech she struggled to operate it. The user manual was so complicated she’d given up reading it a quarter of the way in. She’d have to buckle down and watch some YouTube videos on how to operate the darn thing tonight. If her students suspected her even a third as incompetent as she felt, she’d never get this business off the ground.
Not that she wanted to run a business in the first place, but that was another story.
None of the wires appeared out of place. Hopefully, a reboot would be all the system needed.
A sudden chill in the air made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. It could have been a draft or a reluctant spirit; it was hard to tell the difference. She smoothed her thick braid over her shoulder, running her hands along her cheek to be sure her hair still covered the side of her face. This was the fourth time the lights had gone out in the six weeks she’d been teaching here. If her technical incompetency wasn’t to blame, then there was either something seriously wrong with the light board or the theater really was haunted. Though, if it was haunted, why hadn’t the ghosts made themselves known?
She’d almost rather the problem be ghosts. Having a technician out to fix the system didn’t fit in her nearly-nonexistent budget. If ghosts were to blame, she might be able to convince them to stop if they’d show themselves to her.
She inhaled deeply and pressed the power button. “Please turn the lights back on.”
The machine beeped. A line of red and green LEDs flashed on the keyboard as the system hummed to life. She turned the dial for the house lights, and brightness flooded the room. Adjusting the sliders for the stage lights, she doused the students in blue, red, and yellow. They relaxed, returning their phones to their pockets, but Caitlyn kept a firm grip on Jason’s bicep.
Erica let out a slow breath. Everything seemed to be working for now. “See?” She made her way to a middle seat in the auditorium. “It’s just these darn computers. They’re great when they work. A pain in the tush when they don’t.”
“Tush?” Jason peeled his arm from Caitlyn’s grasp. “C’mon, Ms. M. We’re all almost-grown-ups here. Tell us how you really feel.”
She arched an eyebrow at her student. “They’re a pain in the ass. Happy?”
He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
“All right.” She lowered herself into the seat. “We’ve wasted enough time. Act 2, scene 3. And…action.”
* * *
Gage Dawson sauntered into Angelica’s Café at ten-thirty-five a.m. Four blondes waited for him at their usual table near the back of the restaurant, and that would normally be the highlight to any man’s day. Too bad all four of these women were his sisters.
“You’re late,” Abigail said.
He eyed his oldest sibling. “Thanks. You told me that three texts ago.”
“We started the mimosas without you.” Becky tipped her head back and chugged what was left in her flute.
He chuckled. “I’m sure there’s plenty more.”
As if on cue, the waiter set another pitcher on the table and took everyone’s order. Gage asked for his usual: a three-egg omelet with cheese and tomatoes.
“You always order that.” Chelsea, his youngest sister, handed her menu to the waiter. “Don’t you want to try something new for a change?”
Gage shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.”
“Most men are.” Deanna, the second youngest, placed her order and looked at Gage. “Why were you late?”
“He had a hot date last night, remember?” Chelsea elbowed Deanna. “Pay attention.”
“Ouch!” Deanna rubbed her arm.
Gage shook his head. His little sisters had started bickering the moment Chelsea had learned to talk, and they hadn’t stopped since. “My date was three days ago. I was on a ghost hunt last night.”
Chelsea’s shoulders drooped. “It was three days ago?”
“Pay attention,” Deanna mocked.
“I’m sorry.” Chelsea held her left hand in front of her sister’s face. “Ever since I got engaged, I’ve been so busy planning my wedding, I lose track of time.”
“Oh, rub it in.” Deanna slapped her hand away. “Mark is taking his time. He’ll propose soon enough.”
Gage leaned back in his chair and listened to his sisters’ banter. Being the only boy, born smack in the middle of four girls, he’d gotten used to listening. They barely let him get a word in most of the time.
“Anyway…” Abigail gave the younger women the stink eye before turning to Gage. “How did the ghost hunt go?”
He covered his mouth to hide his yawn. He’d been late to brunch because he didn’t get to bed until seven that morning. Two and a half hours of sleep wasn’t nearly enough for his brain to keep up with the conversations of four sisters. “The investigation was good. We got some compelling evidence, but the client wants the ghosts gone. And we can’t do that without our psychic.”
Becky drained another glass of mimosa. “Is something wrong with Allison?”
“Nah. She’s on vacation with her husband. Fiji, I think. I gave them a list of some of the other psychics we’ve worked with and told them if they don’t work out, we’ll come back when Allison’s home.”
Chelsea swung her hand through the air as if waving off the conversation. “I want to hear about your date. How did it go with…what was her name? Roxanne? Rihanna?”
Gage groaned. “Rochelle.” Of course there’d be no avoiding this conversation, but a guy could hope. One of these days, he’d learn to keep his mouth shut and not tell his siblings about his personal business. He shook his head. Who was he kidding? His family was so close that Chelsea started a group text every time someone so much as sneezed. “It was…fine.”
“Uh-oh.” Deanna crossed her arms. “What happened?”
“Nothing. I said it was fine.”
“We all know what fine means, little brother.” Becky gripped his shoulder. “Tell us.”
He dragged a hand down his face. He really needed to learn to keep his mouth shut. “We had dinner, and she told me all about her ex-boyfriend and how he cheated on her. It was pretty much all she talked about.”
“Awe.” Chelsea stuck out her bottom lip. “You’re too nice. That’s what it is.”
He laughed dryly. “Oh, it gets better. I took her home, and she invited me in.”
Chelsea straightened her spine and leaned forward. “And?”
“And then she asked me to fix her Wi-Fi.”
His youngest sister’s mouth dropped open. “Please tell me you didn’t.”
He lifted his hands palms up.
“You did! Gage!” Chelsea pointed a finger at him. “See? This is exactly what I mean. You’re too nice.”
“What? I was already there, so I reset it. It’s not like I went out of my way.” Not too much anyway. “I couldn’t leave the poor woman with no Internet connection.”
Chelsea narrowed her eyes. “And did you at least get laid for that?”
“Of course he didn’t,” Deanna chimed in. “Look at his face. That’s the face of a man who hasn’t been laid in a long time.”
“I’m just tired. I…” Gage closed his eyes for a long blink and let out a sigh. He could think of a million different ways to spend Saturday morning that would be better than talking about his sex life with his sisters. Then again, what could he say? Deanna was right. He’d never had much luck in the romance department. “This conversation is over. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Mom and Steven are going to Cuba next month.” Abigail gave him a conspiratorial wink. Though she’d done plenty of instigating when they were kids, he could always count on his oldest sister to be the voice of reason.
He focused his attention on Abigail. “How’d they manage that?”
“It’s not that difficult anymore. I hear they have beautiful beaches.”
“Is it safe?”
“As long as you stay in the tourist areas.”
His mom had been dating Steven for a few years now, but ever since his dad left them when he was eight years old, Gage had considered himself the protector of the family. He’d fought off bullies and taken care of his sisters and his mom for as long as he could remember. Now that none of them needed him anymore, he felt a little…well, useless.
The waiter brought their orders, and thankfully, a few moments of silence ensued as they ate their food.
Becky poured the last drop of mimosa into her glass. “Who’s taking me home?”
Abigail patted her arm. “You rode with me, remember? Mom’s got the kids.”
“Right.” Becky turned to Gage, sloshing the contents of her glass onto the white linen tablecloth. “You know what you need, little brother?”
He eyed Abigail. “How many of these has she had?”
“Enough.” Abigail took the glass from her sister.
“What you need is a good woman to take care of you. Why don’t you have a girlfriend yet?”
Abigail rolled her eyes.
Gage groaned. Not this again.
“You need to stop being so nice,” Chelsea said. “That really is your problem.”
He shrugged. “I am who I am.” And he wasn’t about to start acting like a dick just to land a date.
“Exactly. You’re smart. You’re attractive.” Chelsea tapped a finger against her chin. “You have no problem meeting women, right?”
He crossed his arms. “I suppose.”
“Your bad luck happens once they get to know you.”
“Great. It’s my personality. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Chels.”
“No, no.” She waved her hands in the air. “Your personality is great too, but women like a challenge. If you play it cool, like you aren’t that interested in the beginning, they’ll be falling all over you. Trust me.”
Abigail shook her head. “Don’t listen to her, Gage. The right woman will want you the way you are.”
He laughed dryly. Would the right woman ever come along? With his luck, he wouldn’t even recognize her if she did.
Deanna’s eyes brightened. “Isn’t your ten-year high school reunion in a couple of months? Maybe you’ll meet someone there.”
“I’m not going to that.” Small talk with a bunch of people he hadn’t spoken to in years? No thanks. There was only one person from his past he’d be interested in seeing again, and he doubted she’d fly clear across the country for a reunion.
“You can’t go to your reunion without a date,” Chelsea said. “Everyone will think you’re gay, like they did in high school.”
He narrowed his eyes at his little sister. “Just because I never had a girlfriend, everyone did not think I was gay.”
“A lot of people did,” Deanna said.
“Okay. This discussion really is over now.” He pulled a twenty from his wallet and laid it on the table. “Thanks for the company, sisters. The conversation was riveting, as usual.”
“Where are you going? I want to help you have a better life.” Chelsea reached for his hand as he rose from the table, but he yanked it away before she could grab it.
“I don’t need your help. My life is fine the way it is. Now, I’m going home and going back to bed. I’ve got hours of evidence to go through this afternoon, and I need some sleep.”
Abigail lifted a hand. “See you next month.”
He waved goodbye to his sisters, turned on his heel, and then strode out of the restaurant. What the hell had he been thinking telling his little sister about his date? She’d been meddling in his social life since she was old enough to know what a social life was. They all had, really, but Chelsea was the worst.
And it didn’t help that every one of them was either married, engaged, or in a long-term relationship. Even his mom had found someone after all those years of raising five kids on her own. So, what the hell was his problem? They weren’t going to leave him alone until he found someone.
He climbed into his Jeep and leaned his head against the headrest. Maybe Chelsea was right. Maybe he was too nice. Being himself seemed to land him in the friend zone ten times out of ten, but he didn’t know any other way to be. If being in a relationship meant he’d have to be an asshole, he’d rather stay single.
Grumbling under his breath, he started the ignition and drove home. It didn’t matter. If he met the right woman, so be it. If he never did, he was okay with that too.
He pulled into a parking space and trudged up the stairs to his apartment before falling face-first into bed. He was too damn tired to think about this shit now. His phone buzzed in his pocket, so he dug it out and glanced at the screen.
Chelsea. If you go out on another date, you better call me first. I want to help.
He rolled his eyes and pressed the Do Not Disturb button. The last thing he needed was dating advice from his baby sister.
Armed with a mug of black coffee and a few squares of dark chocolate, Erica sank onto her living room sofa and opened her laptop. Having this much caffeine at two in the afternoon would probably keep her up all night, but weekends were her only time to work on getting her theater up and running full-time. Come Monday, she’d have to go back to her real job.
She stared at her reflection in the blank computer screen and smoothed her hair down the side of her neck. The dim image barely revealed the revolting scar marring the right side of her body. She almost looked normal. Almost.
Who was she kidding? Not even a pound of stage makeup could make her look normal in real life.
She blew out a dry breath and powered on the laptop. Then, she opened her graphic design program and tweaked the newspaper ad she’d created for the theater. Ad space didn’t come cheap, but the flyers she’d posted around town to announce the reopening of the Cornerstone Community Theater hadn’t brought in much business. The class fees her cast of seven teens had paid weren’t enough to cover the cost to purchase the rights to perform the play, much less pay for the first and second mortgages on the building.
She’d have to live on a diet of beans and Ramen noodles for a while, but she’d manage. The theater—and Mrs. Spencer specifically—had given her so much; she owed it to her former mentor to keep the place afloat.
The sound of tapping on glass drew her attention to the window. A pale, translucent face stared back at her from the other side of the pane. Her heart stuttered at the sight of the woman floating outside her second story apartment, and she nearly dropped her laptop on the floor. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and tiptoed toward the window.
The ghost smiled as Erica approached. Most spirits were thrilled to meet someone who could actually see them, though how they knew she possessed that talent, she wasn’t sure. The only living person who knew about her ability had been Mrs. Spencer, but that was because she’d shared the talent too.
Erica lifted a hand to wave, and the ghost floated through the glass and into her living room. “Can I help you?” As soon as the question left her lips, she wished she hadn’t offered. There was rarely anything she could do to help a ghost. She had no control over her ability. Sometimes spirits showed themselves to her, and sometimes they didn’t.
“Help me go home.” The voice rang in Erica’s ears. How she could hear a spirit speak when a person standing next to her couldn’t, she had no idea. The whole thing was a mystery she didn’t know how to solve.
“You need to cross over. I hear there’s a light or something you’re supposed to go toward.” Why did spirits think that just because she could see them, she should be able to help them cross over? She’d been asked for help like this so many times, she’d lost count.
The figure faded, becoming more and more translucent as she stared at Erica with heart-wrenching sadness in her eyes. “I can’t find it.”
“You will, but you can’t stay here.” A familiar ache clenched in her stomach. What was the point of having this gift if she couldn’t do anything with it? “Please…go look for it. I’m sorry I can’t help.”
The ghost dissipated, taking her buzzing, static energy with her.
Erica plopped onto the couch and leaned her head back. This time had been easy. A few times, when she’d told ghosts she couldn’t help, they’d gotten angry with her. One had even tried to push a bookshelf on top of her, but she’d managed to right the shelf and calm the ghost down before it hurt anyone. If this one kept bothering her, she’d have to salt her apartment. That was the only trick she knew for dealing with ghosts. But right now, she had more pressing matters on her mind.
Pulling the computer back into her lap, she stared at the screen. “Oh, Mrs. Spencer. If your spirit is hanging around, I could sure use some guidance. I don’t want to fail at this too.”
She set the computer aside and flipped open the Saturday morning Gazette. She’d bought a spot to run on page twenty of the Arts and Leisure section in two weeks. Hopefully it would be enough to drum up a little business. Add another Saturday class to the lineup. Maybe some elementary-aged kids. It never hurt to start building self-confidence at an early age, and the theater was the perfect place to do it. If she could figure out the business side of things, she’d be okay.
With the classifieds section spread out on the couch, she scanned the columns for garage sale announcements. They’d need props if her cast of seven was going to pull off a decent show, and garage sales were cheap places to find them. Estate sales were even better.
Her finger paused at an entry, and her heart thrummed. 1147 Sycamore Street stared back at her like a beacon of hope. Mrs. Spencer’s son was finally parting with her possessions.
A sob lodged in Erica’s throat.
It had been three months since the alleged murder-suicide. Well, the case was closed, so she couldn’t really call it alleged. It happened, but she couldn’t wrap her mind around how such a kind, loving woman could strangle her husband to death with his necktie. Then to slit her own wrists four hours later?
She shivered and took a sip of coffee, allowing the bitter liquid to chase away the chilling image in her mind. If Mrs. Spencer’s spirit was hanging around, she obviously wasn’t interested in talking to Erica about it. Even though she’d offered her the theater in her will.
Taking on the burden had been optional. If Erica had refused, the theater would have gone to Mrs. Spencer’s son, Johnny, along with the rest of the estate, which he was now selling. With the building’s prime location, whoever bought it would’ve torn it down and put in retail shops. But Mrs. Spencer wanted Erica to run the theater, so she’d taken the gift, debt and all, and she was determined to make it work.
If Mrs. Spencer’s spirit did linger in this realm, her house would be the perfect place to look for her. She checked the clock. Two-thirty p.m. The sale had ended at noon, but they would open the house next weekend to sell off what was left.
She crossed her fingers and said a little prayer. If she couldn’t get guidance from her former teacher, someone else residing in the house could help her. Hopefully the mirror—and what it contained—was still there.