Hainted Love

Hainted Love

Maureen Hardegree

$12.95 March 2011
ISBN: 978-1-61194-014-5

Book two in the Ghost Handler series.

(Young Adult - Middle Grade)

Our PriceUS$12.95
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Synopsis | Excerpt

What's a girl to do when her first-ever summer romance turns out to be . . . a little ghostly?

For Heather Tildy, life doesn't get much better than watching cute boys ride skimboards during her family's summer vacation at the Georgia shore. Yes, she still has her problems: she's a hypersensitive "ghost handler," a soon-to-be ninth grader with a bullying older sister, and the number-one lovesick fan of gorgeous lifeguard Drew Blanton. But she's living in a ghost-free zone for the moment, and that's great.

Until she wakes up with a handsome teen ghost in her bed.

Jack thinks he's still alive, so he's convinced he's the one who's found her in his bed. He drowned while he and his family were living at this very rented beach house, sleeping in the same room that Heather now occupies.

So much for a fun time at the beach!

Heather is now in charge of this cute, stubborn ghost-guy who doesn't believe that only Heather and her ghost-psychic Aunt Geneva can see and hear him. Just like the last time she got stuck with a wayward ghost, Heather has to dodge trouble and play detective. Jack needs proof that he's dead. How can she find the evidence he needs in order to move along with his life, er, death?

And will she ever forget his oh-so-real kiss?


Jekyll Island, Georgia

Someone was staring at me. Living rather than dead, I hoped.

Every hair along the right side of my body stood at attention. The old bookstore smelled a bit like school supplies and freshly waxed linoleum, which was really odd considering the wooden floor.

Using my hypersensitive skin's response like a guiding system, I gazed up from the booklet I was reading and tracked first down the body parts tingling in anticipation of the impending itch, past the table of books featuring local authors, to the long counter with an old- fashioned register.

At three o'clock to my six, a flesh and bones sales clerk, whose fashion sense didn't extend beyond black and white, eyeballed me like I was some potential shoplifter about to stuff this compilation of letters, written by a girl who'd worked for one of the rich families vacationing at the Jekyll Island Club, down my t-shirt.

Realizing I'd caught her glaring, she resumed refilling the bookmarks on the rotating display rack, her salt-and-pepper chin-length bob swinging from the movement.

"Aren't you ready to go?” Audrey, my older sister, asked, then sighed dramatically, as if my lollygagging was torturing her. Arms folded over her chest, sandaled foot tapping impatience, she'd wrongly guessed that her irritation would intimidate me.

"Not yet.” I wasn't budging until I'd read past the introductory notes. Weird thing was ever since my encounter with haint Amy, I'd actually wanted to read non-fiction historical stuff, which just goes to show that ghost handling had its disadvantages. It's made me weirder.

"How much longer are you gonna be?” Audrey whined over the chugging window unit air-conditioner that wasn't having much success overcoming the stuffy warmth of the room.

If Audrey would leave me alone, I could get past the acknowledgements and introduction and know whether this collection was worth my allowance money, not that I had any.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're the one who suggested we come here,” I reminded her. "Why does it even matter how long we take? It's not like you can sprawl out on the beach right now.”

Let me qualify that statement. She couldn't lay out on the stretch of sand below the bluff where our rental sat because it was currently under five feet of water. Over by some of the hotels, sun worshipers weren't at the mercy of the tides.

"Are you sick, suga'?” the second clerk sitting on a high-backed stool behind the counter asked, her accent reminiscent of that lady Mom and Grandma watch on the Food Channel—Paula Dean. I knew this lady was referring to me because when people hear my voice they either think I've got a wicked case of laryngitis or that I'm a hardcore, several pack a day smoker.

This woman was what you'd call the antithesis of the other clerk. Yeah, my middle school had been all about increasing our vocabulary. She was all about color and ornamentation. She had a fully made up face as wrinkled as a walnut, and she wore a helmet of high-puffed, white cotton candy-like curls, circa 1975. Her bright rose lipstick matched her sweater set and nails. I couldn't quite figure out why she wasn't hot in long sleeves, but she sure wasn't "glowing.”

"I've got a throat lozenge in my purse,” she offered, which was really nice.

"I don't need one, ma'am. This is how I sound all the time.”

Audrey rolled her beady brown, overly mascaraed eyes. "I'm ready to go to the fudge shop,” she said for the thirty millionth time.

"Chillax,” I said. "It's open until five p.m. You're irritating me.”

Rather than accepting my criticism with grace, Audrey wrinkled her foundation-caked nose. "And you're not irritating me? I have . . .”

Can I just say, wearing base make-up that matches your winter skin in the summer when you have a tan is a major fashion faux pas. You'd think anyone who spent as much time as Audrey did reading Seventeen and Teen Vogue would know this look was a fashion don't.

Even though I didn't want to, I tuned back into the Audrey frequency emitting a stream of complaints. "Why are you looking at those books anyway? You haven't even started your summer reading list. And you don't have any money.”

Thanks a lot. That last little jab wasn't going to make me look less like a shoplifter. In fact, I think Audrey said it on purpose so that the clerks would rush me out of the store.

My skin still in yellow threat level leaped to orange and started itching under my freshly laundered clothes. Desperate to back up and rub the itchy spot between my shoulder blades against the corner of the bookshelf, I managed to control myself and instead lifted the booklet up so that High and Low Maintenance could see I wasn't trying to steal it.

"That doesn't mean Grandma won't buy me something,” I said to Audrey in a voice loud enough that the clerks heard me. "Especially if it's educational.”

Yeah, I played the grandmother as well as the learning card, rendering any suspicions Audrey stirred dormant.

I sneezed. Three times in a row. I guess the dust in the room got to me. Or maybe it was mildew spores spewing from the air conditioner.

"Bless you, suga.'” High Maintenance waved a piece of tissue at me, nearly blinding me as the sunlight from the window behind her lit a facet on the biggest honker of a diamond ring I'd ever seen.

"Come on, Claire, let's wait outside for Heather,” Audrey wheedled, scowl firmly set on her pained face since she hadn't managed to budge me.

Claire glanced up from the display of bestsellers she'd been flipping through. She had money, but she was saving hers for some peanut butter fudge and a trip to the wave pool later this week. "I haven't gone upstairs yet.”

Low Maintenance winked. "You'll have to see if our friend will come out for you.”

That's when I noticed the hand-painted wooden sign by the steep, narrow treaded stairs that read "Don't Mind Our Ghost.” A dark haint blue arrow pointed up.

If I hurried Claire along, I'd score points with Audrey, but I might also forfeit my favored sister status. Claire and I were still simpatico despite Claire sharing a room with Audrey, and I wanted to keep it that way.

"Come on, Heather,” Claire urged with that smile of hers that promised fun, which usually could get me to do anything she wanted including riding a Ferris wheel—something I was deathly afraid of. Not this time, though. It wouldn't work. I wasn't going. Of course, I couldn't tell her why. I'd have to come up with an excuse.

"You two are . . .” Audrey's voice trailed off into an exasperated growl. She stomped out onto the porch where she could be alone and hot, and seethe in what she most likely considered righteous indignation.

I almost felt sorry for her. But then all sympathy evaporated when two seconds later she popped her big head back in the door.

"I should leave you here,” she threatened.

"Go right ahead. Claire, do you want to call Mom and tell her Audrey left us, or should I?”

Audrey groaned, then retreated once again to the porch. As I suspected, she wasn't going to risk getting in trouble. She'd met this boy who was staying at the rental next door, and he'd asked her to see a movie with him tonight. She probably wanted to get home to spend the next six hours primping and shellacking for him. He was okay as far as boys go, but he was no Drew Blanton, the hottest lifeguard who ever lived. My heart did a funny little flip. Please, please, please make him miss me.

Yeah, I was kind of hoping that the whole absence makes the heart grow fonder cliché would work in my favor.

Leaving the bestseller display, Claire bounded to the narrow staircase. Hand gripping the varnished rail, she paused on the bottom step and turned back toward me, hazel eyes lit with excitement. "Aren't you coming?”

"No, thanks. I'll stay down here.” I wasn't trying to be a killjoy like Audrey, but I did not need any more ghostly encounters. Not only wasn't I going upstairs; I wasn't doing the cottage tour, either, for the same reason. I'd just hang at the hacienda or bake on the beach with the appropriate SPF.

She turned up her nose. "Suit yourself.”

Translation: she was annoyed. I'd try to make it up to her. After all, younger sisters stuck together except when one sister was a ghost handler in need of some R&R.

I'd already bagged my ghost quota with Ruby, a beachcombing, wedgie-sporting old lady, who'd been parading up and down the stretch of sand near our rental until I helped her. I shouldn't have to help any other entities. I was on vacation, dadblameit!

Plus, the more of these ghosts I encountered, the greater my risk of being caught. No girl entering high school in the fall with hypersensitive skin, a stupid nickname, and a deep voice hankered for any additional reasons to be labeled a weirdo. And if you don't think the information would somehow get back to Pecan Hills, you've been sniffing glue. Sweet Claire would let it slip, or Audrey would rant to one of her friends about how my seeing ghosts makes her life more difficult, and bingo, my life, not theirs, would get worse. And let's not forget that I'd be swimming in the same crazy pool with Aunt Geneva, which could turn out to be worse than social ostracism. No one but art critics took her seriously, and my guess is that at some point in my life I'd like people to believe me.

I wandered over to the counter area with its bookmarks and book thongs and picked out a turquoise one that I'd get if Grandma offered when we came back.

"Ghosts aren't your cup of tea?” High Maintenance asked, and patted the back of her puffy hair as if the hairspray gluing each strand in place had lost its structural integrity.

"Something like that,” I said. "And, no offense, it's not exactly cool down here. I bet it's hotter up there.” Whew. Finally, a valid excuse worked its way up from the recesses of my gray matter.

Low Maintenance nodded in agreement. I noticed her toes peeking out of her black suede Birkenstocks were free of nail color.

"Oh, Mr. Gho—ost!” Claire called like the haint was a dog. She ambled overhead more toward the front of the store.

I tried to ignore Claire. If she wanted to make nice with the haint living upstairs, good for her. I wanted no part of it.

"Where are you staying? At the Beach Club or one of the villas?” the woman asked, as if making small talk with the customers was part of her job, which it probably was.

"Neither. We rented a house.”

"Oh, which one?”

"The Hacienda House.” I know, translated as House House. Pretty lame. But it was nice if a little out of place. The rest of the houses here were 60's brick ranches that would fit into any suburban Atlanta neighborhood and several 70's style two stories that looked like they'd been on the Brady Bunch. With its barrel-tiled roof and Spanish arches, the Hacienda House Grandma MacCormack rented for all of us looked like it belonged at some fancy Florida enclave. I got the crow's nest bedroom after the first morning when Audrey gave it up because she couldn't sleep late in that room. So now she was sharing with Claire. I didn't care that sun filled the room at the crack of dawn. I had my own room, while they had to share. Yay, me!

"The Hacienda House.” The woman's au naturale eyebrows came together. "Oh.”

Her friend behind the counter started breaking down a small cardboard box. "So sad,” she said and tsked, tsked, like she knew what Low Maintenance was thinking.

"What's sad?” I asked.

The two clerks exchanged glances.

High Maintenance pursed her bright rose lips, then waved her winkled hands around, her humongous diamond catching the sunlight coming through the window behind her and casting rainbows along the ceiling. "A young man who was staying at the house a few weeks ago died. It was all very sad. His parents were devastated, utterly devastated.”

Now I knew why the owners were so thrilled when Dad asked if we could extend our vacation for a second week.

I hadn't felt this boy's ghost at the house, but then maybe he'd gone right to heaven. Some people did. "What happened?”

"He got pulled out to sea in a rip current.” She shook her head. Not a hair moved. "He drowned.”

Okay, then. From now on, I was taking those flags seriously and I wasn't venturing past my knees in the surf.

Low Maintenance's forehead pleated in folds of concern. "A shame. So young. Fourteen.”

Yeah, my age. Maybe he'd been here at the bookstore weeks earlier. Creepy. Maybe this boy had bought fudge at the fudge shoppe, too. Even creepier. Maybe he'd slept in my room. No doubt about it, that was the creepiest thought I'd had in awhile.

As I attempted to brush aside the crawly feeling, Claire clomped down the stairs frowning. I sensed she wasn't alone, but whoever this was, a guy, I suspected, definitely older than fourteen, wasn't showing himself... yet.

"No luck, suga'?” High Maintenance asked.

"No,” Claire sighed. "You'd think at least one of us girls would have the ghost-seeing gene.”

Both High and Low Maintenance raised their respective eyebrows. I didn't care to explain about Aunt Geneva.

That's when the ghost, a guy in high-waisted, pleated trousers, an argyle sweater vest and cap, who looked like he was ready for a golf game in 1925, materialized on the bottom step of the stairs. He saluted me.

"Yeah, it's a real shame,” I said. Only the ghost and I appreciated my sarcasm.

I couldn't help but think of the other real shame, though. Some guy coming here on vacation with his family drowned. And he was my age. At least he'd been able to live a little longer than my last ghost. But still fourteen was awfully young in this day and age where most kids are vaccinated.

"So, like, what happened to the boy who died?” I asked, hoping the golfer ghost would get the idea that I wasn't interested in him.

"The county searched. But we had a couple of storms right after it happened, so they came up empty. I heard they were going to try that fancy side sonar. It helped last year, when some father died trying to save his daughter.”

Okay, this conversation was getting way too morbid—even for a ghost handler. The beach was supposed to be fun. And I needed relaxation. After all, this was supposed to be my vacation.

The ghost took a couple of steps closer to me. The air in front of me cooled to a much more pleasing temperature. I didn't know if we could communicate via telepathy, but I was going to give it a shot.

I raised my hand to him in a stopping motion. I'm sorry, I can't help you. I sent one difficult ghost to her parents after almost a month of trauma and then I helped Ruby when I got here.

Without one word of protest, which I have to tell you is not the way most haints roll, the ghost guy spun on his brown and tan saddle oxfords and headed back up the stairs. Ghosts aren't innately nice and understanding. Except Ruby the beachcomber. She'd merely been confused, which was understandable, poor thing was a little senile before she'd died.

Saying "no” hadn't worked with Amy, but this golfer accepted it. I didn't get it. From what I knew of ghosts, they rarely respect a handler's wishes.

I felt a twinge of guilt, but seriously I was drained. I needed to rejuvenate. I needed cute live boys and junk food, sunshine and salty breezes.

Oh, my, God. My skin crawled. What if this haint hadn't gone upstairs and stayed there? What if he was waiting for me in the van?

I was getting out of here. "Thanks, ladies,” I said and dragged Claire out to our most- likely-to-be-fuming sister. Much to my relief, I didn't see the golfer ghost sitting in the van with her.

"It's about time,” Audrey said and pressed the button to click open the automatic passenger door. "You know I have plans.”

"Yeah, in about six hours.”

"Five and a half now.”

"What takes so long?” I asked. "A shower, shaving your legs, make-up, blowing out your hair? Two hours tops.”

She got that smug, I'm-so-much-older-and-wiser look on her face. "You'll understand if you ever start dating—emphasis on the if.”

If it meant a whole wasted day of preparation, honestly I hoped I didn't. Good Lord, you'd think she was getting married or going out with Drew. He was the only, and I mean only, boy I knew who'd be worth that level of grooming.

Maybe she was planning on kissing Richard. "Don't forget to floss your teeth after dinner. I've heard just one little piece of meat stuck in a back molar can cause major halitosis.”

"Eew.” Claire shuddered. "Wait a minute. Audrey, are you going to kiss Richard?”

"That's none of your business.”

Translation: yes, with tongue. They'd probably spend the whole flick munching each other's faces. I'd have to ask her lots of questions about the movie in front of Mom and Dad tomorrow morning, so they could wonder why she couldn't remember the plot. That little breakfast Q&A would be a way of sharing the wealth of punishment my parents doled out. I'd been the only one getting into trouble lately, which in case you hadn't figured out, was totally unfair. Then again, maybe I shouldn't. I was still campaigning for a better relationship with Audrey. I must stifle these urges.

"Are you really going to kiss a boy on the first date?” Claire went on in her naivité, "I don't think Dad and Mom would want you to.”

I cringed in anticipation of a huge verbal smackdown.

"I don't expect you to understand at your age, but you will one day. Unlike other people,” Audrey said and gave me, who'd done nothing but offer her a little advice on clean breath, one of her looks of disgust. "Here, Claire.” She patted the passenger seat. "Sit up here with me.”

The way she was being so much nicer to Claire worried me. What if Audrey inched me out of favored sister status during this last week of vacation?

As I sat in the middle captain's chair, I noticed the ghost watching me from the porthole-shaped attic window. I felt him trying to communicate with me, sort of like a knock on the door of my brain.

I'm sorry, I thought toward him.

I got no bee in my bonnet, ricocheted back. I understand.

Audrey revved the engine.

So he understood that I was selfish? Or that I was tired? Or that I hadn't fully embraced my ghost-handling ability? I hadn't thought any of those things back at him. Something had been implied, though. He'd given in too easily for a ghost who'd gone out of his way to present himself to me.

Audrey buckled her seatbelt.

I glanced up at the ghost in the window. If you have something more to say, you'd better do it fast. Lead foot's getting ready to put the pedal to the metal.

Amusement drifted down like a leaf in the breeze. More?

Why did you say you understood? You didn't put up an argument. At all. What do you know that I don't?

Perhaps there's someone else on the island who needs you more than I do.

Audrey jerked the van into reverse.

Someone else. Who would this ghost be willing to give up his get-out-of-limbo card for?

Oh, and don't take any wooden nickels.

What the heck did that mean?

Audrey spun out so fast I didn't get to ask the ghost the questions foremost in my mind. Who? Where? And when would I meet this ghost?

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Book one in the Ghost Handler series.
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