A Haunted Love
by Dakota Star
Ash detests Halloween. Three years ago, her husband’s death during the same week left her scarred. Now, all she desires is a simple, ordered life in the small town of Humble, Connecticut and time with the cutest boy ever—her nephew. That becomes impossible when her sister brings a handsome soldier, Cole, to her door.
From the moment they meet, Ash has a hard time ignoring his good looks and those intense gray eyes that have seen enough war and heartbreak to fill a lifetime.
What starts as a mutual attraction and a romp in bed leads Ash to face her demons. War has left Cole with more than just physical scars as well. But does serendipity, a ghost, or something sinister have other plans for them? When someone starts stalking Ash, Halloween turns to horror. Does Cole have what it takes to incinerate Ash’s doubts and keep her safe?
Release Date: August 11, 2020
Genre: Contemporary Romance
~ A Pink Satin Romance ~
Clinging to the living room window in the small, beige cape-cod house was an oversized, black-hatted, green witch holding a large broom. The decoration dominated, ensuring the entire street could see it. Halloween, for the last few years, flew in like a bat at night, frightening and furtive. The holiday Ash once enjoyed, she now dreaded. Her husband’s death three years ago had seen to that. And in the small town of Humble, Connecticut where everyone on the street had heard her sad story, the week never got easier. The pity she received from neighbors and coworkers made her want October 31st burned off the calendar.
Ash used the chaos of Halloween party planning to avoid thinking about Baxter. Forgetting her past and attempting to live each day to the fullest had become the reasons for having the yearly soiree. The first anniversary of Baxter’s death prompted a constant rotation of people showing up at her front door with food and sympathy. With those raw and consuming memories ever present, she’d fallen into a depression as the anniversary came and went. Now with the party, she dealt with friends and neighbors all at once, and after a few drinks the conversations usually veered away from her life’s tragedy. The Halloween get-together had turned into something of a neighborhood tradition that Ash had contradictory emotions about but continued to host.
As the morning of the festivities progressed, she threw herself into chores. On her handwritten, annotated list, she’d prioritized house cleaning, baking the appetizers and desserts, and buying alcohol. She’d saved time and energy by having the main dishes catered, and Bonnie, her sister, planned to pick them up in the late afternoon and drop them by. She prayed for no early arrivals at seven because there was still so much to do.
The day ran by her, and a few minutes before guests supposed arrival, she rushed to shower and dressed in tan jeggings, a black sweater, and tall brown boots. Costumes were optional, and she hadn’t found anything she loved, but added a headband with cat ears. She meowed at Rambo before capturing him. Ash hated crating the dog almost as much as he loathed the crate, but he couldn’t be free during the party. He’d make a mess plus some. She did a last inspection. Various orange and purple colored lights and witch and ghost cut-outs filled the interior. Appetizers consisted of finger sandwiches with nails and knuckles so accurate they’d fool most everyone, pumpkin shaped cheese balls, and a cauldron of foaming punch.
A few minutes later the house filled with guests, leaving Ash rushing to pour drinks and chatting as people milled around. She stopped intermittently, first talking with her coworkers, Joanne and Frank, about upper management and the extra hours they scheduled for the end of the month before moving between the small groups of neighbors and friends. All the while, she deftly avoided reminiscing or being pulled into political conversations about the current president.
Bonnie arrived dressed as a she-devil with her son, eight-month-old Joe Jr. who came as a dinosaur. Behind them entered a stranger, who aroused Ash’s curiosity. Her sister’s husband, Joe Sr., was in the Navy on active duty, common for Humble. The town housed a military outpost and a submarine base thanks to its convenient location on the Long Island Sound. Joe Sr. had been deployed for the last six months on a year-long tour.
Ash cornered her sibling as soon as she could. “You are the devil,” she teased. “Who’s the guy you brought to the party?” She pointed to the tall, lean figure with the best posture she’d ever seen. His short, blonde hair was shaved down to a crew cut as if further confirming his military background.
“My plus one for the night is Cole Whelan, my dearest sister Ashley. He just moved into the rental a few houses down the street from me.”
“No one calls me Ashley anymore except Mom. You’re only doing it to distract me from your new friend. Spill. How do you know him?” She quirked her eyebrows and smirked. While the siblings were both slender and petite, Ash’s hazel eyes tended toward brown and her hair faded in comparison to Bonnie’s shimmering red locks.
“Stop.” The redhead laughed at the innuendo. Depending on Bonnie’s outfit choice, the color of her eyes changed from aqua blue with brown flecks to dramatically green, especially when she was angry or scheming like right now. Her sister took after their mother with soft, round features and a bee-stung lips. Ash’s appearance echoed their father with dark hair, dark eyes, and a face filled with sharp angles. Unlike their mother whose red hair frizzed into chaotically disorganized curls, her sister’s fell in full, lush waves which made her appear like she spent lots of money and time in a trendy salon. Her flaming hair only amplified her eyes. But what Ash envied most was Bonnie’s loving husband and beautiful son, Joey.
“Who is he?” Ash demanded. “Is he your incubus for the evening?”
Bonnie swatted at her sibling. “I love my husband, but Cole saw me struggling with the baby carriage and came to my rescue. He’s very nice. You should go talk to him. He just got out of the Navy where he had some hush, hush, high ranking security job.”
Ash waved to the owner of the local coffee shop, Sabrina, the manager Jim, and some of the staff arriving with her. Then she changed the subject. She was tired of her sister trying to set her up. “I have a new neighbor too. Actually, he’s not really new. He’s been in the neighborhood for months but he’s very quiet and discreet. He’s around somewhere. I thought it would be helpful to invite and introduce him to a few more people. Get him out of his shell. I think his name was Mel, no Moe.”
“So many new men in your life.”
Ash smiled at her sister’s antics. “Have you heard from Joe, Sr.?”
“Nothing new. Ever since heading out to deep sea last week, internet and phone service have been spotty. His location is remote. He sends emails and calls when possible, but not nearly as often as I like.”
She hugged her sister and Joey. “That’s got to be tough. I’d drive myself crazy with worry.”
Bonnie shrugged away the idea. “Military wife. I don’t let myself think about it too much. Focus on the positive instead. I’m just really happy you’re around to help me. What would I do without you?”
“I’m here for whatever you need, but it appears you have another willing helper.” They both turned to stare at the former soldier. As if he could sense their gaze, he smiled and saluted them with his half-full glass. The siblings turned back to each other, giggling like schoolgirls. Joey hiccupped in Bonnie’s arms, which made them laugh even harder.
Ash saw her new neighbor in the crowd standing alone. “I’m going to talk to Moe and make some introductions.”
Her neighbor, at least ten years older than Ash, sported close cut dark hair, olive skin and a mustache. He was squat and broad, the body of a boxer, and his crooked nose seemed to confirm that he’d been a fighter either in the ring or on the street. He had not opted for a costume.
“How are you tonight?” she asked.
Ash wasn’t sure where to start the conversation. Other than exchanging friendly waves as they passed each other’s yard, the neighbors rarely conversed. “Is Moe short for something or is that your full name?”
“My given name is Mourad, but no one calls me that. Everyone calls me by my nicknames Moe or Moose.” His clipped and formal words held an ever so slight accent. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“I’m so happy you could join us. How do you like the neighborhood so far?”
“It’s good. Quiet, which is what I wanted. To be away from the city.”
“Where did you move from?”
“Big city north of here.”
She wondered if he was being evasive on purpose. “I’m a tax lawyer. What do you do?”
“I work for Tempest Air and Sea. They hire all the people around here. The company has military contracts. It will keep making submarines and airplanes for years. My job is secure until retirement.”
“I hear it’s a good place to work,” she said.
“I enjoy my job.” The man scanned the crowd. “Who let’s their dogs run loose? Not you, you keep your little dog on a leash, but something is already destroying my yard. Would you have any insight?”
She didn’t. Most people were respectful of others property and careful with their pets. “Maybe it’s the deer.”
“I’ll put out poison,” he said.
Ash gasped. “There must be another way?”
“I wouldn’t need to if people were accountable for their actions.” He shook his head sadly. “No one takes personal responsibility anymore.”
She was happy when a friend from work waved her over so she could excuse herself. Her new neighbor flummoxed her, and the conversation left her with more questions than answers.
Throughout the night, Ash kept scanning the room, searching for the stranger. He was an enigma. Bonnie was extremely protective of Joey and careful who she let into her life. He must be something special. His presence at the party only seemed to confirm that assumption. Women from her job and neighborhood formed an immediate Cole fan club, swarming him, touching him, not letting him out of their tight circle.
Eyes followed her as well, making Ash jittery as she glanced at the crowd. She assumed someone beckoned for more food or drink, but each time she peered into the mass of friends, no one called to her. The attractive stranger, thoroughly engrossed by his adoring harem, failed to notice when Ash’s attention shifted to him. Her body heated, not with lust or anger, and surprise overtook her. She was jealous of Cole’s situation and all the attention he received. She wanted, above all else, to feel special and loved again. Laughing at herself, she shook away the melancholy thoughts and poured herself a chardonnay.
“Hey there, lady!” her friend Joanne said. “Work is so boring without you.”
Ash could tell Joanne, the always perky, blonde haired, blue-eyed financial analyst, was already a few drinks in when she leaned forward for a hug. “Miss you too.”
“When are you coming back?” Her friend’s words were slurred. “More importantly, how are you?”
The heartache Ash crammed into a tiny, locked box in her brain threatened to escape. She blinked it away, taking a sip of her chardonnay to hide its intensity. “I’ll be back after my two weeks of vacation. You’ll see me bright and early a week from Wednesday.” She was truly thankful for her friends and work. Work had been wonderful after Baxter’s diagnosis, even offering her a leave of absence, but the bills from chemo, radiations, and surgeries had piled up even with insurance. She had needed her job as a tax lawyer to afford Baxter’s treatments and even more to keep her sanity during his illness and in the present.
“Woot woot. Can’t wait,” the blonde gushed, leaning unsteadily.
“Did you do something different with your hair?” Ash asked. “It’s lovely.”
“Balayage, baby.” Joanne’s bright red lips and similarly colored, clingy blouse and cloak stood in stark contrast to her pale freckled skin and hair. Red must be the color of the night.
“Who are you supposed to be?”
“Little Red Riding Hood. Can’t you tell?”
“Now that you mention it, yes.” Ash laughed when her friend twirled so the cape billowed around her.
Three of her male coworkers joined the conversation, none in costume. Don wore his usual: a button-down shirt covered by a gray sweater and a navy-blue zip-front jacket. Skinny jeans cuffed at the bottom showed off Converse sneakers worn with crazy socks. Don, whose technology prowess could not be surpassed, was a consummate lifesaver when computer issues struck. He’d been able to salvage more than a few files she thought she’d lost forever.
“Thanks for the invite tonight,” Don broke into the conversation.
“Glad you could make it.”
He pointed to Joanne and the other two men. “They’re missing you at work. The team seems lost without your expertise.”
Ash laughed. “You’re such a liar, but I’ll be back in less than two weeks.” She was the only lawyer not housed at the corporate offices in New York city and worked often with the finance team to review actuals and forecasts.
Sam, the forty-something accountant chimed in. “He speaks the truth.”
“Well I’m glad everyone made it.” Ash surveyed her house, realizing it was jam packed with people. She’d been running around so much tending to the preparation, food, and guests, that this was her first chance to relax and get a better understanding of how the party progressed. Luckily, everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves. The food was quickly disappearing, but the wine and beer remained plentiful.
“Fun times,” Frank said, the skin around his brown eyes wrinkling as he sent her a smile. Closing in on fifty, Frank was a consummate gym rat, trading his lunch time to work out. Still, no matter how many days he exercised, he couldn’t hide the double chin and the slight bulge of belly that came with his age. He’d been divorced for a few years and didn’t seem to have any desire to marry again.
She gave a contented sigh before turning back to her friend. “Is it true you can’t survive without me at work?”
“You run that place,” Joanne said, “but I’m done with work talk. Tell me who’s the hottie talking to your sister?” Her male friends appeared instantly uncomfortable, but the blonde didn’t notice and kept gushing.
Ash craned her neck around the room and found him. “That’s Cole. He’s her new neighbor,” she hoped the information would pacify Joanne.
“You have to introduce me.” She leaned heavily into Ash.
“I thought you were dating John in marketing?”
“I am, but this guy is way hotter. Not serious about marketing man anyway.”
Ash watched Don roll his eyes. Sam sniggered and pulled the group away for another drink. And then Ash did what any good hostess would and led her friend over to Cole. She left them when she spotted a fresh spill on one of the side tables, and then distracted herself by running around refilling drinks, wiping up spills, and offering people second helpings of her cherry-rhubarb pie and sugar cookies.
“I hope you know CPR.”
She turned to see Jim, the manager from her favorite downtown café behind her. His gaze dropped below her face for a second before he met her eyes with a smile. “Why is that?” she asked.
“Because you’re killing me with that outfit.” The tall, slightly gawky, twenty-something said.
The pickup line was so cheesy it made her smile. Having frequented the cafe often, and understanding Jim’s quirky personality, she could only assume he meant it as a joke. “Are you enjoying the party?”
“I see so many of these people ordering their coffee and bagels. Most are nice, some not so much. Don’t really need to spend extra time with them, but it helps my business grow.”
“Any new pieces?” On the side, Jim made beautiful pottery, selling it from a home studio.
“A few. You should come see.”
“I will.” A hacking cough interrupted their conversation. An elderly neighbor sat on the couch choking. “She might actually need CPR. Excuse me.” Ash made her way across the room, relieved when Mrs. Tiberosky turned out to be fine.
Ash’s relief was palpable when people finally began to head home. Her sister had left early to get the baby to bed, and Ash missed her presence. Fatigue, both mental and physical, pushed its way in like a constant, cold wind against an old, rattling window. The party usually improved her mood, but this year she couldn’t shake how distraught and uneasy she’d been. For some reason, she kept glancing over her shoulder to see whose eyes were on her, but there was never anything amiss. By midnight, a few drunken partiers lingered, but most people had departed. Bonnie’s “date” loitered and then approached. It was the first time they had a chance to talk.
“I can help you clean up,” Cole offered as he began collecting bottles of beer from the dining room table.
“It’s really not that bad. The dinner was catered, but I could use someone to take the garbage out.” She eyed the three people embedded like barnacles on the couch, and they both laughed at the inuendo.
“Let me help you with the garbage in the kitchen, and then I’ll see what I can do about the remaining guests.” He stuffed used paper plates and empty plastic glasses into the large, black bag. “Your sister tells me, you used to be a lawyer in New York City?”
“Yes, but when I got married my husband convinced me to move to the suburbs of Connecticut. We compromised. I said I would move if I could be near Bonnie.”
“Was it a good decision?”
“It took a while, but in hindsight it was. My best friend, Kate, had abandoned me and her job in New York for a cowboy on a dude ranch.” She shook her head. “That was something I never saw coming. If Kate could live in the country, I could give it a go.”
“Humble isn’t really country.”
“It’s sure different from New York City.” She thought about the suburb. “It’s quiet and relaxed compared to the city, but then again I’ve changed a lot too. It fits me now and I really like my work as a tax lawyer.” She appraised her guest. “How about you?”
“It’s a long story for another day.” He hoisted the garbage bag and headed outside. On his return, he skillfully managed to get two of her three neighbors out the door. “I have to give Mrs. Lyn a ride home. She’s had a few too many cocktails. Do you want me to come back and help you finish up?”
She put the last of the dishes in the dishwasher before returning her eyes to meet his. “No. I’m exhausted and done with cleanup for now. I’ll tackle the rest tomorrow after a good night of sleep.”
He kissed her on the cheek, flummoxing her, before hustling the middle-aged brittle-haired, bottle blonde in the lowcut blouse out of the house. Ash shut the front door behind them, but an odd sense of unease still permeated. She double checked each room, ensuring all her guests had departed. Shaking her head, she let her anxiety go. The night had been successful and now she was overtired. Seeing all these people who knew how happy she’d been with Baxter left her emotionally raw. She let Rambo out of the crate, snapped on his leash, and took him outside for a walk, not bothering to bring her keys. They were only going down the road. She never locked the door when she was home. This was Humble, and, anyway, an extra key lived under the mat in case she lost hers or accidently locked herself out.
The walk should have gone quickly. Attack some leaves, sniff, pee, and Rambo was ready to return home, but tonight he lingered. He snuffled and pulled at the leash, dragging her farther down the road than expected. Homes were set on one-acre tracks and woods often stretched between them. Rambo cocked his head and peered into the tree-shaded darkness, his ears perked as if listening to someone or something.
“What is it, boy?”
Rambo shook as if answering her and continued to trot down the lane.
“We need to go back,” she implored the dog as he strained against the leash, leading her forward. “Fine. A few minutes.” She’d never win against the dog. If she took him in early, he’d sit at the front door and whine for hours until she took him out again.
Ash stepped into a patch of crisp air, inhaling iced ozone, electricity, and magic. She wondered if this was what heaven smelled like. Rambo circled and then began to dig furiously at the edge of the woods by a neighboring yard. Leaves and detritus flew in all directions. “Rambo! Stop!” She chastised the dog when a large pebble pinged off her leg, but he didn’t listen. Another stone smacked her under the knee. When the mutt finished digging, he came over to her to inspect the remnants of his work. Nose down, he pawed through the contents, pushing something close to her.
She crouched under the streetlight and tried to identify what Rambo had placed at her feet, praying it wasn’t a dead animal or human body part. A gasp escaped as she realized she held a heart-shaped stone. She turned it over and over in her hands, touching the smooth rock with dirt and leaves crusted over it. A tear escaped the corner of her eye as she continued to examine it. Holding it close to her heart, she stood still, listening at the nighttime silence, before finally heading home with the dog and the pebble.
Back inside, Rambo went spastic, excited by all the smells and the crumbs of food that had fallen to the floor. The sound of a door shutting sent him into a frenzy of barking. The mutt rushed into the kitchen while Ash froze, listening for additional noises. Nothing. She followed the dog into the kitchen, but the side door remained undisturbed. The same went for the patio doors in her bedroom. Searching the house, she chalked her paranoia up to the late night. Or a phantom. Could Baxter’s ghost be visiting?
Ash headed into the dark bedroom and took in the silence before flipping the lights. On her nightstand next to a picture of her and Baxter vacationing in Ireland, a pile of various stones, all heart shaped, sat in a mason jar. Baxter has found them for her whenever he traveled and brought them home. He said it showed how much he thought about her when he was away and that his love for her was everywhere. He’d said it was impossible to gather it all, but he’d try his best to show her how much he cherished her in every moment.
She added the new rock to the collection and wondered if he was watching from above.