The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 2


I Break My Own Rules
"Is this yours?" he asked, effortlessly holding the huge box I'd forgotten on the porch.
"Yeah." With some effort, I lifted my cardboard nemesis from his hands and dropped the sucker ungracefully into the corner of the foyer. "Thank you."
"You're welcome."
Even more striking up close, I wanted to snap his picture to post on Facebook along with the status, Getta load of my new neighbor. Outlined in my doorway by the orangey purple sunset, even the sky seemed to blush at the sight of him. And what a sight he was. Taller than me, his dark, wavy hair curled at the base of his neck in a style I'd call well-managed chaos. His straight white smile contrasted nicely with his golden complexion and Mediterranean features. Masculine, with a long-muscled grace, he reminded me of a matador or Flamenco dancer. Almost regal.
"Rick Ordenes." He extended his hand. "I'm the caretaker."
I accepted his handshake. Firm, strong. Good eye contact. He definitely passed handshake 101. "Has anyone ever told you, you don't look like the typical cemetery caretaker?"
"What does a typical caretaker look like?"
"I don't know. I was expecting old and gray."
He laughed. "Believe it or not, it takes resilience to do my job. An aged man would struggle with the work."
"I never thought of it that way." I hoped I hadn't offended him.
He raised an eyebrow. "You're not what I expected, either."
"Oh, you mean based on my father's description," I said, grinning. "He probably still describes me in pigtails."
He shook his head. "Actually, he didn't even tell me your name."
"Oh, um, I'm Grateful."
"You're grateful he didn't tell me?"
"No! I mean, that's my name. Grateful. Grateful Knight. I know, it's a strange name, considering my father wasn't even a hippie." I shrugged.
A slow smile spread across his lips, and his gray eyes twinkled. "Grateful is a lovely name. I suppose it's fitting that a rare beauty have an equally rare name."
The compliment captivated me. Not just the words themselves but the way he said them. With a hint of a Spanish accent, they tumbled over his full lips in a silky smooth ripple, like moonlight spilling over still water. I caught myself staring at his mouth.
My cheeks warmed. Oh. My. God. Had I reverted to an awkward fifteen-year-old blushing at the hint of male attention? I mentally slapped myself.
"Would you like to come in?" I opened the door a little wider.
"Are you inviting me?"
I blinked in his direction. "Um, yes. Where I come from, 'Would you like to come in?' is an invitation."
"In my experience, it's always best to make sure," he said, teasing me with a delectable lopsided grin. Bending, he retrieved a vase of the ugliest wildflowers I'd ever seen from beside the door and handed them to me. "Sage and garlic, to ward off evil spirits." He stepped into the house, eyes darting around the foyer with the curiosity of a tourist.
"Oh, thanks. How thoughtful. My dad must have told you the cemetery kind of freaks me out."
He ignored my comment but turned the full weight of his attention on me. "Do you go by Grateful, or something shorter?"
"Yes, Grateful. You can't really shorten Grateful. Unless I went by a single letter like G, and I'm not a music mogul or one of the Men in Black, so Grateful it is." I led the way into the dining room, where I placed the vase at the center of the table. "And you? Is Rick short for Richard?" Or maybe, wanton sex god?
"Enrique. My parents were Spanish. But call me Rick."
Our eyes met. An awkward pause ensued while we soaked each other in. A magnetic field had formed between us, coaxing me toward him. I refrained, but barely. Delicious warmth unfolded deep within me. I was surprised the drapes didn't melt down the walls from the heat between us and I couldn't stop my mind from replaying the shower scene I'd imagined driving in. Damn! What was wrong with me? I sucked my bottom lip between my teeth and turned away so that he wouldn't see my face redden once again.
"It smells good in here. Were you cooking?" he asked, breaking the tension.
"Yes, actually. I just sat down to eat."
"Oh, I've interrupted your dinner. Please, continue."
"Have you had something? I could whip up a plate for you?" I had no idea what I would do if he said yes. I couldn't actually cook, and I wasn't sure my dad had left sandwich fixings.
"I've eaten, thank you. But, please..." He pointed toward the kitchen.
"Okay. But don't feel like you have to leave." I retrieved my plate from the microwave and took a seat at the dining room table across from him.
"Can I pour you a glass of wine?" I asked.
"Yes. What do you have there?"
"Shiraz-" I froze as I looked at the bottle in front of me. A circle of red still stained the bottom of my glass, but next to it was not the Shiraz I'd opened. Instead, the Pinot gris faced me, sealed and dripping with condensation. My scalp prickled.
"What's wrong? You're as white as a ghost." Rick moved to my side.
"Th-this is not the wine I was drinking. Look." I showed him the top of the bottle. "It's sealed. I put this bottle away in the cellar."
Surely Rick would think I was crazy, but I was too majorly creeped out to maintain the I'm-perfectly-normal facade.
He gingerly took the bottle from my hands, as if the dark green glass might sprout legs at any moment. Tilting his face toward the ceiling, he squinted and his lips pressed into a flat line. "I was hoping this wouldn't start so soon."
"What wouldn't start?"
Rick leaned forward and whispered into my ear. "I don't want to alarm you, but I think this house is haunted."
I waited all of three seconds to break into laughter. "Oh, come on. Haunted?"
The corner of his mouth lifted. "You don't believe the house could be haunted?"
"No. Not really. I mean, the wine is weird, but there has to be a rational explanation."
"There is only one way to know the truth." His face was inches from mine now, and I caught him glancing down the v-neck of my T-shirt.
"Blonde paradox," I whispered under my breath.
"Excuse me?"
"Oh, I just asked what-what is the way to know the truth?"
He held up the bottle and focused his dark eyes on me as if it was ninety degrees and I was a tall glass of ice water. I wriggled in my chair from the intensity. Pressing one hand to his chest, he said, "We must drink this ghostly wine late into the night, and I must stay with you to protect you from any unholy visitors."
I took one look at his exaggerated theatrics and said, "I'll get a corkscrew." Hell, I wasn't doing anything anyway. I walked into the kitchen to grab one off the counter and gasped. My bottle of Shiraz was corked, next to the refrigerator. What the hell was going on?
"You know," Rick called from the dining room, "Pinot gris is the better choice with salmon. Shiraz is too heavy of a red for fish."
I may be blonde, but I am not stupid. The pieces snapped together. Rick must have somehow changed the bottles. Maybe this was one big pick-up line: Hey baby, your house is haunted. Can I spend the night? Of course, that was it.
I walked back into the dining room. "You haven't been completely honest with me, have you?"
"You see through me," Rick admitted. He lowered his chin. "Your father didn't ask me to check on you. That was my own idea."
He didn't say anything about the wine, but I dropped the subject. Who cared how the bottle got there? I was enjoying his company too much to let my suspicions bother me. I opened the Pinot gris, poured him a glass, and then myself one.
"So, tell me how you became a caretaker," I said.
"I have always been interested in the dead." I must have made a face because he quickly added, "History. I was a history major."
"Oh, interesting." I decided not to share that I loathed history in college.
"This cemetery has historical significance, you know. The oldest grave is from sixteen ninety-two, an early settler of Red Grove. How familiar are you with the town?"
"Not at all. I'm a nurse at St. John's in Carlton City. I wouldn't have considered moving to Red Grove if not for my dad. He inherited the house, and I needed a place to stay." I didn't offer any more info on my embarrassing situation and thankfully he didn't ask.
"It's a small town, but it's home." He smiled. "I'll give you a tour if you like. Of the cemetery, that is. I think you can find your own way around Red Grove Grocery and Pub."
"Uh, thanks." I giggled. "Grocery and Pub. You say it like it's one building."
"It is. The first floor of Orson Thompson's place. He sells fishing bait too."
"I'll keep that in mind." The wine was starting to do its dirty work, and I could feel inhibition packing its bags. "Can I ask you a personal question, Rick?"
"Of course."
"You said your family was from Spain. How did you end up here?"
The question must have made him uncomfortable because he looked away and started tracing the edge of the table with his finger. He cleared his throat. "I guess they came for the same reasons everyone comes here. To make a new start. They used to have a farm here a long time ago. They've passed on."
"I'm so sorry." I was such a downer. Nothing like bringing up someone's dead parents to sour the mood.
"It's been years." He shrugged. The man looked desperate for a change of subject. "This is good wine."
"Yes, it is," I replied. I poured each of us another glass, emptying the last drops into mine. We'd finished the entire bottle, and I had finished my meal. "Would you like to move to the family room? Maybe watch some TV? I can grab that bottle of Shiraz."
He gave the sort of nod that starts and ends with the eyes, not just assent but anticipation. The feeling was mutual. We sojourned to the plush sofa in the family room. I discovered the television didn't have cable and settled on a Saturday Night Live marathon while he poured more wine.
"Hot summer we've had. Glad it's almost over," I said. Crap. I was such a nerd. Who talks about the weather with a could be underwear model at her side and a glass of wine in hand?
"Very...Hot," he drawled. Oh god his lips were full. Was that a dimple in his chin?
I caught myself leaning toward him and readjusted in my seat.
"Funny thing about the heat. I'm a nurse at St. John's, and you would be surprised how many heat related injuries come in..." My mouth was still moving, but I had no idea what was coming out. Did I just say cooling packs? I tried to stop, but I was having an out-of-body experience or something.
Rick placed his fingers under my still wagging chin.
"Fluids," I blurted, finishing off a sentence about something that wasn't as important as his face, so very close to mine.
"Grateful, I know you've just met me, but you are...incredible. May I kiss you?"
I'd sworn off men. I'd promised myself I'd stay in control. So why was I having so much trouble following my own rules? Of course, I'd felt attracted to Rick before he walked through the door. The effects of the wine magnified that initial attraction. He smelled good, like the outdoors. Fresh-turned earth, pine, and something else I couldn't quite place-the ocean, I think. But more than that, Rick made me feel safe. If the sensation was because he knew my father or because his job as caretaker eased my fears about the graveyard, I wasn't sure. Maybe the desire to not be alone in a strange new house was enough. Whatever the reason, I looked into those gray eyes and a wave of heat moved from my heart due south.
He leaned in slowly, lips brushing mine, soft, warm, and gentle at first. The kiss was closed-mouthed and conservative. I blinked lazily, enjoying the sweet gesture. He pulled back a little, like he was kissing me goodnight, restraining himself.
I can't explain what came over me. A slow burn budded between my legs. My body ached, hungry, wanting to be fed. I wasn't satisfied. This was more than attraction. I stared at him with the shaking hands, racing heart, and fevered skin of an addict. I had tasted ambrosia, and I wanted more.
Eyes locked onto his, I tangled my fingers in the dark curls at the back of his head. Coaxing his face toward mine, I returned his gentle kiss but then demanded more. I ran my tongue along the place where his lips touched.
"Open for me," I murmured in a husky version of my voice.
He gasped. It was all the invitation I needed. I couldn't resist. I slid my tongue between his teeth in a deep, wanting kiss. I thrust into his mouth, a crude imitation of what I wanted him to do to me. What my body begged for.
The heat from our lips flowed down my chest, made my stomach tighten, and moved lower. I bit his lip. Oh, he tasted good. He made a low sound like a growl and smoothed his hand over my hip. Lust rippled through me, leaving me hot and wet between my legs, my body ready for him in an instant. Lord, I wanted him. An unexpected combination of sexual attraction and possessiveness I'd never experienced took over, and the desire absolutely owned me.
"You make me burn," he whispered into my mouth.
"The feeling is mutual."
His hand circled to the small of my back, pulled me hard against his chest. A string of syllables came out of his throat in a language I didn't know but in a tone I completely understood. Rick wanted me too. My insides liquefied. My will was not my own.
I clawed the back of his head and scissored my legs to get closer to him. Why, I don't know. No room remained between us as it was. He trailed kisses down my throat and pulled the neck of my T-shirt aside to continue his mouth's exploration. Meanwhile, his other hand skimmed up my ribs, cupping and lifting my breast to bring his lips achingly close to the black lace of my bra. Electricity coursed through my body.
Frantically, I worked one hand into the neck of his shirt, unbuttoning with the other. Light-headed, like when I was a kid and would run downhill so fast I thought I'd trip, I slid my fingers across his chest. That's when I felt a ridge of flesh on his left pec.
I pulled back. A crude, hooked scar marred the skin over his heart. It almost looked like he'd been branded.
Searing pain, a red-hot railroad spike, sliced through my skull. I buried my face in his opposite shoulder, hoping the headache would go away. "What happened here?" I managed, my touch lingering.
"A mark of my profession. The caretaker's scythe."
"I didn't know caretakers had a mark. Is that like how Marines get the same tattoo?"
"Not all of them." His expression changed, closing off, and he pulled his shirt back over his chest. He cleared his throat and began buttoning.
All at once, awareness that I was making out with a complete stranger hit me upside the head. I backed off, straightening my shirt in the process. This wasn't even a date, and I was practically jumping this guy. Disappointed in myself, I frowned. Had I no self-control?
"What's wrong?"
"Nothing..." My mouth hung open while I found the words. "I'm not usually like this. I got a little ahead of myself." Understatement of the year. After Gary, I should've remained three feet away from anyone who peed standing up.
"I'm not complaining, mi cielo." He gently wrapped his hands around my wrists and pulled me back to him. "Maybe we did get ahead of ourselves, but only because there's something here worth moving toward." He flashed brilliantly white teeth.
"What did you just call me?"
"Mi cielo? Literally, the phrase means 'my sky.' It's a term of endearment." He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, pulling me into his side. We snuggled like that, in front of the TV, content to be in each other's company.
Sometime after midnight, I woke as Rick gently positioned me on the couch. I'd fallen asleep in his arms. Before he left, he moved the ugly bouquet from the dining room to the coffee table near my head. The door clicked shut behind him, and I drifted back to sleep.