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How the Ghost Stole Christmas (Murder By Design Book 4) by Erin McCarthy (1)

One

“Santa likes his ho, ho, hos.”

I looked to where my boyfriend, Jake Marner, was pointing and saw that the Santa hired for the annual Children’s Hospital Christmas party was propped against a brick building with two women inappropriately dressed for December. And by inappropriate, I mean Vegas odds were ten to one they were hookers because they were cuddling up to Jolly Old St. Nick in a way that would land Mrs. Clause on an episode of Snapped if she saw.

“Maybe they’re cold and they’re rubbing on his fur suit for warmth,” I said, not wanting any part of what this guy, who I had just been introduced to an hour ago, was doing on his fifteen-minute break. I was just grateful I hadn’t been the one who had hired him.

My role for the event had been the elaborate set for Santa, not dealing with the man himself.

Jake snorted. “Bailey, warmth is not what they’re rubbing for, and you know it. Let’s go back inside before I have to pull out my badge.”

“Good plan.” It was freezing outside anyway, but I had begged him to step outside so I could have both fresh air, and a hit off my e-cigarette. Yes, I recognize the irony of that.

But planning the décor for a Christmas gala where twenty kids with cancer had exclusive invites to meet Santa had been both fun and stressful and I’d needed to take five.

Apparently, Santa’s night had been equally back-breaking.

The revolving door to the hotel was moving and I saw Lauren, the woman who had hired me, step outside with an irritated expression on her face. I shoved my vape into Jake’s hand, not wanting her to see me using it. What can I say? I have a guilty conscience that has a hair trigger. “Oh, hi, Lauren, did you need something?”

“Hi, Bailey. No, you’ve done a fantastic job, thank you. But I’m looking for Jason, our Santa. He’s missing and the kids are getting restless. These kids are recovering from life-threatening illnesses, they shouldn’t have to wait to tell Santa their wish list.”

I would not want any small children climbing on this particular guy’s lap anytime soon. Or ever. Even if he had been showered Silkwood style. Lauren needed to know the current situation. I gestured down the sidewalk. “He’s right there.”

“Dear God,” Lauren said when she took in the scene. She had zero hesitation. “That’s it, he’s fired. What am I going to do? Geez, I really miss William. He was hands down the best Santa we’ve ever had, and for three years now I’ve been scrambling to find someone as amazing as him.”

“It’s hard to find good help these days,” I said, sounding a hell of a lot like my father. “Jake can be Santa for the next hour or two, right, sweetheart?” It wasn’t really Jake’s personality. He was a little on the dry side, but I knew for a fact he wouldn’t turn down someone’s plea for help when children were involved.

“Of course I will,” he said, though he did start to sigh before he stifled it.

Marner, as I had known him for six years before he’d kissed me and brought me doughnuts, sighs like it’s Morse code. Depending on what he was doing I thought of him as either Jake or Marner. When he told me he loved me, he was Jake, hands down. But the sighing could go either way and this was a Marner sigh. With very little sound, his exhalations of air indicate completely different things. They are a language unto themselves that I had been rapidly learning in the five months we’d been dating (minus when we broke up when he thought I was nuts for seeing ghosts). This sigh meant he’d rather order a bourbon at the bar and catch a glimpse of college football on his phone, but that he’d don a Santa suit for the kids.

“Thank you,” Lauren said. “I’m going to have security fire Jason because I am not going down there and speaking to him directly.” She shuddered delicately. She glanced at the vape I had shoved into Jake’s hand. “When you’re done out here we’ll suit you up. We have a spare costume.”

“Wonderful.”

Lauren disappeared and I let out air I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding in. “That was close. Thanks for being my cover, honey.” I took the vape back and put it in my purse.

Jake looked sexy as sin in his black suit, and shockingly not even remotely uncomfortable despite the low temperature. Cleveland in December is generally cold but this week had been downright frigid.

But Jake looked unaffected by the icy wind as he shook his head, smiling at me. “I don’t get why you care if she knows you vape. Own your vices, babe.”

“Easy for you to say. You don’t have any vices.” He really didn’t. My boyfriend was kind of perfect, aside from his inability to read my mind and say exactly what I wanted him to at any given moment. Otherwise, he was pretty darn awesome and made me feel gushy and mushy inside on a regular basis.

“I have plenty of vices,” Jake said. “Giving in to you is probably one of them.”

I didn’t see the problem with that. “You are nice that way.”

“But if you are going to make me the smoker, we’re going to have to discuss what kind of vape you carry because I can’t be seen with that tiny little thing. It’s like the Virginia Slims of vapes. I feel like my grandmother in the nineties minus the inch-long burning ash.”

I waited for him to open the door for me, clutching my coat tightly. The wind kicked my red, or as I like to think, auburn hair up and across my face. “My vape isn’t manly enough for you?”

“The answer to that is hell no.”

I shot him a look over my shoulder I hoped was sultry. “No one questions your masculinity, trust me.”

Jake put his hand on the small of my back over my coat and leaned in close.

He was either going to say something seductive or kiss me, both of which would be very welcome.

Instead, a loud male voice I had never heard before in my entire twenty-eight years of life, shouted inches from my ear, “Can you hear me?”

I was so startled I jumped and let out a short shriek. Leaping backwards, my ankle twisted in my Prada pumps and I almost fell. Jake grabbed my arm and prevented me from taking a massive facer.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Heart racing, I darted my gaze left and right, knowing exactly what that voice had been.

A ghost.

Getting right up in my face, clearly.

Jake had not been right when he had thought I was nuts for seeing ghosts. Because I do see ghosts, and it is not a walk in the park. Or a day at the mall. Or doughnuts with coffee.

It’s more like having your alarm go off when you’re in a dead sleep (no pun intended). One minute it’s all calm with dreams of having hair that is not a mass of ginger corkscrews, but is sleek and elegant, and the next minute, wham. Awake and gasping and blind from curly hair that makes an alpaca look put together.

This has been my new reality since last summer, when my dead BFF had popped into my kitchen without warning.

“I’m fine,” I murmured, looking around the lobby of the expensive hotel. “I think I heard a ghost.”

Jake looked around, like he could see whoever it was. “Where? Is he touching you? Is it Ryan?”

Ryan was Jake’s partner on the police force and he had been dead almost a year now, which was hard to believe. He’d been murdered in the park and after a few false starts as a crappy student of death and enlightenment, Ryan had gotten a pass out of purgatory. “I haven’t seen Ryan since October.” Ryan had been the first ghost to show himself to me, but not the last.

According to Ryan, I was a medium.

According to Jake, Ryan wanted me.

Neither felt like the truth. I was the one who had crushed on Ryan back in the day, not the other way around.

And if I were a medium, wouldn’t I be better at it? I only saw ghosts occasionally. Like when a dead body was in my proximity.

Oh, no. Was there a dead body close by? Ew. Death should take a pause at Christmas. The lobby was decorated like a Christmas Candyland, for crying out loud. Peppermints and corpses are a bad combo.

“Ghosts can’t really touch me,” I reminded Jake.

“That last guy did.” Jake looked put out by that memory.

I couldn’t say I had enjoyed being shoved by Cezar Wozniak, a mediocre mobster condemned to the afterlife in his swim trunks and bare chest, either. Feeling suddenly overheated, I slipped my swing coat off and draped it over my arm. “Whoever this guy is, I don’t see him. Maybe it was a residual spirit, not an intelligent one.”

“I’m not sure any of these yahoos who have shown themselves to you have been intelligent,” Jake said with a wry smirk. “Including Ryan.”

“No, I mean that they are cognizant. They can interact with me in the moment. They’re aware of reality and that they’re dead, whereas a residual is just like leftover energy.”

That made me sound far more paranormally informed than I actually was. Sure, I could have spent the last few months doing research on mediums, but mostly I had been eating everything pumpkin spice, falling in love with Jake, and pretending that ghosts don’t exist.

“On that note, let’s go get a drink,” Jake said. “Before you have a dead guy yelling at you again and I have to suit up as the fat guy with the sack.”

That made me laugh. “Fat guy with the sack? Please don’t say that ever again,” I said. “Like ever.”

There was nothing fat about Jake. He worked out hard at the gym and it showed in his well-tailored suit. And I wasn’t even touching the word sack. Gross.

“Here, let me take your coat,” he said.

While he deposited my overcoat in a room designated for that purpose, I turned to scan the charity event and saw him.

Dang it.

Santa.

Not the pervy Santa chatting up businesswomen on the street corner, but a dead Santa. Ghostly St. Nick. I knew it was a ghost because a woman in a little black dress with a glass of white wine walked straight through him. His seemingly solid form dissipated a little, becoming misty, before solidifying again when she moved beyond him. He was coming up to me like a Sumo wrestler. Rock, stomp. Eyes narrowed, frown of concentration on his face.

“Can you hear me?” he demanded.

I’ll be honest. I actually considered pretending I couldn’t hear a darn thing. I had worked hard decorating this party in a fun break from my usual “Put It Where?” home staging business and I just wanted to enjoy a glass of champagne, the company of my hot boyfriend, and mingling with the movers and shakers in Cleveland.

But you know what they say. Death doesn’t take a day off.

So I sighed and nodded.

I thought I would get a demanding speech on how I had to help him, or he would follow me around stalker style but his eyes widened and he looked satisfied. Then promptly disappeared. Like my money on Black Friday. All in one fell swoop.

Jake had gone to the bar and he returned, handing me a glass of bubbly. The man could read my mind. Also, he knew he couldn’t serve me hard alcohol or I might wind up sliding down the length of his body and passing out on the marble floor. I’m a lightweight.

He sipped his bourbon and said, “Let’s do this thing. One jolly old St. Nick coming up.”

If you want to feel yourself instantly warm and fuzzy while all your thoughts race ahead to a future you never knew you wanted, watch your normally stoic and tough guy boyfriend bounce toddlers on his knee. Make them all kids who have endured various life-threatening ailments and have recovered and I was basically aware of nothing else but the fluttering of my ovaries.

I stood with Lauren watching Jake gently run his hand over the downy hair of a little blonde girl with tiny glasses strapped onto her head. My heart was melting like chocolate in the microwave.

“Detective Marner really saved the night,” Lauren said. “I appreciate this so much.” About a decade older than me and wearing a wedding ring, she shot me a sly look. “He’ll make a good father someday.”

And just like that, my fantasy pining crashed back into reality. Slow down, Bailey. Slow down. “He definitely will.” It was the truth. He would. But we had just reached the point where he didn’t think I was suffering a psychotic breakdown every time I saw a ghost. “I think the kids really like the slide.”

“They do, don’t they? I wasn’t sure, you know, since some of these kids probably shouldn’t get knocked around on a plastic slide, but I wanted this to be a joyful event. The kids probably don’t know we’d copied the Higbee’s scene from A Christmas Story, well, elevated stylistically thanks to you, but that was my personal indulgence.” She gave me a smile. “I love that movie. Absolutely love it.”

“Me too. I was thrilled you suggested that as a theme.” I love everything Christmas. Baking, outdoor lights, midnight mass with my parents, and every holiday movie ever filmed. Those movies are like Christmas crack.

“I’m in the slide.”

“Hmm?” I turned slightly a little confused.

“What?” Lauren asked.

“I thought you…”

“I’m in the slide. My dead body.” It was a man’s voice, in my left ear.

Oh. The ghost. He was talking to me again.

“What?” Lauren repeated, her nose wrinkling.

Trying to cover, I said, “So what happened to the Santa you used to have?”

Lauren shrugged. “I have no idea. He was so amazing. The kids and the parents all loved him. I hired the crap out of him for events all December every year. But then he just disappeared. Stopped returning calls, didn’t cash his last check. I talked to his wife and she said that he left her for a younger woman and moved to Florida, but it just seemed weird to me. He didn’t seem like that type of guy.”

The ghost behind me asked, “Who are you talking to?”

I waved my hand behind me to indicate he needed to zip it.

He swore at me.

Apparently, he had not been spending winters in Naples with a pretty young thing, but was stuck in a replica of a film prop. That might make me inclined to swear as well.

“That’s unfortunate,” I said. “But people are strange.”

Ghost Santa snorted.

I turned just slightly and tried to mouth that I would talk to him soon but it’s really hard to form words discreetly.

“So very true,” Lauren said with a sigh. “Thanks for all your help, Bailey. I need to do a few more sweeps around the room and mingle.”

“Of course, and thank you for including me. I’m happy to do anything for such a good cause.”

Lauren moved off and I said under my breath, “In the coat room. Now. I can only talk to you where no one can hear me talking to air.”

I had learned with previous experiences (particularly Cezar Wozniak and his off-key crooning of Celine Dion at 2 a.m.) that you have to establish the upper hand with spirits. Show them that I may be short, a little scrawny, and terrified of germs, but I wasn’t a pushover. Much.

Fast-walking I gestured for him to follow me. When we got to the coat room I turned and faced the man doomed to eternity in red synthetic fur and a floppy hat. “Hi, I’m Bailey, nice to meet you.”

He eyed me like he thought social graces were stupid. But he nodded and went along with it. “I’m William Anthony. It’s nice to meet you too. Though I would prefer it be under different circumstances.”

William was around sixty, trim save for his padded “bowl full of jelly” belly, with dark brown eyes and an olive complexion. His gray hair looked to be all his and it wasn’t really receding. He was a good-looking guy, his silver beard trim and tidy.

“So what happened to you?” I asked, feeling sympathy for his plight.

“I was murdered three years ago.”

There it was. I took a sip of my champagne. I was about to ask for more details when suddenly another Santa stepped into the coat room and merged with William.

It was the guy who had been outside and Lauren had just had fired. He looked drunk and he looked furious.

I took a step back which was stupid, because that just put me further away from the door.

So clutching my glass I barreled forward, murmuring, “Excuse me” as I tried to skirt around alive Santa.

But just as I made my pass, he grabbed my arm and hauled me unceremoniously back into the dark room.

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