Laughter mingled with the jangle of the bell above the door. Magpie MacKenzie glanced over her shoulder from atop the stepping stool where she arranged music boxes on the top shelf of a four-tiered display.
Three women and two men tumbled into the shop, hands stuffed in coat pockets and chins tucked down, apparently anxious to leave the cold outside. The midday sun blazed through the front windows of Magpie’s Mercantile, but outside the chilly February wind snaking through the mountains neutralized the sun’s rays.
“Good afternoon.” Magpie descended the stool as comments sprinkled the air.
“Oh, it’s warm in here.”
“What a great store!”
The sweet sense of pride that enveloped her whenever someone appreciated her shop never grew old. Once the door of the mercantile closed behind patrons, they became immersed in textile creations on the left; music boxes, small wooden instruments, and pottery displayed on the right.
Ready to welcome her customers, she caught the gaze of a man at the rear of the group.
Something about the way he angled his head to the left…Mark’s habit when he’d found her amusing. Longish black hair waved around his ears. His deep green eyes beneath thick, arched brows scrutinized her, and he smiled.
A shiver traveled her spine.
He can’t be Mark. This man is much too young. Mark would be forty-six by now, three years older than me.
“Do you have this in yellow?”
The voice jarred her reverie, and she blinked to bring the narrow-faced woman with spiky black hair into focus. She held a green jacket trimmed in turquoise embroidery from a circular rack of women’s handmade outerwear.
“What we have is on the racks.” She cleared her throat, bringing back her friendly shopkeeper voice and suppressing thoughts of Mark. “But you can special order from Phaedra. She’s a local artist. Her pieces are unique and will vary somewhat.”
A blonde in jeans and a sweater nudged the woman. “Try it on, Camille. Green is good on you.”
The third woman and the other man excused themselves to pass by, strolled beyond the clothing, and paused next to the stairs. “Look at this railing,” the man said. “No one hand carves railing like this anymore. Really old.”
Her apartment on the upper floor could be found at the top of the steep climb. Located in one of the first buildings of Joshua from 1880, the stamped metal ceiling and ornately carved wood of the stairs grounded you in a time gone by.
Continuing deeper into the shop where sculptures and paintings were found, the couple stopped at the metal area featuring the work of Magpie’s father, Frank Harlan MacKenzie.
She inhaled deeply. The scents of carved wood, handmade candles, and earthy fabrics calmed her before she dared a glimpse of the man who’d moments before stopped her heart. He held a carved, wooden music box he’d taken from the lowest shelf. His fingers paused on the winding key, and he looked up.
She tensed under his survey. Diverting her attention out the window, she spied Phaedra and Harlan strolling toward the mercantile. In her peripheral vision, the young man wound the key while his stare stirred her soul.
“You don’t mind, do you?”
“What?” Facing him, she forced a calm expression while her racing pulse sent jitters inward. The voice was deep, more mature than she recalled Mark’s sounding.
“If I try the music box?”
“Oh, no.” But then she’d wished she’d steered him to another. Every Breath You Take floated between them.
She hugged herself. Mark, the love of her teen years, had liked the song.
“An oldie.” He smiled and rotated the box; a leather bracelet showed on his wrist, but no rings on his fingers, as he admired the carving. “I’ve always preferred the oldies to most new music.”
When the bell jangled again, she gulped at the air rushing ahead of the couple into the mercantile. Her brother, Harlan, kissed her cheek as he passed by. “Mind if I have a cup of coffee before I head out to my job?” He didn’t wait for an answer as he ascended the steps to her apartment.
Phaedra bumped her hip. “You okay?” she whispered. “You’re paler than normal.”
“I’m…fine.” She ticked her head toward the man with the music box and sent a silent message. Her friend frowned, followed her drift, and raised one brow. They’d talk later.
“The woman over by the clothing? She’s considering one of your jackets, Phae. Maybe you can answer questions.”
“Great! I’ll go talk to her.”
“Are the music boxes locally made?” the look-a-like asked.
Magpie swallowed, rubbed sweaty palms on her legging-covered hips, and addressed the stranger who reminded her of an older version of the boy from long ago—the teenager who had suspiciously disappeared. “All of our music boxes are made by a couple who live here in Joshua. They’re hand-carved. Sample any that catch your fancy.”
“I think I fancy this one.” He lifted the box in gesture, his head again tilted, amused by her choice of words. “The abstract carving is beautiful with these entwined circles and straight edges. And I’ve always liked this song.”
“Really? A bit before your time…” What else could she say—you chose the song of someone I loved whom you resemble? Someone who disappeared twenty-eight years ago.
“Well, a classic song, isn’t it?”
He sauntered closer.
Twenty-eight years ago, last month, her father’s girlfriend, Callie, was murdered. The same day my boyfriend disappeared. And this man, who so looks like Mark, appears to be about twenty-eight. Her head spun, confusion fogging her reason. What was she thinking? This doppelganger, the years since—
“You could almost say the song is abstract in the same way as the carving the artist chose to pair with it.”
“Abstract?” She spoke the question, but her mind took in his eyes, his hair, and his height. Mark’s eyes were green, too, his hair black like this man, although he’d been shorter—5’7” like her—but he hadn’t finished growing. A man, not a teen, stood before her.
“Most everyone hears a love song.” He smiled. “But the words and meaning behind them are quite sinister.”“Sinister?” Her arms chilled. “I don’t want it to be sinister.” A song Mark enjoyed, they liked—
He laughed. “No, neither do I.” His eyes narrowed studying her. “Have we met?”
Her mouth went dry. “I’m not sure.”
“Do you ever get to Copperdale?”
“S-sure. For shopping now and then.” Joshua, Arizona focused on art, wine, food, and gifts. Any practical shopping had to be done in Copperdale, less than an hour away down the hill.
“Hey, Zac.” His friend in the metal sculpture display area called out. “You have to see this.”
“Maybe we’ve run into each other there,” Zac said. “I moved to Copperdale from Phoenix recently.”
He stared a moment longer and then handed her the purchase, his fingers trailing along the side of her palm as he transferred the box. “I’ll take this. Excuse me.”
She managed a nod as he strode to the back of the shop to join his friends, and she stepped to the checkout counter next to the shelf of music boxes. The last strains of the song ended. Her vision clouded with memories of another time and another’s touch.
“Magpie, are you asleep on your feet or been dipping into something you shouldn’t?” Phaedra’s hand rested on her shoulder and, heeding the nearness of the two women browsing the clothing, kept her voice low. The trio in the back of the store meandered out of hearing range.
“Pff, no.” She rubbed her forehead, brushing curls off her face. “Just lost in thought.”
“You seem…off…today. What’s up, lady? Is it the man?”
Magpie darted a glance at Zac who had joined the couple in the back of the shop.
Her long-time friend followed her drift then smiled broadly. “You got a thing for that guy, don’t you? I’ve never seen you so rattled. He is pretty hot.”
“Shh.” Magpie tipped her head down a few inches to get closer to her ear and whispered, “Who does he look like?”
Phaedra tucked her long, white hair behind an ear and frowned. “Mark? Maybe a little.”
“A little?” she hissed. “Phaedra—”
“I think we’re ready.” The spiky-haired woman set her purchases on the counter.
Magpie took a deep breath and donned her shopkeeper persona. “Great.” She set down the music box as the group of five gathered on the customer side of the counter. “So, you decided. This green jacket looked wonderful on you.”
“Thanks. And this hobo bag is for Janie.”
“Camille!” The blonde who’d helped her choose the jacket crowded next to her. “You don’t need to buy me that.”
“Yes, I do. You drooled all over it. Now we have to buy it.”
Magpie laughed. “Phaedra’s bags are to die for. Totally understood.”
“Ah, I appreciate that.” Her friend and artist beamed. “Do I need to go check and see if you slobbered on anything else?”
The women laughed as Magpie elbowed her friend.
The redhead and the other man—they appeared to be a couple—who’d been in the back of the store, placed a metal sculpture of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the counter.
“Yeah, we visited there earlier.” The man picked a credit card from his wallet. Tall and thin, he had short-cropped brown hair. His tanned face gave him away as an out of doors type. “The place has quite a history.”
“I hope you ventured inside the church.” She punched the vendor code for the sculpture into the register.
“We did. We’re not missing anything.” The tiny woman with a halo of bright red hair held up a copy of Images of an American Ghost Town: Joshua, Arizona.
As she ran the card, Magpie asked, “First time here?” The man named Zac stepped closer to the counter. A flutter trickled from her chest to her stomach.
“We’ve all been here, a few years ago. Except for Zac.” The other man in the group said. “Apparently, he was a workaholic when he lived in Phoenix.”
“I didn’t realize what I’d been missing.” He spoke to no one in particular, but his smile landed on her.
“Do you want a box for the sculpture?” While the man signed the charge receipt, she concentrated on the petite, female half of the couple, avoiding the attractive, yet haunting, green-eyed gaze of Zac.
“That would be great. Easier to pack in the jeep. We’re spending the weekend so we’ve got a bit of luggage.”
“I’ll find one,” Phaedra volunteered as she headed to the back of the store.
Magpie grasped the music box, aware of a tremble in her fingers, and flipped it over to read the price. “Would you like a box?”
“No. A sack will be fine.”
He leaned on the counter, closing in on her space. Her mind went blank when entering the code of the artist. Flustered, she checked her cheat sheet and punched the numbers into the register.
“Do you live in Joshua?” While his voice held her, his friends blurred behind him.
“Ghosts don’t bother you?”
Flesh and blood ghosts?“I’ve lived here all of my life, so I suppose I’m immune.” She stared into his friendly face. “That will be $89.90.”
From his wallet he pulled five twenties. “Any advice if we encounter apparitions tonight at the hotel?”
She handed him the change, a subtle charge of electricity tingling her fingertips when she met his palm. “You must be staying at the Joshua Grand.”
“Walk toward them, don’t run away, and you’ll be fine.”
“I’ll remember that.”
His deep laughter drew her out, and she couldn’t help but join in with a chuckle.
“Where’s a good place to eat lunch?” Camille peeked around his shoulder.
“I’m partial to the Ghostly Goulash located on the corner, a block west of the church. The view is spectacular.”
“Oh hell.” The redhead groaned. “Back up the hill? My calves are going to be aching tonight.” She grimaced. “And you live here?”
Magpie laughed. “Yep. When you live in a town that hangs on the side of a mountain, you have no choice but to keep your leg muscles in shape.”
Phaedra appeared at her elbow. “This one should work.” She scooped the sculpture then tucked it inside the box.
Zac picked up the sack with the music box. “Are you the owner of this great store?”
“I am.” She returned his smile. “Magpie MacKenzie. And you are?”
“Zac Peartree. Is that your real name?”
Accustomed to his reaction, she gave her standard reply. “It’s a long story.”
“One I’m sure I’d enjoy hearing. Will you be working at your mercantile all weekend?”
She swallowed down the recurring flutter. “Mostly.”
“You all should have a drink at the Apparition Room tonight, the bar below the Copper Mountain Hotel down the block.” Phaedra finished stuffing paper around the sculpture for protection and then handed the box to the man with the redhead. “Our very own Magpie MacKenzie will be singing.”
Magpie scuffed a boot against her friend’s foot to quiet her.
“She’s on at eight.”
The blonde clapped her hands. “Great. Sounds fun.”
“I guess that means we’ll see you later, Magpie.” Zac followed his friends but peered over his shoulder with an unreadable expression before he disappeared out the door and into the chilly wind.
Slightly lightheaded, Magpie braced herself on the counter. “Honestly, Phaedra, I could—”
“Now, Mags, you haven’t been this tongue-tied over a guy in years.” She retrieved her purse from behind the counter where she’d set it when she came in. “I need to get going, and you need to enjoy the quivers that guy is giving you. I’d guess he’s only thirty or close to it, but what the hell, he’s hot. Every man should fill his jeans like that, not to mention his shoulders.” She stopped by the door. “You two looked at each other as if—”
“As if we know each other?”
“Know each other? I agree he bore a resemblance to Mark, but that’s all.”
“Really? Sacrebleu, Phaedra. When I stared into that face, I saw Mark…a soul…from twenty-eight years ago.” The soul of someone she’d loved.
Who might have been a murderer…or worse, murdered by my father.
Zac hung his suede jacket on the back of the chair, gazing out the window of the Ghostly Goulash as he and his friends sat around the table. The mountain fell away steeply, leaving little of the town below visible. Beyond, the Verde Basin stretched into a vista of red hills kissing clear blue sky. Why he’d never managed to visit the ghost town that clung to the side of Spirit Mountain in the Black Hills and only a two-hour drive from Phoenix, he couldn’t say.
“Wine. I need a glass of wine after that climb.” Darlene plopped elbows on the table. With the sun filtering through her mass of red curls and her petite frame, she reminded Zac of a painting he’d seen somewhere of a mythical gnome.
“Quick, we need wine for the whiner.” He addressed the waitress who at that moment appeared at their table.
She chuckled, her sable skin crinkling around her eyes. “I can do that. What would you like?”
“Any house red will do.” Darlene waved a hand in the air.
“Anyone else?” he asked.
“Why make it difficult?” Justin scanned around the table. “Bring two bottles and five glasses. Okay?” There were nods all around.
Zac wouldn’t have ordered wine but decided to go with the flow. “You’re a good man, Justin. Now, tell me how a mountain climber such as yourself married a flatlander.” He relaxed on the chair, the smells of food wafting around them and the company of friends warming him with contentment.
“Darlene’s more than willing to wait at the bottom of the mountain and keep my sleeping bag warm. What man wouldn’t appreciate that? Always sleeps naked. And as you can tell by looking at her, she doesn’t take up much room in the bag.”
Everyone laughed. Darlene glared, wrinkling her nose.
Justin jerked sideways. “Ow.” He assumed Darlene must have kicked her husband under the table.
“Hey, in my defense, the elevation is over five thousand feet.”
“And the whole town doesn’t take up more than a square mile.” Justin smirked.
“Yeah.” Her round eyes grew rounder. “And that’s a mile stacked on the side of Spirit Mountain in the manner of some gigantic stadium seating.”
Justin and Darlene’s bantering remained a constant Zac enjoyed. He’d met them soon after his move to Copperdale when the couple visited his law office for advice on a land purchase. They’d hit it off immediately, and he’d been embraced by this circle of friends—more friends in two months than he’d had in all the years he’d spent in the Phoenix area.
“That lady in the mercantile was right about the view.” With Janie’s comment, the group gazed out the window.
The waitress set a tray on the table containing two opened bottles and five glasses. “Are you ready to order?” She poured the wine.
No one jumped in, so Zac shook his head then helped her distribute the glasses. “Give us a couple of more minutes, please.”
“Sure.” A halo of black curls streaked with silver framed her round face. “My name’s Jillian. Give me a yell when you’re ready.” Taking the empty tray, she turned and left.
He raised his glass. “I’d like to toast to friendship and to Magpie for directing us to a great view and, hopefully, good food for lunch.”
Camille’s eyes twinkled as she peeked over the rim of her glass. “To Magpie, huh?” She sipped. “I thought for a minute you were going to invite her to come with us.”
“He did have that look, didn’t he?” Janie chimed in. “Older women your thing, Zac?”
Taking a slow sip, the vision of Magpie, caramel-colored eyes specked with gold and hair the same caramel color with out of control curls falling on her shoulders, left a mellow warmth on his soul like the wine lingering on his tongue.
“Was she older?” He’d noticed but hadn’t given her age a second thought.
Snickers and chuckles answered him.
The natural beauty of the shop owner drew him to some inner warmth she possessed. She might be ten years his senior. Or not. Her beauty appeared ageless.
“Well, you’re smitten, as my granny used to say.” Camille propped her chin in the palm of her hand. “You’ll be at a front table in the bar tonight.”
If she wore those same leggings that hugged her perfect ass perfectly—no panties or a thong?—with the blouse that exposed the right amount of cleavage, he’d want a front-row seat. And boots. What made a woman in boots so sexy?
“You didn’t leave anyone in Phoenix, or so you’ve said, but we’ve yet to see you with anyone in Copperdale. You aren’t half-bad looking, so what gives?” Camille teased.
“Half-bad?” He frowned and peered down his nose, feigning insult. “Maybe I love `em and leave `em.”
“Hmm, no. Not you.” Janie sounded serious.
And she’d misjudged him in the few weeks he’d been hanging out with them. He didn’t need the kind of relationship that went beyond carnal knowledge. He wasn’t joking. He’d always been more of a short-term relationship man and saw no reason to change at this point in his life.
“I’m starving. Leave poor Zac alone and let’s order.” Darlene gave him a wink and then threw a wave at their waitress.
He made an effort to peruse the menu, but caramel curls and feminine curves marred his concentration. In the end, he chose the same hamburger Justin ordered.
There was something about Magpie, as if they’d known each other somewhere else. Impossible. He was raised in Lodi, California while she grew up in Joshua. He’d spent years in Arizona but rarely left the valley from the time he got his degree at A.S.U. to working eighteen-hour days at the law firm. Somewhere he’d read, maybe one of his philosophy classes way back when, you can meet someone and have an association as if you’d always known them.
He’d probably made her uncomfortable with his staring, yet he’d never experienced such an instant connection. Ever since he set foot in Copperdale, he seemed to be having déjà vu moments. Magpie had been the most pleasant so far. They might have crossed paths over the last couple of months in Copperdale, but even a brief encounter with Magpie would be memorable. As if her energy vibrated within him, he was in tune with her. He sipped again and smiled to himself. He was smitten. Or at least curious if an encounter of some sort might be possible.
Jillian arrived, balancing plates on a large tray. “Okay. Ketchup and all that other stuff are on the table. More wine?”
Head shakes all around.
As they ate, discussions on ghosts and history dominated the conversation. Darlene consulted the book on Joshua with suggestions on the historical sites they couldn’t miss seeing. She warned everyone to keep their eyes open once they all went to their rooms tonight because, according to the guidebook, their rooms occupied the most haunted building in the town. Near the end of the meal, a couple of teenage boys came in, and as their waitress seated them, Zac caught snatches of conversation.
He leaned toward Camille. “Did you hear that?”
“Sounds like someone found a body somewhere.”
“Ooh.” She scrunched her face, although her expression held more interest than disgust.
Jillian stopped by their table. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Anyone?” Zac asked. “Doesn’t look appear so, but can I be nosey? Did I overhear they found a body in town?”
“Oh, yeah.” Her hazel eyes widened. “Well, not exactly a body. Human bones were found in The Ravine.”
“A ravine? Where? In the mountains?” Janie asked.
She sorted out the food bills. “No, not a ravine, The Ravine, an area on the east side, below the switchback.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Darlene said.
Zac handed their waitress a credit card. “Put them all on this.”
“No, you don’t.” Justin pulled his wallet from his jeans.
“Put your money away, man, I got it. Use this card, Jillian, if you please.”
She winked and took his card. “Be right back.”
“Bones. Maybe we’ll encounter the ghost.” Camille rubbed her hands together. “So, what does the guidebook say about the area where they found the bones, Darlene?”
“So glad you asked.” She squared her shoulders. “In the `50s, the population of Joshua had dropped to under one hundred citizens. Mining had ended leaving the town abandoned to the ghosts. When the hippies descended on Joshua in the `60s, they settled in many of the abandoned houses on the east side, separate from the main part of town, in an area called The Ravine.” Tour guide Darlene smiled, pleased at her knowledge. “It isn’t technically a ravine, but someone coined the name in the late 1800s, and it stuck. The area is lower than the town and kind of a small valley. Anyway, hippies, artists, and other like-minded individuals found Joshua and squatted or bought homes, mostly in The Ravine.”
“Now, that sounds like a stop on our self-guided tour.” Justin drained his wine glass. “If we can find it.”
“I wouldn’t advise a tour.” Jillian returned, handing the charge receipt to Zac. “The people who live there, many of them the original hippies from the `60s, don’t appreciate outsiders wandering into their area. You know, gawkers are considered an intrusion in their privacy.”
“Sounds like there’ll be a lot of intrusion now.” Zac stood and lifted his coat from the back of the chair. “Human bones might open up the neighborhood to more than a few visitors.”