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Ghostly Tours

A Halloween Novella


Fantasy Romance


By

Kathy Bosman




Ghostly Tours

By Kathy Bosman


Cover Design by Kathy Bosman

Cover Image courtesy of hyena reality at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.


GHOSTLY TOURS

Copyright © 2017 KATHY BOSMAN




Dedicated To:


My late Aunty Helen and late Granny Bubbeh. Love you lots.


Acknowledgements


To my spiritual guides. Thank you.

To my writer friends who encouraged me while I’ve battled through two years of writer’s block. I appreciate you and love the community.





Chapter One


“There’s a storm on its way. Will be here Sunday,” Susanna’s colleague told her from across her desk in the open-plan office where she worked. Susanna nodded. It didn’t concern her. She stayed on the fifth floor in an apartment block, a good distance from the sea. Sure, she had a sea view, but there was no way a bad storm with galeforce winds could make the waves reach her. She’d just close up all the windows and the whines would seethe through her home. She kind of liked the sound. It made her boring evenings a bit more interesting. Sometimes, she’d sit by the window and watch the trees bowing below and the waves lash against the shore. As long as the powerlines didn’t get knocked down or her Wi-Fi didn’t get cut. Selfish, yes.

“And it’s Halloween.” Donna grinned.

“Is that supposed to be bad luck?” Susanna asked, anxious to get back to her work and go home. It had been a crazy day with several disgruntled clients. On days like this, she hated her job. Working in tourism was usually fun—organizing getaways and family vacations for people, but not when they didn’t appreciate her efforts. Not when the hotels or tours she’d chosen weren’t to their picky liking. And she knew the best of the best.

“Ah, thanks for reminding me,” she said to her friend who ignored her question. “I was planning to have a scary-movie marathon the whole weekend. I’d forgotten it was Halloween. And it’s a Friday.” Her mood suddenly upped several notches.

“Can I join you?” Donna asked.

“What? Aren’t you going out with Bart? I mean, it’s Halloween weekend.”

“And you?”

“I don’t go out on holidays. I hate crowds. You know that.”

Donna rolled her eyes. “Don’t I? I’ve been trying—”

Their boss, Estelle, dropped a file on her desk. “New tour company in Tuscany vineyards country. Take a look.”

“Ooh.” Susanna snatched it up. “My favorite.”

Estelle shrugged and walked away.

“I wish,” she whispered. When would she be given the privilege of actually testing the tours? She always had to do her research online, or Estelle or Brian got to actually go on the tour and handed her a report after the fact. The woes of being a junior travel consultant.

“I’ve always wanted to tour Tuscany,” she mumbled to Donna who suddenly looked deeply studious.

“Haven’t we all.”

Donna’s dismissive comment dropped her mood back to the dry valley it had been in before she’d remembered it was Halloween. No, seriously, the Italian province had been her dream for years. It had been one of the reasons she’d become a travel consultant, in the hopes that she’d actually get to stay there and savor its delights: Italian food, green vineyards, wine tasting, whitewashed houses, handsome Italian men.

After typing up several emails to companies, she settled back into her chair and read through the tour company’s file.

“Ghostly Tours,” she said aloud, but Donna had taken some work over to discuss with Brian. “Who on Earth calls their company…?”

She grinned. The tour company liked to take their clients to all the monuments, war memorials, and cemeteries, going over the history of vital people who had died in the area.

“Of all the things to do in Tuscany…” She looked up to find Estelle peering over the partition in front of her computer. She jumped in surprise, and Estelle’s eyes filled with a strange mixture of amusement and an emotion Susanna couldn’t quite put her finger on, but couldn’t help thinking was a little malicious.

“I’ve been thinking…”

That sounded ominous. “Mmmh-mmmh.”


“Seeing you’re really keen on Tuscany, and well, this tour company seems rather gloomy, to be honest, and Brian and I are rather snowed under at the moment, I was thinking…”

Susanna jumped up, aware how wide her eyes and mouth were, but not caring a bit. “Yes, oh yes! I’ll do it.”

“Sit down, Susanna.” Estelle sneered at her. The woman truly had a way of making her feel like a worm and not a woman. “It’s your job; it’s not a vacation. We’d like you to take the Ghostly Tours Tuscany tour—the full three-week one. You’ll have to take your admin work with you and do as much as you can in the evenings else you’re going to get way behind.” It didn’t bother Susanna a bit that when Estelle and Brian went on tour, Donna, Susanna, and the twins ended up having double workload. No, not a single blip.

“And I want a full report—a breakdown of every day while on tour. Even the boring stuff—the graves, the cemeteries.” Estelle cackled; she could easily play the villainess in some creepy horror movie. She had “nasty” down to a fine art. “So, you’re going to be insanely busy and probably bored out of your socks during the day, then working till midnight every night. You sure you’re still keen?”

“Of course, yes.” She touched Estelle on the arm; the woman flinched and stepped back, her face filled with disgust. “Thank you so much,” Susanna bumbled out.

Estelle stiffened her back. She snatched her skin away from any touch—yes, the only “love” she could stomach was reptilian Brian’s lustful ones. “Well, you’d better start preparing. Your plane leaves tonight.”

“What?”

“I’ve booked your flight already.”

“You what?”

Estelle scowled. “It’s your job.”

Susanna wanted to say that Estelle should really check these things first. What if she’d made plans for the weekend? But she clamped her mouth shut and sat down, her legs jelly and her insides on fire. How could she back out of a dream come true, no matter how oddly it was coming together?

“It’s Halloween,” she whispered.

“Yes, Ghostly Tours. You may leave early. I’ll arrange a lift to the airport for you. Your tour starts on Sunday.” Estelle’s eyes held an eerie light, and an involuntary shiver ran through her body. The woman disappeared, leaving Susanna to ponder the full impact of what was about to happen. Should she be filled with dread? She’d never flown out of the States. What would it be like to go on a long flight? Would she have enough clothes? What would the weather be like there? How about a visa? Estelle knew how to organize those fast. She had a feeling the woman was probably busy sorting it out right this minute. It was rather odd—her whole creepy behavior, but maybe her thoughts earlier about her scary-movie marathon, while all alone in the apartment, with the wind whining through all the cracks and swaying the building, had put her in a “scary” frame of mind. Surely, there couldn’t be anything wicked about Tuscany?


Chapter Two


The taxi drove along the Florence streets at what felt like slow motion to Susanna. With scratchy eyes, she tried to take in the sights, but the tiredness made it increasingly difficult.

“This sucks,” she muttered to herself, the taxi driver peering at her curiously in the rearview mirror. Susanna had a few hours to settle in her hotel, then she needed to get some sleep before the tour started the next morning, early. She’d hardly slept on the long flight and kept yawning, but she feared she’d be unable to sleep tonight, the nerves playing havoc on her body and mind. She’d hardly had time to sort out her personal affairs. Thankfully, her friend and next-door neighbor, Kaylee, had been available to come over to pick up her parrot, Sedward. She’d pet-sit him for the next three weeks. Susanna had thrown things in her case last minute. If she needed anymore clothes, she wouldn’t have time to go shopping. She had no idea if she’d packed the right things at all; at least she’d made sure to bring two pairs of decent walking shoes.

The taxi driver pulled up in front of a hotel in Florence. It looked quaint and too beautiful for a two-star; apparently that’s what Estelle had arranged for her to stay in until the tour started. Of course, she would book a two-star, because no way could junior Susanna live it up like she and Brian always did. Susanna had no complaints, but the long flight had got her thinking on the way her boss treated her. Despite her excitement about touring Tuscany, she couldn’t help the resentment building. It was a bit harder to enjoy something when you couldn’t even prepare for your trip and buy a decent wardrobe. She had a feeling Estelle had booked her in a while back, but only broke it to her at the last minute so she didn’t have a chance to back out.

The driver rattled off a figure in euros, and thanks to Estelle’s organization, she did have some foreign currency and could pay for her fair. She thanked him profusely and made her way to her room. Within minutes, her cases were placed by her bed and the bellhop disappeared with a handsome tip, so she flopped on the garish bedspread and closed her eyes. Her pulse throbbed in her throat. She covered her eyes with her hand and sighed. Phew, the last few hours had been stressful. Finally she’d made it here.


***


Susanna woke up with the room in darkness and her throat dried up like a cotton ball.

“I need a drink,” she croaked out and then moaned when she looked at the time. It was close to midnight. How would she find a restaurant at this hour? But she desperately needed something to wet her throat and her stomach felt like a bottomless pit. Airline food had been an insipid fare; no wonder she felt she could eat for days.

After wetting her face and bringing some sense of normalcy to her wild curls, Susanna went down the stairs to find some food. The lobby of the hotel was empty and everything practically in darkness. The silence seemed deafening, then she nearly jumped out of her skin when a loud, deep chime bonged twelve times, booming through her body like a bongo drum, echoing through every crevice of her brain.

“Midnight. Great,” she muttered. The hotel could’ve invested in a more pleasant-sounding clock. Thankfully, the doors to the hotel had been left open. Florence should be alive at night; it was a tourist destination, after all. Surely, it would be more welcoming than the hotel. She’d have to walk around a bit to find out.

Venture out, she did, but it didn’t prove as fruitful an endeavor as she’d hoped. The hotel was flanked by several other businesses, all closed at this hour. The clip-clop of her court shoes on the pavement echoed through the stillness. Not a single star could be seen in the sky, which was covered with clouds, and she shivered, more from a feeling of unease than cold. The sound of a crowd could be heard, wafting from what she thought must be the end of the street. Hope! She headed in the direction of life and prayed it was a restaurant or nightclub which served something moist.

When the noises grew louder, her ease increased. Even Italian strangers would be better than her own company in an empty street. How safe was it to walk alone in Florence? She had no idea.

People streamed out of a building. She marched toward the entrance. It appeared like a theater.

“Oh great,” she mumbled.

Maybe there was some food inside. She slipped in through the wide doors, past impatient people firing away in Italian, feeling out of place in the rumpled clothes she’d worn on the airplane and slept in for the last few hours. When she discovered it was a cinema and not a theater, the relief was palpable. At least she could buy some popcorn and soda. At this hour, she was content to settle.

Eerie music streamed out from one of the movie houses. She looked up at the posters to see what was showing. Every booth had a scary movie related to Halloween.

“Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” She leaned against a wall to get out of the way, all the energy seeped out of her. Somehow, it made her sad that she wasn’t at home plowing through her scary-movie marathon. It was Halloween, after all. She didn’t even have Sedward to chat to. He loved making commentaries during the movies.

She spotted the popcorn queue and joined the long snake, surprised at how tired her feet felt; it’s not like she’d been standing for hours.

While she stood in the queue, she took out the spare phone Estelle had lent her which would connect to an Italian network. She booted it up.

“Are you sure you want to go on the tour tomorrow?” she heard a woman behind her say in American English.

A man chuckled. “You’re scared you may see a ghost?”

“I’m not coming with, if that’s what you think. It’s creepy.”

“No, it’s fun. There’s been nothing like this, ever. Aren’t you game?”

Susanna wondered if they were talking about Ghostly Tours. She honed her ears in case she missed something, and tried to look like she was interested in her phone.

“It sounds stupid to me,” the woman said with mock disdain.

Susanna itched to see what they looked like but kept facing the front of the queue. If she turned around, they may stop talking about the tour.

“Finally something different. It’s about time people connected to something paranormal in this city.”

“Come on, Shane; Italy is a place of art, food, and history. You never appreciate what really matters.” There was tease in her voice.

“It’s Halloween, for goodness’ sake, Mom. It’s about time I actually felt a bit scared.”

“Nothing scares you, son. Nothing at all. Except…”

“Well, I want that to change.”

Susanna’s eyes popped open wide. She’d never heard a conversation like this before. And how could someone not be frightened by a scary movie? They terrified her. Why she put herself through them when she lived on her own, she had no clue.

Anyway, while you go on your gloomy tour, I’m going to be tasting Italian pasta and gelato.”

“They do allow us to eat, you know. It’s not like Ghostly Tours isn’t totally professional. As I told you, Ryan and Jessica know what they’re doing. They’ve run tours all over Europe.”

“Meh.” The woman sounded tired of the conversation.

Susanna couldn’t resist it any longer. She turned round to see who had provoked such intense curiosity in her. The man stared right at her with piercing blue eyes. His dark hair contrasted them beautifully, and his roughened face made lust rise up in her—a sensation she hadn’t experienced for a long time. But something made her shiver, maybe the way he stared intently into her soul or a feeling she got in close proximity to him: uneasy and goose-bumpy and scary. She glanced at the mother, who seemed too concerned with a paper she held in her hand. The woman seemed like an ordinary middle-aged American female. But the man…

She whipped her head round to find she was at the front of the queue. With shaky hands, she paid for her popcorn, soda, and a candy bar. She could slip into one of the scary movies; it would help the night pass quicker before the tour tomorrow, and she’d feel less like she was missing out on her Halloween movie marathon, but something in her couldn’t quite face up to it tonight. Yet, how would she manage the walk back to the hotel all on her own? It was only a block, but the thought made her insides clench tight.

Rendered useless by her indecision, Susanna instead found a corner of the room by a pillar and tucked into her “meal” while people-watching. The place seemed to team with tourists, but she liked studying the Italian people the most. They really were good-looking with their olive complexions and dark features.

The room emptied fast as the people filed into the dark theaters. A few stragglers remained behind—the theater workers and some latecomers. Susanna’s uneasiness increased as the room emptied and eerie music filtered through from the cinema rooms. How would she make it back to the hotel? Why hadn’t she just gone to sleep on an empty tummy?

Eventually she was eating the salt and kernels at the bottom of the popcorn carton and taking her last sips of soda. The candy bar was stashed in her purse for later. It was time to face up to the short walk back. Surely, she would be safe. Or should she wait until the movies were finished? There were bound to be moviegoers heading in the same direction as she. There was nothing worse than indecision brought on by irrational anxiety. Yet, somehow that man had made her feel uneasy; it was like he wanted her to feel that tingly, shivery feeling up and down her arms.

Someone touched her on the shoulder. She gasped loudly and turned around. The very object of her thoughts faced her in all seriousness.

“Are you okay?”

She cleared her throat. “Yes, I’m fine.” Her voice came out a bit too defensive.

“You seem lost.”

“I…” Her eyes filled with tears. Oh, crud. She tried to blink them away furiously, but it only made the moisture fall out of her eyes.

He looked deeply concerned, so she began to seriously doubt her sanity; why had she thought he was creepy earlier?

“Are you waiting for someone? They didn’t arrive?”

“No, um, well…” Honesty was always the best route, even in times like these. “I came here purely to get some food. I couldn’t find any restaurants open at this hour. My taxi ride only dropped me off at the hotel a few hours ago. I fell asleep because of a horrible flight, and woke up just before midnight.”

“You’re in Italy all on your own?”

She lifted her chin. “Yes, why not?” True, why didn’t Estelle arrange for someone to accompany her? What was her problem? As a travel agent, she should be up to these things.

“It is my first time though. I’m kind of unsure of things.”

He pressed her gently on the elbow, making her shiver in a different way—a warm, comforting shiver. “May I accompany you back to your hotel entrance?”

His blue eyes sparkled with gentlemanly concern.

“I don’t know, though you seem nice, I…”

“I’ll ask my mother to join us. Will that make you feel more comfortable?”

“That would be great. Thank you so much, um…” She knew his name was Shane. She hadn’t forgotten, but she didn’t want him to know she knew.

“Shane. And yours?”

“Susanna.”

“Wait here, Susanna. I’m going to call my mother.”

She lurched forward to stop him, by standing in front of him. “Please don’t disturb her movie. I’ll wait until—”

“Believe me, Susanna, I think she’ll be quite relieved.” The twinkle of amusement in his eyes made her chuckle lightly. The relief was quite intense as she watched him march into one of the cinemas. She took out the candy bar and took several bites. What a good thing she’d found a fellow American to help her in her time of need. The world truly was a friendly place, after all.


***


The walk back to the hotel was pleasant and peppered with light conversation. Shane’s mother, whose name was Eriza, asked Susanna about her travel consultant job. “So why Ghostly Tours?” she said just as they reached the entrance to the hotel.

“I’m not sure. It’s a new one on my desk. My boss heard that I have dreamed of visiting Tuscany and offered for me to come. Although I have a strong suspicion she’s been planning this for a while. I don’t think she was keen on it herself as she’s normally the one to take the tours.”

“I honestly don’t blame her,” said Eriza. “I don’t know why Shane insists on wasting his vacation on the tour.”

Shane remained quiet and tight-lipped. Susanne thought he must be the moody type, but then he suddenly chirped, “If you enjoy ghostbusting, this tour will be a total hoot.” He chuckled mock-wickedly.

Eriza gave him an annoyed look. “Shane, how many times have I told you that it’s just going to be boring memorial sites and graveyards? You’ll be reading gravestones and looking at war mementoes.”

“I have inside knowledge it’s a lot more than that.”

Susanna shivered involuntarily. “Don’t say that. I think I’d prefer to stick to the boring history.”

Shane gave her a knowing look. “That’s just because it’s nightime and it’s Halloween.” His eyes turned strange. If the Ripley’s Believe it or Not music chimed in the background, she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

“Well”—she cleared her throat—“I need to head to bed. I have to be fresh as I’m working tomorrow.”

“I’ll see you at the tour.” Shane seemed pleased.

“Thank you so much.”

They headed back toward the cinemas and Susanna made a fast retreat toward her hotel room. Part of her couldn’t wait to see Shane again—he did have the most entrancing eyes, but another part filled with dread. Something didn’t feel right. Could he enchant her somehow? Was he some non-human creature like a vampire or werewolf? Okay, she really had seen too many scary movies in her lifetime.

Once in her room, Susanna headed to the bathroom. They had a claw-foot tub, deep and shiny, and peppered around it were bath bombs, bath salts, and all sorts of pamper items. Two-star? Something didn’t add up. She ran the water and popped three bombs into the hot spray. They exploded into a kaleidoscope of bubbles, color, and delightful scent. Without bothering to close the bathroom door, she dropped her clothes on the spot, and slipped into the glorious ice-cream-like liquid.

Her whole being eased as she immersed herself up to her neck. She closed her eyes and sighed. A breeze blew her hair. Huh?

She opened her eyes, wondering if she should’ve closed her door. Maybe a draught was coming in through the whole hotel room. A shadow streaked across her vision. She blinked and puffed air at her eyes—possibly a hair had flicked over her eye. The shadow seemed like a dark cloud against the white ceiling. She sat up, displacing the water violently and making it spill over the sides of the bath. The breeze cut at her skin. She stood up; it didn’t decrease. She stepped out onto the fluffy white mat and slammed the door shut, then slipped back under the water. The shadow could only be her imagination, but the breeze could never be. Her body eased as the warmth from the water seeped into her.

She closed her eyes again. A stiff coldness swept across her face. She moaned and opened her eyes. A pair of chilling blue eyes stared at her. The scream that ripped through the echoing bathroom scared her as much as the face. She swatted at the visage, spraying bubbles all over the air. “What are you? Go away!”

“Susanna,” it said with a deep and soothing voice. “Don’t be afraid.”

She stood up, then realized the face was on top of a masculine shape, very hazy, but definitely masculine. And she was starkers. She flung herself back into the water, sending a good portion of the water over the sides. The cleanup was going to be fun. As if she should be thinking of that now.

“Are you a ghost?” she blew a bubble toward the visage.

“I am what I am.”

“Did you see me naked?”

The eyes blinked. “I did. Is that a problem?”

If this wasn’t so freaky, she’d be laughing now. Was she talking to a ghost?

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I am usually a modest person, but well, I don’t normally get a male visitor in the bathroom with me. Now please can you go away. I want to wash myself. I desperately need some sleep.”

“You are surpisingly calm, I have to give you that. I shall be waiting for you in the bedroom.” With that, poof, he was gone. She stared at the tiny window above the basin. Maybe she could make an escape. She’d put her dirty clothes back on…

Of course, she wasn’t on the ground floor. And well, something in her wanted to know who he was. Why, she had no idea.

“I’ll take my time though. Savor the bubbles and crème.” She lay there, but her heart beat so fast, she couldn’t enjoy the glorious scent or velvety sensation of the bath bombs. With haste, she washed herself, even shampooing her hair. She towelled herself dry with the lush white hotel towel and wrapped it around her. The ghost would have to accept her partially naked form. If he wanted to disturb her peace, he needed to understand she didn’t want to waste her bath and put back the icky airplane-smelly clothes.

Her hands shook so much, she could barely tie the little knot at the top of the towel to hold it around her, above her breasts, but she did succeed. Bracing herself, she stepped into her bedroom. The room was strangely normal. Everything looked the same as she’d left it. She scanned the ceiling and walls.

“Hello,” she called, “are you still there?”

Silence. It pierced her with fear more than his voice had. Was he ready to pounce on her? Possess her? Scream eerily into her ears?

“Show yourself, whoever you are.”

Nothing.

She sat on the bed, craning her neck to look around at every nook and cranny of the room. After quite some time, she began to feel cold. She rummaged in her suitcase for her nightdress and slipped it on. She buried herself inside the fluffy covers of the bed and closed her eyes. Had she imagined the whole thing? It could be a mixture of lack of sleep, exhaustion, and Halloween.

It could only be that.




Chapter Three


The first thought, as Susanna woke up in the morning, was how come the covers were back to those garish maroon paisley things, thin and scratchy against her skin, and the pillow flat as a yoga mat? Gone was the fluffy down duvet she’d fallen asleep in. She stumbled to the bathroom and found a tiny plastic tub and a nasty, old toilet, bordered by an ugly maroon mat. No soft towel adorned the rail, neither were there any pamper things surrounding the bath.

Had she imagined last night? The whole bath experience with the ghost with blue eyes? She chuckled as she pondered it more deeply. It must have been a dream—a garble of her thoughts on how unfair it was that Estelle and Brian got to stay in the fancy hotels, plus her strange encounter with the man Shane at the movie theater who possessed the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.

Her humor was shortlived when she realized how much time she had to get ready—only twenty minutes. It looked like she would go hungry again. Why hadn’t her alarm woken her up?

She rushed around and barely had time to style her hair and put on makeup. If Shane saw her as a mess, what would it matter? It’s not like they would ever meet again after the tour. He lived the other end of the States, from the little she’d learned about him.

When she arrived at the tour spot—an office in a block in the opposite direction of the hotel—she had to stand outside for a few moments to catch her breath. Barely recovered and sure her face was as red as a beetroot, she stepped inside the Ghostly Tours office. For some reason, she’d expected gaudy decorations like a bad Halloween shop, but instead, the office looked neat and professional and the walls were adorned with boring war memorials, historical posters, and elaborate maps of Tuscany. People milled around, tucking into finger foods. She gravitated straight to a map of Tuscany. The food could be munched on during the talk. Didn’t all tour groups give a talk beforehand? A tingly sensation blanketed her shoulders; she turned around, confused. Blue eyes, familiar, and crystal-clear, stared at her from dark brows and olive skin. “Shane, hi.” She couldn’t help grinning. The guy did crazy things to her being: thrilled and scared her at the same time—a potent cocktail.

“Susanna.” The way he said her name sounded oddly familiar, yet he’d never said it like that before.

She shook her head. “Have a good sleep, Shane?”

He shrugged and his eyes shuttered. For a brief second, she thought she glimpsed deep pain in his eyes, but the whole Shane experience had confused her from the start, so she didn’t jump to any conclusions.

“You?” he seemed to tag on the end.

“The duvet was heavenly.” She coughed. “Well, let’s just say I dreamed it was.” She shook her head. “I was tired. I dreamed lots of strange things.”

“Stranger than fiction? Or more real than fiction?” He turned to the tour guides who walked toward him.

“Shane Gibson! It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.”

“Hi, Ryan. Jessica.” He shook the couple’s hands. “This is Susanna.”

“Welcome, Susanna.” Ryan took her hand enthusiastically and Jessica gave her a hug. What a relief the tour guides were friendly.

“Ready for the ride of your life?” Ryan asked her.

Susanna grinned. “Sure thing. I’ll be working though. I’m with Estelle’s consultancy from Sarasota.”

“Please help yourself to some snacks. We’ll only be stopping at lunchtime.” Jessica pointed at the snack table. Susanna reasoned she wouldn’t have time to study the map with so much friendly conversation going on, so she picked up and gladly tucked into a croissant with thick mango and pear jam, a buttery, cheesy muffin, some shiny cherry tomatoes, and a slice of halloumi.

While Susanna finished off her muffin and alternately sipped a cup of steaming cappucino, Jessica quietened the crowd and gave the instructions for the tour—the usual, to be expected stuff: check the booklet for the schedule, stay with the group, and make sure to return to the bus at the designated times. Always feel free to ask either Jessica or Ryan for assistance.

“And last but not least, leave the ghost talk to the pros. You may not photograph or video any paranormal activities as it disturbs the spirits.”

The crowd laughed nervously, and Susanna stared at Jessica, then Ryan, and lastly Shane to see if Jessica had made a serious comment or a joke. The three faces looked matter-of-fact—not a single amused look or twinkle in the eye.

Surely not!

“And Happy Halloween,” Ryan boomed with a wicked cackle. The people joining the tour cheered in response.

Once again, her head spun with the strangeness of her experience since she’d arrived in Tuscany. It all had to be some silly joke—maybe they’d mixed up Halloween with April Fool’s Day.

But she couldn’t brush away the last comment as they gathered their booklets and other brochures of the area and made their way to the tour bus. Shane stayed close to the tour guides—a good thing, she supposed, as it would be easier to relax and concentrate on her work without the distraction of his mesmerizing gaze and gut-penetrating voice.

The first stop was a short distance south from the center of Florence—Florence American Cemetery. The tour bus pulled up outside a beautiful wide gate with a golden wreath in its center. The driveway into the cemetery was flanked by rows of trees hiding expansive fields dotted with pure-white crosses. Susanna watched in wonder. She’d never considered a cemetery beautiful before.

Jessica spoke for the first time since they’d climbed on the tour bus. Her deep, confident voice rang out. “This cemetery holds the burial site of more than four thousand American soldiers, most of whom died in the Second World War, after the capture of Rome, and some in the battles in the Apennine’s Mountains that actually occurred after the war.”

“I can’t believe they were all Americans,” Susanna said to Shane once they’d stepped out the bus. “I didn’t know so many of our soldiers gave their lives in the Second World War.” She stared out at the perfect rows of white crosses patterning the lush, green grass. A sadness swept over her, poignant and intense.

“Inside the atrium are the names of the soldiers who were missing—over a thousand, although some of them have been found since,” Shane added. He gazed up at a statue on top of a huge, white pinnacle. She watched his face, how pensive he seemed. Maybe he felt it too. “Will you take a look at them later?” he asked her, his eyes darker than they’d ever been—a deep indigo.

She nodded numbly.

Ryan led them throughout the cemetery. They walked beside the rows of white crosses, and Susanna read some of them, wondering who they’d been, whose son they were, or father, or husband. There were even a couple of women amongst the memorial stones. Were they nurses? Soldiers? Spies?

Later they filed into the atrium, with walls covered in names of soldiers and which state they hailed from. She looked around for Shane, surprised not to see him anywhere. He seemed to really want her to look at the missing soldiers. Some of the names had rosettes next to them—as Jessica had said—a sign they’d been found since. She stood before one of the concrete plaques and read through the names. A breeze picked up, tickling the hairs at the back of her neck, below her ponytail. She blinked. Everything seemed fuzzy, like a cloud of mist stood between her eyes and what she tried to read.

Blue eyes stared, unblinking, at her, blocking her view. She tried to scream, but a cold hand muted her mouth. “Be still, Susanna.” The same voice spoke, the deep voice that entered into her being and rumbled inside her—Shane’s.

“Shane?” she said in her head. “Is that you?”

“I’m lost,” he said. “Have been for the last seventy-three years.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m—”

A piercing wail streaked through her consciousness. Susanna whipped her head round to find one of the ladies in the tour screaming and pointing above Susanna’s head. “A ghost. I saw a ghost.”

Ryan’s face turned dark. “Be quiet.”

The tour members stared above Susanna’s head. She felt her face heat with all the attention although all they cared about was her blue-eyed ghost. Someone snapped a photo.

Susanna shouted. “Hey,” but then a series of flashes ensued. The mist disappeared with the light-flashes, and Shane was gone. Or so she thought it was him.

“Do we need to stress again that no photography of paranormal activity is allowed?” Ryan said, his voice like stone.

A middle-aged man in the group mumbled, “We honestly thought that was just a joke. Do you really expect us not to want to show people what we saw?”

“If you wish to enjoy the full benefit of Ghostly Tours, you need to refrain from photographing any paranormal activity,” Jessica said, her face strained.

Susanna turned away from the conflict—she’d always hated any confrontation—and glanced at the plaque, hoping that blue-eyes would appear for her again. She blinked in shock. A name on the list of missing men seemed to pulse with energy, the way it highlighted itself in her eyes—McDonald Shane T—SGT—something about bomb squad—Maryland.

“We’re going to the next spot,” Jessica said behind her. Susanna turned to see the place empty except for her and the tour guide. “Oh, where did everyone vanish to?”

“You’ve been staring at that plaque for ages; is there someone you know on it?” Jessica’s expression looked strange.

“I don’t know. I… Don’t you think it’s so sad—all these men missing—their families never knowing what had happened to them?”

“Yes, it’s tragic.”

“But I suppose it was a long time ago. People have moved on.” She followed Jessica out the atrium, down past the tall, white pinnacle and along the pathway, back to the tour bus. They walked in silence. The day was beautiful, the sun bright, the sky blue, and the greenery added to the brilliant colors. “That’s what I love about Tuscany—the colors, the hazy feel, the warm air.”

“You’ve been here before?” Jessica asked.

“No, just always dreamed of it.”

Jessica smiled. “I like that.”


***


“Next stop: English Cemetery, Florence.” Ryan assumed the tour guide role and spoke in the bus this time. In the strange dreamlike state that Susanna had climbed back into the bus in, she’d somehow missed seeing Shane get in there too. He sat on the seat across from her, buried in some papers resting on a book.

“Where were you?” She wanted to elbow him in the arm, but the aisle was too wide between them.

“I had some paperwork to do.”

“I should be the one doing paperwork, not you. What you up to?”

“I’m doing research for a thesis.”

“A thesis?”

“To do with American soldiers dying in Europe.”

“Oh, quite apt. Is that why you’re on this tour?” She frowned. Surely Shane’s mother would understand his fascination with Ghostly Tours then.

He chuckled. “I’m just kidding.” He swatted her on the leg. She pulled away, a little annoyed at his strange joke.

“So, what are you up to?”

“Just some business paperwork. I’m an actuary.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, I know. I should be enjoying my vacation, but I had some leftover work to complete. May as well make use of the time.”

“But you missed the atrium.”

“So I did. I’ve been there before.”

She nodded. Sounded about right.

“Many times?” She stared pointedly at him.

Ryan broke the awkward silence her question had created, with another speech. “After this site, we’ll be stopping for lunch and then an hour of free time. Thankfully, the area where we’ll have lunch is surrounded by several interesting shops. Don’t spend all your money on the first day of tour.”

The entrance to the English cemetery wasn’t as grand as the American one, but Ryan spoke as they walked in, piquing her interest with what he said. “The Florence English Cemetery is known as the Victorian cemetery, and you’ll soon see why. So, the graves here were for the non-Jewish and non-Catholic people, who died during the eighteenth century, as they weren’t allowed to be buried in Florence. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried here as well as Shakespeare’s relative, Beatrice Shakespeare. Please take time to study Elizabeth’s grave as it’s quite elaborate. You can spend half an hour perusing the grounds. There are several delightful statues to photograph.”

“This time are we allowed to use our cameras?” the middle-aged man asked with a scowl.

“We don’t expect to encounter any paranormal activity here at this hour, but if you do find something, please let us know. We’re always keen to see,” Ryan said.

“Mmmh,” the man mumbled.

Elizabeth’s grave looked like a British version of the arc of the covenant, mounted on Roman columns.

“Very fancy and very British, I tell you,” Susanna said to one of the touring ladies who stood next to her.

She nodded with a smile.

“Do you think she’s inside that box or under the ground?” she added.

“I don’t know.” The woman with windswept hair shrugged.

Susanna spent the next half an hour looking around. She enjoyed going at her own pace and staring at the artwork around the place. The historicity and style fascinated her. She shivered when she came across a tall statue of a skeletal man with his eyes blindfolded—well, more like sockets, not eyes—and his gnarly, fleshless hand holding a staff.

“He’s the grimm reaper,” Shane whispered in her ear from behind. She jumped, nearly dropping her purse and clipboard onto the ground.

“Hey, you spooked me.”

His eyes darkened. “Didn’t mean to.”

She punched him lightly in the stomach. “Yes, you did. Don’t lie.” Something warm entered her being at the contact with his firm stomach.

“I confess.” He patted his chest. “It’s Halloween; what else can I do?”

“Are there any other scary statues around here? I’ve only seen ordinary ones. Well, the woman with her head in her hand is beautiful, so tragic.”

“I’ll show you.” She followed him through the grounds, peppered with overgrown creepers and swaying trees, while he showed her several more. They walked in silence; Susanna couldn’t help feeling that Shane carried a deep secret in his being. Sometimes he went deathly quiet. No pun intended, she told herself with a grim smile. Yet, he seemed so alive, so male, so magnetic. She’d touched him briefly. He was warm; his scent was a mixture of earthy and spicy. She couldn’t ignore his delightful features: Greek nose, big, deepset eyes, fluffy, dark brown hair, firm chin, and thin but soft-looking mouth. Sometimes, he spoke with a slight accent; she couldn’t quite place it—Irish, Scottish, Welsh?

How could he be her blue-eyed ghost? But his voice? Those eyes? The fact he’d disappeared. It all pointed toward—

“See this one.” He turned her by the shoulders to face a simple plaque of a man lost to his wife and children.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” she mumbled, finding it hard to think straight after he touched her.

“Tragic.” He went quiet. “It must’ve taken them years to get over their grief.”

“My dad died when I was ten. You never quite get over it,” she said.

“I’m sorry.” He took her hand in his. She considered pulling away; they hardly knew one another, but somehow it provided a sense of comfort, mixed with a thrill.

“There are so many flowers on the graves.”

“The Italians are loyal to their dead.”

“But these graves are old.”

“This cemetery has a special place. And if you go inside, you’ll find some info on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

“Shall we go inside then?” Shivers ran through her being. She began to tremble, unsure why holding hands with him had such a strange effect on her. Sure, it was definitely a desperate lust, but there was more, and she didn’t want to face up to what that more could be.

As they walked toward the building, he kept her hand firmly yet comfortably in his grip. “The gypsies are helping to restore the statues and tombs.”

“They are?” She didn’t ask him how he knew so much; surely he should be one of the tour guides.

Susanna had never been much into poetry, but when she picked up some of the brochures containing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work, she enjoyed the flow of the words, although she didn’t really understand them. She looked around to point something out to Shane, but he’d disappeared. The tour was heading out again. Her growling stomach assured her it was a good thing. When would she get a chance to document her day?

Slipping a brochure in with her folder of papers, she found the rest of the tour. Shane sat at the back of the bus next to two young female British vacationers. He seemed to be on his own mission. She shouldn’t see the hand-holding as meaning anything. Maybe he’d found some comfort in her. And anyway, she’d tried the whole long-distance relationship thing twice; she wasn’t about to go down that route again.

He could be her vacation dream, that’s all. He was kind of dreamy.

They stopped off at a classic pizzeria for lunch. Susanna ordered a gorgeous double-cheese margherita, as advised by Jessica. Always one to find it hard to blend in with a group, she found a table by herself to cherish the Italian cuisine and catch up on some paperwork. With her left hand digging into the tomato-rich pizza and her right hand writing furiously, she didn’t notice Shane sitting next to her until he made some mumbled comment.

“Sorry?” she asked, surprised to see him.

“You need to savor the flavor. Concentrate on nothing else but the burst of taste in your mouth. It’s what vacation is about. Haven’t you read Eat, Pray, Love?”

Susanna chuckled. “I read it a few years ago.”

He snatched the pen out of her hand and snuck it into his pocket.

“Hey! I need that.”

“Nothing that you can’t do later.”

“But I’ll forget.”

He sniggered. “Really?” He picked up a piece of her pizza, slipped the triangle at the non-crust end into his mouth, took a huge bite, closed his eyes, and moaned. A shiver of desire ran through her, surprising her in its intensity. Oh, how she’d like to savor his mouth, not the pizza.

He opened his eyes after chewing for some time. “You’d really forget that? Try it.” He held another piece out for her.

“Nah-ah.” She shook her head, her face heating. “I’ll feel watched.”

“I’ll look away.”

“Fine.” She grabbed the piece, took a bite after making sure he’d turned away, and closed her eyes. The flavor did seem richer, almost potent in her mouth—tangy and sweet tomato, earthy herbs, and salty, creamy cheese. The dough melted in her mouth, but had enough crunch to add that extra resistance.

“Mmmh,” she couldn’t help saying. Opening her eyes, she found him staring at her mouth. His hand was a hair’s breadth away from her free one, his eyes darkened to violet. She could barely swallow.

“You cheated.”

He laughed, mischief lightening his eyes.

“Admit it. You enjoyed it much more than when you were working and eating at the same time.”

“I know. I know.”

“It’s called mindfulness. You should try it.”

“I will, yes.” She nodded. “May I have my pen?”

“Nope. You’ll get it back after the tour.”

She laughed. “I can just buy another one.”

“Oh, but this is your special pen. It even has your name engraved on it.”

Goose bumps tripped up and down her arms. Her voice instinctively lowered. “How did you know…?”

“Shane.” Jessica came up to them in a flash. “I need your help.” She looked angry. What?

Shane jumped up as though he had to obey her at once. “Excuse me,” he said and left without another word.


Chapter Four


After a glorious supper at the hotel diner, Susanna headed for her room, anxious to catch up on some work and then chill. The afternoon had been fairly uneventful with one more cemetery visit and then a walk around a Florence museum. Tomorrow, the tour would travel out the city and stay in accommodation together. Surprisingly, it hadn’t been as boring as she’d expected, despite the Italian museum guide. Jessica had translated some of his words for them. Most of the time, Shane had hung around Ryan. He’d distanced from her; she found him an enigma, to say the least. Maybe it was good. The last thing she needed was a distraction from the tour. She had to absorb as much as she could. The future of her job was at stake. Estelle would never send her on tour again if she failed to report this one well enough.

Once in her room, she flopped onto the bed, anxious to rest her tired muscles. They’d walked far today. The bed felt soft and bouncy; had they changed the linen? The garish paisley bedspread had been replaced with a fluffy comforter in cool greens and blues. She moaned and buried her head into the thick, lush pillow.

A row of candles and several incense sticks had been placed along a dark-wood mantelpiece beside her bed. They’d even provided matches to light them. She lit them all, as well as the patchouli incense stick. Oh, how she loved patchouli.

Switching off the main light, she allowed the candles to soften the room.

She blinked. Had that champagne glass and bubbly been there the whole time? On the table in the center of the room, stood the crystal-cut glass and a tray of Lindt chocolates in various flavors.

“Sweet.”

She remembered what Shane had said so she poured a few sips of champagne and savored them little by little. Then she took a chocolate and bit into it slowly and deliberately. She closed her eyes, but all she could see were Shane’s blue eyes, looking at her with desire.

So much for savoring life’s simple pleasures.

When she opened her eyes, blue-eyed ghost hung in the air above her. She nearly dropped her glass.

“You’re back.” Her voice came out surprisingly calm. It didn’t match the boom-boom of her heart and the tightness of her throat.

“Did you think I would abandon you?”

Her mind couldn’t come up with an appropriate retort. It’s not like she welcomed him, did she?

“What do you want?” she managed to get out while she carefully placed the glass onto the table before she put a wine stain on the plush cream carpet under her feet. Had that carpet always been there?

“To spoil you.”

She frowned.

“You haven’t noticed?”

It all fell into place.

“Oh, the bed linen, the bubbly, the chocolates. Even the carpet.”

“The bath bombs last night.”

“Right.” Nothing made sense really. “It’s Halloween. So I get that you’re here. Indulge yourself.” She hoped that didn’t mean killing her.

“That’s what you should be doing. Go for it.” He hovered above her, all eyes, surrounded by the softened form of a man. Actually, she hadn’t looked at him too carefully before. He wore a soldier’s uniform, but without the hat.

“It’s a bit hard with you around.”

“Why? You don’t like being watched?” He laughed. It should be eerie but it wasn’t; it reminded her too much of Shane.

“Shane. What’s going on?”

“I have to go.”

With that, he was gone. Her heart sank. Finally, she was getting answers. The bubbly and chocolates hadn’t disappeared. The candle and incense still added to the atmosphere of the room; the bed linen invited her to curl under and head off into dreamland. Yet, the best part of her evening had disappeared.

It could be that she’d watched too many scary movies in her life. The twisted interest had taken a toll on her psyche. She needed to get out more. Maybe this tour was the perfect thing for her. If only the human Shane wasn’t around to mess with her mind.


***


The next morning, as to be expected, the hotel room looked two-starrish again. Susanna didn’t have much time to ponder it or her strange night before and how relaxed she’d felt after her blue-eyed ghost had disappeared—not because he fled, but because he’d pampered her silly. Now, she had to pack her suitcase and head to the tour bus pronto. They’d be traveling to Pisa today—a one and a half hour trip.

The tour patrons were in an upbeat mood; they milled around the office in chatty groups, partaking of the delicious midmorning snack fare. Susanna felt deeply refreshed too, and was keen to get going. She figured her paranormal experiences may be over, seeing Halloween was behind her. Besides, she didn’t need pampering as the tour promised stays in three-star and over establishments.

Shane kept with Jessica and Ryan so she decided to try to befriend the lady she’d spoken to at the English cemetery. “Hi,” she said as the woman tucked into an egg roll.

“Hi there. Did you have a good evening?” she asked.

“Great.” Heat covered her neck for some reason.

“I heard we’ll see the tower today.”

“The Leaning Tower?”

“Yup. After our first cemetery visit. They reluctantly agreed to add it in as it wasn’t originally part of the tour, but seeing we’re going to the old Jewish cemetery in Pisa, which is just next to the tower, they’re happy to oblige us.”

“Oh, I missed that conversation.”

The woman, who’d introduced herself as Jean, laughed lightly. “They are an odd bunch.”

Susanna nodded. “Couldn’t agree more,” she said in a low voice. “Why did you join this tour?” she asked, curious as to why people would go on something like Ghostly Tours when they could savor the luxuries of Italy and not wallow in its dead.

She smiled, lighting up her pretty pale face. “I’m studying historical art. Cemeteries are wonderful fodder for such research.”

“You’re right there.” I pointed my coffee mug toward her.

“It’s a hobby really. Nothing serious.”

I nodded. “I like that.”

“I also blog about it.”

“Great idea.”

“I have a fair amount of followers.” She spent the next ten minutes filling Susanna in on her travels. They were fascinating and provided her with some more info for some of her other work at the agency.

“Ready to head out?” Ryan boomed.

Everyone cheered and marched to the bus. Susanna found a window seat on her own, glad to have over an hour to catch up on some paperwork. Shane sat opposite her and glared at her, shaking his head.

“You’re supposed to be looking out the window at the Tuscan countryside, not doing paperwork.”

“I had a spare pen.” She winked at him.

“Don’t do that, Susanna. The trip is beautiful. You don’t want to miss out.”

“Fine.” She stashed her papers back in the folder.

“You’re welcome to take some photos too.”

“I’m not too good at photographing moving countryside through glass.”

“You’d be surprised how much you can capture.”

“I’ll try.”

She obeyed him without question. He gave her the impression he really cared and that he knew what she liked. If he was blue-eyed ghost, he knew how to pamper her; he knew the things that made her feel special. A romantic ghost? Mmmh, that was an interesting thought.

The countryside didn’t let her down and she snapped away happily on her camera. She’d brought along a real camera to take quality pictures. She had left it at the hotel room yesterday and regretted not getting some shots of the cemeteries.

Susanna didn’t think Estelle wanted the report in visual snapshots, but too bad. It may help her later in putting everything together. And it would be her memory bank of the tour. She didn’t think she’d ever forget it though.

While she focused on a pretty hillside, she felt movement next to her. Shane had removed the papers and placed them on her lap so he could take the seat by her.

“Why so surprised?”

“I don’t know. You…I…”

“Yes?” He grinned at her, an easy and warm grin that put her stomach in loops.

“Why are you being so friendly with me?”

“Aah, you like to analyze things. Just go with the flow.” He grasped her hand in an alternating finger grip. She looked around to make sure no one had noticed. The sexual tension, that flooded her being from the simple touch, made her face heat and her body start to tremble.

“Maybe you shouldn’t…”

He bent down and pressed a kiss on her forehead. What a relief he didn’t give her a kiss on the lips; she wouldn’t have known what to do. It would be utterly delightful, but totally distracting.

“Enjoy your tour, sweets.” He said it almost sadly. A pang hit her in the gut. Would he be going soon? She had a feeling he hadn’t fully been there anyway.

“Shane?”

He rubbed her cheek with the ball of his thumb. “I’ll always be there.”

Her eyes filled with tears; she had no idea why. It was so confusing, yet she realized she had a deep bond with this man—a bond that spanned more than her lifetime.

Her throat clogged so much that she couldn’t talk. He looked ahead, silent, distant, but at least he still held her hand. She clung onto that one connection with all her being.

Jessica walked down the aisle. Her gaze dropped to their intertwined hands. “Shane. We need to talk.” She sounded urgent, angry even. The look she gave Susanna made her squirm.

“I have to go.” He stood up.

She nodded. Whatever was going on she had little control over.

He turned back to look at her, his eyes infused with regret. He walked to the front of the bus. Susanna wrapped her arms around her abdomen as if it could ward off the cold emptiness. Her hand still burned from his touch. She picked up her camera and tried to take shots, but she couldn’t focus.

When they reached the Jewish cemetery near the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the group disembarked from the bus and gathered outside the castle-like walls on a stretch of lush, green grass. Susanna looked out for Shane but didn’t see him anywhere. There was no way he could’ve gone anywhere—they’d just left the bus and they hadn’t made any other stops. Jessica and Ryan gathered the group together.

“This cemetery is quite plain except for the frescos. We wanted to show you their beauty. And we thought you’d appreciate the age as some of the inscriptions date back to the seventh century. You will even find those who died in the plague. The Jewish place stones on the graves instead of flowers—a more permanent testament to the love they had for their loved ones.” Jessica glanced at her as Ryan spoke. Why did she look at her like that as though she knew something—something deeper and more significant that what Ryan was saying. Susanna felt disoriented, deeply lonely, and confused. She tried to block out the thoughts, but the feelings remained. It’s like something was going on here, something more powerful and more scary than a simple tour.

They walked through the gigantic wrought-iron gate into a place crumbling with age and overgrown with grass and weeds. They were allowed to split up to look around. Susanna relished the chance to get away. The intensity of the last few hours dissipated as she walked around, reading inscriptions—many of them in foreign languages, but enough of them in English to fascinate her. She imagined what it must have been like to live all those years ago.

Her only friend on the tour came running toward her. Her insides tightened. “What’s wrong?” she asked as Jean neared her, breathless with the exertion.

“There’s a ghost again. Why did you break away from the group? You missed it.”

“I thought we were allowed to go our own separate ways. What ghost? Is he still there?”

“He looked so real. He wore Jewish garb from a few centuries ago—well, that’s what Ryan said. He was so handsome, yet his eyes were sad. Deeply sad. I wonder how he died. Or why he hasn’t found his rest.”

“I’m disappointed I missed it. Do you think he’ll still be there?”

“No, he left. He stared at us all for a short few moments, then, poof, he was gone.”

“Can you describe his features?”

“Dark hair, piercing eyes.”

“Blue?”


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