“If the show proposal goes through, it will really put Treasure Trail and Trinkets on the map!” Corinne Scott had the bouncy enthusiasm required of an agent, and it came across as clear over the phone as it did in person.
“It’s exciting, but let’s wait before we break out the champagne,” Erik Mitchell protested. He had been dealing with the chaos of unpacking boxes and living out of a suitcase for two weeks, since his move to Cape May, New Jersey, and the complete uprooting of his life. “If they’re counting on using my supposed notoriety to sell the show, they might be disappointed. There’s a lot I can’t talk about—and it’s mostly the exciting parts.”
“You traveled the world stopping art and antiquities fraud,” Corinne continued, undeterred. “It’s like something out of Indiana Jones.”
Erik winced. Much as he loved those movies, Indy was more like the kind of guy he helped bust for swiping relics. “Um…not really. I spent a lot of time in the back rooms of museums going over old stuff with a magnifying glass. And I only got shot at a few times.”
That was enough. A collector with a very rare Fabergé egg music box wanted Erik to authenticate the egg for the buyer. Unfortunately, there were other interested parties, and they all brought more muscle than brains. The deal went sideways when they decided to negotiate with guns; all hell broke loose, and Erik nearly died. He ended up with a concussion, a bullet wound in his shoulder, and nightmares verging on PTSD.
“This wouldn’t be anything so dangerous!” Corinne was in full sales mode now. “It’s only six episodes, and it’s the local PBS station. All the crimes have already been solved. You’re just on camera for the expert cameos, and to toss out some advice on how to avoid buying fake art or accidentally stealing priceless relics.”
The longer Corinne talked, the more Erik became convinced the whole TV show was a colossal mistake. He had relocated to Cape May from Atlanta to get away from the sensational—and dangerous—aspects of his old life. Sure, chasing down art fraud had been his dream job, like something out of a thriller novel. His younger self had relished the constant travel and intermittent danger, and the work paid well—in headlines and in a very healthy salary.
Then there was the clusterfuck bust and Erik’s injury. He realized that he was ready to move on, settle down, and step out of the spotlight. He’d thought his boyfriend, Josh, would be happy about the change. Then he got home a few days earlier than expected and found Josh banging Erik’s personal assistant on the dining room table.
After all the shouting and tears were over, Erik found himself single and lacking an assistant. He’d decided right then to leave his old world behind. That meant getting out of Atlanta, out of the apartment he’d shared with Josh, and going somewhere he could get a fresh start.
He surfed real estate sites and found a beautiful Victorian in Cape May at a great price. Even better, it was part of a package deal and included an established antique store on the main floor, inventory included. Suddenly, the daydream Erik had indulged about starting a blog on trendy antiques and running a boutique service for designers all came together. The next thing Erik knew, he was standing in front of his new home and business with the keys in his hand, wondering whether he’d lost his mind.
Now, he was certain that the answer was “yes.”
“Let’s see if the proposal even gets interest,” Erik protested. “And if it does, it’s going to depend on what they actually want, and we’ll take it from there.”
“Party pooper,” Corinne joked. “Fine. I’ll let you know when I hear from the producers. But I’m telling you, Erik, this would be a great way to start your new business off with a bang!”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
Corinne conveniently seemed to forget that some of the thefts, forgeries, and smuggling rings he’d helped bust had ties to the Mob and the cartels, or left a trail of pissed off billionaires who were used to getting what they wanted. Death threats had been common, and for a while he’d had a bodyguard. While Erik wanted his new venture to succeed, he didn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.
“Look, I need to finish what I’m doing,” Erik said. “Call me when you hear something. And…thanks.” Corinne might be exasperatingly upbeat, but she had stuck by Erik through all the changes in his life, and she had been a good friend—especially when there was a commission in it for her.
Erik ended the call and slipped the phone into his pocket, turning to look around the downstairs of the grand old house. It had been updated by the prior owner to create a shop on the first floor and an expansive living area on the second and third floors. Boxes and packing peanuts littered the floor, along with crinkled paper shred. He sighed, completely overwhelmed.
“It can’t be that bad.” Susan Hendricks, Erik’s new next-door neighbor, looked up with a grin from where she sat on the floor, helping to unpack some of the items Erik had shipped from Atlanta. His condo and office had been full of antiques he had bought in his travels, but he’d decided to sell them all and start over, using his personal collection as part of the inventory for Trinkets. “You’ve got some real pretty pieces here.”
“I’m just feeling a little out of my depth,” Erik admitted. Susan was probably the same age as his mother, but far more energetic and approachable. Her short salt-and-pepper hair framed a youthful face, and he suspected her wardrobe of T-shirts and yoga pants saw real gym time. She’d been the first person other than his real estate agent to welcome him to Cape May, and won him over with her genuine friendliness and no-bullshit attitude.
“I couldn’t help overhearing,” Susan said. “There’s nothing wrong with spreading things out instead of doing everything all at once. You don’t have to say no or yes…you can say ‘later.’”
That sounded like the best thing Erik had heard all day. “Thank you. You’re a genius.”
Susan laughed. “No, I’ve just felt overwhelmed a time or two myself, and I’m happy to pass along the tricks that worked for me, for what it’s worth.”
If I just take one room at a time, it might be all right, Erik thought. The front parlor was the main showroom, and the furniture was already in place, providing plenty of places to display the additional inventory he had brought with him. He bent down to pick up a vase, trying not to wince at the thought of the pricy piece sitting on the floor.
“You might change your mind about only being open by appointment,” Susan said as she carefully unwrapped a vintage tea set. “The folks who visit Cape May have refined tastes—and money.”
Erik figured he would get everything safely off the floor and out of boxes and rearrange them for maximum impact later.
“I know. Just trying not to bite off more than I can chew. I want to get the blog up and running because that will not only bring people into the store, but it should attract decorators and curators looking for the perfect piece. If I can attract those folks, they’ll be steady business even in the off-season.” Given his knowledge and reputation, Erik’s collection was likely to attract attention from museums looking to round out their collections, and designers searching for eye-catching and unusual items for their clients’ homes. He could make more money with less overhead.
“Sounds like you’ve thought everything out,” Susan said, wiping some stray paper fibers from an inlaid music box.
“Not really, but it’s nice of you to say so.” Erik felt like he’d been careening from one major life decision to another since he’d woken up in a hospital in Antwerp with a concussion and a gunshot wound, and decided the paycheck and fame weren’t worth dying for. Now here he was, relocated, single, a new homeowner, taking over a business and finding his way in a vacation town he vaguely remembered from a few trips when he was a kid. He’d been outrunning his dumpster fire of a life, and Erik was ready to slow down and try to find some kind of new normal.
“Have you done anything except unpack, move furniture, and work on your website since you got to town?” Susan raised an eyebrow to tell him that she already knew the answer.
“Guilty as charged. But there’s so much to do, and…”
“And you know what they say about all work and no play,” Susan said with a grin. “You need to go out, meet some people, let the town get to know you. Maybe meet a cute girl—or guy,” she added with a wink.
“Definitely guy,” Erik replied.
“Well then, you’ve come to the right place. Cape May is very welcoming. My son is probably a few years younger than you, and he and his friends never seem to have any trouble finding dates.”
Erik’s escape plan hadn’t been quite as headlong as it sometimes felt. He’d done his research on Cape May, a town he visited several times vacationing with his aunt, uncle, and cousins when he was in middle school. He remembered the beach and all the classic Victorian houses—and the ice cream. When he went looking for a place to relocate, he checked out the town on a whim and discovered it was gay-friendly and eclectic. While that was definitely true of his former home in Atlanta, the same couldn’t be said about everywhere else in Georgia, or in his native South Carolina.
At thirty-five, Erik was ready to put down roots, settle in, and settle down. He never really liked hookups, even before his relationship with Josh, and while Josh’s betrayal had rocked Erik’s confidence, he still hoped that there was someone out there for him.
“Don’t worry. All in good time,” Susan reassured him. She got to her feet with a gracefulness that only came from hours of asanas and dusted herself off. “Let me help get everything up on shelves, and by then the meatloaf in the slow cooker will be done. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!”
“It does smell good.” Erik knew he’d lucked out with a neighbor like Susan. She had refused any pay for helping him unpack and insisted on bringing over dinner. He’d been wary about her friendly overtures at first, but she quickly won him over.
“It was one of Keith’s favorite recipes,” Susan said, and her smile grew wistful. “Nothing fancy, just good comfort food.” She had mentioned her husband’s death to Erik not long after they met, and they had commiserated about how scary it was to get back into the dating game.
“I just bought ice cream, so I can at least contribute dessert,” Erik said.
“Sounds like a plan,” she answered. Together, they made quick work of moving the antiques out of harm’s way and cleaning up the packing materials. Then Erik led the way into the next room, where the slow cooker sat on the table, along with the paper plates and plastic utensils Susan had brought. A two-liter bottle of soda and red cups made for a picnic-style supper.
Susan filled plates while Erik brought chairs. He had to admit that the smell of a home-cooked meal made the place feel more welcoming. He’d been surviving on takeout subs and pizza delivery.
“Tell me about Cape May’s ghosts,” Erik asked as they sat down to eat. “I’ve read that local ghost whisperer’s books, and I’ve got to admit, I’m very curious.”
Susan wiped away a bit of tomato sauce. “Oh, there are plenty of them, enough to go around, if all the tales are true. It’s almost a point of pride to claim you’ve got a resident ghost.”
Erik ate and listened as Susan recounted what she knew. Most of the stories told of victims of swimming or boating accidents who never left, or jilted lovers who died of grief or by their own hand. The fierce storms that had pummeled the beach town added a few more spirits to the tally, as did old local scandals.
“But you know, I think the biggest ghost story in Cape May isn’t a ‘who.’ It’s a ‘what,’” Susan said with a conspiratorial smile. “A big old hotel that took up two city blocks—the largest hotel in the United States when it was built back around the turn of the last century.”
“The Commodore Wilson Hotel was quite the showplace back in the day, and everyone who was anyone stayed there. But the hotel was snake-bit from the start. Or cursed, maybe. Ruined everyone who owned it and seemed to be a magnet for tragedy.”
Erik vaguely remembered seeing the hotel mentioned when he had researched Cape May, but hadn’t seen anything that resembled what Susan was describing. “Where is it? I can’t believe I missed it!”
She paused to take a few bites of meatloaf. “Oh, they finally tore it down years ago. It was a grand place in its prime, and it was a shame to see it fall into disrepair. In the end, no one could afford to fix it, so they brought the hotel down with dynamite, and the whole town held a wake.”
Erik made a mental note to do some online digging. The Commodore Wilson sounded like the sort of hotel he always sought out when he traveled, a place with a rich history and the kind of architecture no one could afford to build anymore. “You said the place was cursed?”
Susan shrugged. “Maybe that’s not literally true, but it sure seemed like it. Five owners went bankrupt. A mobster got gunned down in the lobby. Several celebrities committed suicide there. Its real heyday was probably during Prohibition and the Second World War, but it was still the place to be seen into the seventies. Then a shady televangelist bought it and brought all his followers in for big events. It was all fun and games until he up and vanished, leaving a pile of debt and a bunch of pissed off followers—and a lot of unpaid taxes.”
“Did they ever find him?” This story was better than anything on the History Channel.
“Nope. Hard to imagine someone who’d had his face all over TV like that could just disappear, but everyone figured he probably went to Brazil or somewhere else without extradition,” Susan said. “If so, I guess he was smarter than that TV preacher from South Carolina. He went to jail.”
Erik remembered. He’d grown up in Columbia, South Carolina, and the infamous preacher’s scandal had unfolded when he was a child, but it had been impossible to live in the state and not know. For a while, it seemed like all anybody talked about.
“Wow. That’s a lot of excitement packed into one building,” Erik said. “But I hate to see landmarks like that destroyed. They’re a part of history.”
Susan grinned. “Oh, the Commodore was so much a part of this town’s history I swear it’s like a ghost itself. Everyone who grew up here had a story about the hotel—working there, wedding reception, going to prom, drinking too much in the bar, spotting someone famous. And after it closed there were paranormal investigators and urban explorers—and local kids who dared each other to go inside and bring out a souvenir.”
She sighed. “You should have seen the crowd when they finally sold off all the Commodore’s stuff. People who used to live here or stay at the hotel came from all over the world to buy a memento. Monogrammed china sets, silverware, knick-knacks, even the metal fobs for the room keys. It was quite the media circus.”
Erik grabbed another slice of meatloaf and gestured for her to continue. “Sounds like my kind of event.”
Susan raised an eyebrow. “Actually, you’d have been right at home. Even at the end, there were rumors that some of the artwork and antiques were fake. So many of the hotel’s owners were strapped for cash, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d sold the originals and put good forgeries in their place.”
“It happens more often than you’d imagine,” Erik replied. “I’ve had to break the news to European nobility that their ‘priceless’ Monet or Rembrandt was just a very good copy.”
Susan sat back and took a sip of her soda. “So, you’re interested in ghosts? See any yourself?”
Erik hesitated, but figured that in a place like Cape May, where the local spirits were practically celebrities themselves, it wouldn’t hurt to tell the truth. “I’ve seen a few,” he admitted, although the real number was more than he could count. “Guess it goes with knocking around museums and historic old mansions. I can’t talk to them or hear them say anything, but I’ve seen some things I can’t really explain.”
He didn’t mention his odd hunches, the ones that always seemed to know the forgeries from the real deal. They were never wrong. Erik also didn’t mention his second sight, the way some objects gave him flashes of their history, showing the world as the object had seen it, a window in time.
Thank God that didn’t happen with everything. But it occurred often enough that he usually wore gloves to handle new acquisitions, until he could check them privately to avoid an embarrassing incident. He’d only told one person about that ability, Simon Kincaide, a grad school friend who was a psychic medium. Simon had understood. Erik knew others wouldn’t.
“I believe. In ghosts, I mean,” Susan said. “There are plenty of things about the world we don’t understand. Seems a little arrogant to think we’ve got it all figured out, don’t you think? I don’t understand why some people can see ghosts and others can’t, but I know enough people who have that I can’t dismiss it.”
Erik relaxed a little. Susan set him at ease. Most of his friends in Atlanta and on the cases he had worked were situational, so when they weren’t forced together by circumstances, the connection withered. He could count the friends who didn’t fit that pattern—Simon included—on one hand. It felt good to make a new friend who liked him just for being him.
“So every now and then, I pick up a hint of a drawl from you,” Susan said, going back for another small slice of meatloaf. “I get the impression you’re not a Jersey boy.”
Erik usually didn’t say much about his family, but he appreciated that Susan hadn’t just Googled him. “I’m from Columbia, South Carolina. State capital and all that. But I’ve been gone for a long while, and I’ve lived in New York, London, Rome, and Atlanta. I think the accent comes out most when I’m tired.” Or stressed or hurt, he didn’t bother to add. Josh had always chided him when his drawl slipped out, calling him a “redneck” and spewing bigoted stereotypes.
And yet, I sat there and took it. So what does that say about me?
“Your parents must be so proud. I imagine they’ll be the first to tune in if your TV show comes through.”
Susan meant well, but she didn’t know his family. “My sister was an Olympic athlete—brought home two silvers and a bronze in gymnastics—and now she coaches. If the TV is on at home, it’s usually because Macy has a televised meet.”
“That sounds exciting.” Susan didn’t press for more, and Erik got the impression that she read between the lines.
When Erik was growing up, Macy was being groomed for gold medals. All of his parents’ time and money went toward coaches, lessons, and going to competitions all over the country and later, the world. That usually meant no one was around to go to his high school plays or other events. Erik had worked part-time jobs and gotten scholarships to put himself through college and graduate school. He loved his sister, and he did his best not to hold his parents’ favoritism against her, but they weren’t really a close family.
“How about ice cream?” Erik asked. It wasn’t the smoothest segue, but it worked to get past an awkward moment. It wasn’t Susan’s fault that a question normal people could answer without blinking was such a minefield for him. Even now, with all his accomplishments, Erik had to remind himself that he wasn’t as invisible and replaceable as his parents’ indifference always made him feel.
“Count me in!” Susan replied with a grin. “And I know it’s still off-season, but once everything opens up for the summer, there are some fantastic local ice cream shops that make everything from scratch. I’ll have to take you!”
“You’re on.” He ran upstairs to get the ice cream out of the freezer and returned a few minutes later with a scoop and bowls.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the town wake up from its winter nap,” he said as he set out generous portions of vanilla bean for both of them, finishing off what was in the carton. Once he got settled, he’d have to see about adding toppings to his grocery list. “I know a lot of shops and restaurants close in the off-season. I’m looking forward to getting the whole Cape May experience!”
He had fond memories of the seaside town with its stately Victorian homes and yellow-striped beach tents. Aunt Karen and Uncle Jim included Erik whenever they could in their vacations, saying it was because he was the same age as their boys. Now that he looked back on it, Erik guessed that they were doing their best to make up for his parents’ indifference. Their visits to Cape May had left a lasting impression.
“Oh, you’ll love it,” Susan gushed. She was definitely the town’s biggest booster. “I mean yes, there’s more traffic. But there’s also a lot more energy. Plus even more theater and music, live bands in the bars, fireworks—I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else!”
They chatted about favorite kinds of ice cream and desserts, fun topics without any stress. Once Susan scraped her bowl clean and licked every drop from her spoon, she sat back with a satisfied sigh.
“This has been fun. Thank you.”
Erik gave her a perplexed look. “You volunteered to spend an afternoon helping me unpack and brought dinner. I owe you a big thank you!”
Susan shrugged. “I enjoyed the company and got to see some lovely antiques up close. I stay pretty busy, but it’s nice to get out. Tank and Ziggy are good company, but the conversation gets a little one-sided.” Erik had already met Tank, the bulldog, and Ziggy, the black cat.
“Anytime,” Erik said. “This was fun.” Once he unpacked his kitchen boxes, he’d have to find the few recipes he could make well enough to serve to company and repay the favor.
Susan helped clean up the garbage and went to grab the slow cooker. She divided the leftover meatloaf and put half into a plastic container for Erik. “Here. It makes great sandwiches.”
“I never turn down good food,” he assured her. “Thank you—for everything.”
She grinned. “You’re very welcome. Don’t forget it’s Friday night—why don’t you wander into town and see if there’s anyone worth meeting? You never know if you don’t try!”
With that, she was out the door and across the yard. Erik watched out the window to make sure she got in safely, still thinking about her words. Before he could second-guess himself, he pulled out his phone and downloaded a dating app. As soon as the app registered his location, he uploaded a photo and sketched out a quick bio.
He hesitated, staring at the photo, worried it might not attract interest. He considered his looks fairly average, and he hadn’t devoted enough time to the bar or club scenes to gauge his effect on other men. He hadn’t had difficulty finding casual boyfriends in college and graduate school, but then he’d connected with Josh and taken himself off the market.
His light blond hair had a bit of a wave no matter how he styled it. Erik had always considered his blue eyes to be his best feature. They were dark like sapphires, and he thought they made up for other unremarkable features. At five foot ten, Erik wasn’t short, but he wasn’t terribly tall, either. Running and lifting weights kept him in good shape, although he doubted anyone would mistake him for an underwear model. His build remained on the slender side, even now that he was in his mid-thirties. He’d discovered long ago that he preferred men who were taller and more muscular, and had found that interest was often returned.
Erik paused. He really wasn’t looking for a quick fuck. The appeal of hookups had gone cold in grad school. Trying not to overthink this, he dismissed the profiles that made it clear they were “one and done.” Whether they were telling the truth, a few of the profiles indicated they wanted friends with benefits or were willing to start slow and see where it went.
For once, his intuition wasn’t telling him a damn thing as he looked through the remaining profiles. He picked one for “David,” a good-looking man with dark hair, a muscular build, and the promise of intriguing tattoos peeking from beneath the sleeves of his T-shirt. Then Erik gathered his courage and hit “send.”