Excerpt from: Truth or Dare
Games We Play, Book One
Atlas Beach, New Jersey
Three months earlier…
The last of the dishes had all been put away. The last of the guests had departed. The memorial for Moira Walsh Gallagher was well and truly over. At the large staff table in the kitchen of the Wild Geese Inn, the small hotel Moira had owned and loved, her three grandchildren shared a last glass of whiskey and a last slice of apple pie. Pumpkin pie might have been a more traditional choice, given that it was now just days after Thanksgiving, but Moira had never cared for pumpkin.
“If we’re really gonna do this,” Brenda Donovan said in her usual bossy tones, “there are a few things we’re gonna have to get straight right from the start.”
Her cousins, Luke Kelly and Gwyneth Carmichael, exchanged a long-suffering glance. Brenda was only two months older than Luke, five months older than Gwyn, so they’d never really bought into her whole I-know-best-because-I’m-the-oldest superior attitude. You might think after twenty-eight years, Bren would have figured that out, but say what you will about Jersey girls, they’re stubborn as fuck. Once an idea gets stuck in their heads, there’s very little chance of it shaking loose.
“What do you mean if we’re going to do it?” Luke glared at his cousin. “How is that even a question? We’ve talked about running the inn together since we were kids. It’s all any of us have ever wanted to do, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely.” Gwyn nodded in agreement. “Grams could have sold the place numerous times over the years. It’s not like there weren’t offers. She turned them all down.”
“She kept the place going for us,” Luke added. “Until we were ready to take over.”
“And you two think we’re ready now?” Brenda protested. “Seriously?”
Luke scowled. “That’s not the point. What other choice is there?”
Brenda shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe we should look into some of these offers, see if any of them are still on the table. I mean, look around you. There’s no one here. How’re we supposed to stay in business if we don’t have any customers?”
“Of course there’s no one here right now,” Gwyn snapped. “You didn’t expect us to have Gram’s dinner here today and keep the restaurant open to the public at the same time, did you?”
“And the hotel? Did you close that too?”
Gwyn rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so difficult. It’s winter. No one vacations here in the winter.”
“Exactly,” Luke agreed. “They go to Florida or the Bahamas, places like that. That’s why so many businesses in town are only open for the season—or only open weekends the rest of the year.”
“We do that too, in a way, with the rental units,” Gwyn said. “Most of them are only open in the summer.”
“That’s right.” Luke nodded. “Maybe we should close the hotel in the winter as well? Or only take reservations for the weekend?”
“Oh, sure,” Gwyn glared at him. “Great idea. The staff’ll love that.”
“It won’t help anyway,” Brenda said, sounding gloomier by the minute. “I looked at the numbers, you guys. We can’t afford the upkeep if we only stay open part of the year. We need to figure out a way to bring in more customers somehow, not less.”
“The bar’s still open,” Luke pointed out, adding, “Not tonight, obviously, but in general. And we have customers who come in all year round.”
“But even that’s not pulling in enough,” Brenda told him. “Sure, the bar’s helping to keep us afloat in the off months—for now—but we’re hemorrhaging money. I don’t know how Grams made it work without going bankrupt or taking out a mortgage. But I don’t think even she could have kept it going much longer. She hadn’t drawn a salary in years. Her savings are nearly gone. If this place is going to survive—not to mention pay the three of us—we’re going to have to make some hard choices.”
“We could advertise,” Gwyn suggested. “You know, ‘spend a romantic weekend at one of Atlas Beach’s most historic hotels’ and that kind of thing? Or offer special, prix fixe dinners for some of the winter holidays like, I dunno, Valentine’s Day, for instance?”
“We could hold special events in the bar too,” Luke added. “New Year’s, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day.”
Gwyn beamed at him. “We could do dinners for all of those too. Also Christmas and maybe Groundhog’s Day and—”
“Sure. We could make it like the movie, with a dinner dance, or auction, or whatever that was. We could even have a screening in the game room.”
“C’mon, Brenda,” Luke urged. “What do you say? Don’t you want to do this?”
“Of course I do. It’s what I went to school for, isn’t it? But with the economy the way it is and the weather we’ve had the past few years, I don’t know if it’s feasible.”
“Stop with all the defeatist bullshit,” Gwyn said. “We need you, Brenda. I can take on a larger role with running the hotel and everything, and Luke’s got the bar under control.”
“Well, mostly.” Luke shot Gwyn an apologetic look. “It could do with some repairs, new furniture, new equipment, et cetera. And don’t look at me like that, Gwyn. She’s not entirely wrong. There’s a lot that hasn’t been kept up with.”
“Which is why we need Brenda,” Gwyn agreed. “Someone has to deal with the business side of things.”
“It would be a big adjustment,” Brenda pointed out. “I’d have to quit my job and move down here from the city.”
“Oh, please,” Luke said. “You’ve been telling us for years that you miss it here, that you wish you could move back. Well, here’s your chance. And don’t even try and pretend like you wouldn’t get a nice severance package, because I know you would.”
“Think how much money you’d save on overhead,” Gwyn added, “if you were living here rather than in the city. If it doesn’t pan out, you could always go back.”
Brenda sighed. “I guess.” She eyed the others uncertainly. “So you really want to do this, huh?”
“Hell, yes, I want to do this,” Luke assured her. “I’ve always wanted my own bar, even if it is haunted.”
“Don’t be silly,” Gwyn told him. “The bar’s not haunted.”
“Of course it’s not!” Brenda agreed.
“It’s the hotel that’s haunted,” Gwyn continued. “The bar is infest—”
“Stop that,” Brenda interrupted angrily. “That’s what I started to say before. If you really want to do this, there are conditions. We have to stop with all the hocus-pocus.”
“For example?” Gwyn asked.
“Number one,” Brenda said, “the hotel is not haunted. It’s an old building, Gwyn. I know you love it. But you have to admit it’s not in the best of shape. The walls are too thin, the stairs creak, the pipes make noises, the lights flicker, it’s drafty—that’s all normal.
“And maybe you think it sounds romantic, but when you tell our guests that the hotel is haunted—”
“Which it is.”
“—you’re just calling attention to the hotel’s deficiencies.”
“What else?” Luke asked, jumping in before the girls got into it. Too much of his childhood had been spent watching the two of them fight and make up.
“Number two. There is no boggart in the bar.”
“Okay, stop,” he said, starting to get annoyed himself. “Now you’re going too far. You don’t know that for a fact.”
Brenda shook her head. “C’mon, Luke. How’s that even make sense? It’s an Irish bar; what would a mischief-making Scottish spirit even be doing there?”
Luke grinned. “Making mischief. Obviously. Besides, it’s people they attach themselves to, I think. They’re family spirits, like the bean sidhe. Who’s to say there’s no Scotch-Irish somewhere in our family mix? There’s some funny stuff goes on in that bar, Bren. I’ve seen it.”
Brenda nodded. “I’m sure there is. Do you know why people go to a bar in the first place?”
“To have a drink?” Gwyn suggested.
“Exactly. And what happens when people have a few too many drinks?”
“We make money?”
“They get clumsy. They trip over their own feet. Sometimes they fall down. They misplace things—their keys, their wallets, their phones.”
“Their clothes?” Gwyn smiled at her cousin. Brenda ignored her.
“They make stupid jokes and play stupid pranks and generally act—”
“Stupidly?” Luke supplied.
“And that’s all there is to it. There’s no supernatural troublemaker behind it. The only spirits in that bar are the ones that come in bottles.”
Gwyn gasped. “There’s a genie there now too?”
This time Brenda glared at her.
Luke sighed. “Is there a number three?”
“Yes.” Brenda pointed toward the restaurant’s dining room. “You know that odd-colored stone floor tile in the entryway?”
Luke and Gwyn exchanged a smile. “You mean the Blarney Stone?” they asked innocently.
Brenda glared. “No, I don’t mean the Blarney Stone,” she repeated in a mocking sing-song tone. “For fuck’s sake, guys. The Blarney Stone is right where it’s always been. In Blarney Castle. It’s part of the friggin’ wall. No one chipped it out and shipped it across the ocean.”
“Okay, fine,” Gwyn said. “I’ll give you that one. I always thought that was crazy. What would the Lia Fiál be doing here?”
“The what now?” Luke asked.
“The Lia Fiál,” Gwyn repeated. “The Stone of Destiny? That’s what they used to call it.”
“Oh. Well, then that actually does make sense, doesn’t it?”
“That business about how if you kiss your true love while standing on the stone you’re destined to be together. Destined—get it?”
“Yes, Luke.” Gwyn rolled her eyes. “We get it. It’s still crazy.”
“Number four,” Brenda continued without waiting for the others. “There is no family curse.”
Luke and Gwyn looked at her in pained surprise. “Well, of course there isn’t,” Luke said. “You mean the ‘nothing will prosper the family Walsh in Atlas Beach until the Wild Geese return and are reunited with their loved ones’ nonsense? Yeah, that’s bullshit.”
Gwyn nodded. “That was just our Great-Grandfather Walsh in a fit of temper, trying to coerce his ex-wife into taking him back after she’d kicked him out. People say a lot of things when a relationship is ending. Who knows what she might have said to him? It could have been something just as bad.”
“Maybe she laid a curse on him too,” Luke suggested. “So that he’d lose all his teeth or his hair would fall out.”
“Or that he wouldn’t be able to get an erection,” Gwyn said.
“Can we be serious for a minute?” Brenda asked. “You really think we can do this?”
Luke and Gwyn looked at each other, and then at Brenda. “Yes!” they both said in unison.
“Of course we can do it,” Gwyn added.
“Don’t see why not,” Luke agreed.
“All right.” Brenda shrugged. “Then I guess I’m in too.”
“Yay!” Gwyn clapped her hands. “It’s about fucking time. This calls for a toast.”
“Good idea.” Luke picked up the bottle of whiskey and topped off everyone’s glass. “What are we toasting to? Grams? The Lia Fiál?”
Gwyn grinned. “Boggarts and things that go boo in the night?”
“No.” Brenda picked up her glass and smiled at the others. “To the Wild Geese.”
“To the Wild Geese,” Luke agreed as the three of them clinked their glasses together.
“The Wild Geese,” Gwyn repeated. “May they all find their destinies.”