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Thursday, July 26, 2018

FREE SHORT STORY: A Shade of Difference


A long, long time ago I wrote short stories for a small romance magazine. It was fun--until the magazine folded. Eventually, I put the stories together into a book, FALLING IN LOVE, which is available in both print and ebook editions.

This week, hubby and I visited Insectropolis, a bug museum in Toms River, New Jersey. It's a fascinating place. Inside was a display with Blue Morpho butterflies shown above, which reminded me of one of my short stories, A Shade of Difference, which I've pasted in below. It's short enough to read in one sitting.

A Shade of Difference

A Paranormal Historical Romance 

Sadie lifted the brown betty from the oven and set it on the windowsill to cool. She rarely had time to think with all the things that needed doing in the old house but today, with the spicy smell of the apples and cinnamon, old memories of happy times at the harvest dance flooded her mind.
Tonight all of Schuster Falls would be dancing and eating at the celebration, but Sadie wouldn’t be there. Of course, she would have Aunt Grace for company as usual. A sad little pain stabbed at her heart. Her aunt’s companionship had proved a great comfort but Aunt Grace had also been the cause of the most distressing gossip.
Sadie breathed in a great whiff of the brown betty’s aroma and stared out at the autumn landscape. She ventured out less and less nowadays rather than meet the fear in her neighbors’ eyes. When a persistent knock startled her from her reverie, she wiped her hands on her apron and hurried to the front door. Through the oval glass she saw Dr. Arnold Huber and sighed. She should have known it would be Arnold. Lately, he was the only person who came to call. Nobody else dared. Either he didn’t believe the rumors or he didn’t believe in ghosts.
“Hello, Miss Sadie.” He smiled down at her and she found it impossible not to smile back. He had the widest grin in Schuster Falls, ears that stuck out like wings, and hair which defied any pomade. He also had the biggest feet. He would have made a great clown.
“Are you feeling well?” he asked.
A shiver of fear went up her spine. What had the townspeople said about her this time?  Lifting her chin bravely, she beamed at Arnold.
“Quite well, thank you,” she said.
“Are you coming to the dance at the Metners’ place this evening?” he asked.
Her smile faded. “I’m afraid not.”
“I’d be happy to escort you.” He held his hat in his hands and as Sadie watched his long fingers toy with the brim, she remembered how competent his hands were. He had cared for Aunt Grace with such painstaking dedication that the memory brought tears to Sadie’s eyes.
“No, thank you,” she answered with a tight voice. She closed the door quickly before he could press further.
An hour later as Sadie tided up Aunt Grace’s room, she paused in front of the chifforobe with the feather duster in her hand. Warned by the sweet smell of lilies of the valley wafting through the air, she glanced upward to see Aunt Grace materialize, high button boots first. Though Aunt Grace died one year ago, her spirit remained in the house.
“I’ve missed dancing!” Aunt Grace swung her dainty feet and flounced her skirts as she sat atop the tall piece of mahogany furniture. “The Metners always host the most delightful harvest dance.”
“I’m not going.” Sadie frowned at her aunt.
“You’ve got to go,” Aunt Grace insisted. “I’m most distressed that you refused Arnold’s kind offer. After all he did for me.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie.” Sadie sheathed the feather duster in the waistband of her apron and picked up the watering can to give the potted fern a drink. “But the last time I danced with Arnold I feared he would break every one of my toes.”
“My, my,” Aunt Grace clucked as she floated down from the chifforobe. “But I’m sure that musician, Luke, will be there. The one who came to court you with his accordion. It was so romantic.”
“He tried to squeeze me in the same manner he hugs his instrument.” Sadie’s cheeks grew hot. “If you hadn’t clobbered him with that fern I don’t know what I would have done.”
“He may have mended his ways by now. You are so lovely, and I’m sure he was so smitten with you that he lost his head.”
Sadie sighed and sat down on the rosewood chair. “I’m sorry, Auntie, but the truth is that the men are simply not interested in me. There are a number of rumors—”
Aunt Grace’s eyes narrowed. “Who started them? How could they dare? Why you have an absolutely stainless reputation—”
“I’ve hired five housekeepers in the last six months.” Sadie interrupted. “They’ve all been telling tales. Now everyone in town thinks I’m crazy as a loon and this house is haunted.”
“Balderdash!” Aunt Grace huffed indignantly. “I’m not an evil spirit. That last housekeeper dosed herself with such large gulps of your dandelion wine she couldn’t see straight. I was only trying to help her when I handed her that pot.”
“She’s told everyone the pot flew through the air.”
“Outrageous!” Aunt Grace paced the room.
“Then there’s Mrs. Dillerman who’s been telling people that our silverware is bewitched.”  Sadie cover her eyes with a trembling hand. “She says it marched back into the sideboard all by itself.”
Aunt Grace slapped the windowsill with her fan. “If I hadn’t stopped her she would have walked off with every last piece. That woman is nothing but a common thief.”
Sadie took a steadying breath and got to her feet. “The whole town thinks I’m dancing like all possessed.”
“My precious niece in league with the devil? What has become of Schuster Falls?” Aunt Grace swept open her fan and proceeded to wave it with a measure of agitation.
“So you see, I really can’t go tonight.” Sadie shrugged.
“But Tilly and Harry Metner are my very best friends.” Aunt Grace opened the chifforobe. “You should wear the pretty green taffeta. I’m quite tired of seeing you in mourning.”
“No.” Sadie slammed the chifforobe shut.
“Tilly and Harry’s son, William, is a handsome fellow, big and strong.” Aunt Grace clasped her hands and fluttered her eyelids. “He’s a judge, too.”
“And drunk much of the time,” Sadie added. “That man spilled punch down the front of my dress at your funeral.” Sadie glared at her aunt and then spun around to stalk off. Aunt Grace had always been a power to be reckoned with, but Sadie had never expected that as a spirit her aunt’s strength of will would increase.
When Sadie reached the kitchen, she groaned. The scent of lilies hung in the air while Aunt Grace stood there, arrayed in her finest satin gown.
“If you won’t go, I’ll go all by myself.” Aunt Grace drew on her gloves. “Your Uncle Ned and I used to have such fun at the Metners’ frolics.” A wistful smile lit up her face. “I loved gliding across the floor in Ned’s arms. He gave me these gloves for my thirtieth birthday. See the blue butterflies embroidered at the wrist?”
Sadie felt tears pricking at the back of her eyes. Uncle Ned spent years amassing a butterfly collection. He had always called Aunt Grace his morpho butterfly, a blue insect from the tropical jungles that he had not been able to acquire. He had died a month before Aunt Grace.
“Why didn’t you go to heaven with Uncle Ned?” Sadie sniffed.
“What? And leave you all alone? I wouldn’t dream of it. I promised your mother I would take care of you.”
“I’m twenty-two, an old maid, and perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“No, no, no. You’ve got to get a husband.” Aunt Grace tapped her tiny feet impatiently.
“I really don’t need a husband,” Sadie insisted. “Uncle Ned made some fine investments that should keep me quite secure.”
“Balderdash! I will find a husband for you myself.”
Sadie paled as shivers ran up and down her spine. The ghost of her aunt would wreak havoc at the Metners’ dance.
Aunt Grace wrapped a shawl about her shoulders and pouted. “Besides, I haven’t seen anyone in ages. You know how I enjoy gatherings.”
Sadie put her hands on her hips. “You’ll cause a panic if you show up.”
Aunt Grace laughed merrily. “Nobody can see me except you—I think.”
“You’ll lift something up or touch somebody. Then everyone in town will get spooked.”
“I’m going anyway.”  She huffed. “I’ll give your regards to Arnold, Luke, and William.”
Sadie lunged at her but Aunt Grace vaporized quickly and left her clutching at empty air.
She paced around the kitchen. Nobody in all of Schuster Falls would ever be as stubborn as Aunt Grace. Throwing up her hands, Sadie realized she had better get to the Metners’ barn quickly before total chaos took over.
She ran out of the house, rushed to the stable, and hitched the horse up to the old Phaeton.  When she arrived at the Metners’ barn, she eased the horse up to the hitching post, jumped down from the Phaeton, and whipped the reins around the post. The strains of a lively reel carried out of the barn on the evening air as Sadie raced to the huge doors. 
Arnold stood just inside the entrance, talking to old Mrs. Morehouse.
“Arnold, have—” she began breathlessly, until she realized she couldn’t ask him if he had seen Aunt Grace. “H-how is the dance?”
“Fine, Miss Sadie. What a pleasure to see that you’ve changed your mind and come after all.” He smiled.
The warmth in his greeting confused her. By now, as the town doctor, he should have heard every rumor whispered behind her back. In fact, old Mrs. Morehouse cleared her throat prodigiously and hobbled off in considerable haste.
“Thanks for saving me from her rheumatism.” He winked. Sadie felt the corners of her mouth lift. Arnold’s tender nature flowed out and wrapped her in a gentle spell. But then he asked her for a dance.
She winced in remembrance and curled up her toes inside her high button boots. “I-I think I could use a cup of punch—” Suddenly, someone pushed her so hard she slammed into Arnold’s chest. He caught her in a tight embrace.
“I’m very sorry,” she mumbled against his waistcoat. Arnold smelled nice, like brown soap and leather. She held onto him a little longer than she really should as she righted herself with his assistance. “Did you see who pushed me?”
“There isn’t anyone behind you.” Arnold peered down at her with a worried expression on his face.
The haunting fragrance of lilies tickled Sadie’s nose. She whipped her head around and drew her mouth into a grim line. Aunt Grace, plain as day and with a devilish twinkle in her eye, stood by the ladder to the hayloft.
“Teach him how to dance properly so he won’t mangle your feet,” she suggested.
“No!” Sadie retorted.
“No indeed.” Arnold took the liberty to assist in rearranging Sadie’s skirts. “Your heel must have slipped in the crevice between the planks.”
Sadie glowered at Aunt Grace. But Aunt Grace glanced off to her left and waved happily.
“Oh my. There’s Luke, that amorous young fellow. He’s going to join the fiddler. I bet they’ll play a polka. I wonder how he’s been?” She vanished in an instant and Sadie felt the blood drain from her face.
Arnold grasped her hand. “You’re looking pale, my dear. Can I get you that punch now?”
Sadie nodded numbly and Arnold went off to fetch the punch. The moment he turned his back, she dashed off toward the musicians. Luke was taking a draught from a large mug of cider.  His eyes widened when he saw Sadie run up to him. He sputtered and then began choking on the cider. The fiddler whacked him on the back. The mug started to float out of Luke’s hand.
“Oh no.” Sadie grabbed for the mug. Aunt Grace remained invisible but she wouldn’t release the mug. Sadie yanked it harder.
Aunt Grace cried out, “You’ve ripped my glove. Whatever will I do?”
Suddenly, all the resistance on the mug vanished. Sadie crashed to the floor while the mug flew out of her hand and clobbered Luke in the head. He stopped choking and howled. Dripping cider, he bolted for the door.
A deadly hush fell over the entire barn as everyone stared at Sadie who lay tangled in her petticoats exposing an indecent expanse of legs. Aunt Grace sat on a keg nearby, sobbing so hard that Sadie expected to hear the seams of her fine satin gown rip at any moment.
“These gloves were Ned’s last present to me.” Huge tears splashed from Aunt Grace’s eyes.  “I’m a terrible seamstress. I’ll never be able to mend it.”
“I’ll fix them,” Sadie muttered as she hastily tried to cover up her legs. Then she gasped as a sharp pain shot through her ankle. She realized she could not stand up.
Immediately, Aunt Grace knelt beside her. “You’ve turned your ankle. Dear, dear me. Whatever are we to do? Don’t faint child. I’ll get my smelling salts. Wherever did I leave my reticule?” she fussed.
William Metner broke through the crowd, weaving slightly before he drew up to Sadie.  “You’ve made quite a spectacle of yourself.” His words slurred and Sadie knew he’d dipped into the punch bowl far too many times.
“The poor girl is hurt—not that you’d be able to tell with that brick in your hat.” Aunt Grace had fire in her eyes.
William took a deep breath and swayed. “I’ve had enough of your indecent behavior,” he huffed. “And so have my guests. It’s time you left.”
Sadie moved her leg again but the pain took her breath away.
“You pompous devil!” Aunt Grace drew back her hand and slapped William hard enough to send him staggering back a step. The crowd gasped. William blinked, narrowed his eyes, and swung his head back and forth trying to figure out who or what had hit him. The guests scurried backward.
“Witch.” William’s face purpled with rage and Sadie’s innards twisted. Though the populace of Schuster Falls hadn’t burned anyone at the stake in nearly two hundred years, they had strung up a number of thieves and murderers with William as the judge.
At that moment, a path opened up in the circle of spectators and Arnold sauntered up to Sadie.
Aunt Grace burst into tears again. “Oh thank heavens you’re here. I’ve made such a mess of things I’ll never forgive myself.”
“I’m all right but I can’t seem to move my ankle,” Sadie said as Arnold bent down.
“Hmmm.” Arnold prodded her ankle and she gritted her teeth at the torment his inquiring hands caused. “This needs immediate attention. Hang on. I’m going to pick you up.”
Despite the ache in her ankle, Sadie had to admit that she enjoyed every minute of being in Arnold’s arms. The dear man could not have been more attentive to her injury. When he finally had her safely ensconced on the sofa in her own parlor with her foot tenderly propped up, she hated to see him leave. But Aunt Grace couldn’t bear the thought at all. Her wails echoed through the house like winter gales.
“I can’t even make a decent cup of tea. Whatever am I going to do? My dear sister begged me to take care of her little darling and look at what I’ve done.”
Sadie sighed. “It’s all right. Really.” She patted Aunt Grace’s hand.
Arnold sniffed. “I believe I smell lilies. Wasn’t that your aunt’s favorite scent?”
Icy fear swept through Sadie. “Yes.”
Arnold’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down several times. “With her last breath, she asked me to watch over you.” He ran his finger around the inside of his collar. “But after tonight, I hardly feel I’m doing a thorough job of it.”
When Arnold bent down on one knee and took Sadie’s hand in his own, a thrill tingled up her arm and into her heart.
“You’ve been very kind. You’re the only one in town who knocks on my door anymore.”  She touched the springy hairs on the back of his hand and a tremor of excitement ran through her. 
“I know.” He lowered his head to kiss her knuckles lightly. His breath fanned her wrist where the pulse raced. Sadie thought she would swoon with happiness.
Aunt Grace stopped wailing. She hiccupped and dabbed away her tears with her lace-edged handkerchief.
“I know I’m a poor dancer,” Arnold began.
“A dreadful dancer,” Aunt Grace agreed.
He cleared his throat.  “I’ll try to improve myself—”
“I don’t think I’ll be dancing for a while.” Sadie interjected shyly.
He took a deep breath. “Sadie, would you—” His voice cracked.
“Please go on!” Aunt Grace held up her fan as if she intended to knock the words out of his head.
“—marry me?” He finished in a husky whisper.  
Stunned for a moment, Sadie could only nod before she found her voice and answered.  “Yes.”
Arnold bent over and kissed her on the lips. She forgot about her ankle completely.
Aunt Grace started wailing again. “Oh that was so beautiful. Much better than Ned’s proposal.”
Arnold glanced up and sniffed the air quite deliberately. “She’s here, isn’t she?”
Sadie started. “You-you know?”
Arnold beamed down his wondrous smile and all her fears vanished. “She fought for her life with more bravery than anyone I’ve ever seen. You’ve always been her most precious possession. It’s not surprising that she decided to remain on this plane with you.”
Aunt Grace dabbed at her eyes again. “I love her dearly.”
“Is she like a shadow, or the shade one experiences from a passing cloud?” he asked.
Sadie shook her head. “No.  She’s quite like herself, not at all pale.” She smiled at her aunt.  “I suppose she’s different sort of shade.”
Arnold squeezed Sadie’s hand. She decided he had the most marvelous grip, strong and yet gentle.
Aunt Grace lowered her head and covered her eyes. “Ned used to call me his special butterfly. One of a kind, he said.”
Sadie’s throat tightened with emotion. “Why don’t you join him now, Auntie? Arnold will take care of me.”
Aunt Grace gave a ragged sigh. “But you see, I’m not sure how to find him.”
“Why don’t we call for him?”  Sadie suggested. “Arnold, help me call for Uncle Ned.”
They all lifted their voices, but it was Arnold who had enough sense to open the front door and holler off into the night. Then the most amazing thing happened. A hoard of butterflies fluttered through the door and hovered around Aunt Grace.
“Oh Ned, you old rascal,” Aunt Grace giggled.
“I can’t see him.” Sadie frowned. “Uncle Ned, where are you?”
“He’s a butterfly, dear—or rather all of these butterflies,” Aunt Grace explained. Then she kissed Sadie on the cheek. “Goodbye, my precious.”
Sadie sobbed. “I’ll miss you terribly.”
In an instant, Aunt Grace changed into a blue butterfly and joined the rest of the beautiful insects as they glided back outside through the open door.
“Most amazing,” Arnold rumbled hoarsely.
“Will you always love me as Uncle Ned loved Aunt Grace?” Tears streamed down Sadie’s cheeks.
Arnold bent down and kissed away her tears as he whispered, “Yes, my sweet.”
Sadie smiled through her tears because she knew Arnold meant exactly what he said.

The End

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