QSFer Jodi Hutchins has a new FF paranormal book out: “The Grim Assistant.”
Postal carrier and amateur surfer, Samantha Diaz, lives an uncomplicated life. Well, other than helping her sister with childcare, crushing on her unavailable customer, Lauren Brennan, and catching as many waves as possible before hurricane season begins. Suffice to say, she isn’t looking for much more, but when Lauren invites her to a monthly game night at her house, Sam happily agrees.
When Sam sets out on an early morning surf, the last thing she expects to do is die, but a sudden thunderstorm thrashes offshore, creating a riptide that steals Sam’s life. She awakens to a snarky woman named Margo speaking cryptic nonsense. Not only does she claim to be one of the many Grim Reapers, or Grims, in the world, Margo makes Sam an offer: she’ll bring Sam back from the dead, as long as she becomes Margo’s temporary assistant. Sam accepts but soon realizes the deal was too good to be true, and the consequences she faces may be worse than the death she dodged.
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The planks of the boardwalk were hot against Samantha Diaz’s feet as she bounded up the stairs, surfboard tucked beneath her arm, water trickling over her shoulders. The calm waters and equally serene beach left her with only the early morning anglers standing out at the ocean’s edge, casting their lines along the jetty.
“Same time on Friday?” her best friend, Josh Keller, asked as he ambled up the stairs after her, his bushy blond hair stuck to his face and neck. A trill from a bicycle bell filled the air, coalescing with the call of a flock of seagulls harassing a group of teens munching on breakfast. The oily aroma of freshly fried doughnuts mixed with the scent of crisp saltwater as Sam took a deep breath.
She smiled broadly. “Absolutely.” Beads of seawater dripped down her dark brows, and she swept her hand across her forehead in a feeble attempt to dry it. The pair crossed the boardwalk, heading down the long ramp to the parking lot.
Reaching her Jeep, Sam tossed her board in the back and grabbed a towel, drying her face and ruffling her unruly crop of black hair. People flooded the tall staircase, beach tags fastened to their large bags overflowing with colorful shovels and towels. She grabbed a dry shirt, pulling it over her head to cover her bikini top before putting her wallet in the damp pocket of her board shorts. Josh stood staring at her. “Damn, what I would do to get a tan like yours,” he mumbled sheepishly.
Sam chuckled, noting the red tinge forming along his pale, freckled shoulders, and then glanced at her own tanned skin. “I don’t know, man, I’ll always be jealous of your freckles,” she joked, elbowing him in the arm. “You want to grab some breakfast?”
“Sure, why not?”
Sam and Josh followed the influx of people. She was determined she would get herself a fresh bagel before heading home for a shower and babysitting her nephew. Cyclists pedaled down the bicycle lane on the wood, and early morning joggers were swiftly being replaced by excited children heading to the beach or the waterpark. The tiny hole-in-the-wall bagel shop Sam frequented was set back beside one of two amusement parks on the boardwalk, and she stepped into the short line. Depending on what time she had to be in to work, Sam’s summer mornings always started the same if Josh was available. She didn’t surf without him by her side unless there were lifeguards present. The last thing she wanted was to get caught in a riptide and end up miles offshore.
The two moved into the queue of people, and Josh turned to her. “How’s it going with Katie?”
Sam’s stomach sank at the mention of her older sister, and she shrugged. “I don’t know. The divorce is official, but now it’s all parenting plan crap and custody issues. She’s stressed out.”
Josh gave her a sympathetic grimace, causing her to wonder if he regretted asking her the question. “Yikes.”
“Yeah. They had a meeting with her ex’s lawyer, and I don’t know how it went yet.”
“Hey, Sam,” a voice called from behind her. Sam whipped around as her friend, Lauren Brennan, stepped into the line where Sam was already standing in wait. Lauren’s long chestnut hair hung over her shoulders, her wide smile reaching her vibrant green eyes.
“Lauren.” Sam’s tone came out a lot more breathless than she intended. Josh must’ve noted the change in her demeanor, so he nudged her in the back with his elbow.
“They have the best pork roll egg and cheese sandwiches,” Lauren said, curling her lips upward, a delicate dimple surfacing as she smiled.
Sam nearly sighed with longing, her heart rate quickening, and she swallowed back her feelings. The blue sundress Lauren wore hugged her body, the color accentuating her lovely summer tan. She’s off limits.
“They sure do. Order anything good lately?” Sam agreed.
Nodding enthusiastically, Lauren said, “Actually, I did! I ordered this new lesson kit online and a few other things for the classroom.” Sam had been delivering Lauren’s mail since the science teacher moved to Ocean City from New Brunswick two years prior. “And a few new books. Speaking of books, how’d you like the one you borrowed?”
“I absolutely loved it. Is it just me or is my taste in books rubbing off on you?” Sam said. Josh sighed indignantly. Sam held in a retort while she waited for Lauren to reply. Lauren blushed, and the sight had Sam nearly swooning. “I have to say your taste has rubbed off on me. My true love will always be gritty literary fiction, but you’ve got me hooked on those dark fantasies now.”
“Hey, I forgot about that thing I have to do,” Josh interjected. When Sam gave him a puzzled smile, he continued, “You know, the thing? I’ll see you Friday.”
“Oh, all right. Aren’t you going to get breakfast?” Sam asked. He shook his head and waggled his eyebrows, head jerking toward Lauren. His gesture wasn’t as discreet as Sam preferred, but she didn’t believe Lauren noticed. She knew he was leaving because of her interaction with Lauren. Before she could say more, Josh moved out of the line and hurried toward the ramp leading to the sidewalk.
She moved forward in line, ordering her food and stepping aside while Lauren ordered hers. While they waited, Sam leaned against the railing. “I’ve got a new one I know you’d love,” she said.
“A dark fantasy? You’d better bring it by the next time you work. I ordered a bunch of stuff, so I should be seeing you sometime next week,” Lauren added, pulling her purse strap over her shoulder.
“Okay, I will. Maybe Boo will let me pet her this time,” Sam chuckled, referring to Lauren’s skittish cat. In the last two years, the cat only let Sam touch her four or five times.
“Don’t take it personally because she doesn’t even let Bethany pet her.” Yep, there was the pesky reminder of her unavailability. Sam laughed regardless of her feelings toward Lauren’s girlfriend. It wasn’t as though she didn’t like her for the sole reason of being with Lauren; Bethany and Sam had known each other in high school and the memories were anything but fond.
“Boo’s such a cutie. Maybe I’ll start bringing some cat treats again,” Sam offered. The young man behind the counter caught Sam’s attention and handed her the pork roll she ordered. “Thanks.” She grinned at Lauren, continuing their conversation. “That’s how I got Boo to let me close at first.”
“School starts on Wednesday, but you should come by one night and have a drink with us, maybe play some cards. I always try to plan a game night once a month, especially when school is back in session.” Lauren took her food from the man, then faced Sam as they moved out of the way of other customers.
“I’d love to,” Sam said honestly. Sam enjoyed Lauren’s friendship, despite having to tolerate Bethany in small doses. She and Bethany may have had their differences, but they were adults now.
“What about, say, next Saturday night? I’m heading to Newark this weekend for a family barbeque, but I’ll be home Tuesday.”
“Yeah, sounds perfect.”
They stood staring at each other for longer than etiquette warranted, triggering Sam to wonder if Lauren felt the same attraction as she did. She hastily dispelled the fleeting thought and smiled. She’s simply a friend and can’t be more. “Well, I’ll let you get on with your day. I’ve got babysitting duty with my nephew, anyway.”
“I’ll see you later this week, I’m sure. Don’t forget the book,” Lauren said. She turned, heading down the boardwalk. Lauren left, the sway of her hips causing her skirt to swish back and forth with each step, and once Lauren disappeared in the flowing crowd, Sam headed to her Jeep.
The drive back to her house was quick and she was fortunate she missed the tourist traffic. Although Ocean City, New Jersey, was a busy tourist spot during the summer, Sam couldn’t see herself living anywhere else. The tiny seaside town was home to her and her sister, the beach and the community far too important to leave behind and live in a larger city.
She parked her car on the side of the road, finding a spot relatively close to her sister’s little condo, and she ambled up the stairs, leaving her surfboard in the back of her Jeep. The steps leading to the porch creaked beneath her feet, the white paint peeling off the railing and the stucco face of the home. The three-bedroom condo was large enough for her sister and nephew to live in comfortably. Sam had been staying with Katie for a few weeks at a time to help with her nephew and to covertly keep an eye out for her sister’s mental health. The divorce was taking its toll on Katie, but Sam knew her sister would never ask for help.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got to run and get gas before I head over to work,” Katie said as she bustled around the living room, grabbing a laundry basket full of clothing from the couch and tossing it on the kitchen counter. Already clad in blue scrubs, her black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Sam figured Katie must’ve been anxiously waiting for her to get there.
“Sorry. I stopped to grab some breakfast. Is the little man awake yet?”
Without glancing up from her task, Katie shook her head. Sam stopped, placing her keys on the island in the kitchen leading off the living room, and she really took in her sister’s appearance: red-rimmed eyes, wrinkled scrubs, head lowered.
“Katie.” Her sister finally met her gaze. “How’d the hearing go yesterday?”
Katie drew a breath and straightened. “Like crap. I don’t think we’re ever going to work out a parenting plan.”
“He didn’t agree to your terms?”
Katie scoffed, and her shoulders visibly slumped. “No. His lawyer told us he wanted more time on different days. Evidently, his schedule doesn’t work with what I offered,” she said, shaking her head and touching her fingers to her forehead. “At this rate, it’s going to go on into the new year.”
“He’s lucky you don’t fight for full custody, the fucking asshat.” Sam loathed her ex-brother-in-law for how he treated his sister and wasn’t shy about speaking her feelings toward him now the divorce was official.
Her sister shot her a reproachful glance before she headed to the refrigerator. Katie’s voice was low when she said, “Just because he and I didn’t work out doesn’t mean he’s a bad father. Ben has every right to know him and I don’t want to take his father away from him because John was unfaithful.” She threw a yogurt into her purse along with a package of granola before grabbing her keys from the counter. “I’ll see you tonight,” she said as she stepped out the front door.
Sam lounged on the couch, kicking her feet up on the coffee table as she closed her eyes. Her muscles were sore from surfing, and all she wanted was to rest her head before her nephew woke.
“Auntie Sam, Mama gone?” a little voice cut off her thoughts. Her five-year-old nephew came wandering down the hall, his little stuffed animal pig tucked under his arm, his free hand rubbing his face.
“Yeah, Mama had to go off to work. Do you want some breakfast?” Sam asked.
Ben eagerly bobbed his head.
Jodi Hutchins is a healthcare professional by day and fanatical writer by night. They are also an avid reader, coffee connoisseur, helpless romantic, amateur artist, enthusiastic maker-upper of things, spouse, and parent. The frequent rain of western Washington doesn’t stop Jodi and their wife from gallivanting through the next trail head with their two children.