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Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank

Bonus Chapter: Better Luck Next Time

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The Bonus Chapter
Better Luck Next Time Bonus Chapter by Angela Denise

Finn had said he’d look good in a waistcoat, and he hadn’t been lying. It was as if Mr. Darcy’s more impish cousin had stepped out of the pages of Pride and Prejudice and shown up at Adalia’s door. He’d opted for a light blue cravat, because of course the white on white preferred by Mr. Darcy in the movie had been too simple for him, and it brought out the blue in his eyes.

“Well, hello,” Adalia said, giving him a slow, appreciative once-over. “What can I do to get you to wear this every day?”

“A few ideas come to mind,” he said as he eyed her dress—the bodice a blue that matched his cravat, the bottom white. “You look ravishing.” He said this in his terrible English accent, which had somehow gotten worse over the last month. She was fairly sure he’d dialed up the awfulness on purpose to amuse her, and it did. “But I maintain it’s too much clothing,” he added with a smirk. “Too difficult to take off.”

“Young people these days.” She shook her head in mock disdain. “No initiative.” Then she grabbed his cravat and pulled him to her for a kiss, although she kept it mostly chaste. Her half-brother, Jack, was on the couch with their resident hell cat Jezebel, video chatting with his little sister, Iris.

The existence of Iris was a source of wonderment to Adalia. She’d known Jack was harboring a secret—his mysterious trips to Chicago had all but ensured it—but a seventeen-year-old sister wasn’t one of the possibilities she’d considered. And while she was happy he wasn’t a secret crime boss, the news had still come as a shock. Because even if his sister wasn’t technically her sister, it sort of felt like it. In her heart of hearts, she’d always wanted a little sister, if only because it would mean she no longer had to be the little sister.

But the ten-second introduction Jack had given her just now hadn’t gone great.

“Halloween’s not until Sunday. Aren’t you a little old to dress up, anyway?” Iris had sneered. She was lovely, with long dark hair and Jack’s deep, dark eyes, but the look on her face had left little room for interpretation: she wasn’t thrilled her brother had left Chicago to work with his other family at Buchanan Brewery. Adalia couldn’t blame her. She’d been left before, first by her big sister, Georgie, and then by their brother, Lee, so she knew the pain of living with an absent parent was worse than being totally alone.

“We’re spending the day at a Gilded Age mansion and then going to a haunted house party. It’s the only sensible way to dress. Besides, my adopted grandmother is dressing up as the witch from Dark Shadows, and she’s over eighty. I hope I’m never too old to dress up for Halloween,” Adalia had replied.

Her adopted grandmother being Dottie Hendrickson, the host of the party she and Finn would be attending after they spent the day at the Biltmore.

“Iris,” Jack had said, “what’s gotten into you?”

But Finn had knocked before his little sister could answer, and Adalia had left them to it. She hoped Iris would warm up to her, but if she knew anything from having been an angsty teen—and, hell, an angsty twenty-something—it was that they didn’t feel inclined to do what other people told them to do.

“Bye, Jack!” she said, and Finn repeated the sentiment. Jack lifted a hand in a wave, but she saw the awkwardness behind it. And she could tell from his expression that Iris’s attitude bothered him. “We’ll see you later?”

He nodded. “I’ll be there.”

“In costume?” Adalia prodded, a little wickedly.

“Yeah, in costume,” he said, his sly grin saying he understood her slight jab. “I heard the rules.”

No one would be allowed into the Buchanan Brewery Halloween party if they didn’t have some kind of costume, although riffs on the idea were allowed, such as when her friend Maisie had apparently gone one year wearing a black shirt that said “COSTUME” on it in big block letters.

Finn took Adalia’s arm and led her out. “Are you ready to make a scene, Miss Buchanan?”

“Always,” she said fondly.

And much to their mutual amusement, they only encountered three other people who’d dressed up at the Biltmore—a two-year-old dressed as a pumpkin, a Disney princess, and someone who might or might not have been wearing an eighties costume (she and Finn had hotly debated whether it counted as a costume, as she considered Hammer pants perfectly appropriate everyday wear). The looks they were getting delighted her. People either stared at them in open fascination or gave them shifty, side-eyed glances as if trying to gauge whether their brand of crazy was catching. It probably didn’t help that they talked in their accents. “Do you need to use the water closet, dear?” Finn asked as they approached the restrooms, to which she replied, “No need, Bathsheba gave me a chamber pot.” When they got downstairs to the famous underground pool, Adalia turned to him and said, “Well, there go our plans for the afternoon. Jenkins must have drained it to spite us. Blast him! I need to hire a new butler.” A man turned to stare at them, and she raised her brows and asked, “Are you looking for employment?” To which he turned and walked the other way.

They’d gotten their photos snapped at the front of the house, just like on their last visit, and Adalia laughed in delight when they picked them up on the way out. They’d posed with serious expressions, the way people did in old photographs, with Finn’s hand resting on her shoulder, and they looked like an old-fashioned daguerreotype.

“Can we please frame this and put it next to the other one?” she asked. On their last visit, they’d been wearing cheesy eighties tourist costumes.

“Miss Buchanan, you read my mind,” he said, lowering a hand to her hip. He pulled her flush against him. “Let’s come once a year in a different costume. We’ll have a whole wall of pictures.”

“I’d like that,” she said. It made her a little choked up to think of the future stretching out before them like that—as a wall of pictures. She thought again of the ruby ring he’d offered her much too soon, which she intended to wear on her finger someday.

They drove up to the winery and brought out their picnic—they’d borrowed the basket, a literal picnic basket, from Dottie—and sat on a cloth Finn had set out on the grass. They’d made the finger sandwiches together, and Finn had made the scones by himself, something that had apparently taken several hours and one failed batch that had nearly burned his kitchen down.

He watched her bring it to her mouth, his eyes wide with excitement, and she nearly choked with laughter as she ate the first bite.

“Is it that bad?” he asked, his face falling slightly.

“They’re delicious,” she said. “But I’m not sure they were worth a potential fire. Next time you need supervision. Naked supervision.”

A woman walking past them with a toddler covered the child’s ears like she’d said a dirty word, and Adalia started laughing all over again.

They’d made it through the finger sandwiches, or as much of them as they’d cared to eat—both of them agreed cucumber and watercress sounded better than it tasted—when an older woman with frizzy brown hair came up to them hesitantly, as if embarrassed.

“You’re here to film a movie, aren’t you?” she asked, glancing back at a couple of women watching her from a nearby hedge. They were obviously there together, but she’d been sent out as the representative.

“My lady, I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Finn said with a wink.

The woman practically swooned, not that Adalia could blame her. “You’re method actors, aren’t you?”

“A lady can’t divulge her secrets,” Adalia said, echoing Finn, only in a much more convincing accent.

“Will you sign my brochure?” the woman asked, thrusting out a Biltmore flier.

They exchanged a look, eyes dancing, and then Adalia said, “Only if you agree to keep this between us.” As if that would happen. The woman’s friends were leaning forward to catch every word.

Adalia signed the brochure as Fanny Featherbottom before handing it over to Finn with the pen from her purse.

He gave it back to the woman, whose eyes went wide when she glanced down at the names. “I loved you in Knives Out!” she gushed. Then she thanked them and hurried back to her friends, shoving the brochure into their hands. From the way their eyes instantly widened and shot to Finn, she knew something was up.

“Which name did you use?” Adalia asked.

“Chris Pine,” he said with a mischievous grin. “Apparently Georgie’s not the only one who gets the Chrises messed up.”

They’d played a game of Questions just last night with Georgie and River, and Adalia had been adamant that Finn was a ringer for Chris Pine.

“You know, she’s probably going to try selling that on Ebay,” Adalia said, taking his hand.

His grin widened. “Fanny Featherbottom will be really upset when everyone finds out about their super-secret outing.”

“No,” she joked, “she’s only with him for the fame. But Chris will be okay.” She nodded in the direction of the three friends. “Rose, Violet, and Daisy will be there to comfort him once he realizes what’s what.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, picking up their game of who are you? “It’s not a coincidence they’re all named after flowers, is it?”
            “Not hardly. They renamed themselves after their spiritual awakening.” They continued with the story, making it more elaborate as they went along. Finn suggested Daisy had been swapped at birth, because his stories were always dark, and she gave Violet a raging case of syphilis.

“But syphilis can be cured,” Finn sputtered out through laughter.

“Tell that to Violet.”

Not twenty minutes later, an employee had emerged from the winery with a bottle of sparkling wine for them, gratis. “Wow, you look a bit younger in person,” the clerk said, peering at Finn from several different angles. “And I didn’t realize you had curly hair.”

“No one knows. It takes them hours to flat-iron it,” Finn had said with a wink at Adalia.

When the clerk walked away, she pulled Finn to her again by the cravat, and kissed him, taking her time about it. He pulled her closer, hand woven through her hair, and she laughed in the back of her throat when she heard the distinctive snap that indicated someone was taking a picture of them.

“Oh, you ridiculous man,” she said, pulling away. “Thank you. This has been perfect.”

“It would be even more perfect if we just went home afterward,” he suggested as he tucked a curl behind her ear.

“As if I would miss Dottie’s haunted house,” she said, throwing a canape at him. “You’ve been telling me stories about these parties for days.”

“They’re not good stories. Something always goes horribly wrong, especially in the haunted house.”

But from the grin he gave her, she knew he’d enjoyed every last mishap, and he was excited to share whatever horrors this year had in store for them. So was she.

“Oh, we’re going,” she said. “And I’m not going to let Georgie or Jack get out of it either.”

“River already said he and Georgie are going to be late,” Finn said, raising a brow. “That’s the first step toward saying they’re not coming at all.”

But in the end it was Jack who tried to weasel his way out of coming.

When they were on the way to Dottie’s, he texted her: I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling up to it. I look forward to hearing your stories.

He didn’t say it had to do with Iris, but he didn’t need to. She saw the guilt in him every time he talked about his sister. Maybe he didn’t feel he should be having fun, enjoying himself, when she was stuck with their mother. Because from what little she knew about his childhood ‘stuck’ was the right word.

“Everything okay?” Finn asked, sensing her mood in his usual way.

“Jack doesn’t want to come. I think he’s feeling down about this situation with his sister.” Finn knew plenty about that, given that he was the first person in their circle to have found out about Iris.

“We can get Dottie and Georgie to tell him it’s a compulsory event for the brewery staff,” he said. “Team building and whatnot. It’ll be good for him to get out.”

He had a point. Leave it to Finn to think up the best way to convince someone of something.

Consider it a team-building exercise, she wrote. I didn’t take you as the type to shirk your duty.

After a pause, she added: Please come. We’ll pick you up.

Three dots preceded his reply: I’ll meet you there. Need to get dressed. Will text you when I’m on my way.

“He’s coming,” she said, glancing over at Finn.

He had a smile on his face, his eyes bright. “I never doubted it. You have a rare way about you, Adalia Buchanan. You’re a difficult woman to resist.”

She reached over and squeezed his thigh. “I hope you never try.”


They parked a short distance from Dottie’s little purple house, and Adalia felt the strange press of déjà vu as they walked up to it hand in hand. Only a few months ago, she’d walked with Georgie and River to a Buchanan staff party held at Lurch’s house—Lurch being the brewery’s eccentric former head brewer. She’d felt so alone then, so depleted, like all of her batteries were in the red zone. But now she had her art again, and she had Finn. The world felt different—rife with possibility—and she couldn’t help but skip a little. Finn shot her a look and then he started doing it too, just to make her laugh. And God, it felt good to laugh. They were still laughing like fools, although they’d stopped the skipping after Finn almost wiped out on a patch of loose gravel on the road.

“Did you get Maisie to change her mind?” he asked as they approached the house.

“No,” she said with a frown, “she says she has a FaceTime date with her sisters, but I have my doubts. Her little sister doesn’t seem like the sort to stay in on a Friday night.”

He nodded, uncharacteristically silent. Part of her felt like laughing and telling him there was no need to be so circumspect—she knew Maisie had harbored feelings for River, Georgie’s boyfriend, at some point—but she was proud of Finn for trying to keep a secret, something he was clearly very bad at. Besides, she hoped Maisie would feel comfortable enough to be upfront about it eventually.

“That’s too bad,” he finally said, not urging her to fight Maisie on it like he had with Jack—probably because he agreed it was best to give Maisie space to work through things.

Then they were heading up the drive, and Adalia felt herself beaming. The house had been draped in fake spiderwebs (her friend Blue, a fiber artist, had helped design them, and they looked fantastic), and the outer lights had been replaced with dim orange bulbs that cast eerie pools of light on the ground. The interior of the house was cast in darkness, but little pops of light could be seen through the window.

“I hope she stayed away from candles this year,” Finn muttered. “No one wants to have to call the fire department.”

“I feel ninety-two percent confident she did,” Adalia said. “I’ve been reminding her of the fire at the house.” Dottie had almost burned down the Buchanan house a matter of months ago, but the fire department—and River—had saved the day.  

Finn gave her a look. “I’m starting to think you were more involved with the planning for this party than you’ve let on.”

She grinned. “Like I said earlier to Violet, ‘a lady can’t divulge her secrets.’”

He pulled her to him by their linked hands, but just then Dottie came hurrying up to them. “Oh good, you’re here,” she said. She was wearing an elaborate costume that included a long blond wig and deep red lipstick. Probably no one would know who she was without being told, but it didn’t matter. She looked amazing. “River and Georgie won’t be here until the end.” She seemed slightly put out by it, inasmuch as she was ever put out by anything. “And I brought Blue’s spiders in just for them.”

Why Dottie thought that would be a selling point, Adalia couldn’t say. While she was eager to see it—who wouldn’t want to see Blue’s magical creations?—Georgie was terrified of spiders. Then again, Dottie believed the point of Halloween was facing up to your fears. “A good fright is excellent for the constitution,” she’d said to Adalia a few days ago. Georgie’s tardiness suddenly made more sense—River had probably caught wind of the spider attraction.

A few people stood in front of the house, engaging in a game of rock, paper, scissors, presumably fighting over who was to go in first. Dottie’s statue of Beau stood by the door, dressed up as Barnabus the vampire from Dark Shadows. There was a noticeable bulge in his pants from the concealed pink crystal. The noise from the fenced backyard was so loud she was surprised no one had called the city with a noise complaint. Then again, all of the neighbors were probably already there. The haunted house party was famous in its own right.

“Should we wait out here for Jack?” Finn asked.

“No, he said he’d text when he’s on his way.” She shot him a mischievous look. “Plus there’s something I want you to see right away.”

“Go inside and enjoy yourselves, dears,” Dottie said, patting them on the backs—pushing them a little, really—“I’ll take care of Jack when he arrives.”

She said it brightly, but Adalia suspected Jack might be in for something. Just like Finn was.

The rock-paper-scissors group had apparently summoned the nerve to go in, because no one was waiting at the door when they approached it.

She and Finn exchanged a look, then squeezed through the door at the same time, laughing as her long dress nearly tripped them. Inside, the foyer was completely dark, the windows covered in black sheets. They could hear strains of “Monster Mash” from the backyard, but the house was full of creepy ambient noise.

“Do you think there’s a station for creepy ambient noise on YouTube?” Finn asked.

She smiled at him in the dark. “I know for a fact that Lurch recorded this track at his house. The squeaking noise is from an actual mouse that lives under his cupboards.”

Finn shuddered dramatically next to her.

“Do we have a destination?” he asked.

“This way,” she said, taking his hand and leading him in the direction of River’s old room. She jumped a little when a very realistic spider web trailed in her hair. Yes, it was very wise of Georgie to have stayed away.

There was some rustling up ahead that indicated the rock-paper-scissors crew hadn’t gotten very far.

A canned cackling came from the kitchen, along with a thick, trailing fog. “Enter the kitchen of despair, if you dare!” someone shouted. “Every third chocolate is poisoned. Test your luck!”

“She means it,” Finn said in an undertone as they heard the other people branch off into the kitchen, whispering and laughing. “If this party’s anything like last year’s, there’s ex-lax in a third of them. Lurch helped Josie make them, and he was still on the toilet for five hours. I’d stay away from all of the food as a general rule tonight.”

“Come! Try some of Lurch’s Swamp Juice,” the woman, Josie apparently, said in a seductive voice.

Laughter spilled out of Adalia as she led Finn onward. “Was that meant to be appealing?” The next door they passed had a sign illuminated by a glow stick border. Try your luck at the pit of despair! The bathtub may be full of snakes, but there’s a prize at the bottom! It could be a winning lottery ticket, it could be a tootsie roll. There’s one way to find out. 😉

They passed another room, Dottie’s bedroom. The sign on the door read Enter at your own risk, and the door was cracked open. Someone screamed inside and Finn jumped.

“We’re not going in there, are we?” he asked nervously.

“Not yet,” Adalia said, leading him past it. More spider webs trailed through the air, tiny yarn spiders snagging on their heads and arms. Adalia plucked one to look at later, in the light. If Blue had made them, she had no doubt they were perfect.

Finally, they reached the door at the end of the hall, the one that led to River’s old room. “Here we are,” she said, shooting Finn an evil look he probably couldn’t see in the dim lighting.

The sign on this door said, This is your last chance to turn around. Really.

Finn’s hand tightened around hers. “This is going to be terrifying, isn’t it?”

She squeezed back. “Let’s go in.”

Canned laughter seeped from the room, making a smile dance on Adalia’s face. She pushed Finn in, her eyes on him.

“What the—” But he didn’t get to the final word before he burst out laughing.

Every single surface in the small room was covered in clown art. There was even a clown mannequin splayed out on the bed. The canned laughter started again, on repeat.

“They’re on loan from one of the artists Dottie tried to send us to for the art display,” she said with a grin. “Get this. She’s Lurch’s ex-girlfriend. Anyway, I contacted her and asked if she rented her pieces out for special occasions. This is the first ever Buchanan haunted house to have a clown room. The voice, of course, is Lurch laughing.”

She turned to Finn, pulling him close again by his cravat. “It felt only appropriate to terrify you with something related to the art display, seeing as it brought us together.”

“This is, without a doubt, the most terrifying room I’ve ever been in,” he said, grinning at her. “I love it. And I love you.” And he lifted her into the air and swung her around, the clowns a whirl of lurid color and then he kissed her, a passionate kiss that sucked the air out of both of them, before they pulled away panting to see Jack behind them, a funny expression on his face.

“Whatever gets your rocks off,” he said with a small smile.

And the sight of him standing there, alone—dressed in a shirt that said COSTUME—had he heard the story about Maisie, or had they independently thought up the same bad idea?—made her long to do something for him. To help him. To support him. To get him beyond that wall of guilt. Because if she deserved a second chance, surely Jack did too.

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