A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3) (3 page)

BOOK: A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3)
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Up ahead, she saw the sign for a gas station and hit her blinker. She needed a minute to clear her head and get something to drink.
And I have to pee.
She wrinkled her nose at the thought of the gas station bathroom. No other choice for another forty miles, though.

She drove up to the gas pump and got out, squealing as a jolt of static electricity shot through her. “Ack! Why does this car always do that?”

The service attendant approached her for her card. “Fill her up?”

That’s right. I forgot. Can’t pump your own gas in this state.
Cassie nodded. He ran the card through the slot and passed it back to her. After popping the gas cap, he wrangled the nozzle out of the pump and into the car.

Cassie stood next to him with arms crossed, watching the price-per-gallon. A wince crossed her face at the fast-rising numbers, and she stared out at the road, dead of traffic.

“I’ll be right back,” she told the attendant, before walking toward the station.

The inside of the mini-mart smelled of the greasy hot dogs spinning on the rotisserie on the counter.

Sliding over her debit card, she said, “One corn dog please. And can I get the bathroom key?”

The male attendant sat on a stool behind the counter. His blond hair escaped from under a dirty baseball cap. He scratched at a zit on his neck before grudgingly handing over the key, attached to a twelve-inch ruler.

“How much farther to Milwalk?” she asked. A display of M&M’s caught her eye, and she forked over a package across the counter.

The attendant wore a white collared shirt with his name—Tom—embroidered on the upper chest. “Why you going up there?” he asked.

“Meeting a friend. How far is it? Is it easy to find?”

Tom smirked. “You blink and you’ll miss it.”

“Wow. That small huh?”

The kid ran her card and handed it back to her. “Let me put it this way. You’re the first person I’ve heard headed in that direction in a long time. It’s about fifty miles up in the hills. That place is a ghost town.” He leered at her, and Cassie drew back. “Spooky as sin.”

“Okay.…”

“You keep your doors locked until you find your friend,” he advised, before dismissing her to greet the next customer in line.

Chapter 4

C
assie peered
through the windshield at a stand of mailboxes. They were her first signs of civilization since she’d left Highway 101 and entered the national rainforest over an hour ago.

The rusty mailboxes leaned against one another like a couple of drunk compadres staggering home from a late night at the bar. She wrinkled her brow and looked down the driveway at two pale tire tracks barely visible through the overgrown grass.

This was it. This was where Leif’s cousin lived.

It was dark here. Damp. Plant life fought for every spare inch of space, crowding each other out in a fight for the sun. The dense undergrowth was only overshadowed by thick moss dripping from the trees.

Flipping on her blinker—
Hello? There’s no one behind you
—she turned into the driveway, ignoring the prickling sensation running down her spine. The light grew darker as the trees and bushes crept over the thin slice of land in an attempt to win back their ownership.

After another hundred yards, the driveway split into a Y. One side snaked off to the left. Cassie paused, trying to see what lay down both ends. Her heart beat faster. Neither house was visible through the trees.

Creeping forward, she chose the driveway on the right, this one corralled by old stripped logs that formed a haphazard fence around its borders. Her anxiety raising, she drove around the bend.

A white building appeared, roofed in two different materials—corrugated metal and asphalt shingles—one seemingly slapped on where the other material had run out.

A dog was chained to the front porch stoop. It stood as her car approached. Dirty and snarling, the dog leapt to the end of its lead, the metallic rattle of its chain audible inside the car.

The place was vacant. The only vehicle other than hers was an old camper, half-covered in a tattered blue tarp.

Cassie studied the house as cold shivers continued to course through her. Beer bottles lined every windowsill on the bottom floor. A single window, its broken pane held together with duct-tape, was tucked into the house’s A-frame roof.

The last two numbers of what must have been the address hung on the porch railing, rusted and tilting.

The wrong numbers.

“It’s the other one, then. Please, oh please, be a normal house,” she whispered to herself.

She circled the car around in the driveway as the dog lunged at her tires with high-pitched barks. “Nice doggy,” Cassie muttered.

Backtracking to the Y she hesitated before steering the car down the left side. Idling slowly, she fumbled in her purse for her cell phone.

One bar. Great.

Her sister answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hi, Miranda.”

“For crying out loud, Cassie. Where are y—?” Abruptly, Miranda cut out. The reception was that crappy.

“Umm,” Cassie glanced at the moss-laden trees. “Can you hear me? Kind of in Bigfoot country. Hello? I think I found the house.”

She rounded the corner and slammed on the brakes, jerking the car to a stop.

“Oh my freaking word….” Cassie muttered.

“What is it?”

“Gotta go, I’ll call you later!”

“Cassie! Don’t you dare hang—”

Cassie clicked off the phone, trying to absorb the scene in front of her, mouth hanging open.

Never in a million years….

She climbed out of the car and immediately wrinkled her nose. An aroma of mildew and rotten compost filled the air. Clouds of black flies buzzed in a dark, furious storm. She batted a hand before her face to disperse them and stared at the house.

It was gutted.

The front of the house lay open in a giant black maw, showing an ash-covered interior. Cautiously, Cassie stepped forward, jumping at the sound of the dog barking next door. She could just see him through the trees, straining at the end of his leash. “Shhh! It’s okay. Calm down!”

She shot a look over her shoulder, afraid of what the dog’s sound might bring. Nothing but trees as far as she could see.

Eyes sweeping the ground for anything hazardous, she cautiously stepped forward. The house leaned like a block of toppling cards, appearing as though one strong gust of wind could flatten the entire building.

She recognized the smell now—not compost, but rotting campfire. Peering hard inside the skeleton of the structure, she could barely make out the remnants of a sofa. A fallen beam crushed the top of it.

Cassie walked around the building, looking for any clue as to what had happened. The grass in the backyard was knee-high.
Remember to look for ticks.
Her sister’s warning flew through her head.

The fire must have happened a while ago. Where had Luke gone?

Disappointment closed like a fist around her diaphragm, and she let out a soft groan. Earlier, everything had felt within her grasp. She’d had a sense of purpose.

And now it was gone. All gone.

Next door the dog’s barking rose in a fevered pitch. “What the heck is wrong with you, animal? Why are you still barking at me?” Cassie heard the chain rattle with a sharp twang as the dog lunged over and over to the end of its lead. She glanced in its direction, seeing its brindled coat through the trees.

The dog wasn’t facing her.

Chills ran down her back.

The dog faced to her right with deep snarls erupting from its throat.

Warily, she scanned the forest. Blackberries, ferns, and small bushes obscured her vision.

She pulled out her cell phone. A glance showed that just the distance from the car took her out of service. She grimaced and dropped it back into her pocket. The pepper spray came to mind.
Good job leaving it in the car, Cass.

Her eyes burned as she stared into the undergrowth, watching for any movement.

A branch snapped, and then came the rough crackling of dead leaves.

Somebody’s watching me.

Cassie jerked her head. Another branch softly swayed.

Slowly, she backed away and inspected the area for a weapon. Her tennis shoe bumped into the edge of the crumbling porch, reminding her of how flimsy and soft the soles were if she had to kick at something.

Or someone.

Near the edge of the porch, she spotted a rough 4x4 board, charred black on one end. She hefted it in her hand and continued to back away.

Silence.

Cassie crouched behind the end of the porch and rested the 4x4 board on her shoulder.

A bird fluttered into the sky. Every muscle in Cassie’s body flinched at the sound.

It was just a bird.
She let out a deep exhale, and her muscles began to relax.
It’s okay. What did you expect? Bigfoot?

From the forest a man’s whistle rose in a sloppy tune, faltered, before beginning again in eerie enthusiasm. Icy fear flooded Cassie’s veins, her stomach clenching as adrenaline pumped a second time through her muscles. She shifted her weight back to her heels to ease the tension.
Come on… show yourself.

The rustling from the bushes resumed and sorted itself out into heavy footsteps. Sweat trickled down her face. She raised the board higher.

A man in his late twenties, with dark, virile Italian features, stumbled out into the open. His black, unkempt hair stood on end, his face was unshaven. He spun around in a wobbly circle and his muscular arms flailed widely to keep his balance. A clear bottle dangled from his fingers, its contents nearly gone. Taking a long drink, he spied her hiding by the stoop. His eyes struggled to focus and then a low, drunken laugh tumbled out of him. “Principessa,” he murmured. “What are you doing here?”

Chapter 5

T
he man’s
eyes had shone with hope when he’d first seen her, but quickly hardened with disappointment. He staggered towards her, his jeans hanging low on his hips, giving a glimpse of a toned stomach. “I said, what are you doing here?” Squinting as though the light were too bright, his hand rose up to shield his eyes. His full, bottom lip dropped into a smirk.

“Just stay away from me,” Cassie warned, rising from beside the cement foundation. Her grip on the 4x4 tightened. “I swear, I’ll knock you into next Tuesday.”

The man’s grin broadened, and his head tilted to the side. “You look like a little warrior. Are you a fighter, Principessa?” His hazel eyes, rimmed with dark eyelashes, softened as his gaze lingered on her.

Unexpected warmth fluttered in her stomach.

Cass! Wake up. Drunk stranger here.
She shrugged back her shoulders and stood taller. “Come any closer, and you’ll see what kind of fighter I am.”

“Tell me why you’re here.”

“What’s it to you? You live here?” she snapped back.

He stopped about ten feet from her, and his eyes flicked toward the burned-down house. “Does it look like anyone lives here?”

“Then why do you care why I’m here?”

“It’s called trespassing. You’ve got no rights.”

Show him no fear.
Cassie pursed her lips, and her eyes held steadily on him.
I’ll kick your butt, dude.
The thought brought up a hysterical giggle, but she squashed it down.

“What are you smiling at?” The guy frowned, his bicep flexing as he jammed his hand into the pocket of his worn jeans. He tottered a little bit as the motion took him off balance.

“What? No, I’m not smiling.” The muscles in her arms and shoulders screamed with fatigue, and her grip on the board faltered. She rested it against her shoulder.
Don’t let him see you’re tired.
She scowled, trying to look fierce. “I’m here looking for someone.”

The man kicked at a board, his dirty boots digging into the grass. “Nobody’s lived here for a couple years.”

“Yeah, I can see that, Sherlock.” Cassie rolled her eyes. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to call my sister and get out of here.” Not wanting to relinquish the board, she tucked it under one arm, and squeezed her fingers into her jeans pocket to fish out her phone. She made a show of dialing it. Even without reception, she hoped the action alone would make the guy back off.

“Wait!” The guy smiled to defuse the command. He ruffled his dark hair again, letting it cascade over his eyes.

Cassie’s eyebrow flickered.

“I mean, call if you want. I was just wondering who it was you were looking for.”

“Why? Are you a neighbor? Did you know the people that lived here?”

The man stared at the house again. His face turned serious and still. He looked back at Cassie. “Who do you know that lived here?”

“What is this, twenty questions?” Cassie paused in dialing the phone.
He’s not going to help me. I don’t have time for this.
She eyed her car, thirty feet away. “You know what, forget it. This conversation is over.” She strode past him, her pants legs brushing against the tall grass with a whisper.

“Hey. Don’t go.” The guy reached out to stop her.

“Don’t you touch me!” Cassie lifted the board again, scowling. He stepped away, hands in the air.

“Wasted the entire day, the entire trip,” she grumbled to herself.

“You shouldn’t be here, anyway. Don’t be poking your nose into where it doesn’t belong,” the guy said.

“I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about,” she tossed the comment over her shoulder, along with a flick of her hair. “I told you, I’m trying to track someone down. It’s not like I’m part of a big investigation or something.”

“What do you know about an investigation?” He slowly walked after her.

Cassie glanced back in surprise. Studying him carefully, she assessed whether she was going to have to clock him one after all.

With his hand jammed into his pocket, the other twirling the bottle, he looked back at the house. When his gaze returned to her, his eyes were filled with confusion. The expression quickly melted into a drunken stupor.

What was that about?
She hurried to her car. He followed the trail of dents in the grass after her.

“Dude, are you kidding me about an investigation?” she asked. “What is this, the Twilight Zone? I know nothing. Wow! People are really paranoid out here.”

“You’re the one who brought it up.” He paused at the edge of the driveway.

“Crazy.…” she muttered under her breath, pulling out the car keys. After dropping the 4x4 on the ground, she finished dialing her sister.

Parked directly behind her little car was a silver Camaro. The dog had been barking so loudly she’d never even heard it drive up.

“Right on my freaking bumper,” she muttered, as she opened the car door. “Thanks for all your help,” she shouted over the top of the roof of her car.

The drunk man stood at the edge of the driveway and saluted her with two fingers. “You’re welcome. Don’t come back.”

“Um, hello. That was sarcasm. And I’ll do as I please.” She climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door, quickly hitting the lock button. The phone continued to ring at her ear. “Come on, sis, pick up. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.”

He wandered to his car to casually lean against the front fender. His arms crossed in front of his chest as he watched her.

“Wow, what a jerk.” Cassie groaned. “If I accidentally hit reverse, I’d pinch him in two.”

“What?” Miranda’s unexpected voice shot adrenaline through Cassie’s veins.

“Oh hey, sis. Not you. Hang on a sec while I talk to this psycho.” Cassie unrolled the window. “You might not want to be driving, when you can’t even walk straight,” she yelled in his direction. This time he flipped her off. Shaking her head in disbelief, she shifted into drive. “That guy is crazy.” Turning the steering wheel hard, she spun out of there, smiling as he ducked from the spray of gravel.

“Um, what’s going on?” Miranda asked. “Psycho? I can’t believe you hung up on me.”

“Sorry. The first address was a bust. The house burned down and nobody’s lived there for a long time.”

“So, what are you going to do now?”

“Back to my hotel for tonight. But tomorrow I’ll be paying a visit to that second address.” Cassie said, pulling out onto the highway.

“Cassie! You better be care—” Miranda’s voice cut out again.

Great. Nice reception. Now she’s really going to freak out.
A sigh slipped out as Cassie chucked the phone onto the seat, sounding almost lighthearted. Despite how the last house had worked out, she was really looking forward to the next address. For the first time in a long time, something had finally piqued her interest.

BOOK: A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3)
2.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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