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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Hell Fire (5 page)

BOOK: Hell Fire
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Together, we baked pies and cookies, cleaned out her attic, and refinished an old wooden dresser—pretty much anything she could think of to keep my mind off my loss. And I got better in her company, crying less in the night and talking more during the day.
But the respite didn’t last long—just a few months. In the evenings, Miss Minnie would let me look through her jewelry box and tell me stories about the people they used to belong to—and I liked that. It made me feel rooted, part of something for the first time since my mama died.
And it was good until my gift sparked to life. I was handling a jeweled hair clip, a pretty piece that I’d long admired. That time, it singed my fingers, and I said without thinking, “This belonged to your great-aunt Cecilia. She was wearing it when she died.”
Miss Minnie had gazed at me, her face pinched and gray, before snatching the clip away and fussing over burns she couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten. That night, she called the social workers and said she wasn’t equipped to deal with “a child like me.” By the time I left Kilmer, she was the only one who was still halfway nice to me. Though she hadn’t wanted me living in her home after that, she never stopped trying to get me to attend the Methodist church with her, as if religion could fix what ailed me.
At our near collision, her head came up. I smiled to see her white hair wrapped up in a cheerful rain bonnet. I remembered her saying bright colors made us miss the sun a little less. She returned my smile on automatic and started to brush by me with a quiet apology for her woolgathering.
I wasn’t surprised. I’d been dishwater blond when I lived here, a mousy shade that made me fade into the woodwork. Back then, I’d wanted exactly that. I didn’t want to be noticed or discussed. I only wanted to get away.
Then she hesitated, her hand on the door. “Do I know you?” Miss Minnie squinted. “Yes, I’m sure I do. Why, Corine Solomon, as I live and breathe! I’d never forget those pretty blue eyes. It’s so good to see you.”
Reflexively, I curled my fingers into my palms and tucked them into my jacket pockets. “You’re looking well, ma’am.”
“Well, it’s a rotten day to catch up, but I’d be obliged if you came for dinner before you leave.” Her smile seemed warm and genuine. “Your young man’s welcome too, of course.”
From the confines of my bag, Butch whined. I heard the papers we’d stolen crunch as he tried to get comfortable. That gave me the excuse I needed.
“Yes, ma’am. Your number’s still in the book?”
“Same as it ever was,” she agreed.
With a wave, she passed by into the library.
The Mustang looked brighter and shinier than anything else on the street. Perhaps it was the damp or the wan winter light, but Kilmer looked as if the life had been leached out of it long ago, leaving a pale facsimile as its anchor in the real world. That thought weighed on me as I climbed into the car. Something about it resonated, but I couldn’t connect it to anything else; it was more of a feeling than a certainty.
“I can’t picture you here,” Chance said, starting the car.
“Me either.” It seemed a lifetime ago. In some ways, it was
than a lifetime. “But this is where it all began.”
He paused long enough to maneuver onto the road, though I didn’t know where we were going. “You never talk much about your dad.”
For me that word conjured up images of a man who wore a panama fedora and a two-tone shirt. He always smelled of pipe tobacco and Old Spice, and he used to sing in the shower, silly songs he made up as he went along. More than that, I couldn’t remember, any more than I could recall why he’d left. My mother never talked about it, and I figured she had her reasons.
“Neither do you,” I said pointedly.
I suspected Chance knew more than he’d revealed. More truth he hadn’t entrusted to me. I wasn’t sure where the line should be drawn, or whether I wanted his deep, dark secrets at this late date.
“Does that bother you?” He drove as he did everything else, expertly and with complete control.
It had, once. Chance was like an iceberg, only its tip showing above the water; sure, it was beautiful and bright, but you never knew what lurked beneath the surface. He’d never made any attempt to share that with me, even though he wanted me laid open for him like a watermelon at a Fourth of July picnic.
The double standard had gotten old a long time ago, and I didn’t have any interest in changing him. Maybe we’d both be better off if we just forgot about each other. Only I couldn’t do that, damn him.
“It doesn’t matter now.”
when you do that.” Though his tone was gentle, the words were not. “You expect me to know everything without your ever saying a word. You always did. You expect me to have some magical way of divining what you need from me, and that’s just not fair. How can I offer it when I don’t even know what it is half the time?”
The wipers scraped on the windshield, underscoring his muted frustration. I’d like to say I disagreed with him, but he had a point. I
have trouble articulating my needs, because the minute you told a person what you wanted, you made yourself vulnerable. They had the power, not you. If you never asked, you could pretend you were never disappointed.
But that only works if you’re happy living a lie.
I exhaled unsteadily and reached for Butch, who nuzzled my hand. I could’ve said nothing, but that was the same as an admission. I decided I might as well go all the way.
“Point to you. But I never said I’m easy to be with, Chance.” I tried to keep my voice even. “I told you before . . . I don’t blame you for anything.”
I didn’t want this to turn into an argument, as we’d never been any good at those. I got shrill and defensive; he went icy and remote. Then we made up in bed before we agreed on anything. As fruitless cycles went, it had its perks.
“That’s not entirely true.”
I fell silent, refusing to discuss it further. But he was right again, dammit. I
blame him for not explaining the risks of being with him. Maybe it wasn’t fair; I mean, how could he date someone while simultaneously telling them it wasn’t safe? I could see his point of view—what was the point in having that conversation until he was sure the relationship was going somewhere? But once he knew . . . I should’ve been clued in and given the option to choose.
That summed up my key complaint about Chance. He always seemed to think he knew what was best for me and never bothered to confirm it. Well, after I fell through the floor of a burning building, I’d put the pieces together myself.
And then I walked away, as soon as I was able.
It wasn’t just the danger of bodily harm that had driven me off. I felt as if I had to leave a relationship where I wasn’t a full partner. I didn’t want him to be my guardian; just my lover. I remained unconvinced he knew how to separate the two impulses.
We passed few cars. It was around lunchtime; there should have been people on the road heading home for a bite or looking for a likely dining spot. So far as I could tell, there was Ma’s Kitchen, the coffee shop, and the Kilmer Inn. I hadn’t seen a single restaurant otherwise—more hallmarks of a dying town.
The silence between us stretched taut, emblazoned with the inability to connect that had destroyed our relationship. He couldn’t let me in all the way—and I was afraid of giving more than I got. My heart hurt with the futility of it.
When we pulled up to the periwinkle Victorian house, I realized we’d come straight back to the bed-and-breakfast. Chance circled around back and put the car in park. Before I could move, he came around the front of the car and yanked my door open. With a start, I saw he’d gotten his expensive leather shoes muddy.
Rain trickled down his brown face, but he paid it no mind. I slid out of the car, suddenly uneasy with the intensity I’d evoked, but instead of telling me what was on his mind, he only muttered, “Let’s get inside before you catch your death.”
Disarmed Conflict
We ran through the rain toward the porch and tried to stamp off some of the wet before going inside. Sandra came down the hall to meet us. She tried to look welcoming, but instead her expression looked brittle. “You two got caught out in it, did you? Well, you should have time to freshen up before lunch.”
You’re dripping on my rug, so get your asses upstairs.
I didn’t know whether we rubbed her the wrong way or whether she just wasn’t cut out for customer service. The diamond-sharp edge to her manner made me uneasy. What would she do if she found out about Butch?
Maybe the stress of being back in Kilmer had gotten to me. Surely I didn’t suspect a middle-aged innkeeper would murder my dog. Still, I made sure he was out of sight as I hurried toward the stairs.
Chance came hard on my heels. “There’s something off about her.”
I didn’t feel safe to answer until we’d locked the door behind us. “You think?”
We still hadn’t met her husband or her daughter. The inn seemed eerily quiet, no sounds within to indicate a meal being served; just the rain drumming on the roof and our breathing. I would have liked to blame my wet clothes, but my skin just crawled.
And the idea of getting naked and stepping into that old-fashioned tub, then drawing the curtain so I could take a hot shower? My teeth chattered.
“You’re freezing,” he said. “You take the bathroom first.”
“Come in with me.” The words shot out before I could stop them.
He froze. “You want me in the tub with you? Naked bodies, hot water, steam . . .” Chance’s look turned dreamy for a moment; then he seemed to gauge my expression. “Jesus, you’re scared to death. What’s wrong?”
I could only shake my head. “I don’t . . . I don’t know. Please, will you sit in there with me? Keep me company?”
Score points for Chance—because he didn’t question my unusual, neurotic behavior. It felt . . . good. I said,
Thank you
, with my eyes. And he smiled. God, he was so beautiful. Men had no right to look like he did, especially dripping wet.
Shivering all the while, I gathered up my toiletries and made my way to the bathroom. The hinges creaked as I pulled the slatted door wide. A door on the other side adjoined the Plumeria room. However crazy it sounded, I wanted Chance parked in between, watching my back.
My breathing slowly settled. He wouldn’t let anything happen to me. I undressed in the tub behind the shower curtain, knowing he could see the sexy shadow play of my movements. His muffled moan verified that notion.
“Cruel and unusual,” he muttered.
“You always did say I have a mean streak.” I sounded almost normal, thank God.
“Do you ever.”
The pipes groaned, and then the hot water gushed out, no warm-up period . . . unusual for a place this old. I derived a certain amount of satisfaction from washing myself with him only a few short feet away. I imagined him watching my hands with rapt attention, and my pulse spiked. Okay, I didn’t want to tease
, so I finished up quickly.
But when I stepped onto the bath mat, safely wrapped in a towel, I didn’t receive the sizzling welcome I anticipated. I started to make a joke about finding him frozen in the middle of the room, but Chance motioned me to silence. At first I didn’t know what I was listening for. Then it registered.
It came from the floorboards in the Plumeria room. For reasons I couldn’t articulate, the sound chilled my blood. I stilled too, listening to light, furtive steps coming closer and closer. Steam twirled in the air between us like a fiendish fog.
I held my breath, every muscle coiled. And then . . . the decorative brass doorknob turned ever so slowly, side to side. Nobody knocked. The door didn’t rattle. I heard no steps going away, but they might have been drowned by my thundering heart. After what seemed like an eternity, I had to inhale. Stars sparked in my field of vision, and the terror I hadn’t been able to explain before returned twofold.
Would they come into our room? Would they try the door from the other side? There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation, but my twitchy nerves screamed no.
“Whew. Either we’re both crazy, or . . .” Chance wrapped his arms around me, rubbing my back through the damp terry cloth of my towel. “We should find somewhere else to stay.”
While Chance stood guard, I scrambled into clean clothes. Butch trotted into the bathroom and whined. I tried to shush him, but he ignored me, scratching at the bottom of the door that led into the Plumeria room. Against my better judgment, I hunkered down on all fours and peered to see what had the dog so riled up. I spied something through the little crack beneath the door, and a foul smell told me the powdery residue wasn’t dust.
“Chance, come take a look at this.”
He crouched down. “Smells rotten.”
“We’ve either been visited by something nasty or this is a spell component.” Dammit, I wished I had my mother’s books. “Let’s get out of here.”
“First . . .” He got a zip bag out of his duffel and used a comb, wrapped in toilet paper, to scoop up a little of the powder. I didn’t know what he planned on doing with it, but it didn’t seem like the time to question him.
We snatched our belongings, and I opened the door into the hall. Another line of evil-smelling powder ran across our threshold. I remembered the way Chuch and Eva had warded their house with sea salt and wormwood and I hesitated, wondering if we’d been hexed or blessed.
“Could this be for our protection?” I wondered aloud. “A country tradition?”
“Either way, step over it. Don’t get it on your shoe.”
That sounded like a wise idea, if only to avoid the smell, so I did just that. Chance followed me, closing the door behind him. I stifled a little scream when Sandra Cheney came around the corner.
BOOK: Hell Fire
9.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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