Authors: Mila Noir
(A Bad Boy Romantic Suspense)
By Mila Noir
Copyright 2015 Enamored
It was just a few weeks shy of Halloween when Taylor Jane Harlow pulled up to the old Sweethollow Inn in her rented red sports car. The top was down even though it was really too cold. Her nerves had gotten more worn and frayed with a low-grade terror with every mile north she’d driven along the Hudson River. The chilly air had kept her sharp while the rich reds, golds, and oranges of the shifting trees had been a welcome distraction. It was a beautiful area, no question. Beautiful and picturesque, with picket fences, farms, and towns with welcoming banners and cheerful names. If you stopped in any of them you’d find bright, superficially friendly people working in quaint little shops. Those cheery facades, as Taylor well knew, could also hide very dangerous secrets.
The inn had been built in the 1700s, not that long before the Revolutionary War. It was still owned by the same family, the Bittlecourts, passed down again and again, and was something of a landmark in town, although mostly locals used it for not-so-secret nooners these days.
There were pumpkins scattered all over the slightly overgrown lawn of the inn, with piles of brittle leaves haphazardly left to rot. Some sad, obviously fake skeletons had been hung off the front porch in what was probably an attempt to look festive. Mostly they looked listless and almost bored. The paint in their eyes had faded to a dull gray and they swung, rattling in a flat, plastic way in the growing wind. Taylor sighed, wishing there had been anywhere else to stay nearby.
Fall was tourist season for Sweethollow, in its quiet, sleepy way. The legend of the Deathless Rider brought enough people to town each year to justify a small festival, with the retelling of the story on a new refurbished stage in the town square and a haunted hayride that was more silly than scary and mostly employed the kind of Sweethollow high schoolers who spent too much time in drama class. There was also a locally crafted liquor called Deathless Ale that tasted a bit like it was still brewed in a bathtub.
Taylor had grown up here, and it didn’t seem to have changed even slightly in the ten years since she’d headed south to New York City for college. At the time she’d been positive that would be the last time she ever set eyes on Sweethollow.
Except here she was, standing outside the old inn she’d once christened with toilet paper and shaving cream, in her city clothes and carefully blown-out hair, trying not to feel like an impostor. She’d put on her expensive leather jacket, a black shift dress, the deep blue knee-high boots that always made her feel more confident…and instead she felt kind of nauseous and shaky. Sweethollow did not hold a lot of good memories for Taylor. In fact, other than memories of her grandmother, who had been gone the past eight years, she couldn’t really think of any.
However, this sleepy, nondescript little town a little over two hours north of New York City, with the weathered houses and drifts of fall leaves, had recently been home to a series of strange and grisly “accidental” deaths. The kind of deaths you read about happening other places, usually in big type. Somehow they’d managed to go largely unnoticed, probably because a lot of people were deliberately turning a blind eye. Something people in Sweethollow had gotten quite good at. Of course, another set of eerily similar “accidental” deaths had happened there before, also ten years ago. It was too much of a coincidence and Taylor knew it.
These days Taylor was a copy writer trying desperately to make it as a journalist. This story could be her big break. It would certainly beat writing copy about face creams or “gushing” about the latest weight loss fad, which was what her magazine job paid her abysmally little to do right now. Fat lot of good her fancy Liberal Arts/Writing degree from NYU was currently doing. Aside from making sure she’d be paying off the student loans forever.
She’d been on the verge of quitting and trying out some other line of work, like maybe selling insurance, when she’d been anonymously sent a clipping from the local Sweethollow paper, Sweethollow Says. It contained three obituaries and a simple note: “This is not the whole story.” The names on the obituaries had brought back a rush of memories so unpleasant, Taylor had almost fallen out of her desk chair with shock.
“What is it? You okay?” Lyla, her cubicle neighbor had asked over the top of their thin shared wall. Taylor had nodded even though she wasn’t even remotely okay. She wanted to tell Lyla but she just couldn’t. She didn’t have the words. Which was a pretty rare thing for a writer and the girl who had been called “chatterbox” in middle school. She’d been called a lot worse later.
In her mind’s eye Taylor saw laughing faces and was suddenly cold and sick. She felt the shoves, the spit wet on her face, heard the names again, felt the tears on her cheeks. She wasn’t in the cramped magazine loft space anymore; she was just barely sixteen, hunched over in her thrift store prom dress, trying desperately to get away from all the hateful, mocking, monstrous faces of her classmates.
She sat at her desk, shaking, while Lyla asking if she needed a coffee. She nodded again, still unable to speak. She didn’t trust herself to. She thought she might start crying and never stop if she even tried to articulate what she was feeling.
Taylor had done her best to put high school behind her, like most unpopular kids do. She’d worked really hard in college, she’d done well, and she’d even gotten a job in a really shitty economy right after graduation. The pay was laughable, but it was a start. And then she’d managed to claw her way into a gig at City Times Magazine, which only paid marginally better but came with a prestigious pedigree of writers and editors. It was real. It was a confirmation that she had Made It, whatever It was. Which, at the moment, seemed to be writing about cellulite and hair serum instead of news or worlds events or even interviews of any kind. Taylor didn’t think that was what she was really “meant” to do, but she was still there, hoping to get a break.
She’d never felt compelled to go back to Sweethollow in the last ten years, not once. Not to visit old friends (there weren’t any). Not even to gloat about how well she was doing in “the big city.” She’d been happy to get the hell out and never, ever look back.
It seemed strange that her big break might just depend on this trip to her less-than-rosy past. She would rather have stuck hot pokers in her face, but there she was, standing in from of the inn. Remembering everything she’d worked hard to forget.
As long as she didn’t run into…a certain someone, it would be fine. And really, how likely was that? He’d probably moved away long ago and was busy sleeping his way from state to state. Good riddance to bad apples, as her grams had used to say. Maybe one day she’d stop jumping at the sound of every motorcycle and turning to see who it was. It wasn’t like she wanted to see him ever again. Unless it was to punch him repeatedly.
Dry leaves crunched under her boots as she walked up to the hotel’s front door. She saw just two other cars parked in the lot, so it wasn’t a full house. That was a blessing, at least. She could probably work in peace without too many folks noticing.
Taylor wasn’t sure if anyone in town would recognize her anymore. Her hair, formerly a nondescript and frizzy brown, was now a soft (and very complementary) dark auburn. She’d learned how to perfect the “tousled waves” look pretty well, and her stylist had shown her the miracle of a good straightener and hair balm. She’d lost the unflattering baby weight (but not her curves), mainly by walking everywhere. Her complexion had also cleared up and the braces were long gone. Sometimes she caught a look at herself in the mirror and felt like she was wearing a costume. Almost all of her outfits were in the ease of city chic, black and gray and white. Her closet looked a bit like an old movie. Only her dark blue boots created a contrast. It was the former rebel in her coming out, just a little.
It was strange to think herself as a rebel, but in the context of Sweethollow it was pretty accurate. She hadn’t fit in anywhere. Not even with the outcasts. She had kind of been the only outcast.
Of course, that could just be her less-than-reliable teen memory. It still felt like a raw nerve sometimes. And she didn’t want to be self-pitying about it. Lots of people had rough times, and she certainly wasn’t the only target of the bullies of Sweethollow class of ’05. She’d just always felt so alone. It had carried over into college and beyond.
To say that Taylor’s personal life was pretty empty would be an understatement. It nearly had cobwebs on it. And a thick layer of dust. As for dating…that was best left alone. She couldn’t bring herself to trust anyone, still. That particular high school legacy was probably the one she resented most.
So she poured it into work, like every romcom cliché of a workaholic woman who just needs the love of a good man to realize all she really wants is a picket fence and kids. And while Taylor might one day want kids, the picket fence sounded like prison bars. The suburbs were poison to her and always would be.
The steps on the porch creaked and bent a little under her feet, which wasn’t very reassuring. She opened the door, which was not quite the right fit for the frame anymore, and walked in with a shrill creak. The first thing she noticed: it smelled a lot like mothballs trying to cover up mold. Great.
The next thing she noticed was how dim the lighting was, as if they were actively trying to make sure you couldn’t get a good look at the décor or rooms. Which figured.
Taylor felt a bit like she’d just stepped back in time. It could have been candlelight or oil lights, the lighting was so soft and yellow. The receiving desk was the only thing that looked well taken care of, smooth mahogany wood. She heard the distinct sounds of a very nasally snore coming from behind it.
She peered over the desk top and saw May Bittlecourt, the family matriarch at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, fast asleep in an armchair that had seen better days. Her glasses sat on her thin chest, which was rising and falling under a thick knit sweater in the most vibrant neon green Taylor had ever set eyes on. Taylor couldn’t remember a time when May wasn’t Old Lady Bittlecourt to everyone in town. Her face was a map of wrinkles, her white-gray hair thinning but still tightly curled. She always had candy of one flavor or another on her, if Taylor recalled right. It made her smile a little.
She stood there awkwardly for a few minutes, wondering if she should say something or ring the desk bell. It seemed a shame to disturb what looked like a pretty satisfying nap, if the slight smile on May’s lips was any indication. Still, she needed her room key so she could get set up.
When she leaned over the desk top to gently shake May’s shoulder, the older woman came awake with a startled yell and she slapped at Taylor’s hand with surprising strength. She looked around in confusion for a moment, then brought her glasses up to perch on her thin, pointed nose. Faded blue denim eyes narrowed.
“What did you go and do that for, young lady?” the raspy voice asked as she got up slowly.
“Sorry to disturb you. I wanted to check in. I didn’t mean to interrupt your nap—” Taylor said before she was interrupted.
“I was not sleeping. Merely resting my eyes. You could scare a person to death, shaking ’em like that,” May scolded. Taylor nodded, stifling a smile.
“You’re right, of course. I’m very sorry. I just had a long drive from the city and I’m anxious to relax,” she said. May harrumphed a little but got out a big book and a pen.
“Your name, miss?” she asked, clearing her throat.
“Harlow,” Taylor answered. She’d thought about using a fake name, but she doubted anyone in Sweethollow would remember her anyway. And with her grandmother gone, there weren’t any other Harlows in town for anyone to think she was related to. It was one of the reasons she was staying at the inn and not Grams’ house, which was technically hers now. She drew less attention if she was just a tourist. Plus, she still couldn’t bring herself to set foot in the house she’d grown up in without Grams there, smiling and baking and playing poker with the other gals. It seemed wrong.
“Here you are, room 301. Third floor, on the right. We got free Wi-Fi, login details are by the bed,” May rattled off.
“Thank you,” Taylor said, taking the actual metal key with the plastic room number. As she’d thought, the name hadn’t rung any bells. She felt a faint flurry of disappointment and then shook her head at herself.
“We have breakfast at eight a.m., sharp, just a simple buffet. There’s restaurants in town for everything else. And a small fridge if you want to keep things awhile,” May said, sitting back down and propping her feet up.
“Thanks again. Is there a laundromat in the hotel, or should I go into town?” Taylor asked. She’d booked the room for a week, and the magazine would reimburse her once the story was done. Her boss had said, “Stay until you get it, Taylor. You need the break.” She hoped she wouldn’t need longer than a week, but it would be best to make sure her clothes didn’t get disgusting if she had to extend her stay.
“There’s three washers and dryers in the basement. You have to get the key from me, and it costs twenty-five cents apiece. There’s also the Washeteria on Bramble Road, just off Main Street,” May said, eyes getting heavy. Then she was asleep again, right in front of Taylor.
She went out to her car and grabbed her suitcase and laptop, then walked up the creaky old staircase with the rug that looked like it had been there since the war. Probably the Revolutionary one, Taylor thought and walked down the hall to her room. It took a few tries to get the door open, it was a bit stuck.