Authors: Heather Knight
A Stand-Alone Dark Romance
Book #3 in the Snow and Ash Series
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The Snow and Ash Series
On June 14, 2018, a well-known super-volcano blew, covering half of North America in a thick layer of ash and leaving sulfur and other gases trapped in the stratosphere. With the sun’s rays deflected off the earth’s surface, the planet is now enveloped in a volcanic winter that will last years, perhaps decades. No country, no climate, no civilization remains unscathed. Even the mighty U.S. Government has fallen. Millions died in those first weeks. Even more starved off, froze to death, or were taken by illness. Those who remain fight over what few resources are left.
Each of these stand-alone novels takes place in or near the once lushly forested Appalachian Mountains, which, if you look at a one of the few remaining maps, is located in what was once the mid-southern United States.
begins three and-a-half years into the volcanic winter.
NOVEMBER 2, 03
(Three Years and Five Months after the Ash)
I look like I’ve spent the last fifty years shopping at Sears. I’m nineteen and my figure rocks, but I don’t dare show it off. Instead, I wear a skirt worthy of the Amish and a cardigan that will secure my virginity forever.
The whole town, all three hundred twenty-nine people, has gone church crazy. When Yellowstone blew up three years ago, the world we knew ended.
A few million people died in the first week or two. After that the world basically fell apart and people either froze to death, starved, got murdered, or the flu took them. I hear over two-thirds of the world’s population is gone. I don’t know how anyone else handled it, but the folks here in Sadie’s Bend turned to Jesus.
Seriously, being stuck in a church-happy town is a good thing. Out there, people are raping, pillaging, and cannibalizing anyone who’s left.
I’ll listen to a thousand sermons about God’s love as long as I can stay here where it’s safe. In my heart I know I’m bound for hell, but Pastor North is like a grandfather to me.
The church continues to fill as I sing with the kids. When I glance up between songs, I note a new person in one of the back pews. It’s uncommon to have a visitor but not unheard of. Pastor North will occasionally feed a harmless-looking passer through if they promise to sit and listen to one of his sermons first.
Most people are hungry enough.
“How about ‘Safely and Tenderly’?” I suggest to the kids. It’s Pastor North’s favorite song, and some of the older ones are looking a little insulted at the “Jesus Loves Me” type fare.
A chorus of
answer me, and I pluck the first chords. The dang kids don’t join in, though, and it’s like giving a concert. Except here no one’s high, drunk, naked, or screaming
show us your tits.
I glance toward the pews and find it’s not just the children listening, but the adults too. My cheeks burn. I shouldn’t have risked this. Pastor North would have a stroke if he knew, but today he’s late. None of these people know my past, and they probably didn’t know I could sing. I would have liked to keep it that way, but the kids were tearing the church apart this morning, and a frustrated grade-school teacher shoved a guitar in my hands. The congregation heaved a collective sigh of relief, so now I’m stuck.
The stranger’s not just staring at me. He’s eating me with his eyes. I accidentally meet his gaze, and he throws me a crooked smile.
I jerk, realizing I’ve skipped several beats. “I can’t remember the words. Can anyone help me?”
This finally gets the kids singing, and they drown me out for the rest of the song. When we reach the end, the schoolteacher claps to get the kids’ attention.
“All right, everyone, time to find your seats.” Somehow teachers hadn’t seemed so mean back when I lived in Denver.
I stand and place the guitar on its rack. I sneak another peek at the stranger. There’s something so…disturbingly male about him. He’s handsome in a rough kind of way, but that’s not it. He looks confident. Dangerous. And he’s smoldering with something like pure sex.
Pastor North approaches the pulpit—finally—and that’s my cue to take my seat at the piano. You can’t get in trouble playing piano for the church. You just can’t. That’s one of the reasons the pastor assigned me the job. Most of the time my back is turned to the congregation, so no one can look at me for long enough to place me. At least that’s what the plan was in the beginning. Now I just do it because I love Pastor North. I’d do pretty much anything for him. He took me in when just about no one else would.
Playing the piano also ensures that I won’t look around. You know, at the stranger.
Pastor North—Uncle Mike to me—goes into a variation of his usual sermon on “God Loves You,” then picks the verse of the day to lecture on. All I have to do is wait for his cues and play the next hymn. I’ve gotten so that I can tune him out most of the time. I smile at him every once in a while just to let him know he’s doing great. I actually do love him. He could be talking about how to dissect worms and I’d tell him how wonderful he was. I may have a questionable past, but I do know what loyalty is.
The whole time I sit there a hole burns through my granny sweater, right between my shoulder blades. It’s the stranger. He’s staring at me; I know he is.
We’re almost to the end of the service when the pastor takes a deep breath and puts both hands on the pulpit. He shakes his head. “One final thing.”
He puckers his lips like he’s about to say something that tastes bad in his mouth. “I have some unfortunate business to address with you all. We all know Mia Lavely—have joined her in prayer, have welcomed her into our homes. We’ve broken bread with her.”
This does not sound good for Mia Lavely. Her husband died of the flu last year, and I feel sorry for her. Plus, I love her irreverence.
“Yesterday Mia was discovered to have an entire box of pornographic romance novels hidden under her bed.”
The entire church goes silent, but the thought of detailed pornographic romances shoots a delicious clench to my belly.
“Now as you all know, these are desperate times. This is a lone sanctuary against the evil that’s ruled since Armageddon fell on us. If we are to have any hope of gaining the kingdom of heaven, we must resist sin. We must renounce it.”
Like half the church joins in a chorus of
“Mrs. Lavely approached Diana Fletcher and tried to share this wicked trash. We cannot suffer the devil in this community. We simply cannot.”
I close my eyes. For a stupid book? What, does it describe a guy touching some girl’s boob? Come on!
Pastor North shakes his head like he’s really, really sorry, and I know he is. “So as a final order of business, I’m asking the church deacons to join together and escort Mrs. Lavely to the town gates. She is no longer welcome here in Sadie’s Bend, and henceforth she must be shunned by all members of this community.”
I feel sick. Like, sick.
The door behind the pulpit opens, and Mia Lavely, her chin high and her shoulders squared, is escorted down into the center aisle. As she approaches each row, the people turn their backs on her.
This is some bullshit. I’m the last person to preach—I’m not entirely buying into the heaven-and-hell thing—but what kind of Christian throws a middle-aged lady out into…into…what’s out there?
There’s nothing to eat. It’s been winter for three solid years, and if she doesn’t freeze to death, the cannibals will get her. I kind of feel like I might cry.
Mia and her party pass into the vestibule, and the front door shuts with a bang.
I clench my jaw and stare after them. I feel like I should stand up and say something, but I don’t dare. Not if I don’t want to be next. Pastor North loves me, but even he has to bow to the rules.
My gaze falls on the stranger again, and I read calculation in his eyes. I shiver, but I’m not even sure it’s fear. There’s a heat in my belly that I don’t understand. I can’t look away. It’s like he’s seized hold of me with some weird weapon only astronauts know about, and he’s got me hostage.
I jerk my gaze away from the stranger and look up into the cloudy blue eyes of my adopted uncle. “Your sermon was wonderful, Uncle Mike.”
Praying no one will notice, I dash back to the rectory and gather some bread and nuts and wrap them up in a cloth. I take my warmest pair of boots and a wool hat—I’m allergic to wool anyway—and sneak out the back.
Thanks to Yellowstone and this lovely volcanic winter, it never gets very light outside. It’s only eleven thirty in the morning, and I can barely make Mia out even though she’s lurking no more than three hundred feet from the gate. I look behind me, then dash through, set the package down, and wave until she notices me. I give her an I’m-so-sorry-look, which she probably can’t even see.
She breaks into tears. I can’t watch. I can’t do anything about it, either. I sneak the back way to the rectory and reemerge through the front door. Safely.
There’s always a feast following the service, or what passes for one. You won’t see any fat people here in Sadie’s Bend. The town leaders took over the school and used every bit of it for vertical gardening. We have one windmill, and it powers the garden lights and spins the vertical beds. We have to heat the rooms with wood stoves. It’s tough just putting enough food together to give everyone a meal. We eat a lot of mushrooms. Rabbit too, and so help me God, I feel bad every single time.
When I get to the church reception hall, the room is filled and people are standing in line at the buffet. I spot the stranger holding a plate as he leans against a wall. He flicks me a glance, then looks away. There’s a laugh hovering about his full lips.
“Imogen. I was wondering where you were.” Uncle Mike beams down at me.
“I had to use the lady’s room.” I hate lying to him, but it’s a decent excuse. The lady’s room is more of an outhouse these days, and you have to go off a bit to get there. I don’t even want to think what a town full of out-houses would smell like in the summer. It’s the only upside to permanent winter.
Uncle Mike buys it. For the next hour I stick close to him. The stranger is working the room, shaking hands and looking humble to the people feeding him.
He’s really freaking me out. What’s wrong with me? In like two hours he’ll be gone and I’ll never see him again. I must be hormonal. I am on my period.
Pastor North and I are talking to Mr. Ruddick, the welder-turned-blacksmith, when I feel a light caress in the small of my back. I glance up and there he is. My heart glugs, and I’m conscious of the heat coming off his body.
“Pastor,” he says in a cool, deep voice. He reaches out his hand, the same one that only moments ago caressed the curve of my back, and shakes Uncle Mike’s.
“Axel, right?” Uncle Mike clasps the man’s forearm, making the handshake more intimate. He really is a sweet man.
Axel nods. “I just wanted to say thank you.”
He’s tall. I maybe, maybe reach his shoulder, and he’s built like he’s worked hard every day for the last ten years. You can see it in the grace of his movements, the way his clothes fit him. I’m close enough that I catch his scent: it’s impossible to describe except it’s intoxicating, male, and it makes me want to move nearer. He shifts his weight, bringing him even closer to me.
“The pleasure was ours. All ours.” Uncle Mike blinks as though remembering something. “Can I introduce you to my niece? Imogen, this is Axel…”