Authors: Willow Danes
by Willow Danes
©2015 Here be Dragons
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be produced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.
Kindle Edition License Notes
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Cover Design: Steven James Catizone
Published by Here Be Dragons
Also available in paperback publication
Coldness snaked through Hope’s belly as Keri’s silence dragged on.
“Did you know?” Hope asked again. Her cell pressed hard to her ear, her heart in her throat as she waited for her friend’s answer, she had a sudden urge to open the car window and hurl the damned thing into the road before Keri
reply. “Did you know about Brian and Megan?”
Through the phone she heard Keri sigh and Hope’s grip tightened on the steering wheel, the center diamond of her engagement ring sparkling in the sunlight.
Parked in front of the diner where she was to pick up the rental’s keys, Hope blinked out at Brittle Bridge, North Carolina’s quaint Main Street. Outside her car, people strolled about on their Friday morning errands, enjoying the May sunshine and the sweet mountain air, chatting and laughing.
Inside the car, Hope’s breath had the quick shallow pant of an animal caught in a trap.
“Look,” Keri began, a little impatiently. “It wasn’t my job to tell you. Megan—Brian really—should have.”
. You went with me to look at venues, at wedding gowns. You bought a bridesmaid’s dress.” Hope’s throat tightened. “
bought a maid of honor dress!”
“I didn’t actually buy the dress,” Keri mumbled. “I called the boutique after we left and asked them to cancel my order.”
But that was back in March!
“How long?” Hope asked, her voice high and tight. “How long has it been going on? How long have you known?”
Keri sighed again. “I went to Gable’s with some people from work back in January and I saw Brian and Megan in a booth in the back and they were—It’s probably been going on longer though.”
But—” Hope began, her tone pleading now as if she could argue this away, as if to point out the faulty logic of it would cast a spell and make everything right again. “But we got engaged on Valentine’s Day! He asked me to marry him on
. If he and Megan were—” Her eyes stung. “He broke our engagement by text, you know. He sent me a
today to tell me that he and Megan were together and how very, very sorry he was. Megan texted to say she’s sorry too—Oh, and since she’s not coming for the weekend she’s not going to pay her third for the rental.”
“Oh, that is shitty,” Keri said.
Shitty as letting me plan a wedding when you knew all along Megan was fucking my fiancé?
But the great burden of red hair was everyone expected you to have a bad temper and a sharp tongue. Hope had spent most of her twenty-seven years showing the world how even-keeled she was, how she could handle anything with a cool head, not raging or weeping even in the face of heartbreak and grief, not letting anyone know how bad she hurt.
Those walls went up when she was eight and were so thick now that nothing—not the death of her parents, not the humiliation of her fiancé screwing her maid of honor—was going to bring them down.
“Yeah, it is,” Hope said instead. “So when were you going to get around to telling me that you aren’t coming for the weekend either?”
“Look, I just thought if you and Megan were alone—maybe the truth would finally come out. Being with the two of you and pretending I didn’t know sucked.”
“Wow.” Hope nodded even though Keri couldn’t see her. Even a determined redhead had her limits. “That must have been really rough on you.”
Keri went silent again.
Hope bent her head to rub her forehead, blocking out the cheerful mountain sunlight. “I lost my job this morning.”
“What?” Keri sounded startled for the first time during their conversation.
“They made the announcement today. They sold the company to the Hindle Group last week and they had one too many graphic designers so they let me go. They made me drive all the way to Asheville to give me the news. My fiancé ends it in a text but my company had to tell me in person.”
“Jesus . . .”
“They gave me three months’ severance. And they shook my hand too. Apparently someone in the D.C. office did me the favor of clearing out my stuff while I was driving to Asheville yesterday so I’m all packed up. They’ll have everything delivered to my apartment by the end of the day.”
“So you’re driving back to D.C. tonight?”
“What for?” Hope asked bleakly. “Brian and Megan are at his place, making the most of the romantic curtained bed I bought. I don’t have work on Monday. No fiancé, no best friend, no job. My apartment lease is up in ten days and now I won’t be moving in with Brian. Maybe I’ll just move up here to the mountains. Take up wood crafting or something.”
“Call me when you get back,” Keri urged. “I’ll take you out and get you drunk. We’ll find you someone new.”
“No. I’m cursed.” Hope shut her eyes. “No one on the planet has worse luck with men than I do.”
Keri was smart enough not to argue that point. “I really am sorry.”
“Yeah, me too,” Hope said and hung up.
She turned off the car and sat there, the cell cradled in her lap. The invitations hadn’t gone out yet so she didn’t need to work through the guest list; with her parents both dead and no siblings there was no one left to call.
No one at all.
She sat there until the air got stale inside the car and she couldn’t bear the stuffiness anymore. The car door sounded too loud when she closed it again, the sunshine too bright, the laughter and chatter around her grating.
It shouldn’t be like this; the whole world should be as silent and dark and cold as the inside of her chest felt right now.
It was three quick steps up the concrete stoop and then she was pulling open the door to Dolly’s Diner, grimacing against the happy jingle of the bell over the door.
The diner was pretty typical: a long bar with high chairs fixed to the floor, blue vinyl booths lining the windows, the air heavy with the smell of fried food and old grease. The worn linoleum floor looked like it had been put down in the eighties, the music from the ceiling speakers also from that era. The place was slow now at ten-thirty, too late for breakfast on a weekday, a bit too early for the lunch crowd.
Hope made her way to the end of the bar where the old-style cash register sat, ducking her head against the patrons’ curious looks. Her hand automatically went to her carrot-top hair, smoothing it down, a habit she’d picked up when she’d started dating Brian. He’d poked fun at her mad curls and not in a kindly way; she’d even booked an appointment to have it straightened next week, intending to surprise him with a new, tamed look. Maybe that was why he’d chosen Megan. Her ash blond hair was always perfectly highlighted and shiny as silk . . .
The waitress looked about sixteen or so, a slim girl with short dark hair and a cute rabbit-like overbite. Her name tag read “Rachel” and she met Hope at the end of the bar, already reaching toward the neat stack of laminated menus next to the cash register.
Hope shook her head. “I’m not here to eat.”
Rachel’s eyebrows rose and her glance took in Hope’s wild hair, her business casual clothes; the sensible heels that made Hope, at five-eleven in bare feet, over six-one.
“I’m supposed to—Is Dolly here? I’m supposed to ask for Dolly. To get the keys.”
“Oh, you’re a renter!” Rachel took her hand off the menus. “Sure, Dolly’s in the back. Have a seat, I’ll fetch her up. You want some coffee, ma’am?”
I’m not a ma’am! I’m not
married! My—ex—fiancé just ran off with my maid of honor!
Hope wet her lips. “No, just the—I’m fine.”
“You renting one of Dolly’s places?” The woman asking occupied a booth close by. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, blond with good cheekbones, her round face friendly and open. The man with her had salt-and-pepper hair and a good sturdy look to him except for the still reddened scars on his face. That and the way he held his body taut, his posture odd. He was turned a bit in the booth, his back against the wall, as if he felt unsafe here, unsafe anywhere.
“Yeah,” Hope mumbled.
“You moving here to Brittle Bridge?” the woman asked. “Or up for the summer?”
“Neither.” Hope glanced at the doorway Rachel had just vanished through, praying the owner would show up to save her from this conversation. She just wanted to get the goddamn key and hole up in Dolly’s three-bedroom-with-Jacuzzi-and-way-too-big-for-one-person place so she could fall apart in privacy. “I’m just renting a cabin for the weekend.”
“Which one?” the man asked sharply. “Which cabin?”
The other diners were shifting in their seats, looking ill at ease, and at least one sent a dark look the man’s way.
“Which one?” he demanded again.
“I don’t remember,” Hope stammered. It had some stupid, touristy name—“Skylands Hideaway maybe?”
His lips went white. “The one near the McNallys’.”
“Bill—” the woman began but he cut her off.
“She can’t go up there.” His fists clenched on the table, his dark brown eyes wild under bushy salt-and-pepper brows as they fixed on her. “You can’t go up there!”
“There he goes again,” one of the men muttered.
The woman quickly put down her coffee cup. “We should probably get a move on, Bill. Lots to do this morning.”
“I know you don’t believe me!” Bill speared the other diners with a look, his mouth trembling. “I know don’t none of you believe what I saw!”
“Bill . . .” the woman pleaded.
“They’re going to find her someday, Riley,” one of the other men, seated at a table near the back, returned with a scowl. “Jenna McNally. Everybody’s gonna know what really happened to her.”
“What really—! Goddamn it, I’ve told you! Jenna got between me and that . . . that black-haired demon-eyed
! I fired at it and it attacked me!” The man pointed to his face, to the reddened scars that marred his cheek. “I’ve told you all a thousand times—that creature picked her up and ran off with her!”
Hope edged away. The guy was clearly nuts.
“’Cause we all done believe an alien attacked you, Bill,” the man sneered.
“’Course we do!” Another man, seated at the same table, pushed his worn ball cap back and smacked his meaty palm on the table. “Why, we got us a regular Area 51 right here in Brittle Bridge!” He looked around at the other diners and spread his hands. “And who else would them aliens come to but Sheriff Bill Riley?”
!” Bill’s face reddened as the other diners snickered. Spittle showed at the corner of his mouth, making him look every inch the town crazy. “Big as a damn bear with eyes that glowed!”
Another woman, stout, with a helmet of pineapple blond hair, pushed through the swinging doors, swiftly moving to place her bulk in the aisle and block the men’s hostile stares.
She leaned over as if just casually clearing the plates off the table and murmured, “Best take him home, Sarah Jane.”
Sarah Jane gave a quick nod, already pushing her way out of the booth.
!” Bill exploded.
Clearly everyone else had heard this from him before but Hope scooted back, pressing against the counter to give the pair plenty of room to pass.
“Come on, honey,” Sarah Jane pleaded, urging him toward the exit.
With a final, frustrated look the man muttered a curse. The bell gave a cheery jingle overhead as he yanked the door open and stalked out to the sidewalk, his hands balled into the pockets of his jeans.
Sarah Jane paused to send an apologetic glance at the other woman. “Sorry, Dolly.”
“Maybe you should keep him out of here for a couple days.” Dolly laid her hand on the woman’s shoulder for a moment. “They just get him riled up like anything.”
Sarah Jane’s face pinkened, her lips pursing for a moment as if she intended to argue, then she gave a stiff nod and followed Bill out. As soon as the door shut behind her one of the men made a comment that didn’t carry to where Hope stood, but the others at his table burst into loud laughter.
Dolly sent them a sharp glance with her mouth drawn downwards, but she let the comment—whatever it was—go unchallenged and waved Rachel over. “Bus the table, will ya?”