The heavy gate groaned shut. After engaging the lock, he pulled the backpack out of his Jeep and slung it over his shoulder. It was a rare fall day in the Pacific Northwest, and he planned to take full advantage of the good weather.
He had work to do.
He walked a quarter of a mile along the fence line and stopped. Then he pulled a “No Trespassing” sign from the pack and propped it against the fence. With a few sure strokes of a hammer, he nailed it to the post. The dull blows echoed in the quiet woods.
Branches and fallen leaves popped and crackled beneath his feet as he worked his way methodically along the ridge, checking the barbed wire fence for gaps. The cinnamon smell of the turning leaves was a sure sign that hunting season would soon begin, and he couldn’t afford to have strangers stumbling onto his property.
He nailed the last sign to the post.
There. That should keep the bastards out.
He turned and started down the rugged trail carved into the steep hillside. A couple of hundred feet below, the valley floor glimmered like an emerald in the late-day sun. Three cabins stood in the clearing beside the Tolt River. A half dozen more were scattered along the upper ridge, overlooking Lake Langlois.
The place had been a youth camp once, before the drowning of a teenage girl had destroyed its reputation. Afterward the camp had closed and the cabins had fallen into disrepair.
It was a shame, really. He had fond memories of the place. While his father had spent the summer basking in an alcoholic haze, he’d spent it exploring the woods, far away from his father’s violent mood swings. By any measure it was a win-win.
Dappled sunlight shone through the thick canopy of branches overhead. He loved days like this. Alone in the woods, he felt at peace with the world.
A scream rent the air, shattering the stillness of the afternoon.
It was shrill. Human.
Crows fled the safety of the trees, a torrent of black wings flooding the blue sky. Heart racing, he started to run. The uneven ground slid beneath his boots. Branches slapped at his face, and he ran faster, driven on by her panicked cries.
The valley floor was muddy after the long weeks of rain. The spongy earth slowed his pace as he raced toward the river.
Another scream. Louder.
“Help me. Oh God. Please.”
It was coming from the cabin farthest from the water’s edge.
His boots pounded up the wooden steps. Hinges squawked in protest as he crashed through the door.
The stench hit him hard—stale sweat and human waste. His stomach churned.
At first he could see nothing, his eyes blinded in the dim light. Then her slender form materialized out of the darkness—a slip of a girl, barely more than a hundred pounds. She was standing near the center of the room, her hands bound behind her back. A soiled University of Washington T-shirt hanging from her skinny frame. Pink panties. And nothing else.
The relief on her face froze the instant she spotted him. A small sob escaped her lips. She stepped back, retreating into the shadows.
As if she could hide.
“Now, Kim,” he said. “What was the rule?”
Her jaw worked, but no sound emerged. She took another pitiful step back, her wide eyes brimming with fear.
“What was the rule?”
His voice boomed in the small cabin. She flinched like a beaten dog.
“No calling out,” she mumbled.
“I can’t hear you. What’s the rule?”
“No calling out.”
“No calling out,” he repeated, smiling thinly. “That’s right. You leave me no choice.”
“Please,” she said, voice trembling, tears leaking from her eyes. “I’ll do better, I promise. I promise…”
He stepped toward her, his tread echoing on the bare plank floor. She shrank back, trembling, and stumbled over the bucket. Without her hands to stop her, she crashed to the floor.
He stopped. His six-foot frame loomed above her. She averted her gaze, looking anywhere but at him.
This will not do.
He hunkered down and gripped her narrow chin, forcing her gaze to meet his.
“Please,” she whispered.
Her mouth trembled.
“Aw, princess,” he said, running his thumb slowly across her swollen bottom lip. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”
He reached down and unbuckled his belt.
There was something seriously fucked up about turning a mortuary into a bar, Drew Matthews thought as he walked through the heavy oak doors of the Chapel. While much of the original architecture of the 1920s building remained intact, the interior displayed the tumors of decades of evolving taste. There were a few recent growths, like the U-shaped bar in the center of the former embalming room. Lit up like a runway at Sea-Tac International Airport, it guided him in.
The drink menu read like the King James Bible, with parables about sins and martinis.
Arm propped against the bar, he ordered the Bruce Lee, a fast, tawny drink that howled like a banshee with fists of fury. It was named after the famous Seattle martial artist whose embalming had reportedly taken place in this very bar.
But there was nothing dead about the place now. Swarming schools of urban hipsters out for their Saturday-night fix swelled like dividing cells. So many desperate souls crowding the bar, looking for that elusive thing missing from their lives. Attention. Sex. Connection. Drew felt the pulsing need, so palpable he could almost taste it.
Tension rippled across his shoulders, into the base of his brain. If ever there was a night he’d felt like getting good and truly shitfaced, this was it. He knew he couldn’t give in to the impulse though. Meeting the friends was a rite of passage he must endure for his relationship with Alicia Wright to progress. And he had every intention of taking their relationship to the next level.
He’d already picked out a sparkly new ring.
A hand ran up his back and he turned. Alicia had dressed well for her starring role. A fitted white blouse hugged her athletic curves, the plunging neckline low enough to reveal a delectable view of her cleavage. A tight black miniskirt rode up her well-toned thighs. In highheeled boots, she was almost at eye level with Drew. He found the accumulated effect arousing.
Alicia leaned in close. He caught a whiff of her perfume. Dark. Floral. Orchids. Her ruby lips brushed his ear, sending sparks jangling along his taut nerve endings.
“Hey, look who finally decided to show up,” she said in a sexy, throaty murmur.
“Sorry, I had to work a little late. Came straight here.”
“Well, grab your drink and let’s go. Gretchen’s waiting.”
Drew raised a finger and drained his glass in a long swallow. Alicia raised her eyebrows.
“I’ve got some catching up to do.”
So what if he was a little nervous? Who wouldn’t be? Alicia and her pack of prep-school friends had grown up in a different world. While their nannies had dropped them off at private schools and playdates, he’d watched cancer devour his mother and his father fall to pieces. What could they possibly know about being hungry enough to steal food, or hiding in the woods all night, afraid to come home because your father was a mean drunk? Or being left behind, abandoned by your evil stepmother?
Alicia grasped his hand and tugged him away from the bar. Drew followed her up a narrow staircase to a wide balcony overlooking the main floor. The speakers blared and the upper deck swarmed with life.
He definitely needed another drink.
Alicia threaded her way to the front of the platform, where she stopped. Her back to the railing, she looped an arm around the shoulders of a chubby girl.
“Drew, this is Gretchen Lange. We’ve been friends since we were kids.”
“What she means to say is that we’ve been BFFs since third grade,” Gretchen tittered.
Bright-blue eyes sparkled in her doughy white face. A ridiculous mass of strawberry blonde
curls bounced and jiggled when she laughed.
Drew stretched out his hand.
“Gretchen, at last. Alicia’s told me so much about you.”
“Not too much, I hope.”
“She didn’t tell me you were so lovely,” he said.
She wasn’t really. Clad in a skintight floral dress, she looked like a gaudy pink hibiscus.
Smelled like one too. Up close, her perfume made his eyes water. But he knew the comment would score points with both women, so he said it anyway.
“Shame on you, Alicia, for keeping this one all to yourself.”
“She was afraid I’d embarrass her,” Drew said.
“You? Looking all James Bond? Not likely.”
“James Bond?” Drew asked, his lips stretching into a grin.
“Careful, Gretchen,” Alicia said. “You’ll only feed his ego, which is enormous, by the way.”
Drew’s mouth dropped open in mock incredulity.
“Don’t you believe a word of it,” he said, splaying a hand across his chest. “I’m the very embodiment of modesty.”
“Oh, I can see that,” Gretchen cried. “Modest and charming. A killer combination.”
Gretchen wasn’t very bright, but watching her was fun—in a train-wreck kind of way.
Alicia shook back the dark curtain of her glossy hair and leaned into him. The warm press of her body had him thinking more about the after-party than the festivities at hand, and he wished he could push the fast-forward button on the evening. Get to the part where she was his alone.
Glancing around, he spied the waitress on the other side of the platform. Raising his hand, he caught her eye. She hustled over and he ordered another drink—a nod to the serial killer Ted Bundy this time.
Moments later more of Alicia’s friends arrived. Amid a flurry of hugs and kisses, Alicia made the introductions.
“Tracy, Madison, and Liam,” she said, her bright eyes glittering.
The anorexic spandex twins could have passed for sisters with their long blonde hair and skintight dresses. The guy was tall, with a swimmer’s build and a bored, pouty look that said exactly what he thought: they were all beneath him. Ice-blue eyes stared at Drew through a fringe of wispy blond bangs in a messy, chin-length cut that could easily have cost a couple of hundred bucks.
Liam’s hand wedged into the small of Alicia’s back, his little finger inches above the curve of her ass. Eyeing Drew with the clinical stare of a scientist assessing his subject, Liam smiled. The bastard was baiting him. Wondering just how far he could push before Drew lost his shit.
He wanted to plow the prick in the face. Instead he grasped his ring and twisted it around his finger. The bloodstone ring glimmered red in the light. He remembered his father’s fist lashing out, how the ring had gashed his cheek. But he was no longer that boy. Now he knew there was more than one way to win a fight.
Drew tore his gaze away from Liam and scanned the upper deck.
Where the fuck is the waitress?
Apparently the universe heard him because just then the beer wench appeared, hefting a tray of jewel-colored cocktails. Like a frat boy at a freshman party, Drew inhaled half of his in a single swallow. Vodka burned a fiery path down his throat, and he realized with regret that he should have ordered a double.
“Drew, is it? Tell us how you met Alicia,” Liam shouted over the throbbing house music.
“We met at the investment firm where she works. I was meeting with my financial advisor when she walked in. She took pity on me when I asked for her number.”
Alicia smiled. “Pity had nothing to do with it. He asked me out for dinner, and the rest is history.”
“Investments, eh? Tell me about your portfolio,” Liam said, swirling an electric-blue drink around in his glass with his free hand.
“Why? Do you have some wisdom to share?” Alicia asked.
“Not likely,” Gretchen scoffed. “You see, Drew, Liam here is Seattle royalty. His father founded one of the first successful dot-coms and sold before the bubble burst. Unlike the rest of us working stiffs, he doesn’t worry about petty things like money.”
“I like to dabble in stocks.” Liam shrugged, sipping his drink.
“That’s sweet,” Gretchen quipped with a small, sour look that made Drew smile.
“Don’t you have people to do that for you?” Drew asked.
“Sure, but everyone needs a hobby.”
“A hobby? Now that’s funny,” Gretchen snorted, sloshing her drink onto her dress.
Cheeks flushing red, she glanced around for a napkin. Drew handed his over. Dabbing at her dress, Gretchen scowled at Liam.
“See what you made me do?”
“Not me, Gretch. You always were a sloppy drunk.”
“Liam!” Alicia said.
“It’s true. Don’t you remember the time we all went to dinner at that place?” Liam said, snapping his fingers like he was trying to recall. “You remember, Alicia, the posh little place in Madison Park.”
“Yeah, that’s it, Crush. Gretchen got so wasted, the maître d’ hauled her out of there…”
“Escorted her, you mean,” Alicia said.
Liam waved a hand. “Whatever. The whole way out of the restaurant, she’s yelling at him, calling him names…”
“Until she threw up on his shoes,” Alicia blurted, before slapping her hand across her mouth like she’d just spilled a secret.
“Sweetheart,” Liam said. He paused and turned his affectionate gaze on Alicia. “You stripped down to your panties and danced in the fountain.”
“That’s right,” Gretchen said, her flaming-red face breaking into a smile.
“It was epic,” Liam roared, and the whole group erupted in laughter.
They spent the next half hour reliving highlights from their glory days—like the time Liam and Alicia took his father’s private jet to Paris for the weekend—while Drew stood at the edge of the group and looked on. An outsider. He laughed at the right moments. Feigned interest.
Checked his watch. The minutes crawled by.
By eleven thirty the party was in full swing, but he was done. Alicia turned to him, as if suddenly recalling his presence.
“Get me another drink?”
It came out sounding more like a command than a request, and Drew bristled. Liam shot him a condescending smile and smoothed his hand over Alicia’s ass.
A hot burst of anger surged through Drew.
“Sure,” he said.
He grabbed Alicia by the hand and tugged her toward him. His eyes boring deep into hers, he leaned down and kissed her hard. Through the thin fabric of her shirt, he felt her stiffen, resist. So he deepened the kiss. His tongue probed the depths of her mouth.
All conversation stopped. The throbbing beat of the house music pulsed, and Alicia’s face glowed bright red as she pulled away.
Drew released her and winked at Liam on his way by. Last call. He had to get out of here before he did something stupid. But first he needed another drink.
And then what?
Then he’d do the smart thing. He’d go home and cool off. He’d deal with Alicia later.
After all, she wouldn’t have any trouble finding a ride home.
Years later, Chris spent long afternoons managing her own independent record store and writing romance novels. After closing the record store and going to college, Chris launched a successful career in hi-tech. She married, had kids but amid all the madness, the itch to write never really went away. So she started writing again. Not romance this time – suspense filled with drama, and angst, speckled with a little bit of blood.
Why suspense? Chris blames her obsession with the dark on two things: watching Stephen King movies as a kid and spending ridiculous amounts of time commuting in Seattle traffic. “My stories are based on scenarios I see every day, distorted through the fictional lens. And my stories come with the added bonus of not having to be restrained by socially acceptable behavior.”
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