The Beautiful Ashes

Page 1

Chapter one

I’m twenty, and already, I’ve got nothing left to lose. That’s why I didn’t care that Bennington, Vermont, looked like a postcard for autumn in the country. The two-story bed-and-breakfast I pulled up to was no different. It even had a white picket fence and a steady swirl of sunset-colored leaves drifting down from the many trees in the yard.

My picturesque surroundings were in stark contrast to how I looked. If I hadn’t been exhausted from grief and stress, I might’ve cared that my brown hair now resembled greasy mud. Or that my breath was in desperate need of a Mentos, and don’t get me started on the coffee stains decorating my WMU shirt. Since I had more important things to worry about, I didn’t even bother to cover my head against the downpour as I left my car and ran into the bed-and-breakfast.

“One moment!” a cheery voice called out from farther inside. Then a heavyset older woman with graying red hair came down the hallway.

“Hello, dear. I’m Mrs. Paulson. Are you—oh, my, you’re soaked!”

“It’s nothing,” I said, but she bustled out of sight, returning moments later with a towel.

“You sit down and dry yourself off,” she ordered in the same tsking tone my mother had used a million times before. A surge of grief had me dropping into the chair she waved at. The things you didn’t realize you’d miss until they were gone...

“Thanks,” I said, determined not to cry in front of a total stranger. Then I pulled out the Ziploc bag I’d carried around most of the day. “I’m looking for two people who might’ve stayed here the weekend before last.”

As I spoke, I pulled out a picture of my sister, Jasmine, and her boyfriend, Tommy.

Mrs. Paulson got a pair of glasses from her apron pocket. Then she sat behind a large antique desk and accepted the picture.

“Oh, what a pretty girl,” she said, adding kindly, “just like you. But I’ve never seen either of them before, sorry.”

“Thanks,” I said, although I wanted to scream.

I’d spent the day showing Jasmine’s picture to every hotel, motel and inn in Bennington, yet no one had recognized my sister. She’d been here, though. The last texts she’d sent came from Bennington, but the police already hinted that they thought she’d sent them while driving through. To them, Jasmine was an impulsive eighteen-year-old who’d gone on a road trip with her boyfriend. My sister might be impulsive, but she wouldn’t have disappeared for over a week unless she was in real trouble.

I stuffed her picture back into the plastic bag and rose, so upset that I barely registered what Mrs. Paulson was saying.

“...can’t let you go back out in that, dear. Wait here until the rain stops.”

I blinked in surprise at her unexpected kindness. Every other proprietor had been anxious for me to leave once they knew why I was there, as if losing a family member could somehow be contagious. My eyes stung with a sudden rush of tears. Maybe it was. My parents’ funeral was the day after tomorrow.

“Thank you, but I can’t,” I said, voice husky from emotions I couldn’t let myself feel yet. The shock helped with that. Ten days ago, my biggest concern had been making a bad impression on my Comparative Revolutions professor after my text message alerts kept going off in his class. Then I read Jasmine’s texts, and everything had changed.

Mrs. Paulson gave me another sympathetic smile. “At least let me make you a hot cup of tea—”

A dark, hazy double image suddenly appeared over the reception lounge, making it look as though it had aged over a hundred years in an instant. I stifled a groan. Not this again.

The pricey antiques vanished, replaced by broken-down furniture or nothing at all. The temperature also plummeted, making me shiver before movement in the hallway caught my eye.

A blonde girl walked past the decrepit-looking reception lounge. Her face was smudged with dirt and she was bundled up in a tattered blanket, but I didn’t need a second glance to recognize her.

“Jasmine,” I whispered.

Mrs. Paulson came around the desk and grabbed me, coiling shadows suddenly darting across her face as if she had snakes trapped beneath her flesh. Jasmine continued to walk by as if she wasn’t aware that we were there. If not for the innkeeper’s surprisingly strong grip, I could have reached out and touched my sister.

“Wait!” I cried out.

The house blinked back into elegant furnishings and warm, cozy temperatures. Just as quickly, Jasmine disappeared. Mrs. Paulson still held me in a tight grip, although the shadows on her face had vanished. I finally managed to shove her away, heading down the hallway where I’d glimpsed my sister.

Before I made it three steps, pain exploded in the back of my head. It must’ve briefly knocked me out, because the next thing I knew, I was on my knees and Mrs. Paulson was about to hit me with a heavy picture frame again.

Get out! The single, emphatic thought was all my mind was capable of producing. My body must’ve agreed. I don’t know how, but I was suddenly outside and slamming the door shut on my Cherokee. Then I sped away, wondering what had made Mrs. Paulson turn from a kindly old lady into a skull-smashing maniac.

I drove back to my hotel as though on autopilot. After I parked, I sat in the car with the engine off, trying to fight back nausea while I figured out my next move. I could call 911, but I didn’t want to admit that I’d had another weird hallucination right before Mrs. Paulson attacked me. If I told anyone that, I’d be signing up for a stay in a padded room. Again. Second, the cops in Bennington already didn’t like me. As soon as I’d arrived this morning, I’d bitched them out for not doing enough to find Jasmine. They’d probably take Mrs. Paulson’s side and assume I’d done something to provoke her.

I paused. Had I? I didn’t remember getting away from Mrs. Paulson. What if I’d done something else I didn’t remember? Maybe something that had scared her so much, she’d hit me in self-defense? The idea that I might be having blackouts in addition to hallucinations soured my already bleak mood. I got out of the car and went to my hotel room. Once inside, I dropped my purse as though it were a fifty-pound anchor, then flicked on the light.

Everything in me stiffened. The couch should’ve been empty, but a guy with hair the color of dark honey sat there, his large frame taking up most of the space. Strong brows, a straight nose, high cheekbones and a sensual mouth made up a face that was striking enough to adorn billboards. He didn’t look startled by my appearance, either. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he’d been expecting me.

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.