Sinful Suspense Box Set (7 page)

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Chapter 10 

Jem

Katy unbuttoned the front of my jeans, but my gaze was still riveted to the girl walking into Rotten Apples. She disappeared inside, but I stared at the door waiting for the image of her to vanish completely. It never did. I was spending a lot of fucking time thinking about her, the way she looked, the way she moved, the way she talked, even the way her bottom lip twisted when something I said made her angry. Might have been why I kept teasing her, just so I could see that plump bottom lip curl. I’d never been so damn distracted by any girl in my life.

Katy’s hand slid down my pants, jarring me from my thoughts. “Shit, Jem, you’re not thinking about that girl in the shabby dress”—she curled her fingers around my cock as she spoke—“when you’re supposed to be thinking about me.”

Her words were like a cold slap because it was true. I was sitting in the backseat of the truck with Katy’s hand wrapped around my cock, and I was thinking about Tashlyn. This was fucking new, and I wasn’t liking it. I looked at Katy. “Not going to lie, I was thinking about her.” It was probably a stupid thing to admit with her fingers wrapped so tightly around me and so dangerously close to my nuts, but seeing Tashlyn had shocked me out of my backseat mood.

Thankfully, Katy released me without doing damage. She leaned back and scowled at me. “What the hell, Jem? Who is she anyhow? She has to be a freak if she’s hanging out with Everly.” She shivered dramatically. “Can’t hardly stand to look at her with that shriveled up arm.”

I zipped up my pants. “And that comment, sweetheart, just assured me that we’re done here. Go find someone else to sit under your daddy’s rifle rack.” I opened the door.

“You fucking lowlife, ex-con bastard,” she shrieked as she shoved both hands against me. “Everyone knows your dad murdered all those girls just like he killed his high school girlfriend. Just a matter of time before all of you, including that crazy brother of yours—” Her rant continued as I slammed the door in her face, leaving her sitting alone and pissed as hell in the backseat of her dad’s truck. With the daggers she was shooting at me from her scowl, I figured I was lucky that her dad’s gun rack was empty.

I headed across the parking lot wondering just what the hell I was doing. It wasn’t just because Tashlyn was fucking amazing to look at. Something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on, kept chipping at me, telling me that I needed to stay near her.

Dane was leaning at the bar counter talking to a couple of girls when I walked back inside. I ordered a beer and surveyed the room. Everly and Tashlyn had carried apple martinis to a counter high table at the back of the bar. There were already three guys circling them, Sam and Ace, ratchet-setters at the mill, and the third, Drake, a dickwad who was real good at losing money to me in poker. They were just standing with their beers and talking to Tashlyn, but I couldn’t stop from clenching my fists.

I walked over and placed my beer down hard on the table, causing the girls to startle. Everly raised her brow at me. “Can we help you?”

“Nope. Just resting my beer.”

Sam forced a friendly smile. “Hey, Wolfe, we’re just getting acquainted with our newest workmate. Maybe you should
rest
your beer somewhere else.” Sam had obviously strapped on his steel balls for his night out. Ace, a guy who always had way more sense than his buddy, looked at Sam as if he’d grown a pair of horns right out of his head. Ace’s shocked look seemed to make Sam rethink his original request. “Of course, it’s a free world and everything. So whatever,” he blurted so fast I thought he’d choke on his own tongue.

Ace wisely picked up his beer and walked away. Sam and Drake stuck around, looking a little less confident than when I’d first walked up.

Everly was standing between Tashlyn and me, but my attention went right to Tashlyn, my sole reason for making the trip across the bar. “You going to sing, Woodstock?”

Tashlyn shrugged. “You sure are interested in me competing up there. I figure either you want me to make a fool of myself or you’re thinking of trying for the money.” Sometimes she was flustered and shy when I was talking to her. Other times, like tonight, she was mouthy and sure of herself. I was liking both sides of the coin and wondering which girl would surface if I had her naked in my bed. 

“What happened to Katy?” Everly piped up, making her usual disgust of me clear. I’d never had a problem with Everly. In fact, I had huge respect for a girl who’d braved roaring flames to save a friend’s life. But her Uncle Landon’s hate for the Wolfe family always showed on his niece’s face. She’d been preprogrammed to despise me her whole life, and that brainwashing wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Everly grinned at me. “Guess I always figured you for a
minute
man, Jem.” Sam and Drake got a good laugh out of her comment.

“Well, Ever, as usual, you have me figured all wrong.” I looked over at Tashlyn again as if she was the only person standing in the bar with me. Hell, as far as I was concerned, she was the only person in the whole damn place worth talking to. And I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

She dropped her face, pretending to focus on the drink in her hand. Long black lashes shadowed her pink cheeks. The shy, uneasy girl had returned. Fucking sweet and vulnerable and intoxicating to look at. Didn’t need beer or weed or anything for this kind of high, just the girl. But she was standing with Everly, who had no doubt filled her head with an ugly fucking description of me. And she probably hadn’t been too far off. But it didn’t bother me enough to pick up my beer and walk away.

The microphone released a high-pitched whistle as Gabe, the owner’s son, switched it on. “All right, there is a five hundred dollar pot for tonight’s contest, and we only have eight people signed up. If you still want to get in on your chance to win the money, go to the bar. Brooke has the sign-up sheet. You can pick your song from the list. Who is first?” he called to his bartender.

“Dane Wolfe,” Brooke called out. A good round of laughter and cheers rumbled through the bar.

Everly looked sideways at me. I shrugged. “You know Dane. He’d get up there and do a fucking striptease if it meant five hundred bucks. Actually, that’s probably not a good example. He’d do that for a pitcher of beer.”

Two minutes into Dane’s torturous rendition of
Crazy Train
, Everly looked over at Tashlyn. “Five hundred bucks and
he’s
part of the competition.”

Dane hit a note that sent everyone’s shoulders up around their ears. Tashlyn put down her drink. Every damn head in the place turned as she walked through the crowd to the bar. She signed up and was completely oblivious to the amount of attention she was drawing, completely unaware of the trail of glittering light that was following her through the dark, crowded room. Or maybe I was the only person who saw the glow.

Katy had walked back inside, and I was getting the full evil eye from her and her friends. Yet the scowls they were shooting my direction were light-hearted compared to the looks they were tossing at Tashlyn. Again, Tashlyn had no clue it was happening, but Everly, who knew the venom of Katy and her friends, caught it right away.

Everly raised a brow and huffed angrily at me.

“What are you huffing and puffing about, Ever? Or is it just my presence that’s irritating you?”

“Yes, that is it. Plus, now you’ve fired up the bitch posse across the way. Tash will probably get tomatoes thrown at her on stage.”

Tashlyn, who’d been genuinely sizing up the competition, caught the remark. “Who wants to throw tomatoes? I haven’t even gone on stage yet.”

“The girl, who, at the first sight of you, Jem so politely jilted tonight is extremely pissed. And trust me, her middle name is Bitch.”

Tashlyn’s wide blue eyes peered up at me over Everly’s head. “I don’t understand.”

I tilted my head at Everly. “She tends to be dramatic.”

“Since when?” Everly snapped.

“Uh, since the fourth grade when I cheated off your paper, and we both got sent to the principal’s office. Or did you forget that you threw up twice on the way up there?”

“Yeah, because
you
cheated, and
I
was being sent up the river for it.”

I smiled. “Ah confess, Everly, you pushed your paper so I could see it.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure of that.”

“We have a new face in the crowd,” Gabe announced when the music stopped. “Tashlyn, come on up. It’s your turn. I see you picked Anna Nalick’s
Breathe
. Good choice.”

She gave Everly a quick hug and pointed to me. “If I die of humiliation up there, it’s going to be your fault.” She took a long sip of her martini and scooted around the table. I followed her to get a better view. I pushed through the crowd gathered around the stage and got a few grunts of complaint, until they saw it was me. They made room for me up front. One of the perks of being a Wolfe.

Tashlyn looked nervous, and suddenly, I just wanted to be up there with my arms around her.

The room was dead silent as she climbed onto the stage. But it wasn’t only because she was new to the town. She was just that incredible. And as she turned toward the audience, she looked anxious as if she wanted to be any place but on the stage.

My throat tightened as she stepped reluctantly up to the microphone.

“Hey, Tash,” I said quietly.

She gazed down at me with a pleading look that seemed to say ‘help me’. There was something so familiar about it, it nearly kicked the breath from me. It took me a second to find my voice. “Knock ‘em dead, Woodstock.”

The guitar music thrummed through the bar. Everyone stood stock-still watching the girl on stage. She wrapped her fingers around the mic and her lips parted.

The ache in my chest deepened. The first time I saw her I was saving her guitar from my brother’s clumsy hand. I figured she could probably hold a tune. But this wasn’t just singing. The sound of her voice put a whole new meaning into the word heartbreak. I stared up at her and wondered if in the shitty darkness that was my life, I was looking at my moment of light.

I hadn’t noticed that Dane had walked up next to me until he spoke. “Guess we should have figured she’d have a voice to go with the rest of her.” It took a lot to get my brother’s attention, but Tashlyn had definitely grabbed it. We both stared up at her and listened to her sing.

“Fuck, there goes my five hundred bucks.”

Chapter 11

Tashlyn

Everly had labeled it flirting but I’d insisted that it was just two coworkers engaging in meaningless conversation, like people standing around their work cubicles on a Monday morning, chit-chatting over coffee until the boss arrived. Only we’d been standing in a crowded bar, and Jem was definitely no ordinary coworker. It had been the first time that Everly and I had exchanged terse words. Although terse wasn’t really a good word for our exchange in the car, it was more a mild string of warnings from Everly and a mild string of counterarguments from me. The final end to the conversation had come when I reminded her that Jem had saved Finn from drowning.

The smell of bacon coaxed me from bed. I’d come home with a nice pot of money which I’d promptly handed over to Everly for my part of the living expenses. She half-heartedly refused to take it at first, but with my persistence, she gave in and accepted it.

I shuffled down the short hallway to the kitchen.

Everly smiled as she glanced back at me from the stove. “Eggs and bacon?”

“Surprisingly, yes. I was sure I’d wake feeling as green as those apple martinis but I’m fine.” I sat at the table. “Of course, if someone put one of those damn martinis in front of me right now, I would turn green for sure.” I was relieved that Everly had already pushed our Jem Wolfe conversation behind her.

Everly turned around with two steaming plates of food. “Are you still interested in going to Alice’s book shop? I already let my uncle know that I was going to walk you over and introduce you to Alice and that I might be a few minutes late. I’m sure Alice will have no problem with you combing through her newspaper collection. She has everything super organized, so you should be able to find just what you’re looking for. She’s always happy when someone wants to look at the old stuff. Gives her a reason for hoarding it.”

“That would be terrific.” I braced myself to do some detective work, work that would probably include a lot of details about my dad’s death. But I saw no other way around it. I needed to take a look back in time. I needed to find out how I’d ended up here as a lost and scared seven-year-old.

I picked up a piece of bacon. Everly had cooked it to perfection. “Delish. Fried fat. Who knew? Actually, I guess everybody knew. I mean fat and frying does sort of lend itself to deliciousness.”

Everly took a bite of bacon. “Our hearts and arteries might say otherwise, but I figure as long as I’m not chowing on the stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” She poured herself some orange juice. “Did you figure out the bus schedule?”

“Well, there’s not much I can do since the bus schedule and the sawmill hours are off by an hour either direction. But the good news is that Mr. Stevens gave me a key to the office, so I can go in and get started. I’m going to lock up too. That way I don’t have to sit alone at the bus stop for long. And there’s so much to do in that office. Hal said he’d pay me the overtime if I wanted to work and get more done.”

“Great. That works. Thanks again, Tash, for the money. It’ll come in handy, and I’ll use it to buy groceries today. The nights are getting cold enough for hot cocoa and whipped cream, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely.”

We sat uncharacteristically silent for a few minutes while we ate our breakfast. We always had so much to talk about. It was as if we’d known each other for a long time instead of just a few days. I also knew that when Everly paused her end of the conversation, she was thinking about something.

She took a bite of toast and stared at the bread in her fingers. “I did let him cheat off my test.”

It took me a second to figure out what the heck she was talking about. “You mean when you and Jem got sent to the principal?”

“Yeah.” She rolled her eyes. “My uncle was so mad that I got in trouble for that. Especially because it was Jem.” She put her toast down. “I knew I was supposed to stay clear of Jem and Dane, and I always did.” She breathed a quiet sigh. “Growing up, I always felt really sorry for the brothers, especially Jem. Dane was always sort of out there, kind of oblivious to everyone and everything, but Jem was different. You could tell he had a much deeper soul, a scarred soul but a deep one. The day of the math test, I remember he’d come to school wearing the same dirty t-shirt he’d been wearing all week. He had big dark rings under his eyes as if he hadn’t slept. When it was time to go to the lunchroom, he, as usual, didn’t have enough money, so the food service lady gave him the traditional pathetic milk and crackers. When the bell rang to go back to class, everyone walked out of the cafeteria, but I’d forgotten my lunchbox. I went back to get it, and Jem was digging in the trashcan for leftovers. He never saw me, thank god, because even at that age, he would have hated that. But I remember thinking, maybe he was always in trouble because he was always tired and hungry.”

My stomach soured around my few bites of breakfast as she told the story. “I’ve only had a few encounters with the guy so that doesn’t make me an expert, but I do wonder if this town has judged him too harshly.” For a fleeting second, I was sure I had her joining my side of the Jem Wolfe opinion.

A sharp laugh shot from her mouth. “Like you said, you’ve only had a few encounters. Believe me, he’s owed every harsh opinion. That scar on his chin happened while he was in juvenile hall, or did you forget that little detail?”

Again, disappointment. Her impression of Jem was set in stone, and I wasn’t going to change it. And since she’d known him her whole life, I could only assume she was right.

We cleaned up, changed and stepped out into the brisk morning air. I pulled my jacket tighter around me.

Everly had pulled on a heavy sweatshirt. She looked at my faded denim jacket and shook her head. “That coat is cool, but it’s not going to cut it up at this altitude. Did you bring something else?”

“This is about as winter prepared as my wardrobe gets. We didn’t have much cold weather back home.”

“We’ll have to do something about that soon, or you’ll be freezing your cute little bohemian butt off.”

Aside from thin white clouds, the sky was a crystal blue. The atmosphere over Blackthorn Ridge was so thin and fresh, it almost made you lightheaded just to breathe it in. Wherever your eyes landed, you could find a copse of tall, lush evergreens. “This place must be beautiful in the winter.”

“Sure is. As long as you’re inside by a fire or under a blanket looking out at the scenery. But I can’t complain. I’d rather be up here than down in a smoggy, crowded city.” Her face smoothed, and she drew her lips tight as we reached an intersection.

There was only one vehicle at the stop sign, an old pick-up truck that looked as if it had seen its share of miles on the road. It rumbled loudly as it rolled past. Everly averted her eyes, but my gaze was drawn to the driver. His hair was shaved close to his head and gray beard stubble covered his chin. His dark, angry eyes nearly bore a hole right through me as he rolled slowly past. An unexplained shiver racked my body, and suddenly, the cold outside was nothing compared to the icy feeling in my chest. I startled as the truck roared and sped off.

“Wow, who was that? He looked extremely unfriendly.”

“That, my friend, was Alcott Wolfe, Jem’s dad. And yes, you’re right. Extremely unfriendly.”

We turned the corner. A table of books, bookmarkers and other knick knacks one might find on a shelf sat on the sidewalk in front of Alice in Bookland. I wondered if there were many Blackthorn citizens that frequented the place. We had a bookstore in The Grog that was always crowded. It was sort of a gathering place on Saturdays. From what I’d seen so far, this town didn’t seem very bookish. We reached the shop door, and the place looked empty. I wasn’t terribly surprised.

We stepped inside. There was row after row of old books, their spines neatly lined along each slightly dusty shelf. The books were so tightly packed it was a wonder anyone was able to pull one free. But the most interesting thing about Alice’s Bookland was the fragrance. One would expect the slightly musty smell of yellowing book pages and dried ink. Instead, there was a sweet, fruity aroma that took me a second to recognize.

I looked at Everly. “Is that coconut?”

“Yep. Alice is a big proponent of the health benefits of coconut. And just like the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, Alice uses every part of the coconut—oil, milk, flesh. She even grinds up the shell for her plants.”

With a shop named Alice in Bookland, an obsessive need to collect old stuff and the unexpected ambience of a tropical island, I expected Alice to be one of those eccentric looking older women with brightly dyed red hair and a purple shawl draped around a flamboyant dress. Instead, a stout woman with a tightly bound school teacher’s bun and incredibly smooth pink skin walked out from the backroom.

“Everly, how nice of you to visit.” She walked out from behind her counter. Her one contribution to my earlier vision of the more ‘colorful’ Alice was an apron with the Mad Hatter printed all over it. Her round cheeks were shiny with what I could only guess was coconut oil.

“Hi, Alice, how are you doing?” Everly asked.

“I’m fine, dear, and how’s your mom?”

Aside from the short account of her mom living in a group home for recovering alcoholics, Everly never talked about her. “She’s doing really well. Hopefully she’ll be home for Christmas.”

Alice nodded half-heartedly as if she doubted it. She reached down and took hold of Everly’s scarred hand. “Have you been rubbing coconut oil into these burn scars like I suggested? I think you’d find a significant improvement in the elasticity of your skin.”

Everly tapped her forehead with her free hand. “Keep forgetting. But I’ll definitely give it a try.” Everly shot me a quick eye roll.

Alice looked at me over the metal rims of her glasses. “And who is this?”

Everly reached back and took hold of my arm. “Alice, this is Tashlyn. She’s new in town, and she’s staying with me. She is very interested in looking at old newspaper articles.”

Alice’s oily pink face lit up at the mention of the old newspapers. “Wonderful, a historian. I’ve got papers that date all the way back to the mid fifties.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “But I’m mostly interested in papers from the late nineties.”

Her soft, white eyebrows knitted together. “The 1890’s?”

“Actually, the 1990’s.”

Her brows remained pinched but then she laughed. “I guess for a young person like you, the 1990’s are history. They seem like just yesterday to me. But I’ve got those as well.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to your research,” Everly said. “Afterward, come by the market, and we can have some lunch.”

“Sounds good.”

Everly walked out and I followed Alice down a long corridor that was lined with stacks of magazines. The rich, oily fragrance of coconut swirled around everything. We stepped inside a room where a faded floral print sofa, a coffee table and a fake green fern were completely surrounded by shelves packed with boxes. Each box was labeled with a month and date.

Alice traveled along the shelves and pointed up to a box. “That box with the yellow label is January 1990. That’s where you can start.” She walked farther along the shelf and shook her head as she pushed several boxes back on the shelf. “The 1990’s are popular today,” she mumbled to herself. She pointed to a three tiered stepladder leaned up in the corner of the room. “Be careful when you climb up there. Oh, and watch out for spiders and cockroaches. They love to climb inside the old boxes.”

“I will definitely keep my eyes open for crawly things.”

“I’ll be at the front counter if you need me.” She left with a big grin, taking most of the coconut aroma with her. But it seemed that the fragrance had penetrated everything in the store.

I walked past the first boxes. I was seven and just about to start second grade when my dad died. I remembered it well because instead of returning to my old school with my old friends, I’d had to start a new school near Aunt Carly’s house. Social services had made me go through a doctor’s physical and a series of visits to a lady with rectangular black glasses and a wall aquarium that took up half her office wall. The tiny pink seahorses swimming in the tank almost made the awkward visits to her office bearable. She was always chewing on the end of her pen as we sat and played games and talked. I figured out years later that she’d been a psychologist, but she’d never been able to unlock those lost days from my memory. While there was no real physical evidence of trauma on my body, the doctor had theorized that something so terrifying had happened to me, I’d buried it deep. Aunt Carly had finally stepped in and put an end to the sessions. She decided what I needed most was to feel secure and loved and then everything that was supposed to surface would come out naturally.

I spotted August 1999 on the shelf. Fortunately, it was on top of other boxes. I grabbed the stepladder and climbed up. I sneezed twice from the dust. I pulled the box off the shelf and noticed right away the handprint in the collected grime on the lid of the box. The layer of oily dust seemed consistent with a box that had been untouched on a shelf for sixteen years. But the large handprint looked fresh.

The descent down the rickety stepladder was much harder with an unwieldy box. I reached the floor and carried it to the table. I was never one to run screaming from a room if a spider crawled across the floor, but I made sure to lift the top carefully. The papers were even in order by day, with the first of August right on top. Apparently there had been a small brush fire on the side of the highway the day before, and it had made front page news. That seemed like a perfectly respectable headline for a small town like Blackthorn Ridge, only now, after Everly’s horrifying tale of the missing girls, I knew there was a lot more to the place than an idyllic setting and sawmill.

August 18th. Most of that terrible period of time was a blur, but I knew the date that my dad died. It had been etched on the small marble plaque they put on his marker in the mausoleum. The fire in the truck had been so complete and consuming, there were hardly any remains left to bury. Several of his coworkers, truckers for the same company, had made the burial arrangements. The rest of the details were smeared away with the lost chunk of time.

I paused for just a second to gain my composure and then thumbed down through the pile to the eighteenth. I pulled it out. It wasn’t front page news. The story that had grabbed the headline was the arrival of several federal agents who had been newly assigned to the missing girl cases. I looked closer at the faded yellow photo. Two men in severe black suits were shaking hands with another man. I glanced down at the picture caption. The other man in the picture was Mayor Landon Gregory. On closer inspection, it was easy to see that it was, indeed, Everly’s uncle.

I flipped through the pages and saw no mention of a death on Phantom Curve. Then it occurred to me that the paper had probably been printed in the early hours of the eighteenth. I needed the nineteenth. I reached back inside and grabbed the next paper. It was the twentieth. There was a short mention of the clean-up of charred debris from the truck, but there had to be more. I looked through the entire stack. The nineteenth was the only paper missing.

I could hear Alice singing along with the radio and decided she wasn’t too busy with customers for a quick question. She had her elbow on the counter as she perused a magazine. She looked up. “I don’t know where my manners are. Would you like some coffee while you look through the papers? Just be careful not to spill.”

“I’m fine, thanks. I had breakfast before Everly and I walked over here.” I walked to the counter. “Alice, I was looking for a specific newspaper, and it’s not where it should be. Is there someplace else—”

“No, dear, you must have just missed it. Every paper is in place. Let’s go look.” She glanced back at me as I followed her down the narrow corridor. “You certainly are a pretty little thing. And that complexion. You should rub coconut oil into your skin every night. You’ll be glad when you’re my age.” She chuckled as she stepped into the newspaper room. “Now, let’s see where that paper is.”

I led her to the box on the table. “I was looking specifically for the paper from August 19th, 1999.”

She leaned into the box and flipped through each paper reciting the dates as she went through the stack. “August 18th, August 20th.” She paused and went back through and then to the bottom. She straightened and looked genuinely puzzled and a little upset about the missing paper. She glanced around the room as if the paper might just have flown from the box unseen.

BOOK: Sinful Suspense Box Set
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