Chelsea Krakowski drove her yellow Volkswagen Jetta up the steep and muddy gravel driveway. She sighed with relief once she reached the end of it and parked. Her Aunt Pat’s old house loomed off to the right, built two stories tall despite the expanse of the land, the paint peeling from its wooden shingles. On the driver’s side, thick green brush grew wild wherever the rocky hillside had allowed it purchase, a marked contrast with the deep red of the leaves that were still on the trees.
She’d been warned the house was not in the best of shape. Then again, her sister-in-law, Jacey, had even claimed the place was haunted. Under the terms of her aunt’s will, the house would have belonged to her brother if he had lived there for one year. Arnold and Jacey had lasted a week and come running back to the suburbs, at which point, by the will, the house became Chelsea’s, but it had been several months before she’d been able to get the key and the deed. After Jacey’s story about the ghost, dutifully backed up by Arnold and both of their “high-spirited” children, Chelsea figured they’d have told her pretty much anything to dissuade her from taking possession. But she didn’t need to live in the house to own it; Pat’s will didn’t have any such provision for the property once it reverted to her. She could even sell it if she wanted to, but she had looked forward to the idea of living in a pastoral setting, writing in blessed solitude.
She was beginning to have second thoughts.
She stepped out of the car, breathed in the fresh air, and the second thoughts were briefly dispelled. She grabbed her jacket from the shotgun seat. It was cooler out in the foothills of the Blue Ridge than it was in the DC suburbs, just enough so to make a difference. Still, it was a relatively warm day for early November, a nice break after a couple of days of cold rain.
She tromped around to the back of the house and surveyed her property. What once had been Pat’s farm had a year’s growth of weeds on it. She could still make out the depressions marking the place where rows of crops--corn, soy?--once stood. She had no idea. She didn’t know much about farming. She did know she’d inherited a hell of a backyard to mow. She’d have to get one of those tractor mowers or pay someone to take care of it for her once she’d gotten rid of the weeds and planted grass seed. There was a shed too to investigate later. What looked like it might be a bed frame leaned against it. Jacey had told her the shed was full of black widows and brown recluses, but then again Jacey had told her the house was haunted.
Chelsea walked back to the front, congratulating herself on having had the good foresight to wear hiking boots instead of her usual tennis shoes, even though they looked particularly clunky with her midlength blue flower print dress. Jeans would have been more practical, but she hated how she looked in jeans, and she wanted to make a good first impression with the neighbors. She needn’t have worried. From out back, she could see a few neighboring farms built on the flat, and any neighboring dwellings were blocked from view by trees. Privacy, just like she wanted.
She noticed with slight annoyance the splatters of mud on the recently washed Jetta and marched up the steps with determination. She wasn’t backing down just because of a few inconveniences. She’d drink sweet tea during the day on the big front porch, typing away on her laptop, and celebrate the better days with a peach julep in the evening.
They creaked. Loudly. But the porch itself was solid enough. It just needed a fresh coat of white paint. The house was old, she knew, built sometime in the nineteenth century. The porch was made of wood and fit nicely, but she presumed it wasn’t that old. How long did a wooden porch last? She’d find out the house’s history if she could. Those kinds of things fascinated her. Maybe there was a local paper with a back file to go through, or perhaps it would take a trip to the county historical society.
She tried the key in the lock, and it didn’t fit. For a moment she thought perhaps Arnold had given her the wrong key on purpose, but then she remembered she had two, and one of them supposedly went to the shed out back. She tried the other one. It turned perfectly.
It looked gloomy inside, but with the curtains shut and no lights on, that wasn’t too surprising. She walked inside and over to the large window in front and pulled open the curtains, strands of dust from them falling onto her hair and shoulders. She coughed a couple times and then smiled. The window let in a fair amount of natural light, enough to read by if she put a couch near it.
She scanned the room. It was completely bare. The floors were good--solid oak, she thought--and the inside walls were hard plaster. But the terms of the will had been quite clear--“the house and everything in it”--and somehow she rather doubted that Aunt Pat had lived her life completely without furniture. Given that the windows were in good shape, and a thief probably wouldn’t bother to lock the door behind himself, it seemed her brother and his wife had taken the chance to make some quick money.
This was the first time she’d been to her aunt’s house; her parents had never gone to visit, although she’d been taken to other relatives more distant both in relation and geography. Chelsea felt bad she hadn’t gone once she’d become an adult either. She’d met her aunt three times--twice at family reunions, and once at Chelsea’s own wedding. The last event was the only one she was sure Pat had been invited to--and what a disaster that had been. Actually the wedding had gone off without a hitch; the disaster was the next ten months until the divorce. Ralph had a law degree and had actually attempted to get alimony from her when they broke up, as if he couldn’t earn plenty if he’d been willing to work. She earned enough money from writing the Cat Connors mysteries to support herself but not any extra to spare for a lazy ex-husband.
He hadn’t even been any good in bed. He’d been good-looking and charming, and that was about it.
Something smelled up ahead, and she had a bad feeling about it. Sure enough, it was coming from the kitchen. An open pizza box sat on top of the range. It had probably been there for months. Ugh
. She looked for the light switch and flicked it on. To her surprise, the bulb lit up nicely. She’d called ahead to get the electricity turned on, but given the living room, she’d half expected to find the bulbs missing or burned out. At least one worked. There weren’t a ton of insects running around either, although a little blur of white scurried for cover in a crack between the oven and the wall. She’d take mice over cockroaches any day. Hopefully she could find some humane traps in the local hardware store, wherever that was.
She decided she wasn’t feeling quite up to checking out the refrigerator. She had the essentials--milk, cheese, butter--on ice in her car, and they’d certainly last a few more hours out there.
The lack of furniture in the living room had surprised her to the point where she hadn’t really felt like she was inside. A sequence of muddy boot tracks on her oak floor showed her otherwise. She took the boots off in the kitchen and decided the tile was actually a better place for them than inside the front doorway. She’d walk them over when she went back to the car to get her stuff. Her thick socks, she decided, would be enough to protect her from any surprises the rest of Aunt Pat’s house held.
Well, my house wouldn’t have an old pizza lying around.
She grabbed the box, wondering how much of a meal had been left for the mice by her relatives, and half crushed, half folded it into a shape that would fit in the trash can.
Opening the trash can was a mistake; it smelled worse than the pizza box. But there was a plastic bag in it, so Chelsea pinched the bag closed over the box and tied it shut. Behind the kitchen was a little pantry, thankfully devoid of ancient food, and through that was a back door. She opened the back door and tossed the bag out of the house into the weeds. She’d have to find out when garbage got picked up--they did pick up garbage out here, didn’t they? She couldn’t see any larger, outdoor trash cans, but she’d do some searching later. Right now, that bag needed to be out of the house because a gas mask was not one of the things she’d packed her Jetta full of.
Shutting the door between her and the bag, she took a deep breath. The air definitely wasn’t fresh, but it was at least marginally better. As much as her instincts told her otherwise, she knew the bag wasn’t going to march right back into the house on its own, so she opened the pantry door again. The place needed to air out, badly. The mustiness was getting to her.
She opened the front door too.
Ah. Much better.
There was one other room to explore on the first level. The dining room table, a bare butcher-block kind of affair, was still there. It bore a few stains, and the corners were rounded more from wear than design, but it had thick legs and looked very sturdy. It must weigh a ton, thought Chelsea. And probably has no resale value, which was why
it was still there. Nonetheless it was very serviceable and would even look nice once she had a tablecloth on it. There was a cabinet for dishes as well--empty, no big surprise there. Some built-in shelves that might have held knickknacks were bare. She didn’t know whether Aunt Pat’s things had been sold off or simply dumped to be replaced with Jacey’s stuff when her brother’s family had moved in. She shrugged. Her aunt had always been a bit of a mystery, and Chelsea would have liked to have known more.
A loud thump
and a crash interrupted Chelsea’s thoughts. The sound came from upstairs. What or who was making that kind of noise?
She froze, unsure of what to do next. Cat Connors would never have hesitated, she thought.
Against her better judgment, Chelsea went to investigate. She’d have called someone to go with her if she’d known anyone, but since the house clearly hadn’t been entered for a while, she decided she’d be safe enough alone, even though she didn’t feel
The upper floor had some furniture, although there wasn’t a bed in any of the bedrooms so her sleeping bag was definitely going to come in handy. Even if there’d been a bed, she wouldn’t have used it with all the dust. Her allergies were going to be in enough trouble as it was, until she got Pat's house cleaned up. Some of the plaster in what had probably been the children’s room for a week looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to it, and she wouldn’t have been surprised if that was exactly what had happened. Chunks of white were still on the floor, along with a fine white dust. She didn’t see anything that would explain the crash, however, until she got to the master bedroom.
A canvas in a dark wooden frame lay facedown on the floor. A tarnished wire was strung across the back, and a hook was in the wall above it. Why it had chosen to fall down right when she was in the house, she didn’t know. Maybe something she had done downstairs had shaken the walls just enough. She shrugged. That didn’t make sense to her, but she didn’t have a better explanation.
She bent down to pick it up when she noticed something else. The dust was disturbed on the floor in a little line leading from the closet door, which was ajar. More mice? There weren’t little footprints, though, and the tracks looked really fresh. More like something had been dragged. Something, say, the thickness of the picture frame.
Chelsea gave a nervous chuckle, which she cut off when the laugh sounded a bit too eerie in the silence. There were no footprints of a picture frame dragger. Cat would know just what to make of it, but she wasn’t Cat. She propped the picture up against the plaster wall, took a look, and raised her eyebrows.
The picture was done in the pre-Raphaelite style. The lush greenery of an idyllic garden surrounded two women, both of whom were naked, although their arms and the scenery were strategically placed to avoid the glimpse of a nipple. One of the women was sitting on a marble bench, her body twisted to look at the other, who was standing behind a wall that came to her waist, leaning forward so that her lips almost touched the lips of the other woman. It was well done--and the sort of thing that would offend the hell out of her homophobic brother Arnold, who was convinced that every time a woman held hands with another they were lesbians and needed to get a room. If he’d sold the living room furniture, he certainly could have found a market for the painting. She couldn’t imagine him leaving it hanging in the bedroom.
She lifted it up and put it back in place. A little bit of nudging and the hook in the wall found a worn spot in the wire where it balanced just right. Brother or no brother, the picture certainly belonged there. Had it been her aunt’s? It wasn’t really Chelsea’s sort of thing, but if it were Pat’s, she’d leave it there for a while.
There was a sound below that echoed--she couldn’t quite make out what it was. She listened. This time it was clearer; a man yelling, “Hello.” She hurried downstairs.
She didn’t know what the man was doing there, but his shoulders sure did fill the doorway nicely. She stared at him for a while, taking in random details. Tanned skin. Long, silky dark brown hair well past his shoulders. No man should have hair like that. But he most definitely wasn’t a girl. The top two buttons on his brown flannel shirt were unbuttoned, and his cuffs were rolled up above his elbows. His hands were big. His forearms were thick. She decided she better say something when she found herself wondering if he was big and thick all over.
“Hello?” It turned into a question because she’d totally lost track of what she should say.
“Trent Johnston, ma’am.” His voice was slow and twangy. To her ear he did sound a bit thick, and not in the way she’d briefly fantasized about. He didn’t enter but did put out his hand, which meant that she had to get off the stairs and cross the living room floor. He just held it there until she was ready to take it and give it a shake. He had a good, firm handshake--he didn’t baby her hand but didn’t move any bones around inside it either.
“Chelsea Krakowski,” she told him.
He nodded, apparently satisfied to hear the name. “Pat’s niece.” Pat was her mother’s older sister and had never married, so she had been a Palmer, but Chelsea shared her brother’s last name. She doubted Pat had ever mentioned her name, so that must be how he figured it out. The fact that he was on a first-name basis with her aunt caught her interest, though.
“I was just checkin’ up. I was afraid you were a squatter. Glad to see you belong.” His gaze swept the living room and then looked back up at her. “You’ve got mud on her floor.”
floor, she thought, but she didn’t really feel it. “Yeah. I’m going to clean it up real soon, I just--well, there was this smell coming from the kitchen, and I kinda forgot myself.”
Trent raised a thick eyebrow. She could never do that--her eyebrows insisted on moving up or down in concert. She found it vaguely annoying. Who was he to judge, anyway? But she really did feel dreadfully sloppy not to have taken her boots off. All Jacey’s talk about hauntings and spiders, and Arnold’s comments about dangerously bad construction had made her feel less like she was entering a house and more like she was exploring. One didn’t go around exploring in one’s socks.
“Mind if I come in?”
She hesitated. It seemed inhospitable to say no. Back home she’d never have let a strange man get her alone in her apartment, but if he posed a threat, she was already in trouble. The house was shielded from the road, and he could walk in whether she said yes or no if he really wanted to.
He took his boots off first, left them outside. He peeled off his socks too and stuffed them inside the boots.
“You’ll want a mat inside, because your shoes are gonna get muddy a lot.”
She’d figured that out. “Well.”
He looked around. “Pat’s nephew took the furniture?”
“My brother. Yes, I think so. Just some of it.”
“She had nice stuff in her living room, real fine. I think it was mostly Joann’s doing. She liked everything to be nice for guests.”
Joann. The woman who lived with Pat, as she was called in family conversation when anyone talked about her at all. Chelsea had wondered before, but seeing the picture upstairs made her think that Joann had probably been a bit more than just a housemate. “You knew my aunt well?”
Trent shrugged. “I knew ’em, I guess, as well as anyone. They kept to themselves mostly, but they’d have me over for dinner now and then when they wanted some extra help in the yard or somethin’. The last year Pat needed help keepin’ the garden goin’ out back, but she wouldn’t take as much help as she needed. Joann was a bit more practical.” He looked at her, looking a bit uncertain for the first time since she’d seen him. “No offense meant,” he added. He sounded sincere, which in her experience wasn’t usual when people said that.
Chelsea shook her head. “None taken. I never got to meet Joann, and I didn’t know Aunt Pat all that well. It’s...nice to hear from someone who knew them.”
“She hoped you’d come visit someday.”
Chelsea remembered when she was twelve and the one family reunion. Her mother clearly wanted her to have nothing to do with Pat, so of course she’d hung out with her every chance she could. Pat had told her she could come visit any time she wanted, but it hadn’t been true because her mother wouldn’t let her. When she’d gotten older, she’d written letters a few times every year, but Pat had never made the invitation again. The last few years, she’d only managed a Christmas card. She’d pretty much given up writing anyone real letters. Everyone had e-mail.
Perhaps after all the family rejection, the one invitation had been as much as Pat had been up to offering. Shit.
“You look like I just shot your dog. I’m sorry.” He closed the distance between them, putting his hand on her shoulder. He smelled like earth and man, heavy but not unpleasant. Chelsea almost leaned up against him.
He took his hand away. “Your aunt thought the world of you.”
For what? A few letters? Had she been that lonely? Apart from Joann. That last year alone must have been incredibly rough on her.
“She was pretty cool,” Chelsea said. It wasn’t much of a eulogy, but she meant it.
Trent chuckled. “Yeah, she was at that. You have any other questions, just ask ’em, and I’ll be glad to answer.”
She felt like a bitch for asking what she wanted to know. She had no right, really, to expect anything from Aunt Pat, certainly not her house. But it had bugged her for a year. “Why’d she leave the house to my brother first?”
Trent looked at her for a moment and then finally shrugged. “Pat thought the house was haunted and that the ghost would give him a good scare. I’m afraid she didn’t much care for anyone in her family but you. She was a good woman, but...she’d been nursing a desire for revenge for a long time. People are complex.”
Chelsea’s mind whirled. She quickly revised her opinion of Trent--he wasn’t the country bumpkin she thought he was. People are complex indeed. The rest he’d said was hard to take in too, but she finally settled on one thought. “She thought the house was haunted?”
“But you don’t.”
Trent smiled. “I never saw any sign of it. Pat said she had the ghost housebroken, and she’d kinda smile. Joann believed in it too. They didn’t make up stuff, as a rule. But ghosts?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I try not to have opinions on stuff I don’t know nothin’ about.”
“Ghosts don’t exist,” Chelsea stated. And they certainly don’t drag paintings across the floor.
Trent just looked at her for a moment, letting her statement hang in the air. When he finally spoke, he changed the subject. “You’ll need some help out back. If it’s okay with you, I’ll come by tomorrow, bright and early.”
“Um, sure. And thank you. I’m, um, not much of a cook, but I’ll manage something.”
“Need help unloading your car?”
She didn’t really want him to leave. The place seemed warmer with him there, or maybe it was just her who felt warmer. Definitely safer, although Cat Connors never needed a man for anything but a little relief, and it was pretty silly to be scared of a house. “No, um, I’m good.”
He stepped back on the porch. “Nice to meet you, ma’am. Chelsea.”
“Nice to meet you too, Trent.”
She watched, feeling a bit awkward, as he pulled his socks and boots back on. He nodded to her once more and turned to go to his truck. His jeans were tight, faded, and worn.
Nice ass, thought Chelsea.
She had some towels out in her car in one of the boxes she’d brought. Cleaning up the mess she’d made was her next priority, and then she’d move her stuff in and make the place more like home.
She’d cleaned up the mud, placed fresh towels in the bathroom, unrolled her sleeping bag in the master bedroom, tossed her suitcase in next to it, shelved a box full of books in the room with the broken plaster, and set up her laptop on an ancient and battered rolltop desk there when she heard a knock. She resolved to sweep in the morning and hoped her sinuses didn’t suffer too much for the procrastination.
She hurried down the stairs.
The man in her doorway this time was thinner than the first one but just as well built. Where Trent was round muscles, this guy was sleek lines. Short hair, almost a buzz cut. Square jaw. Black jeans, newish, and a deep green quick-dry shirt that hugged his torso.
There was a box of chocolates in his hand.
“Good evening, neighbor!”
Was it evening already? It was getting a little dark out--she’d turned the lights on upstairs without really realizing why. Her tummy rumbled to remind her that it was indeed evening, and the cooler and the microwave still hadn’t been brought in. Maybe she’d just eat chocolate.
“I’m Dalton Cornick. I’m just down the road. Thought I’d welcome you to Selby.” He looked around. “Looks like you just got here.”
“Yep, just moved in today. Um, I’m Chelsea Krakowski.”
“Ah. I met your brother.” His voice was flat, carefully neutral.
“I’m sorry,” she said and laughed.
Dalton chuckled politely, then handed her the box of chocolates. “Well, I don’t want to disturb you.”
“Oh, you’re not disturbing me. And, um, thanks for the sweets. That’s very thoughtful.”
“All part of being a good neighbor. Listen, if you need any help with anything--I know the house has been abandoned for a while, isn’t in the best of shape. I’m handy with plastering, electrical, plumbing. You name it.” He handed her a card with his number on it.
“Well, so far so good,” said Chelsea. The toilet flushed, the sink ran hot and cold and didn’t leak, and her laptop was charging nicely upstairs. Turning the utilities on ahead of time had worked pretty well.
“A few more months and you’d have had problems with pipes freezing and bursting.”
“Probably wouldn’t hurt to check them over.”
Dalton sure didn’t sound much like Trent. He sounded, well, more like someone from the city. Maybe he’d been in the army once upon the time, with that haircut. An accent could change with some world travel.
“I’ll run water everywhere,” Chelsea said and then remembered something her dad always did. “And I’ll find the shutoff valves for the pipes that go outside for the hoses.”
Dalton nodded. “I can do that for you if you like.”
Chelsea thought of something else. “And there is a wall that’s a bit messed up, upstairs.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
Dalton was very hard to read. His expression gave nothing away. She wasn’t sure whether that was more annoying than being able to twitch just one eyebrow up or not. If he was offering to do work, however, and she was going to take him up on it, letting him take a look seemed like the right thing to do.
The room with the divot out of the plaster was the same one she’d set her laptop up in. It would make a nice study. In her condo, she did most of her work in the living room, which was great, but it was too easy to decide to crash out on the couch or watch television when she felt uninspired. The upstairs room looked like it had good light, and she intended to keep it free from distractions.
“You have some books in already,” he noted, nodding at the shelves. She’d vainly brought up a collection of her own books, thinking it would make her feel at home. She had Elements of Style
and an unabridged dictionary, as well as a few romances and mysteries that were on her to be read list.
“And a computer. Computers are great.” He went over and looked at the wounded wall. “I can fix that. Will take maybe a week after that before I can paint it. You like the color of this room?”
The walls were mauve. “Not especially.”
“What color would you like it?”
“I can handle the painting,” Chelsea said with a smile. I’m not completely helpless.
Dalton shrugged. “Suit yourself. I can be over tomorrow sometime to fix your wall. The sooner I patch it, the sooner you can paint.”
Tomorrow. Trent was coming over tomorrow. Part of her thought it would be awfully nice to have Trent all to herself. For that matter, Dalton was something of a looker too, even if a bit distant. Distance could change. Staggering them had its possibilities.
She shook her head. She hadn’t had sex in a long time, and now she was planning to screw half the town? It was probably safest to have both men around at the same time, actually. “Tomorrow would be good.”
“I’ll come over after lunch, then?”
He smiled. “Excellent.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets but didn’t make any move to go.
In the awkward silence, her tummy reminded her uncomfortably that she was hungry. She could offer him one of her microwave meals, but she only had enough to last her for a couple days, and she didn’t even know where the grocery store was yet. There was so much to do.
The silence was broken by a shriek.
Sindra van Yssel