Copyright © 2009 Allie Boniface
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Summer stared at the solid silver container holding her father’s remains. Funny. She’d always pictured someone’s ashes preserved in some kind of fancy urn. Something sculpted or carved. Something meaningful. Dignified. Instead, Hope Memorial Services, following Ronald Thompson’s wishes, had sealed his remains in a six-by-eight-inch metal box, which now sat in the center of Joe Bernstein’s desk.
She pushed the rest of her father’s life into a large manila envelope and slid back her chair. “I’m finished.”
“You’re sure you don’t—”
“Joe.” She held up one hand, fingers ringless and well manicured. “No. I don’t need anything else.” Except to get out of Pine Point as soon as possible. She smoothed her suit jacket and brushed the ridge of the engraved business card holder deep in her pocket.
Summer Thompson, Chief Curator, Bay City Museum of History. Knowing the words were there, close to her skin, brought relief. She could do this. After a brief look at the house and a meeting or two with a local realtor, she could hop a plane back home to San Francisco. Within the museum walls, her world made sense. She could catalog the lives of other people and draw conclusions about long-gone civilizations. She could organize press conferences, plan exhibit openings, and design educational seminars for the local schoolchildren.
Outside those walls? She lost her voice. She lost her grip. She couldn’t puzzle together the last decade or fit together the fragments of her own life. And she damn well couldn’t say the word father or utter the word dad. Ronald Thompson hadn’t been one to her in over ten years. She pulled out her cell phone to check her messages.
“Actually, there’s something else we have to talk about before you go.”
“Sorry?” She pulled her attention back to Joseph Bernstein, the elderly, craggy-faced lawyer she’d known since childhood.
“I know you’re planning on selling the place—”
“Of course I am. I don’t know why he left it to me in the first place.” My father did what? Willed me the McCready estate? She’d grown dizzy with the news, now almost a week old. Kids in town called the three-story mansion haunted and avoided it on their way to school. Teenagers broke into it, leaving empty beer cans and used condoms on its dusty floors. Adults ignored it, driving by its thick hedgerow without so much as a glance at the craggy black rooftop that speared the sky. Now it belonged to her in a nightmare she had yet to awaken from.
“…but that isn’t going to be as easy as you might think.”
“Selling it? Why not?” She glanced through the paperwork on the desk between them. “Is there some kind of lien? A problem with the property?” Please, God, no.
“Not really.” He waited a moment before continuing. “But there’s an old farmhouse on the back acre that your father rented out. Family’s been living there for a couple of years now.”
She put her phone away again. “You’re kidding me. So if I sell, I’m a schmuck who’s throwing someone out of their home.”
“Just wanted you to know.”
“Well, can I sell it with some kind of contingency? Let the renters stay on?”
“Sure, you could talk to the realtor about that. Might make it harder to find a buyer, though.”
Great. Summer shifted in her chair.
“Mac Herbert’s doing the repairs on the place,” Joe said after a pause. “You remember him? Went to school around the same time as you.”
“He’s got a young guy, new in town, helping him out. Damian Knight. He and his family are the ones renting the farmhouse.”
“Wait—they’re still working on the house? Who’s paying them?” She hadn’t expected the place to be in the throes of renovation.
“Your father made arrangements. Left a checking account with enough money to cover materials and labor.”
“Really?” Every day revealed a new surprise, another piece of information she didn’t know about her father. One week and she was already exhausted with the effort of trying to make sense of them.
The white-haired man leaned forward on his elbows. “You want ’em to stop? We can list the place as is.”
She shook her head. “I don’t—I guess I’ll have to go out and see before I say one way or the other.” She knew nothing about selling houses or about renovations that might or might not make a difference to potential buyers. One more thing to think about. Terrific.
“And you’re sure you don’t want to do a memorial service, or…”
“No.” What on earth would she say to people? Who would come to such a thing? She hadn’t spoken to her father in ten years, since the accident. Everyone in town knew that. If they came, they’d only stare. “He’s the one who chose cremation,” she added. No headstone in the local cemetery, even though—
She stopped the thought before it could turn into something ugly. Don’t come back here, Ronald Thompson had grunted into the phone years ago. No reason. Don’t want to see ya. So she hadn’t. “No service,” she repeated.
Joe reached over and squeezed her hand. He still wore the thick gold ring she remembered, encrusted with his initials and those of Yale Law School. “Sweetheart, don’t rush. Take some time to think things through.” He paused. “I’m worried about you.”
Summer lifted her purse onto her shoulder. “Don’t be.” The manila envelope went into her briefcase. She adjusted the clip holding her midnight-black hair away from her face, then tucked the box of ashes under one arm.
He tented his fingers together. “How long’re you staying?”
“I’m not sure. A few days, I guess. I’ll go look at the house now, do what I need to tomorrow. Can’t stay any longer than a week.” She had museum exhibits coming in. A fundraising meeting the following Tuesday and an interview with the local paper the Thursday after that.
She couldn’t put the rest of her life on hold just because her father had chosen June fifteenth to die.
June fifteenth. Tears rose in her eyes before she could stop them. God, the irony of it might have just about killed her if she’d let herself think about it for longer than a few seconds.
“You’ll call me before you leave?”
Summer paused, one hand on the door. “You know I’m too old for you to worry about, right?”
The sixty-year-old rose, all knees and elbows inside a navy suit that hung the wrong way on his angular frame. “Never. Your father—”
Is dead, she wanted to say. She squared her shoulders. And I don’t feel any sadder today than I did all those years ago when he sent me away from Pine Point. For a moment, an eighteen-year-old with flyaway hair, bright blue eyes and a stomach full of grief reared up in her memory.
“I’ll call you later,” she said instead, before Joe could say anything about finding serenity or forgiving or remembering the good times. She had gotten enough pity and prayers from the flower arrangements and sympathy cards that arrived in the mail. She thought she’d about drown in other people’s tears. Death erased things, she wanted to tell all the well-wishers. It didn’t preserve them, and it sure didn’t peel back the edges of ten years of pain so you could examine it all over again. Death, expected or not, allowed people to move on. In fact, it forces us to. Why was she the only one who understood that?
She leaned on the heavy glass door of the Bernstein, Lowery and Samuels law office and gritted her teeth. She didn’t want to walk down Pine Point’s Main Street to the corner lot where she’d parked her rental car. She didn’t want her designer heels to catch in the cracked sidewalk by Evie’s Parlor, where the tree roots always came up, and she didn’t want to get caught at the only red light in town while Ollie at the corner station pumped gas and whistled at her.
But neither could she stay in this office one more minute. Outside, at least, the sunlight might blind her enough to keep the ghosts from taking up residence inside her head again.
Mac pulled his arm across his forehead, already damp with exertion. “She’s coming to check out the house. I heard last night.”
“Summer Thompson. Ron’s daughter.”
Ah, the new owner. Damian leaned against the porch railing and scratched his head. “Guess you owe me twenty bucks, then.”
Mac grinned. “Yeah. You called it right.”
“I knew she would. No one’d be able to sell a place without even lookin’ at it.” He stuck his hammer into his tool belt, slung low across his waist. “What’s she like?”
Mac took a long pull on his soda and thought for a minute. Lunch lay scattered on the steps around them, and he eyed a second sandwich before answering. “Christ, it’s been a long time…”
“Not that long. And this town isn’t that big. I’m betting you remember something.”
“It’s been ten years. Long enough. Lotta people have come and gone.”
“You went to school with her, though, right?”
Mac nodded and reached for another can of soda. He cocked his head. “Actually, she was pretty cute back then.”
“Kept to herself a lot, but yeah. Hot body, pretty face… Hey, quit hogging the chips.” He grabbed the bag from beside Damian and dumped the crumbs into his mouth.
“Why’d she leave town?”
Mac busied himself with collecting cans and tossing them into a cardboard box. “Long story.”
“C’mon. Fill me in.”
The burly man shrugged. “Her little brother died in a car accident, week or so after she graduated from high school. Boyfriend was driving.” He shook his head. “Damn awful thing. Her father sent her off to live with an aunt somewhere near Chicago. She never came back after that.”
Damian whistled. “Guess I’m surprised she bothered now.”
Mac stood with a grunt, one hand on his lower back. “Be too bad if she decides to sell the place, huh?”
He stared. “You know that house of yours is part of her property, right?”
Damian dug one heel into the ground. Shit. How had he forgotten? The farmhouse was a rental because they didn’t have the money to buy a place outright. They never had. And his mother had just finished decorating it the way she liked. He slammed the porch step with a fist and swore aloud.
“Maybe she’ll divide the property, sell the farmhouse to you.”
“Yeah.” And maybe pigs would get up on their hind legs and dance.
“Sorry, man.” Mac clapped a hand onto Damian’s shoulder. “Not a done deal, though. Talk to her when she gets here.” He swiped a hand over his mouth. “If it doesn’t work out, I got a cousin with a couple of rental places over in Silver Valley. You want her number, lemme know.”
Damian nodded without answering. Despite the sun that scattered its rays over everything in sight, the afternoon had turned glum. He glanced over his shoulder at the mountains that rose just beyond the roofline of the McCready house.
About fifty miles west of the New York-Massachusetts border, Pine Point hovered at the base of the Adirondack Mountains. To most people, it was only an exit off the interstate, a stop halfway between Albany and Syracuse where you could get some gas or a burger before continuing on to more interesting destinations. According to the locals, Pine Point got too much snow in the winter and not enough sun in the summer. Nine thousand people, give or take, made their blue-collar lives here, and about the only thing they seemed to like about the place were the ridges that surrounded it and caught the light at sundown.
Damian didn’t care about any of that. He only knew that Pine Point had given his mother and sister a place to escape, a chance for a new life, and for that he’d been grateful. Now it looked as though the ground beneath them was about to be pulled away once more.
Summer nosed her rental car, a white Mustang convertible, onto Main Street.
Fifteen years ago Pine Point had installed its first and only traffic light. Now she could see that they’d added another, past the library. Slowing for the red, she braked and looked around. A few changes, not many. The town had some new stores, the roads were in better shape and the city limits reached out a little farther. In the distance she caught a glimpse of a new housing development dotting what she remembered as farmland with paved roads and sprawling homes.
The light changed and a pickup truck behind her tooted twice. Raising her hand in acknowledgement, Summer squinted into the rearview mirror. Sure enough, she recognized the face at the wheel of the blue Dodge Ram. Back in high school, Billy Watkins had been the leader of the Pits, a group of kids who skipped every class except gym and lunch and spent their days smoking out by the baseball fields. True to form, the Billy of today clenched a cigarette in his teeth and puffed with a vengeance as he turned the wheel and headed away from her.
She readjusted clammy hands on the steering wheel and wondered who else she’d see. She hadn’t left any close friends behind except Rachael Hunter. Everything and everyone else had pretty much faded with the years. Thank God. A new café at the end of the block surprised her, and the sign above Alan Bros. Upholstery had a fresh coat of paint. She slowed for a gaggle of prepubescent girls who skipped across the street and disappeared into Doug’s Dairy De-Lite. So far, so good. No bad memories. As long as she stayed on this side of town, it should stay that way.
But then her car slipped past the block of stores and neared Pine Point Central School, and against her will memories shimmered inside her head. A wide, white smile, broad shoulders that filled out a football jersey in all the right ways, a warm mouth that moved its way with painful, perfect slowness down her neck. She swallowed. Hard. With little effort, she could almost see Gabe Roberts again—eighteen, baby-faced and handsome enough to bring a lump to her throat. Bare skin against hers. Lips murmuring promises into the small of her back.
His voice, too high and panicked. His hand tugging at hers. Shrieking tires and metal thundering against metal. Moonlight and blood and then, finally, darkness. Gabe had been there the night everything changed.
Summer’s jaw snapped shut and she bit the inside of her cheek. Stop it. It happened forever ago. And it wasn’t your fault, anyway.
A car backfired as she reached the end of Main Street. Here the houses spread farther apart and the sidewalks vanished. She took a deep breath and eased the Mustang to the side of the road. To her right, a hundred yards away, a wall of thick green shrubbery rose up, parted in the middle by a broken sidewalk. Spires shot into the air above the trees, and a lump grew in her throat. All thoughts of Gabe Roberts vanished in the shadow of the McCready house—monstrous, terrifying and all hers.
“Oh my God.” The words fell from Summer’s mouth before she could stop them, and the steering wheel grew rubbery in her grip.
In front of her sat the McCready estate, larger and more imposing than she remembered. And more run-down, from the looks of it. Three stories skewered the sky, topped by cupolas and a widow’s walk. The two upper floors boasted crumbling balconies, and ivy obscured many of the windows along the ground floor. A worn, chipped sidewalk led up to the porch, which extended the entire length of the house and wrapped around both sides. Beside it oaks and elms thrust their laden arms upward. According to the deed, the estate included five acres of property with the two-story farmhouse out back as well.
The rental house. Where that family lives. The pit in her stomach grew. Even after his death, Ronald Thompson hadn’t managed to make things easy on her. “Couldn’t just leave me a place I could put on the market right away, could you?” Summer closed her eyes for a moment and tried to summon strength. When she opened them again, she felt better. A little.
Through the hedges that separated the property from the street, she spied piles of lumber and building supplies strewn about the yard. Well, her lawyer had been right about that—the workers were definitely here and definitely in the middle of things. It looked as though a few trees had been trimmed and the roof replaced, but that only made the peeling paint and cracked windows look more pathetic. A lonely house, three times bigger than the one she’d grown up in, and it waited for her with empty, echoing rooms.
Oh, Dad. What the hell were you thinking?
She glanced at her watch and climbed from the car. Part of her—most of her—wanted to hop on a plane and fly straight back to the other side of the country. Out there, she knew who to trust and who to avoid. She had an apartment, a career, a routine to fill her days. And high school lay tucked away in a neat row of photo albums on the top shelf of her closet.
“Ow! Dammit, Damian, watch it—what the—”
Well, the men were still here, anyway. Maybe she could talk to Mac and his assistant about what the place needed and how much she could expect to get if they stopped renovations right now.
Summer followed the sidewalk through the hedges and scraped both bare arms on her way through. A trickle of blood appeared on her elbow and she wiped it away. Mental note: at least have them trim these suckers. As she pushed her way into the front yard, the walk ended and she tripped over rough ground. And fix the sidewalk too. Wouldn’t do to have potential buyers lining up at the emergency room after taking a tour of the place.
“Hello?” Despite the scaffolding propped against the front of the house and the tools scattered everywhere, the grounds seemed vacated. _I just heard them_… “Mac?”
“I thought I said—”
She looked up. There, along the roofline, stood two men. The head on the right bobbed up and down. A thick arm jabbed skyward for emphasis. She smiled as she recognized the bushy-haired, no-necked running back from Pine Point High’s football team. She shaded her eyes. Next to Mac, another head with lighter hair caught gold from the sun. She didn’t recognize it.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Well…” Mac’s voice faded, and Summer couldn’t hear the rest of his reprimand.
She cupped her hands around her mouth and sent up another greeting. For a moment no one responded. Then both men leaned over the edge of the roof and stared down at her.
The man wiped his brow. “You’re earlier than we—hang on. We’ll be down in a minute.”
Summer nodded, but they had vanished. As she waited, she took a few more steps toward the house. The double front doors hung loose on their hinges, the glass inside them scarred and cracked. Ancient graffiti scratched illegible names in the wood. The porch was scuffed and scarred, and dusty cobwebs decorated every corner. What a mess.
She ran one finger along the splintered banister. Even run-down and raggedy, though, the house stood with a sort of grandeur. If she closed her eyes, she could almost picture a woman in hoop skirts sweeping her way down the wide stairs while a man in a top hat and tails waited for her at the bottom. Maybe I could do some research on the place, find out its history. People liked buying a house with a story.
“Hey, you can’t go up there.” A strong hand grabbed her elbow.
“What?” Summer shook her arm free. This is my house now, she wanted to say. _I can go wherever I want_a. “Why not?”
“Not safe yet.” He motioned to the steps, and when she looked closer, she saw the space left by a missing riser gaping like a placid crocodile and ready to snatch up her unsuspecting foot.
“Oh.” She smiled an apology at Mac’s helper.
He was tall with light brown hair and deep blue eyes, and his broad, shirtless chest shone with sweat. Muscular biceps, no doubt made strong from summer labor, twitched as he reached for an itch between his shoulder blades. Summer swallowed and tried to chase away a crazy urge to scratch the spot for him.
She cleared her throat and shook the hand he offered. “I’m Summer Thompson. The—ah—the owner of this place.”
He studied her with a serious expression. “So I guessed. Damian Knight.”
The one who’s renting the farmhouse. “Listen, I—” She meant to talk to him about it, but a heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and she turned.
“Summer!” Mac Herbert stood beside her, half an inch shorter and a good deal wider than she. All muscle. “Can’t believe you’re here.” He shook his head and grinned, and Summer glimpsed the chipped front teeth she remembered from high school.
“Well, I wanted to see the house. I just…” She faltered. “I just found out about it.”
His expression sobered. “I know. Your father wanted it to be a surprise for you. Sorry about your loss, by the way.” He looked over his shoulder. “He did a great thing, buying this place. Wish he could have seen it finished.”
She didn’t think it was a great thing at all but she kept her mouth shut. Maybe someone else would find beauty in it. Maybe someone else would want the story that came with owning such an estate.
Mac gestured around the yard. “We’re finishing up the roof today. And the top floor needs reinforcing. Don’t use the front steps, ’kay? Gotta replace a few.”
“It looks…” Like nothing I would ever want to live in? Like the biggest mistake my father could have made? She wasn’t sure what to say.
“It’s a helluva lotta work,” Mac interrupted her thoughts. “But your father paid us through Labor Day, and we’ll probably finish most of the major work by then. I got a few guys who’ll help out with the interior when we get there. Course, I don’t know what your plans are. If you’re gonna sell it, or…” He stopped and waited for her to finish the sentence. She didn’t.
“Can I see the inside?” Summer asked instead. She wanted an idea of the mess she was dealing with. Her doubt grew as she looked around. Forget the plans her father had made for repairs. She couldn’t see dumping a lot of money into the place.
Mac shrugged. “Sure. I can show you the main floor, anyway. Second and third floors too, though there’s not much up there.” He glanced at his watch and turned to Damian. “You’re leaving early today, right?”
“Yeah.” But Damian didn’t move. Instead he ran one hand through his hair and sent a cloud of sawdust flying. A grin touched his eyes and, for a brief second, Summer saw her own reflection in his gaze. She looked small and dark, a little girl floating on the blue of his iris. He smiled, and in the sunlight, the blue deepened until she felt like she was falling inside it, floating, forgetting who and where she was. Something jumped in her stomach, and her palms tingled. Knights in Pine Point? There hadn’t been any for as long as she could remember.
Don’t fall for the guy whose heart you have to break tomorrow.