The shadow and the rose, p.1
The Shadow and the Rose:
Book One of the Ash Grove Chronicles
by Amanda DeWees
Copyright © 2012 Amanda DeWees
Lyrics to “Joy’s Ballad” copyright © 2012 Amanda DeWees
Synopsis: Joy, a plain but feisty junior at Ash Grove High School for the Performing Arts in North Carolina, must rescue chameleonic teen model Tanner Lindsey from his seductive, evil, and possibly supernatural mentor, supermodel Melisande.
Joy Sumner stood at the iron gate to the old cemetery at ten to midnight. No flashlight, no cell phone, nothing but her digital camera and her sense of bravado—all thanks to smarmy Sheila Hardesty.
In morning assembly Sheila had been trying to scare a new transfer student, Alissa Pennington, with ghost stories about some of the more unusual features of Ash Grove High School for the Performing Arts.
“I’ve heard so many creepy things about this school I wasn’t sure I wanted to transfer here,” Alissa told Sheila. “My mom didn’t want to let me, but Dad finally talked her into it.”
“You might have been safer if he hadn’t,” said Sheila darkly. She was one of the star dancers at Ash Grove, but you’d have thought she was an actress from all the drama she was creating. “You know that the school was built on a portal to the underworld, don’t you?”
“Swear to god. Every now and then a student will just disappear and never be seen again. The faculty always comes up with some excuse, but everyone knows the truth is that the portal will just open up sometimes and swallow people up.”
Joy and her roommate Maddie Rosenbaum, sitting in the row behind, exchanged a disbelieving look. Sheila was laying it on thick.
“And it gets worse than that,” she said, dropping her voice as if afraid of being overheard. “Josiah Cavanaugh, the founder? Some people say he was, like, the high priest of a pagan cult that used to perform blood rituals during the full moon.”
Joy couldn’t help smiling at such a ridiculous claim. Accounts of Josiah Cavanaugh did portray him as an eccentric, but only townies believed the more outrageous occult stories.
Alissa’s face had gone white, though. She was too easy a target. Sheila pressed her advantage.
“The worst thing,” she said in a dramatic stage whisper, “is that he may not be completely dead.”
“What? Do you mean he’s a—a ghost?”
Maddie rolled her eyes, but Joy was starting to get caught up in the drama despite herself. Sheila was putting on a good show.
“He might be something even worse than a ghost,” Sheila said. “They say that if you go to the old graveyard at midnight and pick a rose off the bush on Cavanaugh’s grave, he’ll stick his bony hands up through the dirt and drag you down into the ground with him.”
Alissa’s eyes were wide with alarm. “That is messed up,” she breathed. “I can’t believe they haven’t closed this place.”
“That’s because it’s all hogwash,” said Joy, unable to sit by silently any longer, and the two girls craned around to stare at her. “Don’t let her scare you, Alissa.”
“I wasn’t scared,” she snapped, instantly defensive. “Just—interested.”
“Sheila’s just making stuff up to mess with you,” Joy reassured her. “No one’s ever claimed all those things.”
“Oh, that’s right, Joy knows everything about Ash Grove and Josiah Cavanaugh,” drawled Sheila. “Her father’s an English teacher here and her mother’s a dead musical genius, so Joy thinks she’s, like, above everyone else. Bet you don’t feel so important now that your dad’s in Oklahoma at the cancer clinic, huh? He isn’t here to protect his widdle girl any more.”
Joy ignored this. “It’s true that Cavanaugh’s will ordered wild roses to be planted by his grave,” she told Alissa. “It was a superstition he got from his mother. She was Scottish, and she believed it kept the dead from rising. But the rest is BS.”
Alissa’s eyes were round. “Did it work? The roses?”
“Well, we haven’t seen a dead body dig its way out of the ground yet,” said Maddie sarcastically. Joy sometimes thought that Maddie had the soul of a jaded thirty-year-old in the body of a teenager. Because her father was a classical pianist and a big Mozart fan, her full name was Elvira Madigan Rosenbaum, but only teachers ever had the bad taste to call her Elvira.
“So you’re saying there’s nothing to fear from taking a rose from Josiah’s grave,” said Sheila.
“Of course. Nothing at all.”
“So you wouldn’t be scared to try it?”
“Why would I be?”
Sheila folded her arms and stared challengingly at Joy. “Well, I dare you. I dare you to go to the graveyard tonight at midnight and find Josiah’s grave, and bring back a rose from it.”
She was surprised, but not afraid. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it.”
“She should go alone,” Alissa put in. “And without a phone.”
“Good idea,” said Sheila. “You heard that, Joy? No friends, no lifeline. And no flashlight.”
Maddie balked at that. “How do you expect her to find her way around without a light? Sonar?”
“The moon’s almost full,” said Sheila. “It should be bright enough to see by. Oh, and get a picture of the grave with the rose bush.” She tossed her long red hair over her shoulder. “I don’t want you to think you can get away with bringing me a rose from a florist.”
“No problem,” said Joy. And because Mrs. Minish, the history teacher, was bearing down on them with a fierce expression, she added in a lower voice, “Tomorrow at morning break, I’ll see you in the coffee bar. And I’ll have your rose.”
So now she stood here at the rusted old iron gates. The graveyard hadn’t been in use for decades; the more recent dead were housed in one of the modern “memorial gardens” favored for their ground-level markers that were so easy to mow over. The old cemetery had been left to the elements—and years of neglect. Joy wondered if any of the gravestones even remained, and what condition they were in. She might not even find it possible to identify Josiah’s grave.
“Of course it’s a setup,” Maddie had said, when they’d discussed it earlier. That was in the student center coffee bar, where the three of them—Maddie, Joy, and their mutual best friend William Russell—gathered every morning at break. The earthy fragrance of coffee and the hiss of the cappuccino machine made the prospect of a graveyard vigil seem cozy and quaint. Maddie was stirring the fourth packet of Splenda into her half-caff (“I’ve gotten so used to the stuff my body’s developed an immunity,” she said) and making plans for Joy’s expedition. “You realize that Sheila is going to hide behind one of the gravestones and jump out at you.”
Joy shrugged. “I’m not scared of her.”
“But she might be planning to recruit some muscle for the job.”
“We could always send you in wearing a wire,” suggested William. “That way we could come in as backup if you needed it.” William had a gift for musical instruments that extended into technological gadgetry as well. With untidy brown hair and steel-rimmed glasses, he was cute in what Maddie had once called an accidental hipster way. “The music department has some pretty sophisticated sound equipment,” he added, warming to the idea. “We could get you hooked up with a microphone, and maybe one of those tiny video cameras, and monitor you from the road…”
Joy made a face at him. “That’s way more Mission Impossible than the situation calls for. I’ll be fine.”
Maddie shook her head. “It’s not just Sheila you have to worry about. Someone may be spreading those stories about the graveyard to run people off. Drug dealers, maybe. It’s what I’d do if I wanted to kee
William laughed. “Seriously, Maddie? I doubt anyone’s running a meth lab out of the cemetery. Maybe a couple of good ol’ boys hang out there to drink their Budweisers, but that’s all.”
“Even so, Joy could be in over her head. I should have stopped her.”
Joy didn’t like the way the conversation was going. She had thought Maddie would respect her for taking the dare, not act like an overprotective parent. “I’m not a baby, Maddie,” she said.
“What I don’t get,” said William, “is why you even care what Sheila and her crowd think of you. You don’t have to prove anything to them.”
That was the thing, though: she wanted to. It wasn’t just that she didn’t come from money, like most of the other students at Ash Grove, and wasn’t beautiful like all of the aspiring actresses and dancers there. Everyone had always assumed she was a goody-goody because her father was a teacher. She had hoped she might finally be able to break out of that pigeonhole now that her father was on medical leave of absence. But all that had happened was that she didn’t know where she fit in anymore.
She pushed the thought away. Thinking about him, undergoing cancer treatment alone and far away, was too painful. “It’s not that big a deal. Anyway, it’ll be fun. I love old graveyards.”
“That’s so not the point.” Maddie wasn’t ready to be won over yet.
“Look, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll take my pepper spray.”
“If Sheila’s there, you won’t need pepper spray,” said William. “You’ll need holy water.”
Now, in the chill-looking moonlight, which lay like frost on the weedy track that led away from the gate, the coffee bar felt years in the past. Joy stood for a second listening to the wind in the evergreens, a ceaseless hushing like the ocean. Usually she loved the peacefulness of nighttime and the sounds of the night creatures. Tonight she reminded herself not to relax, to stay alert for an ambush.
Her blood hummed pleasantly with adrenaline and caffeine as she pushed through the gate. Its hinges shrieked but it swung open easily, somewhat to her surprise; perhaps Sheila and her confederates had been here before her to booby-trap the area.
Traffic sounds died away as she climbed the slight rise, her progress slowed by the overgrown grasses that whipped against the legs of her jeans. The sound of a passing motorcycle died out into the chattering of night insects. The crumbling old gravestones were half hidden in the tall grasses, some canted at odd angles or fallen over and lying in wait to stub her toes and trip her up, and she thought in exasperation of Sheila’s prohibition against bringing a light. After a moment’s thought, she fished her mp3 player out of her jeans pocket and turned it on. The glow of the display wasn’t as bright as a flashlight, but it made finding her way a little easier.
The Cavanaugh plot, when she found it, was surprisingly clear of overgrowth. A huge oak tree shadowed the headstones, blotting out part of the moonlight, so that the scene was illuminated in fitful moving patches as the breeze stirred the branches. She stepped warily from grave to grave, reading the headstones. Jonathan Cavanaugh… Jessica Cavanaugh… Jedediah… these people had a fixation, she thought with amusement. Some of the inscriptions were unreadable; one was half obscured by a rose bush, with a few unlikely early blossoms glowing bravely white through the tangle of leaves. Mindful of the thorns, she carefully parted the branches. Ah, there you are, Josiah, she thought, and reached for her camera.
She hesitated before taking the rose, because it seemed wrong to steal one of the few things of beauty left to a dead man, but she needed her proof. The stem broke under the slight pressure of her fingers, and she straightened, gazing at the small pale bloom in her hand.
“What the hell are you doing?” came a furious voice from behind her.
She whirled, almost dropping the rose. In the instant that he first spoke, before thought took hold, her mind had snapped to Josiah Cavanaugh, a skeletal patriarch dressed in moldering Victorian finery. But the man who stood facing her was scarcely more than a boy; maybe a couple of years older than Joy, no more, and he was wearing jeans and a leather jacket. She thought confusedly of fifties songs about dead teenagers, the leader of the pack come to grief on Dead Man’s Curve.
Because he was too beautiful to be human. A ghost, or an angel, maybe. The bones of his face were too perfect, like sculpture, with a high strong forehead over brows drawn fiercely down in anger. His eyelashes were so long they cast shadows on the white angles of his cheekbones, blanched by the moon. His eyes themselves she could not see, but from the grim set of his mouth—a mouth so lushly curved that she could almost feel her forefinger tracing its softness—she knew he was enraged. He was tall, tall enough that she had to keep herself from flinching backward as he strode toward her, and tipped her head back to meet his gaze. His jacket, hanging open, revealed a lean and muscled body like an athlete’s.
“That’s really sick,” he said, lowering his voice now that he was standing only feet away. “Stealing from a grave.”
She half agreed with him, and that made her stubborn. “Don’t try to tell me that a man who’s been dead for seventy years will miss a rose,” she retorted. “I’m not doing him any harm.”
He ignored that. “What are you even doing here?” he snapped. “Why don’t you go back wherever you came from?”
“This is city property, and I’m a citizen,” she said, hating how bratty it sounded. “I have as much right to be here as you do. For that matter, what are you doing here?”
He grinned, baring a flash of teeth. “I belong here,” he said. “I’m a dead man.”
“Oh, please,” she said, but a prickle of unease stirred her scalp all the same. Dead teenagers, she thought.
“No, really. At night I crawl out of my grave to attack stupid girls who wander around in my cemetery.” He took a step closer, and she had to fall back a pace. His eyes were unreadable in the dimness. “So unless you want to take up residence here too, I suggest you get the hell out of here.” She realized her back was against the trunk of the tree, the bark rough through her shirt, and he braced one arm beside her head, leaning in toward her.
“Or what?” She knew she should be frightened, but she sensed that his words were only for effect. She was an annoyance, yes, but he had no intention of doing more than frighten her. At least she hoped so.
He brought his face very close to hers, and she caught the scent of him, cleanly masculine against the sweetness of the roses. The spectral light caught the edge of his cheek and jaw, and cast them in silver against the night. “What do you think?” he whispered, and brought his mouth down on hers.
And Joy took the dare.
Clearly he had expected her to twist away, to run—not to kiss him back. His touch was almost perfunctory until she responded. But when she slid her arms around his waist, she felt his jolt of surprise.
This time it was he who fell back a step, and he looked suddenly younger in his confusion. “Are you some kind of vampire groupie, or something?” he said.
She laughed outright. “What kind of vampire rides a Kawasaki?” And when he gave her a startled look, she explained. “I heard it earlier, when you drove up.” That was probably what made her think of “The Leader of the Pack,” she realized now: the sound of his bike as she entered the cemetery. Nothing ghostly at all.
There was a moment of silence, then: “How did you know it was a Kawasaki?”
She couldn’t help feeling a little smug. “My friend William’s brother used to have a Ninja, before he got it tangled up with a utility pole. It was a honey of a bike. Is yours a Ninja?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly, his eyes more intent than ever, and surprise in his voice. “Yeah, it is.”
“Wait.” Despite herself, she stopped short at the command in his voice. But there was no aggression in his stance as he drew up with her. “You forgot this.”
She had dropped the rose without ever noticing—perhaps, she realized, when she put her arms around him. The hand he held out to her was long-boned, elegant, with slender fingers that she somehow knew would be deft and sensitive. She tried to remember if he had touched her with them, and felt her face growing hot. She was more flustered now than she had been when kissing him.
“Thanks,” was all she said, but she knew she was blushing. Her hand brushed his as she took the rose from him.
“It’s not Heathcliff, by the way,” he said quietly. A breeze ruffled his hair, dropping one loose wave over his forehead as he looked at her. “It’s Tan… Tristan.” He seemed to reconsider. “Tanner.”
“Three names,” she said. “That’s a lot for one person.” She was trying to sound offhand and sophisticated, but she had a feeling he wasn’t impressed. When he didn’t respond, she said, “Don’t you want to know mine?”
He smiled then, for the first time, and she felt as if the ground had dropped out from under her feet. It had seemed impossible for him to be any more handsome, but he was. “Oh, I know your name, Joy,” he said.
Then the answer came to her, and she could have kicked herself. “Sheila told you.” Of course. It was too much to believe that a guy like this could just happen to be hanging out where he’d run into her.
But he said, “I don’t know a Sheila,” and as she tried to decide whether he was lying, he handed her a flashlight. “Here, take this,” he said. “So you can find your way home safely.”
“Thanks,” she said again, automatically. “But won’t you need it?”
That amazing smile flashed again, this time mockingly.
“Dead men can see in the dark. Now run along home, Joy Sumner. Don’t kiss any more strangers.”
She turned and walked away through the long grasses and down the hill, shining the beam of his flashlight before her. Not once did she turn around. Because she knew, even without looking, that he watched her all the way out of sight.
The Shadow and the Rose by Amanda DeWees / Romance & Love have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on17 votes