Till DeathJennifer L. Armentrout / Romance & Love / Mystery & Detective
There were rules.
Rules that shouldn’t be broken, but it had happened this time and damn it, it would happen again. Didn’t matter that everything had been under control up until this point. Didn’t matter that the rules had been followed and needed to be followed.
Everything was different now.
She was coming back.
And she would ruin everything again.
The huddled, pathetic shadow in the corner whimpered. The woman was awake. Finally. It wasn’t nearly as fun when they were passed out through all the good parts. Planning required patience, and patience was truly a virtue, one mastered over years and years of waiting.
Bloodied, dirtied rope circled the ankles and wrists. When she slowly lifted her chin and her lashes fluttered open, her startled cry came from deep within a well of endless terror. It was in her wide glazed-over eyes. She knew. Oh yeah, she knew she wasn’t walking out of here. She knew that the sunlight she’d seen when she’d gotten into her car the morning she’d left for work was the last sunlight she’d see. She knew that was the last time she’d breathe fresh air.
Dim artificial light was her home now. The musky, earthy scent would be with her right down to the very last breath she took, and that scent would clog her pores and cling to her hair.
This would be her final place.
The woman tipped her head back against the damp brick wall. The terror in her gaze gave way to pleading. Always did. So fucking predictable. So pointless. There was no hope here. There was no chance of a miracle. Once they came here, there was no knight riding to the rescue.
Footsteps sounded upstairs. A second later, faint laughter echoed, drawing the woman’s wide gaze to the ceiling. She tried to yell, to scream, but the sounds were muffled. Those pathetic sounds stopped when dull light glimmered off the sharp blade.
She shook her head wildly, flinging limp blond strands across her pale face. Tears filled her brown eyes.
“It’s not your fault.”
Her chest heaved with erratic breaths.
“If she wasn’t coming back, this may never have happened to you. It’s her fault.” There was a pause as the woman’s gaze flew to the end of the knife. “She fucked me and I will fuck her back in the most unpleasant manner.”
This time it was going to end like it always should. She was going to die, but first, she would pay. Pay for everything.
My heart started racing as my gaze trekked to the rearview mirror. My brown eyes seemed too big and wide at the moment. I looked freaked out, and I was.
Taking a deep breath, I grabbed my purse and opened the door of my Honda, stepping out. Cold air immediately coasted under the thin sweater I wore as I closed the door behind me. I inhaled deeply, surrounded by the scent of freshly cut grass.
I took a step toward the inn I’d grown up in and hadn’t seen in years. It was the way I remembered. Wind stirred the vacant rockers. The bushy ferns that hung from late spring to early fall were gone. The clapboard was painted a fresh white. Shutters a deep forest green and . . .
And my throat dried. Tiny bumps raced across my skin, lifting the wisps of blond hair at the nape of my neck. An awful, surreal feeling slammed into my gut. My breath caught in my throat once more.
The feeling was like a slick, too-heavy caress down the center of my back. The nape of my neck burned like it had when he would sit behind me—
Pivoting around, I scanned the front yard. Tall hedges lined the property. It was a decent distance from Queen Street, the main road cutting straight through the town, but I could hear the cars passing by. No one was out here. I turned full circle. No one was on the porch or in the yard. Maybe someone was at one of the windows or the inn, but I was alone out here despite the way my pulse pounded or what instinct screamed at me.
I focused on the green hedges again. They were so thick someone could be hidden behind them, watching and waiting for—
“Stop it.” I closed my free hand into a fist. “You’re being paranoid and stupid. Just stop it. No one is watching you.”
But my heart didn’t slow down and a fine tremor coursed through my tensing muscles. I reacted physically and without thought.
Icy claws of terror sunk deep into my chest and I ran—ran from the side of my car and into the inn. Everything was a blind blur as I hit the stairs and kept running, all the way to the upper level.
There, in the quiet and narrow hallway outside the apartments above the inn, out of breath and feeling sick, I dropped my purse on the floor and bent over, clasping my knees as I dragged in deep, uneven breaths.
I hadn’t stopped to notice if the inn had changed in the years I’d been absent, hadn’t stopped to find my mother. I’d run like there were demons snapping at my heels.
And that was how this felt.
This was a mistake.
“No,” I whispered to the ceiling. I leaned against the wall and smoothed my hands down my face. “This isn’t a mistake.”
Lowering my arms to the wall, I forced my eyes open as I dragged in a deep breath. Of course I would have a . . . strong reaction to returning home, to coming back here after everything had happened.
When I left, I’d sworn I’d never come back.
Never say never.
Those three words had been cycling over and over from the moment I’d made the decision to return home. I almost couldn’t believe I was actually sitting here, that I’d done what I’d said I’d never do.
As a child, I’d been convinced the inn had been haunted. How could it not be? The Georgian-style mansion and the adjacent carriage house were older than dirt, used as a part of the Underground Railroad and rumored to have been occupied by injured and dying soldiers after the bloody Battle of Antietam.
Floorboards creaked throughout the night. Cold spots lingered in rooms. The old dimly lit servants’ staircase had creeped me out like nothing else. Shadows always seemed to slink along the wallpapered walls. If ghosts were real, then this inn, the Scarlet Wench, should be full of them. And as a twenty-nine-year-old fully grown woman, I was still convinced it was haunted.
Haunted by a different kind of ghost now.
What roamed those narrow halls on the upper levels, tiptoed across polished floors, and hid in the darkened stairwells was the old Sasha Keeton from ten years ago, before . . . before the Groom came to the town where nothing ever happened, and destroyed everything.
I’d sworn that I would never come back to this town, but like Grandma Libby used to say all the time, never say never.
Sighing, I pushed away from the wall and looked down the hall.
Maybe I wouldn’t have flipped out so strongly if I hadn’t heard the news on the radio just as I was leaving the interstate—news of a woman missing from Frederick. I caught the tail end of her name—Banks. She was a nurse at Memorial Hospital. Her husband had last seen her the morning she’d left for work.
My breath caught as a cold shiver skated over my skin. Frederick was not far from Berkeley County. Usually a forty-five-minute drive on days when the traffic wasn’t bad. The tips of my fingers felt icy as I opened and closed them.
One missing person was horrible and sad, incredibly tragic no matter the circumstances. Multiple missing people was terrifying, major news, and a pattern—
Cursing under my breath, I cut those thoughts off. The missing woman had nothing to do with me. Obviously. God knows I fully understood how traumatic a missing person could be, and I really hoped that the woman was found safe, but it had nothing to do with me.
Or with what happened ten years ago.
The brisk early-January winds rolled across the roof, startling me. My heart thundered against my ribcage. I was as skittish as a mouse in a room full of starved cats. This was—
My cellphone rang, jarring me out of my thoughts. Bending over, I reached inside the oversized hobo bag and dug around until my fingers curled around the slim surface. I pulled it out, lips twitching when I saw the caller.
“Sasha,” Mom said the moment I hit answer. Her laugh made my smile spread. “Where in the world are you? I saw your car out front, but you’re nowhere to be found.”
I winced a little. “I’m upstairs. I got out of the car and started to walk in, but I . . .” I didn’t want to say the words, admit how unnerved I was.
“Do you need me to come upstairs?” she asked immediately, and I squeezed my eyes shut.
“No. I’m fine now.”
There was a pause. “Sasha, honey, I . . .” Mom faded off, and I could only wonder what she was about to say. “I’m glad you’re finally home.”
Most twenty-nine-year-olds would feel like a failure if they returned home, but for me, it was the opposite. Coming home was an accomplishment, a feat not easily completed. Opening my eyes, I swallowed another sigh. “I’m coming down.”
“I was guessing you would.” She laughed again, but it sounded shaky. “I’m in the kitchen.”
“Okay.” I clenched the phone tighter. “I’ll be there in a few.”
“All right, honey.” Mom hung up, and I slowly placed my phone back in the bag.
For a moment, I stood stock-still, rooted to the floor, and then I nodded curtly. It was time.
It was finally time.
I was floored.
The inside looked nothing like I remembered. I stepped through the foyer, blown away by the change that had taken place in the last ten years.
Purse dangling from my fingertips, I slowly made it through the main floor. The vases full of artificial orchids were new and the dated chairs by guest check-in were gone. The two great rooms had been opened up to create one large space. Soothing gray paint replaced the flowery wallpaper. The old traditional chairs with the velvet upholstery had been changed to teal-and-white thick-cushioned wingback chairs strategically placed around the end tables for easy conversation. The brick fireplace had been stripped back and painted white.
Another surprise waited when I entered the dining area of the inn. Gone was the cold, formal table that forced every guest to eat together if they dined at the inn. I’d always hated that, because hello, awkward. Five large round tables covered in white linen were staged throughout the large room. The fireplace in here was painted to match the one in the sitting room. Flames rippled behind the glass. A station to serve drinks had been moved into the room and sat catty-corner to the fireplace.
The Scarlet Wench had finally come into the twenty-first century.
Had Mom mentioned this at some point? We’d talked on the phone a lot and Mom had visited in Atlanta multiple times in the last ten years. She had to have brought this up. She probably had, but I tended to zone out anything related to this town, and I must’ve zoned out way too much.
This was significant; seeing this was important, because now I knew I’d checked out way too deeply.
A knot formed in the back of my throat and stupid tears burned the back of my eyes. “Oh God,” I murmured, wiping the back of my hands under my eyes as I blinked rapidly. “Okay. Pull it together.”
Counting to ten, I cleared my throat and then nodded. I was ready to see my mama. I could do this without breaking down and crying like an angry, hungry baby.
Once I was sure I wasn’t going to have an epic meltdown, I got my feet moving. The scent of roasted meat led me to the back of the house. A pocket door with staff only posted was closed. Reaching for it, I was suddenly thrust back into the past, and within seconds I saw myself running through this very door and into the arms of my waiting father after the first day of kindergarten, the watercolor painting I’d done flapping from my outstretched hand. I remembered shuffling through this door the first time my heart had been crushed, my face streaked with dirt and tears because Kenny Roberts had pushed me into the mud at the playground. I could see myself at fifteen, knowing my dad would never be waiting for me again.
And I saw myself bringing the boy I’d met in Econ 101 through this very door to meet Mom, and my heart did an unsteady flop, pulling me right out of the stream of memories.
“God,” I groaned, shutting that train wreck of a thought process down before those pale blue wolf eyes formed in my mind. Because once that happened, I’d be thinking of him for the next twelve thousand years, and I really didn’t need that right now. “I’m such a mess.”
I shook my head as I slid the door open. The knot returned with a vengeance the moment I spotted her behind the stainless-steel counter, standing where Dad used to until he passed away from the widow-maker—a massive, undetected morning heart attack.
Forgetting about the dread I’d felt the whole long-as-hell drive up here and what I’d heard on the radio, I felt like I was five again.
“Mom,” I croaked, dropping the bag on the floor.
Anne Keeton stepped out from behind the counter, and I stumbled in the rush to get to her. It had been a year since I’d seen her. Last Christmas, she had traveled to Atlanta, because she’d known I wasn’t ready to come home then. Only a year had passed, but Mom had changed just as much as the inn had.
Her shoulder-length hair was more silver than blond. Deeper lines had forged into the skin around her brown eyes, and fine lines had formed around thinner lips. Mom had always been curvy—after all, that was where I got my hips and breasts, and belly, and, okay, thighs from—but she was at least twenty pounds lighter.
Concern blossomed in the pit of my stomach as she wrapped her arms around me. Had I not noticed this last year? Had I been gone too long? Ten years was a long time to miss things when you only saw someone sporadically.
“Honey,” Mom said, her voice thick. “Baby, I’m so happy to see you. So happy that you’re here.”
“Me too,” I whispered back, and I meant it.
Coming home had been the last thing I wanted to do, but as I hugged her tight and inhaled the vanilla scent of her perfume, I knew it had been the right thing, because that concern grew and spread throughout me.
Mom was only fifty-five, but age didn’t matter when it came to mortality. Nothing did when it came to death. I knew that better than anyone. Dad had died young, and ten years ago, at nineteen, I had . . . I had almost taken my last breath after everything else had been taken from me.
The iron bistro table in front of the large window overlooking the veranda and garden had been in the kitchen as long as I could remember. Smoothing my hand over the surface, I found the tiny, familiar indentations carved around the edges. It was at this very table where I colored as a child and did homework in the evenings as a teenager.
The door to the old kitchen, which now served as a break room/storage room, was on the opposite end, also marked with an employees-only sign. That door, like everything else in the updated kitchen, had been painted a fresh white.
Mom brought two cups of coffee over and sat across from me. The room now smelled like a coffee store, and I wasn’t thinking about the way I’d freaked out before.
“Thank you,” I said, wrapping my hand around the warm cup. A grin tipped up the corners of my lips. Little green Christmas trees decorated the cup. Even though it was two weeks past Christmas and all the decorations were down, the Christmas-themed coffee cups would remain out and in use all year. Glancing around the kitchen, I frowned and asked, “Where is James?” James Jordan had been the chef for at least fifteen years. “I smell something cooking.”
“What you smell is two roasts.” She took a sip of her coffee. “And there’s been some changes. Guests have to notify us by one if they will be having dinner here and then we cook the dinner based on that request. It cuts down on the work and we’re not wasting as much food.” She paused. “James comes in just three times a week now. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.” She lowered her cup to the table. “We’re still pretty steady with business, but with the newer hotels springing up around here every year, I have to be careful with what we’re spending money on. Do you remember me telling you about Angela Reidy?”