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Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(2)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(2)
Author: Ann Aguirre

I’d be the knife that cut this place wide and the fire that burnt it clean.

The Kilmer Inn

Chance parked the car because we were just driving aimlessly. He turned to me and rested his elbow on the back of the seat. “You all right?”

Well, no, I wasn’t. The bruises hadn’t completely healed from our last outing, and I had a fresh scar on my shoulder that’d come from a dead woman’s teeth. In addition, there was a secret society of Gifted individuals that I’d only just learned about, and the mentor who was supposed to teach me how to go on probably never wanted to see or hear from me again. That bothered me on a personal level as well, as I’d shared one smoking hot kiss with Jesse Saldana the night before everything went wrong.

This wasn’t the time to complain, and Chance certainly wouldn’t be interested in my emotional conflict regarding another man. In fact, bringing it up would just provoke him, considering he hoped we would be reconciled before this trip ended.

So I merely nodded. “We should find a place to stay. An old woman on Second Avenue used to rent out rooms. . . . I don’t know if she’s still alive, or if the boardinghouse is still open, but it’s a place to start.”

He checked the nearest cross street. “This is Tenth and Main. Which way?”

I thought for a moment. “North, about eight blocks—I think. It’s been a long time.”

Kilmer was laid out in a way that made sense, so we found the house, an old gingerbread Victorian, without too much trouble. Sometime since I’d left, it had been painted a pretty periwinkle and the trim done up in fresh white. The shutters gave the windows an open, welcoming look, and the garden would’ve been lovely at any other time of the year.

Salt weighted the air. We weren’t too far from the ocean, and maybe that had something to do with it, sandwiched in a desolate stretch of land between the coast and the Boggy Cypress Swamp. Rivers and tributaries tunneled all through this area, wandering inland from the ocean. I’d once loved going down to swim with my mama.

God, being here was harder than I’d expected. It made me miss her more. As I stood staring up at that fairy-tale Victorian house with all its fancy white flourishes along the roof, I wondered if I had the steel to see this through. I squared my shoulders. Of course I did. Otherwise I’d never know the truth, and I would’ve wasted Chance’s time.

Time to do this.

I didn’t see any sign from the yard to indicate whether this was a business or a private residence, but when we got out of the car and went toward the long wraparound porch, I saw a gleaming brass plaque that proclaimed KILMER INN. Well, that was new.

Old Mrs. Jensen hadn’t bothered with any such niceties; just a pasteboard and wood stake in the yard that said ROOMS TO RENT. The place must be under new management. Just as well—Mrs. Jensen might have known me; she was a sharp old bird.

The current owners had a nice little patio set up with hand-carved rocking chairs and pretty little wrought-iron side tables. In season, the hanging baskets would probably be in bloom. I imagined sitting there beneath the black velvet of a sultry summer night, sipping a dewy glass of lemonade and watching the world go by.

Too bad it wasn’t the idyllic town promised by such trappings, and we’d missed the warm summer nights, missed the sun of Indian summer; Kilmer was unrelentingly gray now and heavy with threatening rain. The clouds didn’t look altogether natural to me; they were so dark, I sometimes thought I saw monstrous faces charged with lightning inside.

Kilmer was nothing like my home in Mexico. Instead of bright walls of stucco and adobe painted in vibrant shades, this town offered warped wood and peeling paint. None of the houses had aluminum siding, which seemed strange. A few were built from stone or brick, but most of them didn’t look well kept. This was a town on the dirty side of decline. In fact, this home was the only one on this street that looked to be in good repair.

After a few seconds of silent debate, capped by mutual shrugs, we decided not to knock. A bell tinkled, signaling our entry into a charming foyer populated with warm mahogany and real antiques, which I priced in a single glance. Two striped damask chairs sat at studied angles from a cherry table, and the rug beneath our feet would sell for a pretty penny. I hoped Butch wouldn’t pop up; I had a feeling this place wasn’t pet friendly.

Before long, a platinum blond woman came hurrying down the corridor. “Good afternoon,” she said without a touch of a drawl. “Did you have a reservation?”

“No, ma’am,” Chance said. “But we were hoping to rent a room.”

Her sapphire blue gaze went to my left hand. “Just one?”

Blame it on my mean streak.

I answered, “Yes, please.”

Chance seemed surprised, as well he might, but he just nodded. “Do you have anything for us? We’d like a weekly rate; you have such a sweet little town here.”

That seemed like laying it on pretty thick, but by the way the woman lit up, you’d have thought she’d founded the place. Since I couldn’t hear any activity, I couldn’t imagine she was full. I didn’t know what would’ve brought an obviously city-bred woman to Kilmer, looking to open a bed-and-breakfast. Maybe a bad marriage or a broken relationship. Despite her well-kept skin and figure, I guessed she was past forty, so it could have been a number of things.

Truthfully, it wasn’t just a desire to torment Chance with what he couldn’t have that led me to ask for a single room. I also couldn’t face the idea of sleeping here alone—not in this town. Wholly illogical fear clutched me tight, but then . . . fear was usually irrational. Most people weren’t aware enough to fear the things that could really hurt them.

The proprietor made a show of checking her appointment book. “Oh, I think I can accommodate you. I can give you the Magnolia room for three hundred a week. You’ll share a bath with the Plumeria, but that’s currently unoccupied. Meals are served promptly in the dining room at nine, one, and six. If you’d like to use the kitchen to fix yourselves snacks and such, I can let you have access for another forty dollars a week.”

“That sounds perfect,” Chance told her, producing three hundreds and two twenties.

That changed the woman’s demeanor measurably. “It’s a pleasure to have you stay with us. I’m Sandra Cheney. My husband, Jim, handles the repairs and restoration around the place, so you won’t see him much. Our daughter, Shannon, cleans the rooms. I do the cooking and ensure guest satisfaction.” By her expression, she’d do a lot to please a man who looked like Chance and carried hundreds in his wallet. I wondered what Jim would say about her dedication to customer service.

Well, I was used to that. After all, Chance was worth a second look: long and lean with vaguely Asian features, smooth brown skin, and a pair of tiger’s eyes that could melt your knees at thirty paces. When you dated a guy who looked like Chance, you got accustomed to women checking him out, but that wasn’t my problem anymore.

“Thanks,” he murmured, noncommittal. He’d gotten good at pretending not to register all the double entendres that came his way.

Sandra didn’t seem to mind, as long as he had money. “If you’ll fill out this card, I’ll get the key to the Magnolia room.”

I watched him, chuckling softly when I saw him write the name Chance Boudreaux. He looked about as Cajun as I did Navajo. He flicked a smile in my direction as he saw me reading over his shoulder. The man made a game out of leaving different names anywhere we stayed. People who knew him understood they’d never get more out of him regarding his true name than “Chance.”

I never had, either. I didn’t want to mind, but deep down, I did. It had taken this long for me to admit it, but I’d had enough of Chance’s secrets. Even meeting his mother, Min, hadn’t done anything to dispel the shadows around him. In fact, she encouraged the obfuscation, saying it would be dangerous for anyone to find out the truth.

But I’d never hurt him, at least not with a spell tied to his true name. The hurt I inflicted on him went deeper, I supposed, more than skin-deep. He still wore scars on his back, gained saving my life a few weeks earlier. Chance had sheltered me with his own body as the glass flew all around us, the result of a sending that caught us flat-footed in a warehouse, where we’d been looking for his mother.

I sighed as he signed the guest registry with a flourish. It just didn’t pay to think about such things. Better to stay in the here and now. I hated torturing myself with might-havebeens. While he wrapped up with Sandra, I went to the Mustang to fetch our stuff.

The night offered complete calm, not even a whisper of a breeze. Dead man’s hands ran down my spine as I studied the dark windows all around us. There should have been people running errands, going about their daily routines, right? I tried to talk myself out of misgivings that were probably imaginary. Most likely, people just hadn’t returned from work. Even knowing that, I couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong—bad wrong.

As I returned, she was saying, “All set. Let’s go on up. You’re on the second floor. You intend to check out the historical sites, am I right? You simply can’t leave without visiting Sapelo Island.”

We let her chatter as she led the way up the polished stairs in her twill slacks and cashmere twin set. She lacked only a set of pearls to qualify as a perfect Southern hostess. When she realized I just had a backpack, and Chance, a duffel, she looked a little put out. I guess with a money roll like his, we ought to have been traveling with designer luggage.

Still, her smile dimmed only slightly. She rattled off the amenities and then told Chance he could follow the gravel trail to park the Mustang around back. I glazed over well before she left.

The click of the door jostled me out of the innkeeper-induced coma, and I took stock. She hadn’t lied; it was a nice room, done in pastels—lots of pretty pictures of magnolias and lots of Victorian lace. I liked the wallpaper with its fat candy-pink and white stripes. Sandra had done a nice job of blending colors and patterns into a sweet whole.

“I’m losing man points just by standing here.” Beside the antique brass bed, Chance looked even more masculine by contrast.

It wasn’t nearly big enough. We’d be all over each other in the night, but I still couldn’t face the idea of closing my eyes here with a wall between us. I had to own it; being here terrified me. I’d run from Kilmer as soon as I could, and I had to be out of my mind for coming back. But at least I wasn’t alone this time.

The dead dog seemed symbolic in more ways than one. If I’d had any sense, we would’ve called this thing a loss and just moved on. But I couldn’t. Running would mean I was letting them win. I deserved answers—and closure. Once I put this behind me, I hoped the dreams would stop. I’d go back to the pawnshop; go back to enjoying my quiet life.

Butch stuck his head out of my bag and whined as if in sympathy. I forced a smile and petted him in reflex. “I’m fine; don’t worry.”

Chance quirked a brow. “Saying it repeatedly doesn’t make it true, Corine.”

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