City of Secrets
Previously: While visiting her parents graves, Natasha saw a man in old-fashioned clothes wandering through the cemetery, who told her to go home. She lost sight of him during the thunderstorm. Spooked, Natasha ran, but slipped and fell. Blinded by the rain and mud that was in her eyes, someone snuck up behind her.
“Don’t touch me!” Natasha shouted, jerking her arm away from whoever had grabbed her, and nearly falling in the mud again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just trying to help,” a familiar voice said. “My name’s Chase. I saw you at school.”
Natasha’s eyes were still blurred with mud, but Chase Martindale’s face came into her mind. He was one of the first people she’d noticed that day, but she didn’t know what to think of him. Her first impression had been that he seemed all right, despite being a little full of himself, but that had been this morning.
She’d seen him with the purple-haired girl in the hall after eighth period. She’d caught the expression on his face just before he’d turned the smile on. It had made her blood run cold, and now she was alone in a cemetery with him. You’re overreacting. They have a history with each other, she reminded herself. Right. A history that Chase apparently aired to the entire school.That didn’t make her feel much better.
“Yeah, I remember. We have two classes together. Except I can’t see you.” She blinked in the direction of his voice, but that only smeared the mud around, making him look like a big brown blur. She squeezed her eyes shut when they began to sting.
“Hold on. I might have something.”
As Natasha waited with her eyes shut, she realized she wasn’t being rained on anymore. She could hear it pounding just above her head, but it wasn’t falling on her. Chase must be holding an umbrella over them. What a brilliant concept.
“Here.” His hand—large and somehow warm—closed over hers. Since her eyes were shut, her mind tricked her body into thinking it was Nick’s touch, and heat spread through her. She already missed Nick so bad it felt like she’d lost a part of herself. Damn it, Natasha. You can’t let loneliness get the better of you. Focus.
“Thanks,” she said, taking the napkin Chase deposited in her hand. She wiped the mud out of her eyes and slowly opened them, getting an up close and personal look at Chase Martindale. For a second, she forgot all about Nick.
Chase was squatting on the balls of his feet, just inches from her. He was so close she could smell him, despite the strong aroma of rain and earth and pine that surrounded them. His breath was minty, his jacket smelled like fresh leather, and there was a musky smell that made her think of quick kisses snuck in empty classrooms. The scents mixed together perfectly, and she inhaled deeply, forgetting about the rain and the mud and the cold.
His eyes were a perfect hazel, an even mix of colors. They were the soft gray-brown of the tree trunks and the sharp green of the pine needles. They were the forest, mysterious and inviting, beautiful and vast, and easy to get lost in. He was half-man, half-boy. His face was hard and defined and he needed a shave, but there was a softness around his eyes and lips, which were formed into a half-smile. His size was intimidating, but the shaggy light brown hair that stood up in an almost comical way made up for it. Natasha wondered if it would bounce right back if she tried to smooth it down.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I think so,” she said, snapping out of the hot-guy spell she’d fallen under. Being in a committed relationship for two years had made her immune to such spells (except for Nick’s of course), but apparently she was vulnerable again. Guilt overwhelmed her. Nick, I’m sorry. It was the first time she’d looked at another guy like that. What was she thinking? It was part of the reason she’d broken up with Nick. She needed to focus, not think about guys, and now she was swooning over someone she’d just met? As a distraction, she flicked her eyes up at the umbrella. “Better, now that I’m under one of these things.”
“You should take one with you everywhere. The rain here comes on without warning.”
“Yeah, my aunt told me. Want to know where mine is right now?”
“Sitting by the front door.” Natasha laughed, sending him an invitation with her eyes that it was okay to laugh with her. He did, and her heart broke a little more, because she wished it were Nick she was laughing with.
“Here, hold this.” Chase handed Natasha the umbrella. When his hand brushed against hers, she forced her heartache to harden into resolve. She was going to do what she came to do, and Chase was a part of that. Flirting with Chase was a part of that, because he wasn’t just any guy. The Martindale family had been in Caribou Canyon since the early 1870s, when the town was first founded. Conrad Martindale, Chase’s father, was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in town. If anyone knew anything about the secrets of Caribou Canyon, he did. What better way to get to him, than through his son?
Chase slipped his jacket off and held it out to her, but Natasha gestured to the mud that covered her sweater. “I can’t. I’ll ruin it.”
“It’s just a jacket. I’ll get another one.” He said it casually, like he went through leather jackets the same way he went through gym socks. With his father’s money, he probably did.
The longer Chase held the jacket toward her, the more tempting it became. She’d been cold all day, and now she was soaking wet and covered in mud. But still, she shook her head. “You really don’t have to.”
“And I really don’t mind. Take it.”
He wasn’t taking no for an answer, so she took it and slipped it on. It was warm from being against his body, and the heat sank into her damp skin. “Thanks,” she said. He nodded, his gaze suddenly intense. Combined with the heady scent of his jacket, it made her thoughts spin.
“What were you running from?” he asked.
“I don’t know. The storm just freaked me out, I guess. It was stupid. I should’ve been paying better attention.”
His gaze didn’t waver. “You sure it wasn’t more than that?”
Her stomach flipped-flopped as the memory of the man in the strange clothes popped into her head. She struggled to keep her smile in place, but it was hard under Chase’s intense scrutiny. “What do you mean?”
“You sure it wasn’t a ghost?” he asked. Natasha opened her mouth to tell him he was being stupid, but she remembered that she’d just seen a man disappear as quickly as he’d appeared. Chase continued. “Girl about our age, bleached hair?”
Relief flooded through her, until then he said, “No, it wouldn’t be. Bloody Rosie usually sticks to Fairview Woods. So it had to be the grave keeper then. No one knows who he was, so that’s what we call him. He’s a little older than we are—at least he was when he died. No idea how old he is now. Brown clothes, kind of old-fashioned looking? If you see him during a storm, it’s an omen. It means you’re next.”
“Oh god,” Natasha whispered. Chase had just described the man she’d seen perfectly.
Chase’s eyes widened. “Shit. You saw him, didn’t you?”
The world flipped upside down. “I—I don’t know. No.”
He put a hand on her arm. “It's okay. You can tell me.”
Could she? “Come on, this can’t be real,” she said in desperation.
He grinned. “Of course it’s not real.” He started laughing so hard that he nearly joined her in the mud.
It took a few seconds for it to register, for her fear to turn to embarrassment, and for the embarrassment to turn to anger. “You jerk! That is not funny!”
Chase was still laughing, clutching at his stomach. “Y—yes it was. That storm must’ve seriously freaked you out because I really had you going there. You should’ve s—seen your face.”
She was cold, tired, and not in the mood to be laughed at. “Screw you.” She struggled to her feet, careful not to fall back into the mud, and walked away. Lucky for her, the rain had slowed to a drizzle.
Natasha walked as fast as she dared in the mud. She was tall, almost 5’10”, so she took long strides. But Chase was several inches taller than she was. He caught up quickly, matching her pace. “Natasha, come on. I’m sorry. Really. Scaring people with ghost stories is just a thing we do around here.”
“What? You don’t have anything better to do?”
“Actually, we don’t. It’s kind of pathetic,” he said.
She stopped and turned to face him. “You’re still an ass.”
He stared past her, his eyes reminding her of a forest again. Endless and filled with depth. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what was hidden in those depths. “I know, but I’m trying not to be.”
His response caught her off guard. She’d been expecting him to tell her it wasn’t a big deal, or that he’d just been joking. “So try harder,” she said when she’d recovered.
All traces of laughter were gone from his face when he met her eyes again. “Yeah, you make me want to.”
Is this guy for real? She rolled her eyes. “Okay, first you laugh at me, and then you toss out something that sounds like a bad pickup line. Does anyone actually fall for that crap?”
“That wasn’t a line, Natasha.” He spoke softly, her name sliding off his tongue as if he were savoring every syllable. “If I were hitting on you, I could do better than that.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Fair enough,” he said, looking thoughtful again. “Look, I really am sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Can I make it up to you?”
She crossed her arms. “How?”
“Well, for starters I’ll walk you home. I know a shortcut. Then, on a day when you’re not freezing and covered in mud, I’ll give you the VIP tour.”
“VIP? Is that the one where we go to the visitor’s center, spin in a circle, and point?” She said it to buy herself time, because she really wasn’t sure whether or not it was a good idea. Who are you really, Chase Martindale? she thought. Are you the guy who gives people his jacket when it rains, or are you the guy who laughs at them when they’re sitting in a puddle of mud?The part of her that was desperate for answers didn’t care. He was a Martindale, and she needed him.
He smiled, shaking his head. “First of all, we can’t even see the stoplight from the visitor’s center. No tour of Caribou Canyon is complete without the stoplight. They just put it in a couple years ago. There was a ceremony and everything.”
Natasha started to laugh, until she realized he wasn’t joking. “Wait, you really did have a ceremony?”
“Yeah, I told you, we’re a little pathetic up here. Anyway, the VIP tour I’m talking about is the one where I point out landmarks and tell you which haunted legends go with which ones.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and winked when he said it. “That way no one else can get you.”
Oh, you mean like you just did? But she resisted that comment, because the opportunity he was presenting was too good to pass up. She winked back. “You’re on.”
“Great. Come on, we should get out of here. You must be freezing,” Chase said, eyeing her bare legs.
“Yeah, but the jacket helps. Thanks again,” she said, patting him on the arm and smiling gratefully. Okay, Natasha, you’re laying it on a little too thick.
But his smile said he was eating it right up. “Anytime. Come on, this way.”
He didn’t take her down the hill through the main gate, but instead they moved sideways through the graves. As they drew closer to the tree line, Natasha wondered if it really was a shortcut. She remembered the way he’d looked at the purple-haired girl and a shiver ran through her.
“Jeez, you are cold.” Chase switched the umbrella to his other hand and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She had the urge to shake it off, but she didn’t want him to know that it wasn’t the cold that had made her shiver. “Too bad I didn’t bring my car.”
“I’m fine. Really. The jacket’s enough,” she said, hugging her arms to her chest. After about a minute, Chase dropped his arm from her shoulders. “So, what were you doing here?” she asked.
“It’s my grandmother’s birthday. Or, it would be. My mom likes to leave flowers, but sometimes it’s hard for her, so I do it.”
“Oh, that’s sweet,” Natasha said, feeling like a jerk for the casual way she’d asked him what he was doing in a cemetery. “I’m sorry about your grandmother.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t really know her. She died when I was three.” He glanced back, toward the old cemetery. “Was this the first time you’ve seen their graves?”
Natasha was stunned for a second. It wasn’t that she hadn’t expected people to know who her parents were, but he’d brought it up as though it was something she’d confided to him. “Um, yeah.”
He gave her an apologetic look. “Crap. I shouldn’t have said it like that. I forgot. You’re a big city girl. You’re not used to the way things are around here.”
There was something about his matter-of-fact tone that made her stomach churn. The way things are around here. “And how are things around here?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“Everyone knows your business all the time.”
“Oh.” Great, she thought. “What’s that like?”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, I do, but I’ve lived here my whole life, so it’s just the way it’s always been. When it comes to the little things, you get used to it. But as far as the big things go, the stuff you really don’t want people to know, you learn how to keep those secrets hidden.”
And what secrets do you have, Chase? It was clear in the way he’d said it, that he did.
Neither of them seemed to know what to say after that, so they walked in silence. He led her past the graves until they reached the trees, which grew in a natural fence around the cemetery. Chase was headed right for the woods, but the trees were so close together that Natasha could barely see through them. She stopped. “Where are we going?”
“I told you, it’s a shortcut. Come on.” He nodded toward the woods.
She looked doubtfully at the darkness of the trees. “It doesn’t even look like we’ll be able to see where we’re going.”
“It’s not as deep as it looks. There’s a path not far from here that will take us to your aunt’s neighborhood. Trust me. I’ve been exploring these woods my whole life.” He smiled reassuringly.
Natasha really wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but she didn’t want him to know she was unsure. She needed him to think she trusted him. “Okay. Let’s go. I guess I’m a mountain girl now.”
“Right, but let’s go easy.” He held his hand out. “So you won’t fall.”
“Okay,” she smiled and took his hand. As she followed him into the darkness of the trees, it occurred to her that no one knew she was with him.