Kissing Trouble (In The Dark, Book 2)
Their screams will be his lullaby.
Escaping into the wilderness should have been a piece of cake for a super-babysitter like Julie Brewer. But even she isn’t prepared for the horror awaiting their arrival, or the man who had broken her heart all those years ago to suddenly show up on the doorstep.
Mason Brody has a plan and it is simple: wait for Julie to grow up. Yet in no way is he prepared for the fierce amazon who ambushes him with a baseball bat, or the way the shy fifteen year old has blossomed into a beautiful, passionate woman he can’t get enough of.
But there is so much more than just their past between them. There is a dark force lurking in the shadows, waiting for the chance to appease its hunger for death and it will stop at nothing until it is fed.
Can Mason and Julie keep the evil at bay long enough to escape? Or will the monster add their lives to its list?
Love all, trust a few. — William Shakespeare
All the coffee, chocolate, and sunshine in the world couldn’t stave off the migraine pressing against the nerve endings of Julie’s brain. It was taking all her patience, and then some, to repress the urge to commit murder, or worse pitch herself headlong into oncoming traffic. The latter was becoming a definite possibility with every passing second she had to sit and listen to the World War III taking place in the backseat.
“Rick’s touching me!”
“I am not!”
“He’s doing it again!”
“Will you two shut up? I’m trying to forget I’m in this nightmare!”
“Julie, Dustin said a bad word!”
“Shut up isn’t a bad word, idiot!”
“Julie, Dustin called me an idiot!”
“Okay, okay!” Julie put one hand up, silencing the bickering without taking her eyes off the road. “Look, we have two more hours of driving ahead of us. I really need you guys to work with me, okay?” The last part came out sounding a little unhinged.
“Can we open the window?” Rick whined. “Wendy has athletes foot again and I’m going to die.”
“I do not!” Wendy wailed, her voice fraught with tears.
“Your feet smell like old man fart!”
“No they don’t!” Wendy was crying now.
On Wendy’s other side, Dustin barked out laughing. “Ha! Old man fart.”
“Julie!” Wendy whined.
“Yes!” Julie shouted over the sound. “I will open the window, but no more fighting.”
She knew she was asking for miracles, but she was hoping some of her karma points would kick in, and stay for at least a good portion of the trip. After all, wasn’t she sacrificing her summer to help a neighbor in need? That had to count for something.
The squabbling didn’t stop. It didn’t even slow down. Julie tried to put the radio on and that worked for about an hour before they hit the boonies and all stations, but AM, faded to static. Games were out as well since all three of the Vance children were too old for them. She tried asking them questions, in hopes of distracting them from each other, but every time one answered the other two would pipe in with some taunt that would start a whole new series of rants.
By the time they made the turn off Highway 1 and plunged headlong towards the slumbering town of Salmon Cove, Julie was ready to pull over and dump all three kids on the side of the road.
Get a grip, Brewer, the voice in her head scolded. This is no different from all the other times.
Not necessarily true, she wanted to tell her inner voice. While it was true that she had been babysitting the trio every weekend and most weeks since she was fifteen, it was something uniquely horrifying to spend an entire month alone with them. Suddenly the ten grand Maureen Vance had given her in exchange didn’t feel like enough.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love the children. They were each wonderful in their own ways, but it was when they were together that made Julie want to bring out the holy water and start dousing them. Unfortunately, holy water was the one item she hadn’t thought to pack.
Not like you had a choice, the voice reminded her. It truly didn’t seem to matter how Julie looked at it, ten thousand dollars for one month’s work to sit around and watch three small children hadn’t seemed like such a bad fate. She could read by the lake, get a tan, and unwind from the grueling exams she had just finished. The fact that all that pretty coin came tax free and paid for her rent, her next year’s set of books, and a pretty new laptop was just an added bonus.
Nevertheless, she should have asked for more. It wasn’t like Maureen couldn’t afford it. She practically threw the money at Julie with the promise of more if she needed it.
“Just take them somewhere!” Maureen had begged.
Somewhere, turned out to be the middle of nowhere, camping. Julie, whose idea of nature was sitting on the balcony of her tiny apartment and watching the wind blow through the flowerboxes she had planted earlier that spring, wasn’t sure what to expect. Maureen had promised her that the cabin had everything they needed and all Julie had to do was watch the kids. That Julie could manage.
“Only thirty-days.” Her grumble was swallowed by a shriek from Wendy that was practically a physical force spiking through Julie’s eardrums.
“Wendy peed her pants!” Rick sing-songed with smugness.
“I didn’t!” Wendy sobbed. “Rick dumped my water!”
“What?” Restraining herself from whirling around in her seat, Julie tightened her grip on the wheel and settled on casting panicked glances into the rearview mirror.
“Wendy peed her pants! Wendy peed her pants!” Rick sang at the top of his lungs.
Wendy punched him in the chest. “I didn’t!”
“Wendy hit me!” Rick screamed, then followed it by punching Wendy back.
“Guys!” Julie shouted uselessly. “Wendy, what happened? Dustin, a little help?”
No one was listening to her. Dustin moved just long enough to turn up the music on his iPod. His brooding stare remained fixated on the rushing scenery outside the window.
Seeing that she was alone and outnumbered, Julie gritted her teeth and put a little more pressure on the gas pedal. Not too much, but just enough to make the needle jump from the hundred mark to hundred and five. While it wasn’t exactly speeding, especially when the speed limit was a hundred-twenty, she quickly caught herself and went back to her careful driving. The last thing she wanted to do was hit Bambi or another car because the three in the back were driving her insane.
When the oval sign welcoming them to the Salmon Cove, home of the big one, rolled into view, Julie nearly burst into tears. She would have, if her eyes hadn’t already been watering due to the excruciating pain thrumming at her temples.
She concentrated on the steep slope, propelling them downward into the tiny village cradled in the bowl shaped valley. Trees and mountains stood in a protective circle along the outer edges, shielding the town from intruders. Julie sucked in a gulping breath of pine scented air and willed herself to relax. There was still another forty-five minutes before she was free to leave the car.
“We’re almost there!” she sang out as the descent brought them through the winding road cutting between rows of neatly placed and brightly colored shops. “Why don’t you guys let me know when we get closer?”
She knew where the cabin was … roughly, but maybe the task would keep them quiet for the next half hour.
The Vance’s summer cottage was tucked away in a secluded patch of wilderness at the foot of a majestic mountain capped with snow. Julie had never been there before, but the two story structure was nothing like she ever imagined a cottage would look like. Granted, it was made of logs, but the rustic feel ended there.
It was sprawling with a wraparound terrace around the second floor and enormous windows that glinted beneath the late sun. The front drive was almost a mile away from the main road and completely canopied by a tangle of trees. Paved highway ended in gravel, leading to smooth white cement that haloed an empty fountain and was hugged by miles of neatly manicured lawn. It was the sort of place she envisioned strung out celebrities would be sent to detox. It was certainly not what she pictured when Maureen told her it was a simple, rustic place.
Julie pulled the car to a gentle halt at the bottom of the stairs and cut the engine. Dustin, Wendy, and Rick tumbled out of the car almost immediately. They stretched their legs by setting off in all directions. At least Rick and Wendy did. Dustin slumped over to the stairs and flopped down on the third step, fiddling with his DS.
“Don’t go far, guys!” Julie called after the two chasing each other around the back of the house.
She checked the backseat of her car first and cringed at the dark stain in the worn upholstery. Scooping her long, blonde hair over one shoulder, she bent down slightly and sniffed.
Exhaling, Julie straightened and backed out of the car. She slammed the door shut before moving around to pop the trunk. She dug inside for the box of groceries, propped it against her hip and headed up the stairs.
“Want to give me a hand, Dustin?” she asked, juggling with the box and her keys.
“No,” he grumbled, eyes focused on blasting aliens, or zombies—Julie wasn’t sure.
“Please?” she prompted.
For a moment, it looked like he would refuse again. But he set down his game machine and stomped to his feet. He took the keys from her and jabbed them into the lock. He pushed the door open and stepped back as the alarm screeched to life.
Hurrying inside, Julie set the box down and dug into her pocket for the piece of paper Maureen had given her with the alarm code. She keyed it in quickly and exhaled when the piercing sound halted.
“Julie! Julie, come look!” Wendy appeared in the open doorway, rosy faced and beaming.
“Can it wait?” she asked. “I need to put the milk away and you need to change your shorts—”
“No!” the girl whined. “You have to see this!”
Abandoning the groceries, she followed Wendy back outside. Dustin was no longer slumped on the steps, but standing next to Rick alongside the house, staring under the porch. Dreading the possibility of a possum or other rodent infestation, Julie joined them and peered into the hole cautiously. The opening wasn’t very large, but it was dark.
“What are we looking at?” she wondered.
“Look! There!” Wendy pointed frantically, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
Still squinting, Julie moved in slightly closer, wishing she’d thought to bring a flashlight.
Then she saw them. Tiny, glowing eyes peered back at her. For a moment, her heart scuttled in fear, certain it was a healthy family of rats, or something equally disgusting. But then she saw the little ears and big yellow eyes and she melted a little.
A black and white tabby blinked at her, surrounding by no less than five furry babies.
“Aw!” Julie crooned.
“Can we keep them?” Wendy asked eagerly.
Julie thought of Maureen and her spotless white living room with priceless antiques and polished hardwood floors and cringed.
“Yeah, that won’t happen.”
“But why?” Wendy moaned.
Julie straightened. “Because they’re still very little and can’t be adopted for a while.”
“Can we touch one?” Rick asked.
Julie shook her head and lied. “If you touch them, the mother won’t take care of them. Just leave them alone, okay?”
“But what if they’re hungry?” Rick asked.
“The babies are getting milk from their mother,” Julie explained. “But we can bring something out for her, okay?” She turned to the group. “Let’s get the stuff inside first. Wendy, please change your bottoms.”
Inside, every inch was modernized. Plasma TVs and gaming systems took up nearly every room. There were no less than eight bedrooms, each one with its own full bathroom and access to the terrace. Each room was big enough to fit a herd of elephants and smelled like fresh laundry—a mixture of wildflowers, meadow and sunshine. The furniture was shiny and the rich color of cream. It was like walking into the White House. She was almost too afraid to touch anything.
I am never leaving, Julie decided as she left the children to settle into their rooms and started down a magnificent hall that curved slightly as it cut deeper through the house. On the left was a set of stairs that led to the second floor. On the opposite side, two doorways led to the sitting area and the kitchen. Julie peeked in briefly at the sitting area. The interior was dark, but she caught a quick glimpse of a plasma TV and a wide assortment of furniture before she ducked into the kitchen.
The kitchen was incredible. Stainless steel appliances gleamed in the fading light floating in through windows. Marble countertops counteracted the onyx cupboards and the solid glass table that sat on the other side of a grand island with built in grill. But it was the wall across the room that had Julie setting the box down and drifting forward. The entire thing swung open to a wide patio and a whole backdrop made for painting. It was the sort of place made to inspire. She had no trouble seeing herself curled up on the patio swing with a cup of coffee as the sun rose over the wall of trees hugging the sparkling lake below. Even in that moment, the water was rippling like liquid gold, tinted by the smear of orange melting into the horizon. She drew in a breath and held it for five heartbeats before releasing it slowly.
For the first time since locking herself up in the car with three rumbustious kids, Julie was actually happy she had accepted the job.
Turning away from the dazzling sight, she made her way back to the counter and the groceries that needed tending to. She organized while dialing Maureen on the house phone.
“How did it go?” the other woman asked almost immediately. “Did you make it there okay?”
Phone propped between her ear and shoulder, Julie grunted at a little as she tried to wedge a box of cereal into the cupboard with one hand while shoving stuff aside to make room with the other.
“Oh, everything was fine,” she lied smoothly. “The kids barely made a peep.”
Maureen exhaled. “Oh I am so glad to hear that. I was sure this would be difficult for them.”
“Nah,” Julie assured her. “They were excited to get here.”
How is Dustin? Julie asked herself with just a hint of tense amusement.
“He’s fine.” She briefly wondered how many lies she could tell in a single phone conversation before she was struck down by a bolt of lightning. “He’s getting his room together as we speak.”
Maureen sighed again. “He’s taking this so hard. I was hoping to spare him … but Dean thought the kids had a right to know, you know?” She released another deep exhale. “Thank you for taking them, Julie. I think a change of scenery will help make this easier.”
Julie doubted that, but she wasn’t paid to voice her opinion. “We’ll have loads of fun here,” she promised instead.
After several more reassurances that everything was fine and yes, all the doors and windows would be locked at all times, Maureen let Julie hang up and finish unpacking.
It took her all of one trip to haul her duffle from the car into the house.
The master suite at the end of the upstairs hall was as grand and lavish as the rest of the place. The carpets were an eggshell white and thick enough to swim through. The bed was wide and a dark mahogany that beautifully complimented the soft, mint green coloring of the walls. She even had her own separate set of doors leading onto the terrace that overlooked the lake, which in her opinion, was the best part.
She dropped her bag onto the bed and started the slow process of unpacking. She hadn’t brought much, despite the fact that she would be away from civilization for an entire month. But she had never been the sort to over pack. There was exactly ten of everything, which could be mixed and matched at random. That was enough outfits for two weeks and since it would just be her and the kids, there was no one to judge her for not being a fashionista. Her mother would have a heart attack if she ever learned Julie was traipsing through the wilderness and had only taken along a single pair of sneakers and one set of flip-flops. It made no sense to anyone how she could be so blasé about her looks when her mother lived and breathed fashion. But then, Julie had never been a normal child in her mother’s eyes.
Tessa Brewer, fashion designer by day and home decorator by night, had wanted one child, a girl preferably, who would one day take over her business. Instead she got Julie, who spent a very large percentage of her time examining dead bodies.
Her love of forensics started while watching the Scooby gang solve impossible crimes, later it was Law and Order and CSI. Her mother had been appalled when Julie had announced her desires to dissect and examine crime scenes.
“No daughter of mine is going to sit at my dinner table after fondling a carcass all day!”
So, Julie had moved out, gotten her own apartment a block away from the University of Alberta and started on getting her bachelor’s degree. Two years later, she was still as much in love with the whole process as she had been from day one—much to her mother’s eternal despair.
With the last item stowed away in the dresser, Julie dusted her hands and turned to the final item still nestled at the bottom of the bag. The steel coating on the bat glinted in the golden light. The thing had been a gift from an old boyfriend after one of the suites in her building had been broken into. He had wanted to get her a gun, but thankfully she had managed to talk him out of that. The bat usually sat propped in the corner of her apartment, tucked away behind the coatrack next to the door. She had never had to use it, thank God, but she liked having it close. Kind of like a security blanket.
“Julie?” Dustin poked his head through the gap between the doors. “I’m hungry.”
Pulling the flaps on her duffle closed, Julie straightened and turned to face the miniature-sized person shadowing her doorway. “How do you feel about chili?”
Dustin blinked very slowly, watching her through his round glasses. “How do you feel about having your skin melted off? Because that’s what will happen if Wendy so much as smells the stuff.”
Biting the inside of her cheek, Julie moved towards him and slipped an arm around his thin shoulders. “I hear it’s going to be a cold night. We can do with some heat.”
Laughing, she propelled him downstairs and nudged him towards the rec room where Wendy and Rick were arguing over whose turn it was on the TV. She walked into the kitchen and began taking out pots and pans and starting the process of chili making.
Supper ended when Rick flicked a bit of meat at Wendy and hit Dustin instead. It was only the threat of no dessert for the remainder of the month, plus a phone call to their mother, that got them to settle them down long enough to march upstairs for a quick shower and bed. They must have been exhausted, because no one argued with her. Teeth were brushed, hairs were braided—in Wendy’s case—and pajamas were donned. She read two chapters of Percy Jackson, tucked the children into bed and slipped back downstairs to stow her car in the garage and clean up.
Once the kitchen was back in order, she did a quick tour of the house, double checking the locks and windows and setting the alarm. She considered parking herself in front of the TV and unwinding, but between the drive and the children, Julie was ready for some shut eye. Plus tomorrow promised to be a very long day.
After checking on each kid and making sure they were tucked in, she slipped into her own room. She left the door slightly ajar in case the children needed her and moved to the side of her bed, digging into the pocket of her jeans as she went. She emptied her phone, loose change, a squished pack of gum, and the piece of paper with the alarm code onto the nightstand. She grabbed a long t-shirt from the dresser and padded into the bathroom to braid her hair and wash up for the night.
In the brightly lit mirror, her reflection stared back at her with all the exhaustion thrumming through her. Deep, purple rings haloed her gray eyes. The pallor of her round face made them seem prominent like someone had punched her in the face, giving her two shiners. That, unfortunately hadn’t been the case. The truth was that she had been running herself ragged the last year, throwing herself into her studies and work and babysitting, plus trying to appease her mother by volunteering at the clothing boutique twice a week. Getting away for a month to do nothing but sunbathe and swim had been almost a godsend. Had Maureen not offered the money, Julie probably would have still said yes, just to get away for a few days.
Sighing, she ran the water in the sink before splashing her face in hopes of reducing some of the puffiness. She brushed her teeth, applied a thick coat of moisturizer and shuffled her way back into the bedroom. The sheets were cool and silky as they slid against the bare skin of her legs. Julie moaned quietly with a profound happiness to be off her feet and snuggled into the downy folds of her pillow. She closed her eyes and let herself drift comfortably into a dreamless sleep.
Unfortunately, she didn’t stay there.
It was two in the morning when the alarm shrieked to life.