She woke when Sam kissed her. What a lovely way to begin the day!
Sam was already dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, and his long hair was wet from the shower. Jessica realised she’d slept late again and vowed to set an alarm for the next morning. She enjoyed the luxury of being able to sleep in, but she didn’t want to miss any part of this holiday.
Still, waking up to a kiss was nice and she smiled up at Sam.
“Hi,” she answered, reaching up to claim another kiss. “What time is it?”
“A bit after nine. Claire’s up, but I think Brady’s still in bed. Coming down for breakfast?”
She agreed she would love breakfast and asked Sam to go ahead, since it was his turn to cook.
In the bathroom, Jessica’s optimistic mood fell away as she stood in front of the mirror and examined her stomach. The scabbed-over scratches looked horrible. She knew they would heal, but for this summer at least the scars would be visible enough that she couldn’t bear it. She would have to beg Brady for a loan of his SUV so she could drive into town and buy a swimsuit to replace the bikini: one that would hide the worst marks. The scratches on her thighs…well, she’d just have to live with those.
After her shower, she selected her clothing with the same thing in mind. Knee-length cargo pants were an easy enough choice but all of her t-shirts were designed to expose her midriff. She had a curvy figure with a flat stomach she liked to show off. Maybe she should shop for more than just a swimsuit…but what could she wear today? A t-shirt was out of the question. In the end she selected a longline blouse with a gypsy neckline. It made her look fat and she scowled at herself in the mirror. She put on just a little makeup to compensate and pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail. She smiled at her reflection, satisfied. She was ready to face the day.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon and toast, courtesy of Sam who claimed this was the only thing he could cook. Jessica had no idea of the true extent of his culinary skills, but he had evidently practiced this particular menu: the eggs were light and fluffy and the bacon perfectly crisp. He burned the toast…but she liked it that way.
Claire seemed a little out of sorts, but she didn’t say anything about what was troubling her until Brady appeared, mid-way through the meal.
“What on earth were you doing last night?” she demanded of him, without so much as a good morning. “I hardly got any sleep thanks to the noise!”
Brady stopped in the act of reaching for a slice of toast. He looked baffled. “What noise? I was reading until about midnight, then I went to sleep.”
Claire snorted. “Someone was banging on the walls under my room.” She turned to Jessica, seeking support. “Didn’t it wake you, too?”
“No. I slept like a log.” Jessica frowned. She did remember something, though… “What time was this?”
“I don’t know,” she answered grumpily. “After midnight.”
Sam came up to the table with a fresh pan of egg. “Who’s next?” he asked and when Brady claimed the serving Sam spooned scrambled egg onto his plate. “I thought I heard something myself,” he told Claire. “Not pounding though. It sounded like someone running past our room.”
Jessica remembered that. Footsteps and laughter, but she couldn’t remember if it had been a male or female voice. Nor did she know what time it had been.
Brady shrugged. “Wasn’t me.” He went on eating.
Jessica frowned at him. “Doesn’t anyone else think this is weird? There’s only the four of us here, right?”
Sam nodded. “If it’s someone’s idea of a joke, it’s not funny.”
“Yeah,” Claire agreed. “Fess up.”
No one at the table admitted to being the joker. Jessica looked around at each of them. Whoever had been outside their room last night, it had to be either Brady or Claire. Whoever kept Claire awake…she remembered Sam leaving their bed and realised she had to consider him a suspect in that part. But Brady was the only one who could possibly be responsible for both. But why would he do something like that? If it was meant as a practical joke, Brady would admit to it. He was the kind of guy who liked to take credit. Unless Claire was lying…? But that made no sense, either. She knew Claire. Claire’s idea of a practical joke was an upturned glass or an apple-pie bed.
Jessica kept her thoughts to herself. After waiting a reasonable time in case someone wanted to continue the conversation, she changed the subject. “Brady, do you mind if Sam and I borrow the car this morning?”
Sam looked surprised and she realised she hadn’t mentioned her plans to him.
Brady dug into his pocket and slid his keys across the table. “No problem, as long as you buy gas.” He glanced across to Claire. “I thought we could rig a volleyball court on the lawn for when the others arrive. If there’s a lawnmower I can use, I’ll cut the grass out there.”
Jessica smiled. “That sounds like fun.” They were expecting several friends to join them for the weekend. If the weather was good they’d planned a bonfire on the beach…though that seemed less likely now. But volleyball would be fun.
Claire agreed. “I haven’t checked the shed but Uncle Rick should have one of those grass cutters you drive around the lawn.”
Brady grinned. “Fantastic. We can race!”
Sam slid across and hugged Jessica around her waist. “Where are we going?”
She didn’t want to admit she needed a swimsuit to hide her scars. “I ruined my favourite shorts yesterday. I want to get some new ones. We should probably buy some first aid supplies, too. I didn’t think about how difficult it could be if one of us gets hurt out here and now we know you’re as good as a paramedic…” she left it hanging with a fond smile.
Sam nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
The nearest neighbour to the house where they were staying was a riding school about six miles down the road: a short drive, and an easy distance to walk in an emergency. That made Jessica feel a bit better about their isolation. But the nearest town, and thus the nearest official anything, was much further. Jessica didn’t argue when Sam headed for an outdoor sports store and bought a bunch of cliff-climbing gear “just in case”.
Clothes shopping didn’t take Jessica very long since she had specific purchases in mind. She bought several cheap tops in bright colours and a plain blue swimsuit. When she tried to buy the promised first aid box, though, Sam stopped her and instead of a pre-packed kit he chose the items he wanted separately.
“Did you learn this from your dad, too?” Jessica asked him, looking at the assortment of things in her basket.
Sam, carefully comparing two different brands of antiseptic wash, didn’t look at her as he answered, “Mostly. Dad…got hurt a lot. Hunting accidents. Or fights. We never had any insurance, so I learned how to patch up most things.”
Jessica didn’t know what to say. Those few sentences said so much about the life Sam had lived before college. She was aware of her own privilege: her parents were not wealthy by Palo Alto’s standards, but they could afford to send her to Stanford and she had a college fund which, on top of her student loans, let her live quite comfortably. She couldn’t imagine how poor Sam’s father must have been if teaching a kid to set bones and stitch up wounds was preferable to having basic health insurance.
She swallowed, hard. “Well…I’m glad to have someone around who knows what to do.”
Sam hugged her briefly. “I’m not the only one. Brady’s pre-med, remember?”
Jessica frowned. She had forgotten that. But Brady hadn’t offered his help yesterday; in fact he seemed glad to let Sam take over. Maybe pre-med didn’t include first aid, but now that Sam had brought it up, it seemed weird as hell.
“He’s pre-med,” she agreed lightly, “but he came this close to flunking out this year. I’d rather trust you.”
“Brady’s had problems,” Sam answered, a little defensively, “but he’ll catch up next year.” Then he smiled. “Still, I hope he’s not planning to specialise in trauma. He totally froze yesterday.” He turned toward the checkout. “Come on. We’ve got everything we need here.”
Sam suggested they re-stock some of the perishables while they were in town. They didn’t really need to, but Jessica was happy to head back via the store. They bought milk, eggs and fruit. Instead of buying bread, which they did need, Jessica decided to buy flour and yeast so she could make the bread fresh. The house had a gorgeous kitchen and she was enjoying taking advantage of it.
While Jessica was waiting at the checkout, Sam said he’d forgotten something and headed back into the store. Jessica expected him to rejoin her so she could pay for everything together, but he went to a different checkout. Curious, she tried to see what he was buying. More beer – that was predictable – but there was something else, too: something that came in white plastic tubs.
As they loaded up the SUV, Sam offered Jessica something wrapped in wax paper. She saw he was struggling to contain a smile, so it had to be something good. Jessica unwrapped it carefully. It was a piece of crystallised honeycomb.
“Sam!” she squealed in delight. It was her favourite.
“I saw it on our way in and I remembered you liked it,” he grinned.
“I do! Here, have some.” She broke off a piece of the sticky, sugary bar and held it up to his mouth. Sam took it from her fingers, drawing her fingertips into his mouth and sucking the honey off them before he released her.
“Mm, sweet.” His grin – almost a leer – suggested he didn’t mean the honey.
Jessica faked a Marilyn Monroe pout, then took a bite for herself. It exploded with sweetness on her tongue. Perfection. “Thank you, Sam,” she smiled, her curiosity about his mysterious purchase forgotten.
While Sam drove the SUV, they shared the honeycomb; Jessica fed Sam one small piece at a time. They had one more stop to make: a gas station to keep their promise to Brady. It was a small gas station – just two pumps, side by side. Jessica waited in the SUV while Sam filled the tank.
She licked honey off her fingers, idly watching the cars passing on the road. A blue van with a religious bumper sticker. A white truck. A green car with two children in the back. A black car with Kansas plates pulling in to fill at the other pump. A red car with a dog hanging its head out of the window. The driver of the black car glanced at her as he walked around to the pump, then looked again, giving her an appreciative smile. Jessica smiled back; he was a handsome man and a little harmless flirting cost her nothing.
She saw Sam appear in the gas station’s doorway. He stopped dead, staring…staring past her, not at her. Jessica turned, but all she could see behind her was the driver of the black car, now waiting while gasoline flowed into his tank.
Jessica rolled down her window quickly. “Sam, what’s wrong?”
He didn’t seem to hear her. Sam strode around the front of the SUV. For a confused moment, Jessica thought he’d seen her moment of flirtation with the driver and was pissed, though that would be out of character for Sam. Then she heard his voice, challenging.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The driver grinned at him. “Hey, Sammy. How’s it hanging?”
So they knew each other? Jessica watched the exchange, not exactly reassured.
Sam did not look happy to see him. “What are you doing here?” he repeated.
“Looking for my little brother.”
“Why?” The word was flat, hostile.
Brother? This was Sam’s brother?
The man shrugged. “Dad’s on a job and he didn’t want me along. I remembered school’s out now, so I thought I’d swing by Palo Alto for a beer. Wasn’t hard to find out where you’d gone.”
Sam frowned. “Bullshit.” He added something Jessica didn’t quite catch. It sounded like, “Am I supposed to believe this is just a coincidence?”
Whatever Sam had said, it made his brother look at him sharply. “Something you want to tell me, Sammy?”
Jessica slid across the seat to the driver’s side and leaned out of the window. “Hey! Going to introduce me?”
Sam started, as if he’d forgotten she was there. “Uh…sorry. Jessica, this is my brother, Dean Winchester.”
She gave her best welcoming smile. “Hi, it’s good to meet you.”
Dean’s look in return was frankly appraising. His eyes met hers for the briefest possible moment, then dropped to her chest. “Hey. Any friend of Sammy’s…”
“Dude, quit hitting on my girl.”
Dean turned to Sam, then back to Jessica, then to Sam again. “She’s your girlfriend? Man, she’s way out of your league.”
Jessica figured he intended that as a compliment, but she wasn’t flattered by a man talking about her as if she wasn’t there. Two could play at that game. “I’m out of your league,” she corrected, “not Sam’s.” She smiled sweetly and beckoned to Sam.
Sam came to her with a grin, glanced at Dean and kissed Jessica, maybe a little more thoroughly than the exercise required. “We should go,” he said when he drew away from her.
She agreed. “Sam, if you want to spend time with your brother, it’s okay. Invite him. Claire won’t mind.” Jessica hesitated, reconsidering. “In fact, she’ll kick your ass if you don’t invite him.”
“I don’t know, Jess. My family isn’t…”
Dean interrupted. “I haven’t seen you for two years, Sam. I ain’t gonna crash your party, but can we at least have a beer?”
Sam looked uncomfortable, but he gave in. “Okay. Dean, why don’t you follow us back to the house? I’m sure you’ll love hanging out with a bunch of college kids.” His voice dripped sarcasm.
Dean either didn’t notice or chose to ignore the subtext to Sam’s words. “If they all look like Jessica here, I will! Thanks, Sammy.” He winked at Jessica. “Good to meet you, sweetheart.” Then, to Sam, “Go ahead. If you drive slow, I can catch up after I pay the man.”
Sam was quiet for the rest of the drive.
Jessica was afraid she’d done the wrong thing. She knew Sam hadn’t been happy to see his brother at first, but surely he would want to spend a little time with him. It was family, after all. Jessica came from a close family; if her parents or one of her brothers showed up unexpectedly she couldn’t imagine blowing them off after just a few words exchanged in a gas station.
Then she remembered Sam talking about living with fear. She remembered the odd scars on his body and realised there might be a good reason he so rarely talked about his past. If the fear he’d lived with was fear of his family… Jessica swallowed hard, not wanting that to be true.
But…no. Sam was a strong-willed man. He didn’t let anyone push him around. If he wanted to refuse her suggestion, he would have.
She had to ask. “Sam, don’t you want…?” she began.
“It’s okay, Jess,” Sam interrupted before she could finish. “Dean’s a good person. I just don’t think he’ll fit in with…us.”
“Is he dangerous?” she asked bluntly.
Sam turned to stare at her, for so long Jessica was afraid he’d forgotten he was driving. “Dangerous?” he repeated.
“Do I need to warn Claire?” Jessica said. “And please watch the road. You’re scaring me.”
Sam faced front again. “No,” he said after a long silence. “Dean’s rough around the edges but he’d never hurt an innocent.” He smiled suddenly. “He could be good for her. Is she still having trouble with Brady?”
“It was never really trouble, Sam.” Jessica sprang to their friend’s defence without thinking. “Brady just…”
“Had trouble taking no for an answer.”
“You make him sound like a stalker!” Jessica protested. Claire and Brady had been close friends since they first met. One day Brady decided – or perhaps admitted – that he wanted them to be more than friends. Claire wasn’t interested in him that way. For a little while it had been unpleasant, but that was before Christmas. They had rebuilt their friendship and things were okay between them now.
“No, he wasn’t that bad,” Sam admitted. “I was just going to say that if she wanted to make sure Brady got the hint, she could do worse than Dean. As long as it’s only casual.”
Jessica chuckled. “You’re suggesting I pimp your brother to my best friend?” she asked, just to be sure.
Sam laughed. “Hell no. If I know Dean, he won’t need that kind of help.” He turned the SUV into the open gateway.
Jessica glanced back as they turned off the road. Dean in his long, black car, was right behind them.
“Go ahead of us and find Claire,” Sam suggested.
“Good idea. I’ll just grab my new clothes.” Jessica opened the rear door of the SUV and found the bag containing Sam’s beer right on top of her newly purchased clothing. She sighed in exasperation. Boys.
She lifted the heavy bag and turned, intending to place it on the tarmac but Dean was there. With a gesture, he offered to take the bag from her so she gave it to him before retrieving the one she wanted.
Dean peered into the bag he held as Sam joined them. “Oh, no. Nothing’s going on here. Right, Sammy?”
Sam answered with an uncharacteristically curt, “Later,” and reached into the SUV for the rest of their purchases.
Jessica left them to it and hurried into the house. “Claire! Brady!” she called, but no one answered her. She hadn’t really expected it: they were probably outside enjoying the sun. She scampered up the stairs to put her new clothes away and changed into one of her new tops – a bright, sunny yellow. Vibrant colours brightened her mood and she picked up her sketch pad. Some drawing would be a good way to relax in the sun. She pulled out her art supplies and pondered the collection for a while. The setting suited watercolours or pastels but she decided to begin with charcoal. Charcoal was her comfort-zone and a few simple sketches would help her work up to a bigger challenge.
Sketch pad and charcoal in hand, Jessica ran down the stairs and through the house – pausing to let Sam know where she would be – and out onto the terrace. The wide stone terrace ran the full width of the house and had a brick barbeque built in at one end. Claire was there, an open sack of charcoal beside her.
“You’re back!” Claire smiled.
“And I brought a surprise,” Jessica grinned back. “We ran into Sam’s brother.” Without waiting to be asked, she set her sketch pad down and picked up the sack, upending it to pour chunks of charcoal into the barbeque.
Claire reached in, using her hands to spread it evenly. “Really? What’s he like?”
“My first impression: nothing like Sam. He hit on me within about ten seconds of seeing me.” She considered, then amended, “More like five. And, don’t tell Sam, but if I were single…” she grinned and fanned herself with one hand. “Come to momma!”
“So he’s hot,” Claire translated. “Is he staying?”
“Your house, your call. I came to ask you if it’s okay. We invited him for the day, but he came a long way to find Sam. If you’re okay with him staying…?”
“There’s loads of space, Jess. He’s welcome. But I guess I should meet him first, just to make sure he’s housetrained.” She gave her best fake-innocent look.
“Oh, of course.” Jessica laid the metal grille over the charcoal. “Is Brady around?”
Claire’s smile vanished. “We had a bit of a fight. He’s reading.” She said reading as if she strongly disapproved of the activity.
“Oh. Well, I wanted to give Sam some space. Would you sit for me?” Jessica reached for the sketch pad. She knew Claire wouldn’t mind. She’d posed for Jessica before.
“Sure. But first you’ve got to introduce me to Sam’s hot brother.”
It was unusual for Claire and Brady to fight, and Jessica wondered about that, but she thought Claire would tell her while she sketched. It did not take long to get the formalities out of the way. Claire met Dean and invited him to stay as long as he liked – just pick any bedroom not already occupied. He thanked her and said he’d love to stay, but only for a few days as he had to “get back”. They discussed plans for the evening barbeque and Sam asked Claire’s permission to explore the house. He added that Dean was really interested in old houses like this and would enjoy hearing some of its history. Jessica told him her plans to spend the afternoon sketching before Sam could try to apologise for wanting to spend time with Dean. Then they parted ways.
It felt good to have a sketch book in her hands again. If Jessica was feeling any residual tension after the scares of the previous day, they melted away as she blocked out her composition. Claire posed on the steps leading down from the terrace, beneath a magnolia tree. The shadows from the tree made interesting shapes across her face and the white Indian-cotton dress she wore. The cotton was so light the skirt billowed in the slightest breeze. Her dyed-auburn hair was cropped short and spiky and the bright sun caught the highlights dramatically. Jessica outlined Claire’s pose with a few quick strokes, then the steps. Next, she added just a suggestion of the house beyond as background before she selected a fresh piece of charcoal and started to add details.
“You play piano, don’t you?” Claire asked. She held her pose, but raised her face a little to catch the sun.
Jessica watched her for a moment, studying the way the light fell on her glossy hair. “Not very well,” she answered, hoping Claire wasn’t going to ask her to play. Jessica’s parents made her take music lessons as a child, but they had always been a chore. She appreciated music, she just didn’t much enjoy making it. There were a few pieces she could play from memory and she could make an adequate attempt at playing from sheet music, but she had no real talent for it.
“You know there’s a piano here?” Claire asked.
Jessica’s heart sank. “I saw it when we opened the house,” she agreed. It was a baby grand piano in one of the front-facing rooms.
“Have you used it at all since we’ve been here?” Claire asked.
Jessica laid down her charcoal to smudge in some shadows with her thumb. “No, I don’t really like to play. Why?”
“It was open,” Claire answered. Her voice sounded very odd.
Jessica waited, but Claire didn’t volunteer anything more. After a moment, Jessica went back to work on her portrait. She worked in silence for a while and slowly the image took shape on her page. She paused to study Claire’s expression and set the sketchbook down.
“Claire, what’s bothering you? Is it Brady?”
“No. Well…yes. In a way. Can I see?”
“I’m not finished.” Jessica picked up her sketch again, but didn’t resume drawing. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“You’re my best friend, Jess. Can I trust you to keep this to yourself?”
Jessica didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”
“Of whom?” Jessica asked.
Claire laughed, but there was no humour in the sound. “Of me, I guess. Keep drawing, Jessica. It’ll be easier for me to tell you.”
Jessica picked up her charcoal. “Okay, sure.”
“I keep replaying what happened on the cliff. I saw someone there, Jess, I know I did. Except I couldn’t possibly have seen someone. And last night all that pounding on the walls kept me awake, but none of you even heard it. Jess, it was so loud!”
“It was a stressful day,” Jessica said carefully, though it hadn’t been until the accident on the cliff. She kept her eyes on the sketch because she could see where Claire was going with this.
“And today…” Claire hesitated, then plunged ahead, “I tried to get Brady to admit he heard something last night, but he wouldn’t. We had a real argument and I accused him of doing it to make me crazy. Oh, god, I didn’t really mean it. Anyway, he said he’d prove it wasn’t him and he made me go upstairs with him and we tried to recreate what I’d heard. And we couldn’t.”
That sounded like a sensible approach. Jessica nodded. “What did you do to recreate it?”
“You know, banged on the walls, on the ceiling. Tried different rooms to see what it sounded like from the attic. I don’t see how anyone could have made the noise I heard. Not without leaving dents all over the paintwork.”
“Well, there is one way,” Jessica pointed out. Maybe it was Claire’s lack of sleep, but she was missing something obvious.
Claire’s head jerked up. She’d been sitting still all the time Jessica was drawing, but now she broke her pose for the first time and scrambled closer. “What way?”
“A recording. It wouldn’t explain why no one else heard it, but if you recorded some loud pounding you could amplify the playback as much as you wanted.” As Jessica spoke, she realised she was effectively accusing Brady, which she hadn’t intended to do. She thought it more likely that Claire had a nightmare. And what she’d seen on the cliff path could have been a seagull or a shadow, as Claire had said herself, combined with her memory playing tricks. The incident had been very frightening for both of them.
Claire frowned. “Yes, that would explain it. But not the other thing.”
“You mean the cliff? But you said – ”
“Not the cliff. While Brady and I were up in the attic I kept hearing the piano. Just little snatches of music, but always the same tune.”
So this was why Claire asked about the piano. Jessica nodded, but made no comment.
“It wasn’t just me!” Claire went on, her speech becoming more rapid. “Brady heard it too, this time. We both knew we were alone in the house, so there was no one who could be playing. And when we went to investigate, we could tell from outside the door that it had to be the piano playing. But when we opened the door, there was no one there.”
“No one there, but the piano was open,” Jessica concluded. She shivered, despite the heat of the day. Could there be someone else in the house with them, unknown to them? It was a big house; an intruder would not find it difficult to hide. She remembered Sam saying if this is more Camp Crystal Lake than Hill House… But of course that was silly. No one was in danger…were they?
Jessica looked down at her finished portrait. While drawing, she concentrated on the light and shadow. Today, the sun was bright so the shadows were sharply delineated – hard lines and strong shadows. Her charcoal had captured a worried smile on Claire’s face. The girl’s pose looked slightly hunched; that was bad. Jessica smudged a few lines with her fingertip, trying to correct it.
“Jess,” Claire said in a small voice, “do you think I’m crazy?”
Usually, Jessica would have responded flippantly to that. She would have said, you’re the psych major, you tell me. But she’d been on that cliff path. She understood Claire’s fear. She had to say the right thing here, but she didn’t know what that was. Claire was usually so sensible. She analysed everything until she understood…
“No, you’re not crazy,” Jessica answered seriously. “Come on, Claire. You know this. What happened on the cliff, you explained it yourself. Memory and the brain filling in the gaps. You told us.”
“Maybe, but – ”
“The noise last night. Tell me what could explain that, psychologically speaking. It was the middle of the night, you were tired…” Jessica left it hanging, hoping like hell there was some psych thing that would fit.
“Hypnagogic hallucinations,” Claire said thoughtfully.
Thank god. “Hypno…what’s that?”
“Hypnagogic means sleep related. That state you’re in when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake, either. Sometimes people in that state experience vivid hallucinations. A little like a waking dream, but it can feel very real.”
“How rare is that?”
“It’s quite common.”
“So, could that be what happened to you? Why you heard those noises?”
“It’s never happened to me before,” Claire answered.
“But is it possible?”
“Oh, Jess, I don’t know. I’d have to look it up.” Claire looked happier, though, now she had a potentially logical explanation. “But what about the piano?”
Jessica was ready for the question. “Well, when we went through the house and packed up all the dust covers, we explored a lot of things. We opened cupboards and moved things around. Any of us might have opened the piano and forgotten about it. We haven’t used the room since, so we wouldn’t notice. I can’t explain why you heard piano music, but if Brady heard it too then it wasn’t an hallucination.” That was, in a way, more worrying, but Jessica didn’t pursue the issue.
Jessica turned the sketchbook around to show Claire. “Here. What do you think?”
Claire took the book. “Not bad,” she said slowly and then grinned. “But I thought you were drawing me.” It was an old joke. She looked closely at the picture. “May I keep it, or do you need it for your portfolio?”
“It’s not good enough for the portfolio.” Jessica took the sketchbook back and signed the picture before carefully extracting the page. “There. You can sell it on E-bay when I’m famous.”
Sam was right when he said Dean wouldn’t exactly fit in with the group. The biggest problem was the music. The only stereo was Brady’s and they had a fairly limited collection of CDs. Dean limited himself to making it clear he disliked the music at first, but after Brady put Brittney on repeat, Dean begged them to pick a radio station. But the radio wasn’t working. Claire insisted there had never been a problem at the house before, but there seemed to be interference on every station. Sam tried to hammer out a compromise on the music but it seemed impossible.
Jessica wanted to tell them both to quit. She didn’t really understand why music was so important to them. Was it a guy thing?
She left them arguing in the day room and went to get the barbeque food ready. It didn’t really take much preparation: slicing cheese, frying onions and opening jars mostly.
By the time they gathered for the barbeque, all the arguments were forgotten. There was something about cooking your own food over hot coals that made it impossible to stay pissed off. There was a lot of alcohol, too: Claire made margaritas, Dean drank whiskey straight and they all drank cold beer when the tequila ran low. They danced on the terrace, they joked and laughed and ate until they were stuffed.
“Last piece of chicken!” Jessica called. “Any takers?” She waited. “Going once!”
Brady waved his beer bottle. “Mine!”
Dean looked up. “Any steak left?” he asked.
Jessica checked. There was one piece left; it had been set aside because it was overdone. “It’s a bit burnt.”
Dean grinned. “Just how I like it.”
She thought he was a little crazy, but she dutifully carried the burned steak over to his plate. Dean grabbed the mustard, drowned the steak in it, took a large bite and thanked her with his mouth full. Jessica rejoined Sam on the bench and curled up against his side contentedly.
Claire reclined in a wooden chair with her head tilted back, staring at the full moon overhead. There was a half-finished bottle of beer dangling from her fingers. “Who’s telling the bedtime story tonight?” she asked.
Dean paused with his mouth full of steak. “Bedtime story?” he repeated. “Seriously?”
“It’s full moon,” Jessica observed. “I have a story, if you like.” She had been thinking about it, ever since they began the ghost story tradition. Jessica wasn’t good at scary stories, but there was one werewolf movie she really loved. She could tell part of that one, and the full moon night was the perfect night for it. Hers wasn’t scary. She thought they’d all had enough scary stories for one day.
“Go for it,” Sam encouraged her.
Jessica waited until the others agreed, then reached for her margarita glass. There was a little liquid left, which she swallowed before she licked the salt from the rim with a smile.
“There are wolves in the world,” she began, “that roam in packs, hunt in the forests and howl at the moon. Those wolves are hairy on the outside. But there are others, my grandma told me. The worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside, and when they bite you they drag you with them to Hell.”
Jessica felt Sam shift position behind her; she had his attention. Dean sat up, too, leaning forward a little to listen to her. She was delighted to have their attention so completely. “Once upon a time,” she began, letting her voice fall into a storyteller’s cadence, slow and measured, “when the village was asleep, a she-wolf came from the world below to the world above. It was winter, and snow lay thick upon the ground. Candlelight and flame lit windows, but the she-wolf had the frosty street to herself as she roamed, from house to house.”
Jessica closed her eyes, picturing the scene from the movie. She couldn’t remember exactly how the story went, but that was okay. She could make up the parts she couldn’t recall. Her story was Rosaleen’s tale of the wounded wolf from Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. The wolf was shot by one of the village men, though she threatened no one and meant no harm. She was wounded, but not killed, and fled in agony across the bridge toward the churchyard. She sought only sanctuary, but the moment her paws touched holy ground, she transformed into a woman.
“She was naked and wounded in the snow,” Jessica continued, “but in her human form she could reach the door. She could knock. And that is what she did, waking the old priest who lived in the rectory. You can imagine his shock to find a nude woman bleeding on his doorstep.”
“Bet he loved it,” Dean drawled and Claire laughed.
“He was a good man,” Jessica protested, smiling too.
“Then he definitely loved it,” Dean said promptly. Everyone broke up at that.
Jessica waited for the laughter to subside and then continued. “The priest didn’t know whether she was a creature of God or of the Devil. He suspected she had come from the World Below, but he took pity on her and bandaged her wound. He took her in and cared for her. Perhaps he loved her. Being a wolf inside, she could not speak, but he knew she was grateful for his care. And her wound did heal.”
She took a breath, letting her words hang in the moonlit night. “One night, she stumbled from the rectory into the winter night and found her way back to the World Below. She was just a girl after all, who had strayed from the path in the forest, and become what she found there.”
The story didn’t feel finished, but Jessica couldn’t remember any more of it. She added only the nursery rhyme that ended the story which she had memorised, speaking in a high, sweet voice:
“Little girls, this seems to say
Never stop upon your way
Never trust a stranger friend
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise
Wolves may lurk in every guise
Now, as then, it’s simple truth:
Sweetest tongue hides sharpest tooth.”
There was silence for a moment after Jessica finished. No one had interrupted her after Dean’s salacious comments. They always interrupted – with comments, encouragements, prompts. Jessica didn’t know if it was good or bad that they all just listened to her. Of course, her story was quite short.
Claire was the first to speak. “That was beautiful,” she said quietly.
“Pretty,” Dean agreed, “but real werewolves ain’t cute and cuddly.”
“Dean,” Sam said, and it sounded like a warning.
“It’s okay, Sam,” Jessica said quietly. She didn’t need him to defend her. Not about this, at least. It was only a story, after all, and Jessica knew how to deal with men like Dean.
She smiled at Dean, her best come-fuck-me smile because she knew him well enough by then to suspect that a girl he couldn’t have flirting with him would drive him crazy. “Dean, I’m pretty sure my story was fictional. Why don’t you tell us what werewolves are really like?”
“I don’t wanna give you nightmares, sweetheart,” he answered, meeting her eyes. His smile was slow and knowing, as if he’d already seen her naked.
Jessica caught her breath. Her body responded to that look with an involuntary tingle low and deep inside her.
“Dude!” Sam snapped. “Stop it.”
“She started it.” Dean leaned back in his chair and Jessica felt as if an invisible string between them had snapped.
“Alright,” Dean grinned. “You want to know about real werewolves?”
“Yeah,” Jessica agreed. She looked at Sam, expecting him to encourage Dean, but Sam looked troubled. He didn’t answer.
But Claire did. “Hell, yeah!”
Brady chimed in, too. “Can’t wait.”
Sam still offered no encouragement but it didn’t seem to matter to Dean. He reached for the whiskey bottle, poured himself a glass and knocked it back.
“Hairy on the inside,” he began, looking at Jessica. “I like that. Real werewolves change at the full moon, but not the way you think. Not like you see it in movies. It’s more a change right here.” He tapped his temple. “I guess everyone has,” he leered at Claire, then at Jess, “a bit of animal instinct. Werewolves at the full moon, that’s all they’ve got.”
“You’ve met a few of them, then?” Brady asked, getting into the spirit of it.
Dean shrugged. “Only three. The first was when I was sixteen and it’s not much of a story. Woods, fire, silver bullet. You know the drill. But the second one…that was much more fun.”
Jessica felt Sam tense and turned to look at him. He seemed almost scared. She wondered what on earth he thought his brother was going to say. She laid her hand on his thigh, leaning into his body. Sam hugged her close against him while they listened to Dean’s story.
The tale Dean spun was preposterous, but it was fun. Dean described himself and Sam – he called him Sammy – living in New Mexico with their father, where some mysterious murders terrified the local populace. Dean painted himself a teenage super-sleuth, who tracked down the werewolf all by himself and melted a silver dollar to tip his arrows. On the next full moon night, their father was away at work so Dean was obliged to let Sam accompany him into the wilderness in search of the monster. According to Dean, they found the beast, but Sam tripped over something in the darkness, warning it before Dean could kill it.
Everyone but Jessica laughed, turning to Sam. Sam couldn’t have looked more embarrassed if the story had been true. He glared at Dean, realised he was being watched and forced a smile, trying to look as if he were enjoying the joke. This part of the story was true, Jessica realised. Even if nothing else was, Dean was drawing on something that really happened.
“The damn thing was on Sammy faster than lightning,” Dean picked up his tale. “Last thing I needed was a werewolf for a brother. I mean, think of the housetraining.” He chuckled. “But I couldn’t get a decent aim while it was on top of him. And Sammy here was screamin’ like a girl, trying to get it off him…”
“I did not scream!” Sam interrupted hotly.
Dean simply grinned. “My story, my rules, Sammy.” He went on, ignoring Sam’s dark scowl. “Sammy was screaming, so I knew he was hurt. And I just got mad. Nobody hurts my little brother, you know? I quit looking for the perfect shot. I put an arrow in the bastard.” Dean gave a self-deprecating grin. “I was aiming for its ass, but I guess I was an inch or two low.” He demonstrated with a gesture.
Brady winced. “Ouch!”
“I got its attention, I can tell ya. The thing gave the loudest roar you’ve ever heard and leapt at me. And I got it with my second arrow. Right in its heart.”
Claire clapped her hands. “Oh, well done!”
Sam joined in her applause. “You’ve got a great imagination, Dean. You should write a book.” The words were right, but Sam’s tone was just a little sarcastic.
Jessica saw Dean acknowledge his words with a wink, and interrupted before either brother could speak again. “It was a great story, Dean, but I’m wiped out. I’m going to clear things up then go to bed.” She stood and began to collect their used plates.
Brady stood up to help her and between the two of them they carried the dirty plates and glasses into the kitchen. The empty bottles would wait. Jessica loaded the dishwasher while Brady handed her the crockery, one piece at a time.
“Did Claire tell you about the piano?” Brady asked her quietly.
“She told me you both heard it.”
“We did. I swear to god, Jess, it was real. But there was no one there. There couldn’t have been – it was at least an hour before you and Sam came back.”
Jessica closed the dishwasher and straightened up. A wave of dizziness came over her: she had been drinking a little too freely that night. She grabbed the edge of the dishwasher until it passed. Then she drew a deep breath and glared at Brady.
“Brady,” she said bluntly, “do you think this house is haunted?”
“Of course not! But something weird is – ”
“Then shut the hell up about this!” Jessica interrupted him. “It’s strange and I can’t explain all of it, but Claire’s freaked out enough. She nearly died on that cliff. Let it be. A few weird noises aren’t hurting anyone.”
Brady nodded, chastened. “Okay. I’m sorry, Jess.”
“It’s alright. Just think up some plausible explanation and tell Claire. Please?”
“I’ll try,” he promised.
“Come on, Sammy. Just a few hands of poker.” Through the window of the day room, Jessica saw Dean shuffling a pack of cards restlessly.
“I don’t play poker any more,” Sam insisted. He placed an odd stress on the word poker.
“Sam – ” Dean started to argue.
“No,” Sam answered firmly. “Dean, I’m on vacation. With my girlfriend. I’m going to bed. I’m sure you can figure out why.”
Jessica was gratified he was so determined, but Sam was being strangely intense about it. She walked through the French door, revealing her presence to both brothers.
“Ready, Sam?” she asked brightly.
Sam offered her his hand and, when she took it, drew her in against his side possessively. “I’m ready.”
She smiled at Dean. “Well, goodnight, Dean. Do you need anything else?”
Dean laid his deck of cards on top of his whiskey glass. “I’m good, sweetheart,” he said. “You kids have fun, now.”
Jessica happily allowed Sam to lead her away.
As they climbed the stairs, Jessica said casually, “Dean tells a good story.”
Sam snorted. “He always was a good liar. Dean didn’t do half of what he claims.”
Jessica laughed. “Well, I didn’t think he really shot a werewolf with a silver arrow. Was some of that story true?”
“Parts of it,” Sam admitted. “There were some strange murders while we were living in New Mexico. The victims were Mexicans, illegals, I guess, so no one really cared. I don’t think it was ever solved.” He sighed. “And the last part was sort of true,” he admitted reluctantly. “It wasn’t a werewolf, it was a dog. Attack trained…one of those half-wolf breeds, I think. And Dean did save my life. With Dad’s shotgun, not a silver arrow.” He rubbed his back. “I still have the scar.”
“Oh.” Jessica remembered when he mentioned it: Sam had a ragged, curved scar just above his right hip. That was from a dog attack? “Then he’s very brave,” she said quietly.
“He is,” Sam agreed simply. He opened the bedroom door for her.
Inside their room, Sam grabbed her and kissed her thoroughly. Jessica wrapped her arms around his neck and returned his kiss, her tongue sliding over his. When they finally broke apart she was breathless and Sam was smiling a little smugly. He knew what his kiss could do to her.
“What do you make of Dean?” Sam asked, still holding her.
That seemed like a loaded question. “He seems…nice,” she answered carefully.
Jessica moved toward the bed, taking Sam’s hands in hers and pulling him with her. She sat down on the bed and looked up at him. “You’re jealous,” she said, making it a statement, not a question, “because I was flirting with him.”
Sam nodded. “My whole life, Jess, if we wanted the same girl, he always won. And not just because he’s older.”
That simple statement revealed a lot about their relationship, Jessica realised. She answered seriously, looking into his eyes. “Sam, I’m a one man woman. I promise you that. Dean is attractive, sure, but I’m with you. I flirted with him because he knows I’m taken. It was harmless fun. Nothing else.”
Sam bent down and kissed her. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered against her lips.
Then he began to back away, slowly, toward the big four-poster bed. He slid his hands under her shirt and pulled it off over her head as they moved, slowly, toward the bed. Jessica undid Sam’s belt, but her fingers struggled a little with the button of his jeans. Sam opened it for her and kissed her shoulder before he slid the strap of her bra down. By the time they reached the bed, there was a trail of discarded clothing on the floor. Jessica rested her hands on Sam’s broad shoulders and climbed onto the bed, straddling his thighs. She felt the head of his penis press against her as she leaned in to kiss him again. Sam groaned into her kiss and she drew back to let him speak.
“I thought we were gonna take it slow,” he said with a grin.
“We’ve got all night,” she pointed out, and went back to kissing him. Sam was a good kisser. She liked that about him. A lot of good looking guys were lousy at kissing, as if they thought their looks were enough, they didn’t need to show a girl a good time, too. But Sam kissed like he meant it. He kissed like he couldn’t bear to stop, like she was oxygen. He made her feel special.
Sam mumbled something against her mouth and fell backward onto the bed, pulling her with him. Jessica laughed as they fell together. The mattress springs bounced with the impact of their bodies. Jessica rolled to the side and went for the bedside drawer, where the condoms were stashed.
When Sam realised what she was doing, he moved with her, cuddling up to her back. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“I’ve been ready,” she answered, pausing to tear a condom packet with her teeth, “all damn day.” She extracted the condom and pushed Sam onto his back. She leaned over him, curling her fingers around the base of his penis. Sam drew in his breath sharply when she touched him there. His reaction made her want to do more. She wanted him inside her. She was itching for it, knowing how amazing he could make her feel. But she shoved her own desire down for a few moments. She smiled at Sam, who was lying back, waiting patiently for her to do as she pleased with him. She shifted down the bed to get a more comfortable position and then bent over to take him into her mouth.
“Jess,” Sam groaned, “god, Jess…”
She felt his hand on her hair, gently guiding her, showing her what would feel good to him. She drew her lips up his shaft, slowly, creating suction. Sam’s hand flexed in her hair; his hips jerked and he cried out. It made Jessica hesitate, but his hand in her curls relaxed, stroked her gently so she went on, drawing him as deeply into her throat as she could without gagging. She loved the feel of him in her mouth, warm and firm. She loved the taste and smell of him. Most of all, she loved how obviously he was enjoying it. But it didn’t take long for her jaw to start aching. She raised her head reluctantly. She would get better with practice, maybe. She looked up at Sam.
He gazed back at her, a look of fierce desire and unspoken love. He began to sit up, but Jessica pushed him back down. No more distractions, she promised herself. The condom was still in her hand. She smiled, licked her lips, and began to roll it onto him.