Haunted Love Trail


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A Zombie Bride in Love
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“Okay, I guess that’s everyone-oh, hold on. There’s Brandon,” Charlotte Ripley said as she stood at the back of the hay wagon. Shaking her head and cross­ing her arms, she added, “Late as usual.” But I could tell from her smile that she wasn’t really angry with him.

Spotting a motorcycle turning the corner of the old farmhouse driveway, I cringed.
Ever since I’d been in a car accident a year ago and spent a week in the trauma unit of the hospital, and then three  weeks in a physical rehabilitation facility, I dreaded

looking at motorcycles. There was no protection at all! Didn’t this guy realize the danger? At least half of the ether amputees I’d met while I was hospitalized had lost their limbs because of motorcycle accidents.

Taking a deep breath; I shook my head and decided to concentrate on my surroundings. After all, we were here tonight to do a trial run of the haunted hayride.

Tomorrow was opening night and we had to be ready to put on a good show for the next three weekends before Halloween to raise a lot of money for breast cancer research.

No use trying to talk sense into people who were risk-takers.

The sun was turning the amber fields shades of pinkish-blue as it began to set behind the trees, and an early October breeze was kicking up just enough to make it feel like Halloween.

“Sorry I’m late,” the tall, dark-haired guy hollered from the parking lot, bending to set his helmet on his bike. Well, at least he had enough sense to wear a helmet. That was something, I supposed.

We were all sitting on bales of hay stacked on a wagon and I could hear various people who were sitting clos­er to the tractor calling out greetings to the guy. Since I’d been one of the last ones to board, I was seated near the back. And after Charlotte reached over to hug the fellow, she gestured to the empty seat on the hay bale next to me.

I smiled and nodded and tried to scoot over a bit, but the elderly woman next to me didn’t get the hint, and I soon found myself hip-to-hip with the biker.

“Hey,” he said, smiling at me as the tractor took off. Within seconds, the tractor hit a bump, throwing me against him as the woman next to me almost slid to the floor.

“Whoa,” he said, reaching out an arm to brace us in our seats. “Hey, Phil,” he hollered to the man driving the tractor, “Learn to drive, will ya’?”

He obviously had a rapport with the other volunteers who chuckled and joined in the teasing.

“This is going to be the witches’ area,” Charlotte was saying as she pointed to a spot by a crumbling stonewall.

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“Spooky,” Brandon said, leaning close to me. I’ve always loved the scent of leather, and I found myself wanting to lean over to get a better whiff. Then I shook my head, remind­ing myself I was here to volunteer and I had a perfectly good boyfriend at home.

Perfectly good boyfriend. Yes, Charles was good in all ways. He was there for me after the accident, he was a phone call away whenever I needed help, and he was the one per­son I could rely on above all others. Good ole’ reliable Charles.

But my heart didn’t beat double-time when Charles’s hip rested against mine. And I didn’t find myself wanting to get a better whiff of Charles. Why did I feel like a traitor even thinking about this man next to me?

“Is that you?” I heard a deep voice ask.

Brandon was asking me some­thing.

“What?” I asked, snapping out of my Charles revelry.

He motioned with his chin toward Charlotte who was pointing to an old schoolhouse. “Zombie Bride. . .that’s you, right, Lily?” Charlotte was ask­ing.

“Oh. . .yeah. I’m Zombie Bride,” I said, glancing at the surroundings so I’d know where to go tomorrow night when we were to perform our haunt­ings along the trail.

Charlotte started talking about the various other monsters along the trail and Brandon leaned close again, “Is there a Mr. Zombie?” he asked, his voice holding a hint of humor.

“Yes—I mean, no,” I said, turning to face him, noticing his dark features and eyes for the first time. “I mean. . .”

He laughed and his face crinkled in the most glorious way. It was obvious that he spent a lot of time outside and had smiled a lot. He was about my age, and looked as reckless as they come. Just what I didn’t need. I’d had enough recklessness to last a life­time.

On my drive home, I couldn’t get Brandon’s face out of my head. I kept picturing his slow smile and sexy appearance.

With a sigh, I tried to picture Charles. Dependable, reliable. . .safe.

We’d gone out to a bar one night about a year ago. I was the designat­ed driver and stuck to drinking sodas all night. It was a good deal —we both took turns being the sober driver. I wasn’t particularly fond of alcohol anyway, so I usually offered to be the one to hold the position. Not that Charles drank much. He was basical­ly a social drinker.

But the guilt he felt after the acci­dent—when a drunken pickup truck driver hit us head-on after crossing the double yellow line—was evident from the moment I woke from my surgery after the accident.

“It should have been me,” he’d sobbed, sitting next to my hospital bed. He’d had some cuts and bruises, but had miraculously escaped serious injury.

I, on the other hand, had multiple broken bones and required surgery to remove the bottom half of my left leg. I’d been fitted to wear prosthesis and since then, life was very different. It didn’t matter how many times every­one told him it wouldn’t have mat­tered who was driving—we still would have gotten in the accident—he felt he had some blame.

As he sat by my bed on that day, he swore to me he would take care of me forever. And he had for the past year. With a smile on his face, he’d been there every time I needed him.

My cell phone chimed as I turned onto our street and I flipped it open, seeing Charles’s name on the dis­play.

“Hey,” I said, “I’m almost home.”

“Okay. Just checking. See you in a few,” he said and then hung up before I could even respond.

I loved him. There was no doubt about that. Except. . .lately he was becoming more like a mother hen than a boyfriend.

We had a great turnout at the haunted trail the first Friday night. I wore someone’s old bridal gown—torn and shredded in just the right places to make me look spooky. And one of the witches helped me do my makeup—white base with red eyes and lots of mascara.

We had a blast. As the tractor ambled by, I’d do my little zombie bride bit: walking out from behind an old well with my arms reaching for the kids and parents in the hay wagon. They’d scream and laugh and go fur­ther down the road where I could hear more screams and laughs as they encountered other monsters and ghosts.

And the best part was the money we raised. By the end of that first weekend, we’d raised over a thou­sand dollars to benefit breast cancer awareness and research. And there were two more weekends to go!

I had only seen Brandon one time since that first night and he waved to me as he and two other guys with chainsaws walked by. No leather this time, but he filled out the flannel shirt and pair of jeans in a very sexy way.

The second weekend was even more successful than the first. Word had spread that our haunted trail ride was not only a bargain, but also scary-in-a-fun-way for families. Lots of kids and parents turned out for the ride.

With a smile on my pale zombie face, I started heading for my car at the end of the night. I’d stayed late to help Charlotte count the money and fill a bank deposit bag. Her husband was taking her to the bank to make the deposit, and I waved as they drove off once they saw I was safely in my car.

The three-quarters full moon added a nice touch to the dark autumn night, and I found myself wishing the full moon would be out for our last weekend of haunted rides.

When I bent to turn the key in the ignition, my car groaned, but it wouldn’t turn over. After two more tries, I sighed and took out my cell phone. No service. Even if I had ser­vice, I had a sinking feeling Charles had probably taken some cold medi­cine and zonked out for the night.

A rap on my window almost made me hit my head on the roof. The spooker had become the spookee tonight, I thought.

Brandon—still in his flannel shirt and blue jeans, but without the chain­saw—was standing next to my car.

I tried to open the window, but real­ized that without the motor turned on, the automatic windows wouldn’t work. Instead, I opened the door.

“Dead battery?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Won’t turn over at all,” I said, shaking my head. “And my boyfriend is home sick.” I threw that last part in to keep myself safe in case he got any ideas…or maybe it was to keep myself from getting any ideas about him.

“Pop the hood,” he said, pointing with his chin to the front of my car as he moved that way. “If we’re lucky, it’s just a loose wire.”

I pulled the lever and climbed out to stand next to Brandon. Even wearing flannel, he still had the leather smell. And standing dose to him, with only the moonlight to light the night, made it feel strangely romantic on the old farmhouse grounds.

“No loose wires,” he said, moving out from under the hood. Suddenly we were face-to-face, close enough to kiss. Close enough to smell the scent of. . .was it cinnamon? On his breath.

I backed up a step and cleared my throat. “So it’s not the wires. I guess it’s either the battery or the starter.”

He raised a brow and his lips curved into a slow, sexy smile. “A woman who knows cars…”

“Not exactly,” I said, feeling my cheeks warm under his direct gaze and flushing at his almost compli­ment. “I had to replace the starter on another car a few years ago.”

He let out a whistle. “So you kill all your starters, eh?” he asked, a full-out grin splitting his face.

“What? I.. .” Then I realized he was teasing me and I shook my head. “I guess I’ll call road assistance.”

I pulled out my cell and flipped it open. “I’ll be fine. I’ll wait in the car.” I didn’t want him to go. And that scared me a little. Heck, it even scared me a little more than waiting alone in the dark at a haunted trail. Now that was saying something!

He put a hand over mine and the warmth from his skin shot up my arm like hot cocoa through my veins—sweet and steamy. “Or. .” he said. “You could leave your car here and deal with it in the morning.”

“Call a cab?” I asked. “I guess that might be easier—”

“No. I can give you a ride.”

“What? No!” I said.

He shrugged. “I have an extra hel­met.”

Swallowing, I wondered how long it would take a cab to get here. Even if I called road assistance, what if they couldn’t fix the car tonight? He was right, I couldn’t get much done in the dark. Waiting until tomorrow was a good choice.

“Thanks,” I said, flipping open the phone, ready to call directory assis­tance. “I think I’ll go with the cab.” He smiled and nodded.

I dialed the number, but nothing happened. No service.

 

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Brandon raised a questioning brow when I closed the phone.

“No service,” I said, sighing and looking around. Why should I be surprised? We were out on an old aban­doned farm in the middle of nowhere. Service towers were miles away.

“Try mine,” he said, holding out his phone.

“Thanks,” I said. No service on his phone either, so I handed it back, shaking my head.

I could walk. But it would take me all night. I lived ten miles away.

Brandon must have seen my dilemma, because he said, “My dad’s pub is five minutes from here. I can drive my bike there, get his car, and come back to get you. You’ll be okay for a few minutes?” he asked, moving to his bike and picking up his helmet.

I wasn’t scared of being alone. I could sit in my car and lock the doors and I’d be plenty safe. Yeah. . .a little scary. But the thought of him going to all that trouble to go get his dad’s car and then come back, made me rethink my worries. He was trying to be nice and I was stuck in my ways.

After all, he drove his bike a lot, so that meant he was experienced, right?

“Could you drive me on your bike to the pub and then borrow your dad’s car from there? Or I could take a cab from there?” Before he could answer, I held up a palm to stop him.

I had one last roadblock to smash before I could agree to go on his motorcycle. “I have a prosthetic leg. Lost the lower half of my leg in an accident a little over a year ago.”

He smiled, nodded, and handed me a helmet before turning to move toward his bike. Over his shoulder he said, “Thought I spotted a different gait to your walk.”

He said it like it was no big deal.

After I strapped the helmet on, he handed me his leather jacket. I was only wearing my zombie bride dress with a pair of jeans underneath.

“You’ll need this,” he said. I nod­ded and shrugged into it, reveling in the smell and the warmth.

The cool night air filtered past us as Brandon guided the motorcycle along the farmhouse driveway. I held my body away from his, holding on to his sides with my hands. But as we picked up speed, I found myself inch­ing closer and wrapping my hands tighter. Not that it felt unsafe, it just felt like we needed to be one unit on the bike to keep it steady.

I’d always thought I’d feel scared and unprotected on a motorcycle. That’s the way it looked when I saw them going past me on the street. But this was different. A whole new per­spective. Nothing but cool air around us. Somehow instead of freaking me out, the freedom relaxed me. I let myself relax against Brandon, inhal­ing the combined scent of leather and fall leaves.

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When the trip ended, I found myself in the parking lot of a brightly lit pub. I was almost disappointed that the ride was over.

“Want to come in for a decaf or do you want me to get the keys to the car and we’ll get you home?” he asked.

“Decaf would be great,” I said, craving a cup of hot anything after the chill of standing outside for so long. I pulled his jacket tighter around my neck and let myself savor its scent one last time. It wasn’t just the leather, I realized, it was his scent too. If I could bottle it, I’d make a million dollars. But I wasn’t in the mood to share.

Inside, the exposed wooden beams and Irish music playing low in the background made me feel instantly welcome. And in a corner wooden booth, Charlotte—the woman who was running the haunted trail—saw us come in and waved and went back to chatting with her hus­band.

“Dad,” Brandon said to the gray-haired, bearded man behind the bar. “Couple of decafs?”

“Sure thing,” the man said, sending a giant smile my way. He filled two mugs and turned to place them on the bar top in front of us.

“Dad,” Brandon said, “this is Lily. Lily. . .my dad, Frank.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

His lips curved into a giant smile and he leaned an elbow on the bar. “Nice to meet you, too. Love your makeup.”

My hand flew to my face. I’d forgot­ten all about the white makeup and red eyes!

“Why didn’t you remind me I still had this gook on?” I asked Brandon, playfully jabbing him in the ribs.

“I like it.” He tilted his head toward his dad. “So does Dad!”

For the next few minutes, the three of us bantered back and forth, having fun at each other’s expense. . .well, mostly my expense. It was a nice break from my everyday routine and felt good to be around such happy people.

The bar wasn’t crowded, just a few couples at the bar and a few more sit­uated at the dozen or so tables and booths in the room.

When the conversation turned to cars and car batteries, I excused myself and headed to the restroom to wash my face.

Charlotte was in there already and when I told her I’d forgotten about the  makeup, she giggled and handed me some paper towels.

I didn’t know you and Brandon were an item,” she said, leaning back to watch as I scrubbed off the white base.

“Oh. . .we’re not. My car wouldn’t start so he’s giving me a ride home.”

She raised a brow and leaned to get me some more paper towels. “He’s a great guy. His mom was my best friend before she passed away two years ago.” Passing the towels to me, she added, “She’s the reason I started the haunted trail fundraiser.”

I stopped scrubbing to look at her. “His mom passed away of breast cancer?”

She nodded slowly. “He was there with her every moment, until the end.”

Big, bad motorcycle man was also softhearted. Not that I was exactly surprised. “How sad for their family,” I said.

“Well, her memory lives on through this trail. It’s great to have you helping this year. You’ve been a big help.” She looked down at her watch. “Well, past my bedtime, me and my sweetie better get home!” She leaned in to give me a hug and left.

When I walked back into the bar, Brandon stood and sent me a slow smile. “Ah, it’s you behind that zom­bie makeup.”

I laughed and it felt good to laugh so much in one night. When had life gotten so serious for me? Seems that at my house, every conversation with Charles revolved around being care­ful and taking small steps to recovery. Wasn’t I already recovered? How long had I been living in a bubble?

Brandon held up a set of keys and dangled them, handing me my mug. “I promised we’d only be five minutes and we’ve been a half an hour, so here’s your release. Got the keys to Dad’s car and ready to deliver you home.”

I took the mug he offered, cupping it between my hands and gazed up at him. I could feel my lips twitch into a smile. “Can we take your bike instead?”

The ten-minute ride seemed like two and when he pulled into my dri­veway, I didn’t have an excuse to hold onto Brandon any more. My heart dipped low in my chest, disap­pointment at having to say goodbye bothered me. This wasn’t right.

But man, oh, man did it ever feel right.

I shrugged out of the jacket and thanked him, stepping away from the motorcycle so I wouldn’t be tempted to give in to this attraction I felt for him. But right then and there I decid­ed Charles and I needed to have a serious conversation.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said, giving him a small wave when what I really wanted to do was hop back on his bike and take off into the night with him. “See you next weekend,” then worried that he might take my words to mean something else, I added, “er, at the haunted trail.”

“You’re lucky to have someone who cares so much about you,” he said before sliding his helmet over his head and taking off down the street.

I stood outside and watched until his taillights were a small red dot in the distance, wondering if he was talking about Charles. . .or himself.

I crept up the steps to our bed­room, careful not to wake Charles. If he was still fighting this cold, he’d need his rest and it was going on mid­night now.

I opened the bedroom door a crack and Charles rolled over in bed, but didn’t wake. When I looked at the medicine bottle, I realized he’d had a few doses of the nighttime syrup and was going to sleep a long time regardless of the noise I’d make.

Deciding he’d sleep better alone, I pulled the covers up to his chin, grabbed my nightshirt, and started to leave the room.

“I take care of you, you can’t take care of me,” he said.

I stopped, hand on the doorknob, waiting to hear him explain. When I turned, I saw he’d drifted back to sleep, and had probably not even been awake. Subconsciously, he hadn’t wanted me to help him. This guilt trip had to end.

The next morning, I brewed a pot of strong coffee and started reading the Sunday paper, looking for places for rent.

By the time Charles got down­stairs, looking much better thanks to a good night’s rest, I’d already called a few places to make appointments to see rentals later this afternoon. Now for the hard part..

I didn’t want to hurt Charles, but what I realized after a night of soul-searching was that I was hurting him more by staying with him than I would be by leaving him. I knew in my heart he was standing by my side because of some misguided duty he felt. The love that had once been between us had died. And it probably would have died regardless of the accident.

“You look a lot better,” I said, pour­ing him a cup of coffee and adding two teaspoons of sugar, as he liked.

“Yeah, I feel pretty good,” he said, taking the steaming mug and sliding into a chair at the table.

I took a deep breath and blew it out and he stared at me over his coffee mug as I took a seat. Then set it down without taking a sip. “Okay. What is it? I know that look.”

This was like a bandage— I had to rip it off fast. “Charles,” I said, feeling tears well up in my eyes. I could not hurt this kind man. But I wouldn’t be hurting him. I was doing what needed to be done.

He leaned toward me, his brows knitting in concern.

“I don’t think we belong together anymore,” I said. The words came out in a rush, and I hadn’t padded them with any kindness at all. Quickly, I added, “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You’ve gone above and beyond anything I ever would have expected. I’m healed as much as I am today because of you.”

He didn’t say a word, slumped down into his chair and kept his gaze on mine.

“I have to take care of you,” he said.

His words verified what I needed to know. I was a burden. . .a chore. He wasn’t worried about losing me; he wasn’t upset that we were breaking up. He just didn’t know how to elimi­nate his guilt if he wasn’t the one tak­ing care of me.

I leaned toward him and took both of his hands in mine. “Charles. There is no reason to feel guilty for what happened. You and I both know my injuries are not your fault.”

He nodded, biting his bottom lip and staring at me with wide blue eyes. I hadn’t looked at him this closely in a year, I realized. He had tiny lines around his eyes and mouth where there used to be none. Had worry for me done that to him?

“Listen to me. If I let you stay with me over some undeserved guilt trip, then I’d feel guilty for taking you from the life you were meant to live.” I knew I’d hit a nerve when his eyes widened and he sat up straighter. “You have nothing to feel guilty about!” he said.

I lifted a hand, palm out, to empha­size my point. “Ah, but I would if I knew you were staying with me out of some misguided duty.” I shook my head. “I love you, Charles. I always will. But it’s not the same love we had a while ago.”

He nodded slowly and picked up his mug. “What do we do now?”

I smiled, realizing this was going better than I’d hoped. He knew in his heart this was the right thing to do. And the fact that I’d made the first move toward a breakup had taken the burden from him.

“So many people claim to want to stay friends after a breakup, but I have a feeling we can actually do it,” I said, standing and walking to him and then bending to kiss his forehead.

I found a nice apartment a few miles from my job that afternoon, and Charles and one of his friends helped me move my stuff.

By Thursday, the place felt like home and I had a renewed spirit. Charles still called me every night, but I knew he was ready to move on, it just had to be gradual. So I’d let him check on me via phone, but I was hoping the calls would get fewer and fewer as the weeks went on and he moved on with his own life.

Friday had always been my favorite day of the week, but this week I was especially excited. It was Halloween weekend and I’d get to see Brandon again. Maybe—just maybe—things would work out between us.

By Friday afternoon, a light drizzle settled in over the city and, even though we still held the haunted trail, the crowd was thin. To top it off, Brandon was a no-show. When I caught up with Charlotte as she was leaving and asked about him, she smiled and told me his dad was short-handed and Brandon had needed to work at the pub.

After hours of standing in the cool drizzle, a hot drink sounded good. I hadn’t walked into a bar by myself since. . .well, since I could ever remember. But tonight, in order to see Brandon, I would find the courage.

When I pulled into a spot, I noticed the joint was much busier than it had been last Saturday night. No wonder they’d needed Brandon to work.

Inside, the music was loud and the chatter was even louder. I spotted Brandon behind the bar and waved to him as I found the one empty bar stool and plopped onto it. “Coffee?” he hollered over the din.

I nodded, afraid my voice wouldn’t carry over the laughter and conversa­tion.

“Wedding party wants to keep par­tying,” he said, looking around the room.

“They look like they’re having a blast,” I said, warming my hands by wrapping them around the mug.

Someone hollered to Brandon for a refill. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

He got so busy that he only had a split second to refill my coffee during the next hour. Figuring we weren’t going to find a chance to talk tonight, the next time he came around with the coffee pot, I leaned over to him. “Do you have to work tomorrow night, too, or will you be at the haunt­ed trail?”

He cupped his hands over his mouth to make a mock megaphone. “I’ll be there,” he said, laughing and waving as someone held up an empty beer mug and called his name.

The next night the crowd turned out in droves for the haunted trail and we were busier than ever. One hay wagon after another passed my zom­bie bride station and I came at them with stilted, zombie steps.

I’d seen Brandon and he’d waved at me, but only in passing as he and the other chainsaw monsters rode by to their spot.

After the trail closed, I waited by his motorcycle. When he arrived, I gave him a nervous smile and said, “Think I can have a ride?”

He looked over at my car. “Won’t start again?”

I shrugged and looked down at the ground. I wasn’t very good at this flirt­ing thing. Honesty was the best approach, wasn’t it?

“Car’s fine. I just wanted to ride with you,” I said, feeling my heart hammer against my ribs.

He looked off into the distance for a long moment that felt like an eternity and then his gaze met mine and he shook his head.

“I can’t, Lily. I can’t have you that close and not have more. Last week was torture.”

I took a step closer to him. “Then let’s have more.” I wanted more. As I caught a whiff of his leather, I wanted a lot more.

“You’re in a relationship, I’m not—”

“Charles and I broke up. He was great, helped me move and all—”

This time he did the interrupting, pulling me into a tight embrace and trailing his lips down the side of my neck, finding nerve endings where I had no idea nerves were located. Every inch of my body yearned to be touched by his hands…his body.

Without another word, he shrugged out of his jacket, handed it to me and then passed me the hel­met. I straddled behind him, inching as close as humanly possible.

That night, back at Brandon’s place, we found a dozen different ways to pleasure each other and prove that the wait had been worth it. His hands traced paths of pleasure down my body and our mouths searched each other’s.

The next year, on Halloween night, we celebrated a milestone at the haunted trail. We raised over one hundred thousand dollars to donate to breast cancer research in honor of Brandon’s mom.

And then, during the celebration, Brandon grabbed my hand and took me to stand by his motorcycle. . . where it had all began last year.

He plucked the hem of my zombie bride gown and lifted the fabric between us. “What would you say about getting a real bridal gown?” he asked, a slow smile spreading over his face as he dropped to one knee.

I gasped and my eyes swelled with emotion. The other volunteers, still in costume, surrounded us in a circle. If they hadn’t been such good friends, it would have been a little creepy to have vampires, chainsaw monsters, witches, and ghosts encircling me.

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Biting my bottom lip to keep from crying, I nodded and Brandon took out a ring and reached for my hand. “This was my mom’s and she would want you to have it.”

To the applause of the monsters and goblins around us, I helped Brandon to his feet and then flew into his arms, knowing we were a perfect fit.

 

 

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