An Unwanted Guest Page 1

Author: Shari Lapena

Genres: Mystery , Thriller

Chapter One

Friday, 4:45 PM

THE ROAD CURVES and twists unexpectedly as it leads higher and deeper into the Catskill Mountains, as if the further you get from civilization, the more uncertain the path. The shadows are deepening, the weather worsening. The Hudson River is there, appearing and disappearing from view. The forest that rises on either side of the road has a lurking quality, as if it might swallow you whole; it is the forest of fairy tales. The softly falling snow, however, lends it all a certain postcard charm.

Gwen Delaney grips the steering wheel tightly and squints through the windscreen. She’s more one for grim fairy tales than picture postcards. The light is going; it will soon be dark. The snow coming down makes driving more difficult, more tiring. The flakes hit the glass in such profusion that she feels as though she’s stuck in some kind of relentless video game. And the road is definitely becoming more slippery. She’s grateful that she has good tyres on her little Fiat. Everything is turning into a white blur; it’s hard to tell where the road ends and the ditch begins. She’ll be glad when they get there. She’s beginning to wish they’d chosen an inn a little less remote; this one is miles from anywhere.

Riley Shuter is silent in the passenger seat beside her, a ball of quiet tension; it’s impossible not to pick up on it. Just being with her in the small car puts Gwen on edge. She hopes she hasn’t made a mistake bringing her up here.

The whole point of this little escape, Gwen thinks, is to get Riley to relax a little, to take her mind off things. Gwen bites her lip and stares hard at the road ahead. She’s a city girl, born and bred; she’s not used to country driving. It gets so dark up here. She’s becoming anxious now – the drive has taken longer than planned. They shouldn’t have stopped for coffee at that cute little antique place along the way.

She’s not sure what she expected, suggesting this weekend getaway, other than a change of scenery, a chance to spend some quiet time together, with nothing to remind Riley that her life is in ruins. Perhaps that was naive.

Gwen has her own baggage, less recent, and she, too, carries it with her everywhere she goes. But she’s decided she’s going to put that behind her for this weekend at least. A small luxury hotel deep in the country, good food, no internet, pristine nature – it’s exactly what they both need.

Riley watches nervously out of the car window, peering into the shadowy woods, trying not to imagine someone jumping in front of their car at any second, waving them down. She clenches her hands into fists inside the pockets of her down jacket. She reminds herself that she’s not in Afghanistan any more. She’s home, safe, in New York State. Nothing bad can happen to her here.

Her career has changed her. Seeing what she has seen, Riley is so different that she hardly recognizes herself any more. She glances furtively at Gwen. They’d been close once. She’s not even sure why she agreed to come with her to this faraway country inn. She watches Gwen concentrating fiercely on the winding road up the slippery incline, heading into the mountains. ‘Are you okay?’ she asks suddenly.

‘Me?’ Gwen says. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. We should be there soon.’

In journalism school, when they were both at NYU, Gwen had been the steady, pragmatic one. But Riley was ambitious – she wanted to be where it was happening. Gwen had no taste for adventure. She’d always preferred books, and quiet. Out of journalism school, unable to find a decent job at a newspaper, Gwen had quickly parlayed her skills into a good corporate communications position and had never seemed to regret it. But Riley had headed to the war zones. And she’d managed to keep it together for a long time.

Why does she do this? Why does she keep thinking about it? She can feel herself starting to come apart. She tries to slow her breathing, the way she’s been taught. To stop the images from coming back, from taking over.

David Paley parks his car in the shovelled parking area to the right of the hotel. He gets out of the car and stretches. The weather made the drive from New York City longer than expected, and now his muscles are stiff – a reminder that he’s not quite as young as he used to be. Before grabbing his overnight bag from the back seat of his Mercedes, he stands for a moment in the thickly falling snow, looking at Mitchell’s Inn.

It’s a three-storey, graceful-looking structure of red brick and gingerbread trim, encircled by nearby forest. The front of the small hotel is open to view, with what must be a rather grand lawn underneath all the snow. Tall evergreens and mature trees bereft of leaves but draped in white seem to encroach on the building from a short distance away. In the front, an enormous tree in the middle of the lawn extends its thick branches in every direction. All is covered in a pure, muffling white snow. It feels quiet here, peaceful, and he feels his shoulders begin to relax.

There are large, rectangular windows spaced regularly across all three floors. Wide steps lead up to a wooden porch and double front doors decorated with boughs of evergreens. Although it is still daylight – barely – the lamps on either side of the doors are lit, and soft yellow light also spills from the windows on the ground floor, giving the building a warm, welcoming appearance. David stands still, willing the stresses of the day – and the week, and the years – to recede as the snow falls gently on his hair and tickles his lips. He feels like he’s walking into an earlier, more gracious, more innocent time.

He will try not to think about work for an entire forty-eight hours. Everyone, no matter how busy, needs to recharge once in a while, even – perhaps especially – a top criminal attorney. It’s rare for him to be able to fit in any downtime at all, much less an entire weekend. He’s determined to enjoy it.

Friday, 5:00 PM

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