An Unwanted Guest Page 2

Lauren Day glances at the man next to her, Ian Beeton. He’s driving his car expertly in rather challenging conditions, and making it all look easy. He has a disarming smile, and he turns it on her now. She smiles back. He’s nice-looking, too, tall and spare, but it’s the smile that first attracted her to him, his laid-back charm that makes him so appealing. Lauren rummages through her handbag for her lipstick. She finds it – a nice shade of red that brightens her face – and applies it carefully while looking in the mirror on the visor in front of her. The car skids a bit and she stops what she’s doing, but Ian straightens the vehicle skilfully. The road winds more steeply now, and the car has an increasing tendency to swerve as it loses traction.

‘Getting slippery,’ she says.

‘No worries. Nothing I can’t handle,’ he says and grins at her. She smiles back. She likes his self-confidence, too.

‘Whoa – what’s that?’ she says suddenly. There’s a dark shape in front of them to the right. It’s a dull day, and with the snow falling so heavily it’s hard to see, but it looks like there’s a car in the ditch.

She stares keenly out of the window as they pass the vehicle, and Ian looks for somewhere to stop. ‘I think there’s someone in that car,’ she says.

‘Why don’t they have the hazard lights on?’ he mutters. He pulls over slowly to the side of the road, careful not to slide off the road himself. Lauren gets out of the warmth of the car and plunges into several inches of virgin snow, which immediately falls inside her boots, stinging her ankles. She can hear Ian getting out of the car, too, slamming the door.

‘Hey!’ she cries down to the motionless car. The driver’s door opens slowly.

Lauren clambers down the incline carefully, sliding as she goes. The ground is uneven and she finds it hard to keep her balance. She reaches the car and grabs on to the door with her left hand for support as she peers into the front seat. ‘You okay?’ she asks.

The driver is a woman close to her own age – around thirty. She appears a bit shaken up, but the windscreen isn’t cracked and she’s wearing a seat belt. Lauren looks beyond the driver to the woman in the passenger seat. Her face is pale and sweating, and she’s staring straight ahead, as if Lauren isn’t even there. She looks like she’s had a dreadful shock.

The driver glances quickly at her companion, and then turns back to Lauren gratefully. ‘Yes, we’re fine. We went off the road just a few minutes ago. We were wondering what to do next. Lucky for us you came along.’

Lauren feels Ian come up behind her and peer over her shoulder at the two women inside the car. He smiles his charming smile at them. ‘Looks like you’re going to need a tow.’

‘Great,’ the driver says.

‘Where you headed?’ Lauren asks.

‘Mitchell’s Inn,’ she answers.

‘Well, isn’t that lucky,’ Ian says. ‘That’s where we’re going, too. Although I don’t think there’s much else out here. Why don’t we give you a lift, and you can arrange from the hotel for someone to come and get your car out?’

The woman smiles with relief and nods. She’s obviously glad to be rescued. Lauren doesn’t blame her. You could freeze to death out here all by yourself. But the woman with her doesn’t react. She seems to be in her own world.

‘You have any bags?’ Lauren asks.

‘Yes, in the back.’ The driver gets out of the car and struggles through the deep snow to the back of the vehicle. Her passenger now seems to snap out of her trance and gets out on the other side. The driver opens the boot as the woman appears beside her. They each grab an overnight bag.

Ian reaches down and offers all three women a hand up to the road. Even with help, it’s an awkward climb.

‘Thanks so much,’ the driver says. ‘My name is Gwen, and this is Riley.’

‘I’m Lauren and this is Ian,’ she says. ‘Let’s get in the car. It’s so cold.’ She casts a furtive glance at the woman named Riley, who hasn’t said a word. She wonders what’s up with her. Something about her definitely seems off.

Chapter Two

Friday, 5:00 PM

BEVERLY SULLIVAN DROPS her overnight bag at her feet and lets her eyes sweep around the room. It’s perfect. Just like the one in the brochure. There’s an old-fashioned luxury here that she’s not accustomed to, and she moves about the room, touching things. The antique, king-size bed is heaped with pillows. The carved wardrobe is gorgeous, and the thick Oriental carpet must have cost a fortune. She steps up to the windows, which face out over the front of the hotel. The snowfall has made everything indescribably beautiful. New-fallen snow always makes her feel hopeful.

She turns away from the windows and peeks into the en suite bathroom – a spotless oasis of white marble and fluffy white towels. She checks her appearance briefly in the elaborate mirror over the vanity unit and turns away. Sitting down on the bed, testing it, she begins to wonder what’s taking her husband so long. Henry had stayed down at the front desk to inquire about cross-country skis and God knows what else, and she’d come up to the room herself. He insisted that she not wait for him, although she’d been perfectly willing to sit in one of the deep-blue velvet chairs or sofas around the stone fireplace in the lobby while he fussed over the equipment. But she didn’t want to make an issue of it. She tries not to feel disappointed. It will take time for him to begin to relax. But he seems to be looking for ways to fill their weekend with activities, when all she wants is to slow down and simply be together. It’s almost as if he’s avoiding being with her, as if he doesn’t want to be here at all.

She knows her marriage is in … disrepair. She wouldn’t say it’s in trouble, exactly. But it needs work. They have drifted apart, begun to take each other for granted. She’s guilty of it, too. How does a modern marriage survive all the forces that converge to tear it apart? Too much familiarity, the dreariness of domesticity, of paying bills, raising children. Of having full-time jobs and always too much to do. She doesn’t know if a weekend away at a lovely and remote place in the country will make that much of a difference, but it could be a start. A start they certainly wouldn’t get if they stayed at home. They desperately need a chance to reconnect, to remember what they like about each other. Away from squabbling, sullen teenagers who demand their attention and drain their energies. She sighs and slumps inwardly; she wishes they didn’t argue so much about the kids. She’s hoping that here they’ll be able to talk about things without being interrupted, without that constant, wearying, underlying tension.

She wonders with a vague unease how the weekend will unfold, and if anything will be different by the time they return home.

Henry Sullivan lingers near the reception desk in the lobby to the left of the grand staircase. The smell of logs burning in the fireplace reminds him of Christmases as a boy. He looks at some glossy flyers advertising local restaurants and attractions. Although ‘local’ may be stretching it a bit. They’re pretty far away from things up here. Unfortunately, with all the snow, it looks like it might be too difficult to go anywhere anyway, but the young man at the desk said the snowploughs would be running tomorrow, and the roads should be fine. Henry fingers the mobile phone in his trouser pocket. There’s no reception up here, which is something he hadn’t been expecting. Beverly hadn’t mentioned that. He feels a twinge of annoyance.

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