RIVER OF ASHES by Alexandrea Weis and Lucas Astor
“The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls. Edgar Allan Poe,” Beau Devereaux muttered as he read the sign on the wall in English lit. “What a load of shit.”
He turned to watch the minutes tick by on the clock. The only noise in the stuffy classroom was his teacher’s monotonous, raspy voice.
The jarring school bell circled the room, setting him free. Beau headed for the door, not taking time to put his book in his bag. He rounded a corner on his way to the gym and spotted a familiar blonde. Her hair in a messy twist and secured with a claw clip, it reflected her no-nonsense style.
“Leslie.” Beau cornered her in the hall. “How’s it going?”
Her blue eyes blazed—just what he expected.
“What do you want, Beau?”
He almost laughed. His attention settled on the notch at the base of her neck. It fluttered like a scared little butterfly.
“Can’t a guy say hi to a friend?” Beau put his arm on the wall behind her, trapping her between the lockers. “We never talk. Why is that?”
He loved watching her eyes dart about, searching for rescue, but no one would challenge him. No one ever did.
“I’m not your friend.” She shoved him back. “Go talk to Dawn.”
He curled his hand into a fist. If he couldn’t have Leslie, her twin sister was the next best thing. Or so he thought. He’d started dating Dawn to get his mind off Leslie, but it hadn’t worked. They looked alike, but Dawn wasn’t her sister. She didn’t have her sass.
That he still wanted Leslie infuriated him. Beau leaned in, letting his breath tease her cheek. The scent of her skin was like the sweet vanilla smell of fresh spring clover. “One day, I’m going to take you to The Abbey and set things right between us.”
“Is there a problem?”
An aggravated, deep voice buzzed in his ear like a gnat. Beau turned around. It was Derek Foster, her trusty watchdog. He spent way too many hours studying with the geek patrol and not enough time partying with the popular crowd.
“No problem, Foster,” Beau said. “We were just talking about next week’s chemistry test.”
A few students gathered near the lockers, watching.
Leslie edged around Beau. “You can’t even spell chemistry.”
He bristled. That smart tongue of hers begged to be tamed. “That’s really hostile. I’m trying here, for your sister’s sake.”
Derek put a protective arm around her. “C’mon, Leslie. Let’s get out of here.”
Before Derek pulled her away, Beau wheeled around. Running his fingers through his hair, he stuck out his elbow and landed a perfect shot right to Derek’s cheek.
He stumbled back, bouncing off some girls.
“Derek!” Leslie went to his side, pushing Beau out of the way.
Holding in his satisfaction, Beau frowned. “Oh, man. I’m sorry.” He put a hand on Derek’s shoulder, checking the red spot on his cheek and suppressing a smug grin. “I didn’t see you there.”
Leslie shot him an icy glare. “You’re an ass.”
He gave her an innocent expression, reveling in her reaction. “I’m sorry, Leslie. I didn’t mean to hit him.” Beau spoke loud enough for onlookers to hear. “Stop making me out to be the bad guy. Can you give that attitude of yours a break?”
Derek took Leslie’s hand. “I’m fine. It was an accident. Let it go.”
Beau offered his best wholesome grin. “You should listen to your boyfriend.”
“What’s going on here?”
Ms. Greenbriar’s screeching voice made all three of them spin around.
The middle-aged principal of St. Benedict High stood with her hands on her hips. “Mr. Devereaux?”
“Nothing, ma’am.” Beau gave the principal a big smile. “Just a misunderstanding. I hit Derek with my elbow when I turned. My fault entirely.”
Ms. Greenbriar shifted her beady brown eyes to Derek. “Mr. Foster, anything you want to add?”
Derek nursed his cheek. “No, ma’am. It was an accident, just like Beau said.”
She tapped her heel on the tile floor, glancing from Derek to Beau. “My office, Mr. Devereaux.”
Beau backed away from the lockers as his stomach tightened with anger. “Yes, ma’am.”
“What an asshole!” Leslie bolted out of the double glass doors with Derek close behind. A pain shot through her when the sun highlighted the red mark covering his right cheek. Damn Beau Devereaux.
For almost a year she’d tolerated his comments and lewd glances, but since she’d started dating Derek, he’d stepped up his game. “I can’t believe he punched you like that.”
Derek put his arm around her waist as they walked down the stone steps to the parking lot. “It was an accident.”
She halted and stared at him, numb with disbelief. “You don’t buy his bullshit, do you?”
“No, but what am I going to do about it? Punch him back?” Derek urged her along. “Then I would be the one in Greenbriar’s office.”
Students on the grassy quad sat on benches, tossed footballs, studied their laptops, and listened to music.
“Does anyone in this town stand up to him?” Leslie shook her head. “He’s got everyone believing he’s Mr. Perfect and I’m crazy.”
Derek slipped the book bag off her shoulder to carry it. “No one thinks you’re crazy, least of all me.”
The simple gentlemanly gesture melted her heart. Leslie touched Derek’s dimpled chin, feeling fortunate. “My hero.”
“What did Beau say to you, anyway?”
She shrugged. “The usual.”
Hard rock blasted from a nearby car.
Derek glanced at the source of the noise. “I don’t get it. How can he date your sister and not like you at all?”
Leslie removed the claw clip and ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair. “Sometimes I think she went out with him to spite me.”
“What makes you say that?”
She shrugged and fell in step beside him. “We aren’t exactly the closest of sisters. It was always a competition between us when we were younger. I joined the swim team, and then Dawn joined. I wanted to be a Girl Scout, and so did she. I wanted to take riding lessons and guess who went with me. But I gave up competing with her when we got to high school.” She gazed at the neatly trimmed grass beneath her feet. “Dawn never stopped. Sometimes I think that’s why she became a cheerleader and started going out with Beau—to show me she could.”
“I can’t see her dating Devereaux to get back at you. He’s the richest and most popular guy in town. Isn’t he every girl’s dream?”
Leslie stopped short, shuddering. “Not mine. There’s something off about him.”
“He’s just used to getting his way. It comes from two hundred years of inbreeding. Don’t all those old, rich Southern families marry their cousins? Maybe that’s his problem. Too many batshit crazy relatives in his family tree.”
A brisk wind stirred as they crossed the blacktop to the car she shared with her sister. The chill wrapped around her, seeping into her bones.
Derek nudged her. “Hey, you okay?”
She came out of her daze, shaking off the bizarre feeling. “Just really sick of Beau.”
Derek smiled, and the look in his eyes made her heart skip a beat.
“Want to sneak up to The Abbey? I could show you around. It’s pretty cool.”
She’d never been to the abandoned St. Francis Seminary College on the banks of the Bogue Falaya River but had heard stories. “Yeah, no.” She hit the remote on her keychain and unlocked the doors.
He climbed into the car. “We can skip The Abbey tour and hang out at the river.”
She put her book bag in the back seat. “I have no interest in the river. I’ve told you that.”
“No. You told me you used to go there, then stopped.”
Leslie wanted to smack him for not dropping it, but didn’t. Her life had been empty before she’d met Derek. They shared classes for almost a year before getting the nerve to talk. “Do you remember the first time you spoke to me?”
“How could I forget?” He leaned over the console. “I left class early and found Beau pinning you against a locker. Seems to be a thing with him. Anyway, you threatened to tell everyone his dick was the size of a number two pencil. I was impressed.”
She laughed as Beau’s horrified expression came back to her. “And you told him to leave me alone and then offered to buy me a soda. Never realized you were so nice.”
“Then why did it take you two months to go out with me?”
Leslie started the car. “Because I wanted to see how serious you were.”
A bit rough around the edges, with bashful glances and soulful brown eyes, Derek reminded her a little of James Dean with a dark tan—a sign of his Creole lineage. He was from what some would call “the wrong side of the tracks.”
The polar opposite of Beau Devereaux.
Leslie didn’t care where he came from or what he drove because, to her, Derek Foster was the most perfect guy in the universe. When he finally asked her out, she turned him down. She hadn’t wanted to ruin her dreams of him with the disappointment of reality. But she took a chance, and six months later, here they were.
Her stomach fluttered with one glance at him. “If I agree to go to the river, what did you want to do there?”
Derek sat back, eyes on the road and grinning. “I’ll come up with something.”
Beau sat on a wooden bench outside Ms. Greenbriar’s door in the administrative offices. Arms crossed, he tapped a finger on his elbow while staring out the window. He waited, keeping a lid on his rising anxiety.
Students rushed past the window to the principal’s office, but their occasional stares didn’t bother him. His mind was on getting to practice. Coach Brewer hated when players were late, and Beau made a point never to show a lack of discipline. Next to his father, Coach Brewer was the only man whose anger he never wanted to incur.
“Beau,” Madbriar called from her office.
He stood from the bench and put on his best smile. This will be fun.
The room was jam-packed with bookcases, a small desk, and an outdated computer.
“Tell me what happened with Leslie Moore and Derek Foster,” the principal asserted.
“I was speaking to Leslie when Derek came up. I accidentally hit him with my elbow when I turned around.” He cleared his throat and looked at the floor. “I completely understand if you want to punish me for hitting Derek.”
Madbriar took a seat behind the desk, her chair squeaking in protest. “Relax, Beau. You’re an exemplary student and an upstanding member of this community. No one is questioning your behavior.” She sat back and stared at him for a moment. “Ask your dad to give me a call when he can to discuss the new gym addition. I want to see whether Benedict Brewery will donate for the school fundraiser.”
Beau folded his hands, keeping the tips of his index fingers together, a thrill of amusement running through him. Everyone always wanted something from him or his family. Being the town’s biggest employer made donating to every fundraiser in St. Benedict obligatory. He sometimes wondered how his father put up with all the bloodsuckers.
“Sure. I’ll let him know, but he’s always happy to help.”
She pointed at the office door. “Now, you’d better get to practice.”
His tension eased, Beau stood. He wanted to pat himself on the back for an impeccable performance. “Thanks, Ms. Greenbriar.”
“And Beau, do yourself a favor.”
He gripped the door handle. “Ma’am?”
“Stay away from Leslie Moore.” She picked up an open folder. “That girl will be nothing but trouble for you.”
He nodded, then hurried from her office, chuckling.
Trouble is my middle name.
The smell of sweat and freshly cut grass greeted Beau as he strutted onto the practice field. He tightened his grip on his helmet. The team was already in the middle of their stretches. He was late.
His belly flopping over the waistband of his gym shorts, Coach Brewer walked between rows of guys, blowing his whistle to keep time with their exercises. One among the team struggled to keep up. Jenson Theriot.
The bungling offensive tackle annoyed the shit out of Beau. He’d missed several blocks, leaving Beau vulnerable in the pocket. The freckle-faced redhead had become a detriment to his team—something Beau couldn’t tolerate.
Beau’s attention drifted to the metal bleachers and the cheerleading squad working on their routine. Dawn was there wearing a short, white cheerleading uniform. He loved how the bright red St. Benedict dragon, its mouth open and teeth bared, hugged her breasts. The other girls on the squad, whose names eluded him, shouted their silly rhymes for victory and team spirit as Dawn watched them kick, split, and jump.
Dawn turned to the field and, spotting him, waved.
The wind whipped her long blonde ponytail and brushed several strands over her shoulder, making it appear shorter, like Leslie’s. Though they were physically identical in every way except for their hair length, Beau wished Dawn was the smart-mouthed bitch he really wanted.
Before he could get away, she came running to greet him. It was the last thing he needed. Coach Brewer would be pissed.
“Hey, honey.” Dawn frowned at him. “Everything okay? I heard Madbriar called you into her office.”
Her voice wasn’t Leslie’s. He’d memorized the smoky, sexy sound of her sister. The way she raised her tone ever so slightly when she was about to say something sarcastic. Dawn had none of Leslie’s nuances—her voice was utterly lifeless.
Dawn worked hard to portray a wholesome image by avoiding cursing and smoking, which he admired. But her love of cherry-red lipstick and excessive mascara aggravated him. He’d told her more than once not to wear so much, but she didn’t listen. She just put on more, thinking he liked it. Beau longed to wipe the color from her mouth.
He gave her a warm smile, hiding his thoughts. “She wanted to talk to me about my father contributing to the gym fundraiser.” He looked over at his teammates.
“I heard it was because you were giving Derek and my sister a hard time.”
His head snapped back around to her. How dare she contradict him. “No way, baby.” He laced his voice with extra charm to sound convincing. “Why would I waste my time on them when I’d rather spend every moment with you.”
Putty in his hands, Dawn melted against him, wrapping her arms around his neck.
“I knew it wasn’t true,” she whispered.
He smelled her skin. It wasn’t there—the heady aroma of clover always lingering on Leslie. Another difference between them, but one he was sure only he noticed.
“Beau, get your ass over here,” Coach Brewer yelled.
“Gotta go.” He unwound her arms. “See you after practice.”
“I love you,” Dawn managed to get out before he walked away.
He pretended not to hear her while putting on his helmet. Love wasn’t what he was after.
A load lifted from Leslie’s shoulders the moment the red-brick walls of St. Benedict High were behind her. The months of putting up with Beau had taken their toll, making the school almost feel like a prison. She relaxed her hands on the steering wheel. The cool afternoon breeze ran through her hair as she drove toward Main Street, where rustic storefronts sat between modern buildings. The hodgepodge of styles reminded her of the people in town. An interesting blend of old families who had lived in St. Benedict for several generations, and new families running away from the urban sprawl taking over nearby cities.
Derek touched her knee. “Why don’t you like going to the river?”
Leslie glanced at a thick swath of honeysuckle vines on the side of the road, her unease returning.
“All you ever said was you went to the river with Dawn junior year, ran into Beau and his friends, and swore you’d never go back.”
“Dawn and I got invited to the river by some seniors. Being asked to party on the river at night was a big deal to me.” Leslie’s shoulders drooped. “Beau started out talking to me, and I knew he was interested, but Dawn didn’t like that. So, when I went to grab something to drink, she stepped in and hit on him. They hooked up and disappeared. I got stuck fighting off his football buddies, who wanted to show me a good time.”
Derek scowled. “What did you do?”
Leslie raised her nose in the air. “I started spouting feminist literature, and they ran for the hills.”
“That must have been scary.”
“It was.” Her voice cracked. “When three guys manhandle you, it’s terrifying. I didn’t have my car, so I walked back to town.”
“At night?” His voice rose.
She took in the sunlight skipping across the tops of the buildings. The smell of hamburgers from Mo’s Diner filtered through the car. “Staying at the party was dangerous. A virgin hanging around a bunch of drunk and horny football players would only end badly.”
Derek moved closer. “I don’t want you in that situation again. The only guy I want around you is me.”
Leslie noticed a hint of possessiveness in his tone. “But you never try anything with me when you’re drunk. Or any other time.”
He sat back. “I will when you’re ready.”
Near the edge of town, tall oak trees covered with Spanish moss replaced the buildings. A gentle breeze ruffled through their leaves. Leslie turned onto Devereaux Road and headed toward the remains of St. Francis Seminary.