The Promise of Paradise
Author:Allie Boniface

The Promise of Paradise - By Allie Boniface

Chapter One

“Is this it?” Jen craned her neck and stared at the street sign.

Ashton wiped one damp palm on her thigh and tried to will away the knots in her stomach. “I don’t know.” She pulled her Volkswagen to the curb and dug in her pocket for the email print-out with directions. “Next right after the town green.” She looked across the street. Don’s Convenience Store waved a limp awning in the afternoon heat. “Across from Don's. Yeah, this is it. It’s gotta be.”

Already out of the car, Jen walked to the corner. Pulling her platinum blonde hair into a ponytail, she checked the crooked street sign and nodded at her best friend.

Ash made the turn and parked. “First house on the right,” she read aloud. “Number two.”

She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and closed her eyes. Deciding not to take the job at Deacon and Mathers was one thing. Moving to an unknown town a hundred miles from her parents, fleeing the scandal that now appeared in every Boston newspaper, was something else altogether. The knots in her stomach multiplied and stretched fingers of steel that began to strangle her heart.

“Ash?” Jen poked her through the open window. “You okay?”

She raised her head and forced herself to take a deep breath. “I don’t know.”

Jen pulled open the car door. “Come on. Let’s look at the place.”

Shoving dark blonde curls from her forehead, Ash got out of the car and stopped. “What if I’ve made a mistake? Like the biggest possible mistake in the world?” She stared up at the house, a nondescript two-story with dusty windows. It didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen before. Well, that’s the point, right? I wanted something completely different. I wanted to start fresh, someplace where no one knew me.

Willing her feet to step one in front of the other, she followed Jen to the front porch. “What if I’m really supposed to open my own law practice, go into politics, like Jess and Anne? Like Dad?” She sank onto the bottom porch step.

Jen tried the door. “You’re not,” she said over her shoulder.

“How do you know?”

“Because you spent the last two months of law school miserable and because you need a change.”

“My parents are going to kill me.”

Jen joined her on the step. “To tell you the truth, I think your parents have other things on their minds these days.”

Like explaining to the press why my father was caught with drugs and a nineteen-year-old prostitute in his car? Two months before he was about to receive the Democratic vice-presidential nomination? Ash dug her toe into the pavement, tracing cracks and watching ants scurry. “I guess you’re right.” Suddenly, her decision to leave Boston and the center of the Kirk family scandal didn’t seem like the worst decision in the world. In fact, when she thought about it, it seemed downright practical.

She eyed the car and wondered how long it would take her to unpack. Not that long. The apartment was supposed to be furnished, and she’d brought only a few clothes and books. Most of the memories she’d put into storage or burned.

Jen worked her fingernail beneath some peeling paint on the porch railing. “You need this, Ash, a summer to yourself. You need to be…” She stopped for a moment, as if searching for the right word. “…away.”

“Away from the media circus? Or away from Colin?”

Jen didn’t answer, and for just a moment, Ash let herself ache with the memory of Colin Parker, her love all through law school. She’d planned to accompany him to Europe and then move in with him at the end of the summer. Hell, she’d planned on marrying him. But Colin had dumped Ash thirty-seven days earlier with a note tucked into her planner.

I need some time and space to think… it began and ended with his scrawled signature minus Love or any other word that suggested he’d shared her bed and her heart for the last three years.

One month before graduation, and three weeks after the debacle with her father, he’d dumped her. A tear snuck its way down her cheek, and Ash dropped her head to hide it. The breakup hadn’t been the worst of it. Colin hadn’t needed time. He’d lied about that part. He had needed space, though, space in which to date Callie Halliway, president of the Student Activities Council and Colin’s co-author on a half-dozen journal articles. Beautiful and well-pedigreed, Callie partnered him perfectly, both on his arm and his resume. Ash had been replaced just like that, one day there and the next day gone, as if she’d never even existed in Colin’s life.

Jen elbowed her. “Take a look at this.”

With effort, Ash raised her head. Emerging from the cornflower blue house across the street was a short, stocky woman. White hair sprang out from her head in every direction, and she wore bright yellow gardening gloves. Without slowing, she marched down her walk and across the street. Up their crooked pavement she came, until she stopped in front of them. Though barely five feet tall, she towered over Ash and Jen sitting on the step, and Ash felt suddenly as if she were back in second grade, with an angry Miss Howard staring at her across a cluttered room. A frown carved the woman’s wrinkled face into disapproving lines, and beady brown eyes examined them. Ash wasn’t sure whether to laugh or run and hide.

The woman propped both hands on her hips and said nothing. Jen stood, and Ash followed. “Hi there. I’m Asht-Ashley Kirtland.” She corrected herself, changing her name at the last minute. With the Kirk name splashed across every paper in the Northeast, she didn't need anyone connecting her to it.

The woman nodded. “Helen Parker.” She pointed across the street. “Lived there for thirty-two years, this spring. I take care of this place and the one next door. You have any problems, come see me.” She paused and massaged one temple with a gnarled hand. “Up the block there, in the white house near the end, live the MacGregors. Hiram drinks too much, but his wife Sadie’s a doll, so no one says too much about it. He’s harmless, anyway.”

Ash slid a glance toward Jen. No secrets here. That didn’t bode well.

“Two houses down from that is Lanie Johnson’s. Used to be a Rockette, or some such thing, ‘til she busted her hip and ended up back here in Paradise. Had a man at one point, a while back, but he ran off two or three years ago.”

Helen paused to draw a breath. White flecks of spittle marked the edges of her mouth. “The rest of these homes are rentals, mostly to college kids during the year.” She narrowed her eyes, and Ash read the woman’s message loud and clear.

“I just graduated,” she explained, leaving off the bit about Harvard and law school. “I’m subletting for the next three months.”

Helen’s mouth relaxed a fraction. “Well, the other places are empty now.” Her gaze moved from the girls to the door behind them. “You’re the only ones living here this summer, far as I know.”

“Really?” Loneliness dropped a curtain over Ash’s hopes of finding new friends. Well, solitude was probably better if she hoped to figure out what direction her life was supposed to take now.

Helen reached into her front pocket and pulled out a key ring. Dangling it from two fingers, as if it were a dirty tissue, she held it out. “Square one’s for the front door. Smaller one’s for your door upstairs. And the silver one opens your mailbox.” She glanced at the solitary car by the curb. “Where’s the other one?”

Ash looked up from the keys, confused at the question. “I’m sorry?”

Helen puffed out a long breath of air. “The other tenant.” She rubbed her forehead with one hand, as if trying to pull the name from memory. “Edward something. Your downstairs housemate.”

“I have a housemate?” Ash looked at Jen, who grinned.

Helen had already headed down the front walk, but at the question, she turned back. “Of course. I thought you’d be arriving together.” She eyed the porch for a moment, and Ash read the look in her watery blue eyes: You better behave.

She stifled a laugh. “Thank you, Helen. Nice meeting you.”

The woman turned without replying and shuffled across the street, where she vanished beyond the sunflowers cloaking her front door.

“Cool. A housemate,” Jen said. “A male housemate.”

“Just what I need,” Ash said as she tried the key in the door. “Come on. We’ve got stuff to unpack.”