First Chapter First Place for Romance: False Hope by Michelle Grey


False Hope by Michelle Grey is the First Place winner in the Romance category of Works in Progress for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

Award-Winning First Chapter

Hadley Bruce hated winter, yet she could’ve reached out the window and etched her name in the roof-high snow pack crowding the rutted trail in the San Juan Mountains. And it was June, for heaven’s sake. That had to be a testament to how much she loved her cousin Sophie.

Best friends or not, Hadley wished she was teeing off at home in Scottsdale instead of checking out the Colorado ghost towns of Animas Forks for Sophie’s travel and adventure blog. But because Hadley’s boss had forced her into taking a sabbatical, Sophie was convinced it was a sign.

Hadley didn’t believe in signs, but Sophie had been relentless.

A black SUV crested the ridge above and barreled toward them, pulling Hadley from her thoughts.

“Scoot over,” Sophie urged. “Traffic coming down the mountain always has the right-of-way.”

“Scoot over where? There’s nowhere to go.” But Hadley squeezed the rented Jeep a foot or two to the right, the passenger mirror scraping the snow as the other vehicle barely slowed to pass. “Where’s the fire, buddy?” she mumbled as she pulled back to the center of the trail. “I hope I didn’t damage the mirror. We didn’t get the extra insurance.”

Sophie opened her window and leaned out to inspect it. “It’s fine. You worry too much.”

As they continued climbing, the snow gave way to the beginnings of vegetation and even a couple of spring flowers, and Hadley had to admit that the high mountain vista with the white, fluffy clouds overhead, was breathtaking.

Rounding a bend, a collection of historic buildings greeted them, all nicely preserved. The wooden structures looked like they could’ve come straight out of an old western movie.

Sophie tapped Hadley’s arm. “Stop here. I think this is the place.”

Hadley sure hoped so. Sophie had promised they’d head back to Ouray for lunch if she could find the perfect picture for her upcoming post, so as Hadley shoved the gear shift into park, she glanced at her watch.

“I saw that.” Sophie shot her a grin.

“Can’t help it. I’m starving,” Hadley grumbled. “If you hadn’t ticked off our waiter this morning, we’d at least have eaten a decent breakfast.”

“Well, he was the jerk who messed up our order. Twice. And he was super rude.” She wrestled her camera out of the backseat. “Come help me find something to capture the ghost town feeling.”

After removing her sunglasses, Hadley paused. The stillness and quiet that surrounded them pressed on her. Except for the buildings, she could almost believe humans had never been here before. She hurried after Sophie. “What exactly are we looking for?”

Sophie shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Something special.”

Hadley surveyed the area again then frowned at Sophie’s back. She should go sit in the Jeep for all the help she’d be. It all looked good enough for a nice photo, but her mind didn’t work on things she couldn’t define. “How do you know we’re even at the best spot?”

Sophie turned to her with a smile. “I don’t. That’s why it’s an adventure.” She took the three steps onto the porch then wandered into what, according to the plaque posted on the pedestal outside, was once someone’s home during the gold and silver mining boom.

Hadley followed, still reluctant to get sucked into yet another of Sophie’s escapades. She’d avoided them since their senior year in high school when they’d almost been busted for trespassing. She couldn’t afford a blemish on her record then, and she sure as hell couldn’t afford it now.

“Suck it up, buttercup,” she whispered. “This isn’t illegal. And the only thing standing between you and lunch is a single picture.”

Stepping into the house, Hadley found her cousin lying on the floor, her camera angled to catch the rustic table edge and the window beyond. There wasn’t much else to see in the sparsely furnished room. It was preserved for tourists, but the few kitchen items on display were nailed down to discourage would-be thieves. At least it was clean, and the brilliant sun slanting through the paned windows had warmed the building to a comfortable temperature.

Sophie groaned as she stood. “This isn’t working.”

Hadley turned with a grin. “Not much here. What did you expect?” she said, skimming the fireplace mantel with her fingertips. “They don’t call these areas ghost towns for nothing.”

“You’re funny. There are tons of ghost towns in Colorado, more than existing towns, but most are run down skeletons. Very few have been kept up like this one. I want to capture the essence of what it would’ve been like to live here then.”

Hadley shuddered at the thought, but let Sophie return to her work. “I’ll check out the upstairs for inspiration.”

The small second story was nothing more than a single, empty room with a window on each wall. The floors creaked as she walked, but when she stopped, silence filled the space. She checked her watch again.

What was she doing here?

She’d had that thought several times during the past three days, but it weighed heavy on her now. Hadley stepped to the north facing window, resting her head on the sill. Taking a deep breath, she pushed it out slowly, forcing her muscles to relax.

Eleven more days until she could reset her routine and get back on task, but the question that had nagged her for a week still lingered. Why had her new boss really forced her to take time off? He’d said he didn’t want her to burn out, but that was crap. She’d been on the audit team for Stephens & White for four years, silently but steadfastly working her way through the maze of public accounting hierarchy. She’d expected to promote to senior manager this summer, and then according to her plan, make partner before she turned thirty. She’d be the first one to know if she was close to burning out. And she wasn’t. There had to be another reason.

As Hadley caught sight of her cousin striding over to one of the nearby outbuildings, she shelved her worries, smiling at the picture Sophie presented. She was everything that Hadley wished she could be. They shared the same blond hair, but that’s where the similarities ended. Sophie was beautiful, vivacious, daring. It would never occur to her to worry about what next week held, let alone next month. And certainly not five years from now.

Hadley started to turn from the window when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye in the trees to the east. A red rag waved from a tree branch, it’s color bright against the dark evergreen. She squinted. Was it a shirt?

Curiosity propelled her down the stairs and out the door. She was almost to the outbuilding when Sophie pulled the camera from her face in surprise. “You look like a woman on a mission.”

“Thought I saw something. I’ll be right back.”

Sophie followed her. “Please tell me you saw something. Because so far, I haven’t found a darn thing to inspire me.”

As they approached the spot, Hadley could feel her heart beating in her ears from the altitude, but when she stepped around the large boulder, she forgot to breathe at all.

She saw the boots first. Worn leather, with soles that had seen better days. They were on a man who looked like he was spooning the boulder. Maybe he was sleeping, or drunk.

“Sir?” She shoved her hands in her jeans pockets as she approached.

“I don’t think he’s breathing.” Sophie grabbed Hadley’s arm in a death grip, her voice about an octave higher than usual.

Hadley poked the guy’s leg with the toe of her boot and Sophie screamed like she’s seen a mouse, causing them both to jump.

“Jesus, Sophie,” Hadley said, clutching her chest. She pointed to a nearby tree. “Go stand over there.”

After making sure Sophie had followed her instruction, Hadley swallowed hard and gathered enough courage to tug on the man’s shoulder. His left arm flopped from his side to the ground, the momentum turning his torso and head. Hadley sucked in a breath as she stared at his open, unseeing eyes.

“Oh, hell,” she whispered.

“What is it?” Sophie called.

Hadley turned a slow half-circle, stomach churning. “Soph. It’s the kid, the waiter. From the restaurant this morning. He’s dead.”

“No it’s not,” Sophie whispered, eyes wide.

“Come look. Yes, it is.”

Sophie approached, the color draining from her face with every step. “We should leave. Now.” As if the invisible string that had tethered her to the spot had broken, she took off running toward their car.

“Wait, Sophie!”

Hadley managed to catch up with Sophie as she shoved her camera into the Jeep’s back seat. “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like? We’ve got to get out of here.”

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