The fire gave an inviting crackle as Bella’s new husband locked her in a fervent embrace.
Bella pulled back. “We should get going. Everyone will be wondering where we are.”
“Chill, Bel,” Luke said. “No one expects the bride and groom to appear right after the wedding. Besides…” He pressed his face obnoxiously into the bodice of her gown. “It’s your fault we’re so late.”
Bella pulled away again and started across the lobby of the Stanley Hotel, catching her reflection in the window along with dozens of candle-lit Jack-o’-lanterns. This should feel romantic, she thought wistfully as Luke pushed past her out the door. And anyway, it wasn’t my idea to spend the last hour going to the forest’s edge with such a heavy load.
Ghost hunters peppered the patio, wielding EMF meters and handheld audio recorders like weapons, hoping the historic hotel would cough up a paranormal phenomenon. Maybe this will be their lucky night, Bella thought. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but if anyone was stubborn enough to come back and haunt these halls, it would be Aunt Louise.
At the concert hall, a wart-nosed witch took their tickets. “Oooh!” she squealed. “You’re the bride and groom who were married here this afternoon! And how cute! You’ve taken your wedding dress and tuxedo, and covered them with blood for your costumes!” She squinted at them over the ticket booth. “It looks so real!”
“Right,” laughed Luke. “Now we’re Corpse Bride and Groom!”
Bella looked down at her dress. The splatters of blood were such that she could never have duplicated the pattern a second time. It called to mind the incomprehensible squiggles of her great-aunt’s account ledgers, and Bella’s feeling of powerlessness the day she’d announced her engagement to Luke. Louise’s response was, “That boy has the Devil in his eyes!”
Louise had been a hard woman to live with, but she was the only family Bella had. It had been like a knife to her heart when Louise had proclaimed Bella dead to her, and the ledger had been snapped shut in her face, never to be opened again. Unless…
But Bella had loved her aunt. She never would have gone to such extremes if Luke hadn’t been so insistent that this was the only way.
“What are we going to do if someone asks where Aunt Louise is?”
Luke scoffed. “She’s, like, a hundred years old, Bel. Everyone will think she’s in bed. Anyway, we can’t control the appetites of murderous ghosts! Just like we can’t control the bears that stalk the borders of the national park.” He winked, and Bella forced a smile.
“Come on,” Luke said, grabbing Bella’s hand. “Let’s dance.”
Bella dipped, and twirled, the blood-stained dress billowing out around her. He’s been pulling me around since I said ‘I do,’ she thought wearily. No. He’s been pulling me around since the moment I let him slip that damn ring onto my finger. I should have listened to Aunt Louise in the first place.
A chill swept through the room, raising the hairs on Bella’s bare arms.
“What did I always tell you, Belladonna?” The harsh voice was unmistakable even in the din of the masquerade. “Men should think twice before a woman figures out widowhood is the best path to power.”
Bella smiled a smile more radiant than any captured by her wedding photographer. Maybe those ghost hunters would have two more specters to pursue before the night was over.