Paradise Falls (Paradise Falls #1-5)

Paradise Falls (Paradise Falls #1-5)

by Abigail Graham


Jennifer packed her messenger bag. In went her laptop, her binder full of lesson plans, and her battered, dog-eared copy of the twelfth grade English textbook. After she snapped the flap down and tightened the bag up on her back, she stopped and sighed. It was the first day of school. First day number four. She hoped she’d pull off her first day this year without tearing up.

This was the third year Jennifer faced life alone. She shifted on her feet, wriggling her toes in her sneakers and flexing her riding gloves, working up the will to open the front door. Her husband Franklin did the honors for her four years ago. Her departure on the very first day of her teaching career was domestic bliss in its purest form. He woke up early and roused her from sleep with blueberry pancakes. He kissed her on the cheek and soothed her frayed nerves by reassuring her that she’d do a fine job and be a good teacher. The kids would love her.

Now she was alone with mounting dread and memories, a screeching alarm clock woke her for an oatmeal bar and orange juice chugged straight from the carton, a quick shower and a coordinated selection from her predominantly neutral wardrobe.

A favorite picture of Franklin by the door was the only thing left to say goodbye on her way to work. Niagara Falls served as the background to their honeymoon photo, and the way the sun caught the water made everything glow like a cheesy painter’s view of heaven. Big dark sunglasses hid Jennifer’s eyes, and unusually unkempt hair framed her grin. Her husband had a silly, boyish smile that infected everybody around him.

The picture filled her with joy when Franklin was alive. Looking at it now brought lingering doubt and guilt. Why am I alive, and you’re not?

Jennifer took a deep breath. I can do this. I have a job to do.

Franklin’s voice drifted from the back of her mind. You can do it, kiddo. She was almost two years older than her husband. That was their little joke. She tightened her pads and riding gloves and strapped down her helmet.

She scrubbed at her eyes, sucked in another breath, and yanked the door open.

Humid August air and a wet smell hinting at a coming thunderstorm greeted Jennifer on the front porch. She shrugged to shift the bag’s weight before locking the door, and then lifted her trusty three-speed from the front porch to the sidewalk. As soon as she stepped off the old warped wood, it hit her. Did you leave the stove on? Is the door locked? Did you turn the bathroom fan off? Did you leave a lesson plan on the table?

Jennifer shook her head. Every single time she left the house, she had to do this. Sighing with resignation, she checked the door again and went through a mental checklist. She had not cooked on the stove in a week, the door was clearly locked, the bathroom fan had a fuse if it overheated, and she never put the lesson plans on the table. They were in her bag. Rolling her shoulders with a renewed confidence, she stumbled as she turned and almost bolted back to the house.

A black Dodge rolled down the street and stopped in front of the neighbors’ mailbox. The illegal blacked out windows hid its interior, but she knew who was driving. She froze, then moved deliberately slow and ignored the threat the way she’d ignore a wasp buzzing about her head. You leave me, I leave you be.

Her trembling hands choked the handlebars as she pedaled. Jennifer could ride for an hour ninety-degree heat without breaking a sweat, but perspiration beaded between her shoulder blades. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed the Dodge followed behind. She leaned into the bike and pumped harder on the pedals to increase her speed. The car kept pace.

The driver shadowed her as she stopped at the first intersection and pedaled across Commerce Street, the main drag. No one was out this early in the morning, at least not in this part of town. Thick silence was broken only by the thick rumble from the car, rolling along behind her.

Shimmering beyond rising waves of heat was the high school. She would be safe once she made it to work.

After she reached the top of the hill, she sat up on the seat and eased up on the pedals to coast downhill. She was almost there. The school meant people: other teachers, students, and most important, a burly state policeman who served as the school’s resource officer. She would be safe at the school.

Exhaust roared out of the Dodge as it launched past her left elbow by maybe a foot. Her heart jumped into her throat. The car swerved left and then right before coming to a lurching stop that blocked the road. Panicking, Jennifer choked on the brake as hard as she could. The font wheel locked and the handlebars jerked in her hand. The handlebars came alive in her hands. The bike went down and she went with it. She put her feet down to catch herself, and a shock of white hot pain shot up her leg as her bad ankle folded inwards and she went down. Her arm landed on the pavement and the loose gravel tore open her skin as she rolled onto her back.

The car doors simultaneously swung open and the car rocked on its springs as Grayson Carlyle stepped out from the driver’s side. His passenger stood up and slipped on a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Elliot Katzenberg, her brother-in-law, nudged her bicycle with his foot. Jennifer shifted into a sitting position and looked up at him while ice spread through her veins.

“You look like you could use a ride,” he said.

She looked at Elliot, then to Grayson, and then back to Elliot. Her cell phone was in her hip pocket. Even if the fall didn’t crush it to pieces, it offered little help. She couldn’t call the police. Grayson’s father was the chief of police. Elliot’s uncle was the mayor. His father was a senator. Jennifer glanced around the deserted street. There weren’t any witnesses. Instinct drove her to skid backwards on the street, pushing with her heels and hands. Her ankle hurt like hell.

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