Liars and Liaisons by Sav R. Miller
The Arcadian Woods are haunted.
Not by ghosts, of course, but by the poor decisions of those who’ve made their home within the thick, deciduous forests. The throngs of black oak and wintergreen trees trap secrets in their branches, like fishing nets designed to capture and never release.
Nature can only harbor so many sins before it inevitably turns evil.
That alone should keep people away—should make throwing parties at my family’s secluded mountain estate difficult. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s almost too easy to fill fourteen thousand square feet with music and laughter from hundreds of strangers, as if they find the very danger of the woods enticing.
Makes it entirely too easy to plot their collective demise.
The various rooms on this level of the main house are currently littered with the evidence of every party I’ve held since my arrival. Red Solo cups are haphazardly strewn about, lampshades are torn, couches are drenched in the distinct scent of sex and drugs that only bacchanalian-style festivities can produce.
It’s alarming, truly, how easy it is to lure people here. Duris is supposed to be a wildly superstitious town, and yet mere hours ago, this place was crawling with every degenerate within a seventy-mile radius.
Not that I mind their willingness. Being back is easier to stomach when I’m not forced to sit with my thoughts and wait for them to wind around my sternum like poisonous vines, threatening to squeeze the life right out of me.
I should be so lucky.
Heat from the fieldstone fireplace before me caresses my face. The flames crackle, loud and extemporary, like the snapping of bone. The den—a small octagonal-shaped room off the main foyer with shell-shaped wall sconces; dark, textured wallpaper; and dusty vintage furniture—provides poor acoustics for the flickering sound. Instead of rising up to disappear into the domed glass ceiling, each pop and snap lands squarely on my shoulders—a maddening assault.
My fingers hover over the white keys of the ebony upright piano that I’m seated at. An antique Fischer that’s been in the family since the late nineteenth century. The glossy keys are worn and familiar beneath my touch, but I find myself unable to press down and play.
Truthfully, I haven’t plucked a note in weeks.
Not for lack of trying, but because nothing in these forests or mountains is sacred. I don’t want to taint beauty with the ghosts lingering here.
Behind me, the single wooden door to the den creaks open—everything in the estate creaks, moaning with the weight of its topographical torment. I don’t have to turn around to know my brothers have entered, don’t have to look at them to catalog their slow, cautious approach or the clinical glint in their dark eyes.
Their footsteps are heavy. Staggered, as if one is waiting for a green light from the braver sibling before approaching.
Tom Ford cologne invades my senses first. I keep my gaze on the fire, even as my eldest brother appears in my peripheral, still clad in the crisp black suit he’s been in all day. If I glanced over my shoulder, I know I’d find Nathaniel in a similar state of dress, though their expressions would likely set them apart.
Harrison wears his emotions on his sleeve, though he has always attempted not to. Nathaniel, conversely, has none, outside of his own vanity.
Which makes his presence now almost comical.
I might laugh, if the air didn’t feel so impenetrable. As if the oxygen was zapped from the room and left us to suffocate.
“Grayson.” Harrison’s voice feels like nails scraping down a chalkboard, though perhaps that’s just because it’s been so long since I’ve heard it.
I’m his junior by two decades, and as adults, the age disparity has rooted itself deep into our personal issues, breaking us apart when Harrison moved to New York to take over our grandfather’s record label.
The James family boasts a long line of exemplary musical talents—singers, musicians, and composers alike. Our name backs some of the greatest acts, dating back centuries, and we were each born with the intention of continuing that legacy of excellence.
Our greatest talent, however, lies within our ability to manage it. Manage the stars, which we’ve been doing for decades as agents, producers, and label owners. Any part of the music industry that can be commandeered and grifted, we’re in.
No one was surprised when Harrison left the world of creation and took over Symposium Records. He became Sonny James, media mogul and label owner, creating his own family to fuck up.
He says my name again, and my spine stiffens. My fingers curl into themselves, recoiling from the harsh sound. I don’t turn. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Long minutes pass, and an impatient breath huffs into the quiet air. The crackling of the fire continues, needling irritation into my bones.
“Are you coming?” Harrison asks, impatience dripping off each word.
When I don’t respond, Nathaniel adds, “To the church, he means.”
As if I wouldn’t know.
I stare at the fire until it warps my vision, like a thick brush splashing bright orange paint across a clean canvas. Phantom sounds of merriment echo down the halls, roaring in my ears like wind-driven waves crashing against the rocky lakeshore outside, despite there being no party tonight.
My men are still burying the bodies from the last one.
A face appears in the flames, soft and flickering against the blurred color. Blue eyes and delicately carved cheeks, hollowing out as the mouth parts to release a scream.
Only it doesn’t come out sharp and brazen; the horror hides itself on lilted wooden notes, carrying across the dim, sunken room like actual music.
Gorgeous, heavenly tones I once would have killed to hear. A melody I would die to reproduce.
Nausea tightens my stomach, indicating just how much has shifted.
The piano’s keys ignite beneath my fingertips, scorching the pads with their wrath. I slide my hands back, folding them in my lap, even as my ears beg to be covered. Beg me to end the incessant tune as it crescendos, carving a path in my bones and sluicing through my bloodstream.
“No.” My reply is short, released on a single breath. It’s more than either brother deserves.
I can feel them exchange glances. Perhaps they’re even considering getting our parents involved, as if my mother would step foot in the Arcadian Woods without being dragged here by her ankles.
As if our father wouldn’t bury me outside the property lines if he thought he could get away with it. He tried when I was younger. Back when he thought beating submission was easier than earning it and that music would pour out of me if I hurt bad enough.
He wasn’t wrong. I have the deep, scarred grooves crisscrossing the planes of my back and the Academy Award to prove it.
The face in the flames sputters, her song dropping abruptly with my answer. An ember snuffed out in imagination, just as surely as it was in reality.
Nathaniel clears his throat, and I hear him shuffle closer. Likely under the impression that our bond from childhood—born primarily from forced proximity and not because we enjoyed each other’s company—might sway me to open up. Or at least acquiesce my presence in the estate in favor of accompanying them.
“You can’t…” he begins, trailing off, as if searching for a particular word. Something to draw me from the spell of the woods. “You’ll drive yourself mad here.”
“Or die trying,” Harrison adds.
“Your sabbatical is over. The university wants you to return, and I’ve set up a room for you in my pool house. Come home, brother.” Nathaniel enters my peripheral vision, his dark hair slicked back with a pomade and his face clean-shaven.
I watch—as if observing outside my body—as he reaches out, clamping a hand down on my shoulder. My eyes track the movement, then slide lower to note the ink smudged along the sleeve of my white button-down shirt. If I glanced at the torso, I’m certain the rest of the fabric would be similarly covered, boring the evidence of frustrated nights spent scouring sheets of music, editing scores, and still coming up empty.
I, Grayson Phillip James, am unable to produce anything. Unable to make sense of the compositions I’ve created or those passed down over the years from family. Even my textbooks—their words once second nature to me at the front of an auditorium—don’t compute any longer.
All I hear is that blasted wooden melody.
Like chimes, cluttering the creative space I spent three decades hollowing out in my mind.
“You have to move on,” Nathaniel says, though his voice lacks any real conviction.
He doesn’t care if I stay here and rot. Not really.
Only if I try to drag him down with me. A James through and through.
They’re right to worry though. I would drag him and the rest of them down.
“Perhaps this is my version of moving on,” I drone. “Perhaps I’m no longer interested in teaching or returning to civilization.”
Harrison takes a step forward, tapping his fingers on the rim of the piano. “Sydney wouldn’t want—”
A burst of ominous noise cuts him off, and it takes a moment for me to realize my fist was the culprit. It slammed into the ivory keys, drowning out whatever bullshit he was about to spew.
How dare he deign to pretend he knows anything about her.
It isn’t a request, and they don’t argue. Nathaniel peels his hand from me, jerking his chin in the direction of the door. My other brother hesitates, watching me with a contemplative look on his tired face, as if waiting for something within to break. He moves away from the instrument, then cards long fingers through his short brown hair, pausing at the dime-sized balding spot toward the back of his head, before he disappears past my shoulder.
My fist doesn’t uncurl until the door softly clicks shut, and even then, it takes considerable effort. Pain coasts along the outside curve of my hand, and I clench my jaw, noting that one of the keys has cracked completely in half.
Pathetic. So easily broken, just like its previous owner.
The unholy tune from before—from the flames—picks up again, thrashing against my mind. Taunting me.
I push away from the piano, striding slowly across the room to one of the many ceiling-to-floor windows the estate is outfitted with. Pulling aside one thick forest-green curtain, I peer out at the vast, manicured landscape—sixty-odd acres, surrounding a beautiful, fully stocked lake and interspersed with guest cottages; a barn, where the staff tends to a handful of dairy goats; and dozens of walking paths.
Outside the barn is a sunflower garden that must have been blessed by some sort of harvest god, as it continues to bloom despite its utter neglect. As a child, I’d spend my time there, hiding from my father’s cane and anger in the blossoms.
My brothers slip through a side door off the deluxe chef’s kitchen, chatting with their heads angled together, as if afraid to speak too loud in case the woods’ specters are listening. I can’t make out the conversation as they begin their trek down the circular drive, heading for a blacked-out SUV parked near the wrought iron gate separating the estate grounds from the gravel road leading into town.
The back door of the SUV swings open, and a slender figure hops out. Shiny obsidian-colored hair hangs loosely in matching French braids over pale moon-white shoulders, partially visible through the lace sleeves of a low-cut black blouse.
For some odd reason, I take my time raking my gaze over the soft curves of the woman’s form, noting the flare of her hips and the pert bottom, just hidden beneath what barely constitutes a skirt.
She leans up as my brothers reach her—as Nathaniel reaches her, sweeping her into his arms. Hers curl around his neck, and she presses onto her tiptoes, accepting the brutal kiss he lashes against her.
Something turns to stone inside my chest, though it’s difficult to ascertain exactly why as the three of them climb inside the vehicle. I watch as the woman pauses with one leg out, turning her head toward the estate.
She doesn’t move for several long moments, and though I’m sure it’s not possible, I wonder if she sees me.
I wonder if she senses the evil lurking in her midst. Here and in the vehicle she’s about to enter.
Slipping my hands into the pockets of my tailored black slacks, I let the curtain fall slightly, shrouding me from the overcast sky.
An emptiness pierces my chest, as if my organs were extracted and I was sewn up before getting replacements. I don’t really feel anything, which was the entire point of me coming here to stay. In the past, my residency at the James estate was sporadic, but now I intend to remain as long as the ghosts will have me. They take care of the feelings.
I don’t stop watching the three of them. Can’t. Her, specifically. When I look away, my eyes snap back, as if they’ve been turned into magnets and she’s some terrible force they can’t deny. Nathaniel’s hand finds her lower back, guiding her into the SUV.
I find myself enthralled by my brother’s attachment, given his known propensity for avoiding them. With one exception. Maybe my coming here will be of use if it means driving a wedge between Nathaniel and his little companion.
It is, after all, just what he deserves for killing mine.