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by Jan Irving
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Noah Matthews brought his son Josh to the pristine woods of Washington State to make a fresh start. The first night in their new home, Noah meets Kell Farraday when the laconic police chief shows up on his doorstep searching for two people lost in the forest. It's the start of a sexy new friendship when Kell decides to pursue the shy but flirtatious Noah. But a new beginning won't be so easy. Noah's former boyfriend shows up to try to reclaim a place in his life, and worse, Josh is drawn to the growing mystery in the forest. People disappear and then one turns up dead. There's something haunting the forest. Something watching. And soft-spoken and confident Kell's reassurances can't ease Noah's fear when Josh goes into the woods alone.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: January 2010
53 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [285 KB]
Reading time: 176-246 min.
Josh Matthews undid his safety belt and shoved open the passenger door of their Toyota Tundra truck, his eyes rounding as he took in the house surrounded by tall Western red cedars and Douglas firs, the moss-hung, impenetrable woods. "Dad!" he exclaimed, glancing at Noah with just a trace of the smile Noah treasured in the serious gray eyes he'd inherited from his father.
It was not an expression Noah had seen a lot of lately, so he took it as a good sign.
"Yeah," Noah said, smiling back. It would be okay. He was still shaky, but he was doing his best to hide it from Josh. And pretty soon he wouldn't just be acting the part of someone who was okay, he'd actually feel it. "Not bad, huh? Your old man found us, uh, a place with potential."
Josh, who was twelve now and growing so fast Noah got a pang in his gut at the thought of one day losing his little boy to the full-fledged teen years, walked up the cracked driveway to the gray rectangular box cradled between spurs of raw granite on Sullivan's Mountain.
Noah had purchased the house on a crazy impulse one day when he just needed to get out of Seattle. He hoped being surrounded by mists, bald eagles, olive-plumed trees and rare blue skies would do the trick. Built in the 1960s, the house was situated on the level part of a circular drive where the two nearest neighbors lived in dips in the road, naturally caused by free-running creeks.
He followed his son around the side of the house to the purple cement swimming pool with green rocks and a dicey hot tub. Despite the strange color, he thought maybe if it were landscaped in a less jarring shade and repaired, it might be a jewel. Anyway, he'd dreamed as soon as his realtor had faxed him photos of it. The tub could be used all winter even higher on the mountain, since the climate in Washington State usually ran more to rain than piles of snow.
Josh bent down and checked the water temperature, his forehead creased. "Nice. Dad, it's swim temperature! Even if the color.... Uh."
Noah shook his head. "I know. Can you bear it for a while? I had Jade Moreton warm it up for us since I thought even if it's ugly, we could use it," Noah said, referring to the local girl he'd hired to take care of the house. He was pleased Josh had noticed that the water was inviting, at least. He very much wanted his son to like their new life. And he'd worried about him for weeks, since moving a kid from established friends and schooling wasn't to be taken lightly. "There should even be a hot meal waiting inside--along with pie and coffee."
Like his Dad, Josh had a thing for berry pies, hot and fresh from the oven or microwaved so the juices sizzled. That and coffee made with dark, oily beans was pure heaven.
Josh grinned at his father. "Organic, right? Yeah, I could eat. Hey, can I back the truck closer to the house? We'll need to unload all those files you insisted on bringing...." His son rolled his eyes at how many home office supplies they'd carted on the drive down from Seattle, although Noah had pointed out that they had no idea when they'd be back at one of the big box stores.
Noah laughed, shaking his head. Josh's latest thing was working on his Dad to allow him to drive as often as possible. His kid couldn't wait to be sixteen--but Noah could. "Nuh uh. You're a few years short of doing any driving."
"But we're up in the wilderness, Dad! What if there was an emergency or something and you were injured and couldn't drive?" Josh followed Noah to the single peeling white door with a horseshoe hanging upside-down above it. So far Noah didn't think the house had been lucky, but he hoped to change that.
Josh bit his lip and hesitated before asking in a tiny voice, "And what if what happened to the family that used to live here happened to us?"
"What? Josh!" Noah rubbed the back of his neck. Okay, his son was smart and technically savvy; he must have Googled their new home and neighborhood. "Nothing happened to that family. I was told they needed to move closer to the city to make a living."
"I know the realtor told you that." Josh had a stubborn set to his chin. "But one of their kids posted on his blog that he was scared to live here...."
"Josh." Noah took a deep breath, his pride and excitement clouded. He didn't want to talk about their home's previous owners. He wanted to show off their brand new perfect life to his son. This was where Noah intended to regain his independence, where he intended to make his stand.
Josh studied his father, gray eyes grave. "Sorry, Dad. I'm really happy to be here. Can I open the door with the new key?"
Noah handed him the shiny gold key, which was in better repair than their front door. "Keep it; that one's yours. And as for the driving... we'll discuss it sometime." Noah threw Josh a bone to thank him for dropping the topic. Much as he hated to admit it, his son had a point about driving anyway. This wasn't the busy 'burbs of Seattle. Josh might need a few survival skills in this more remote part of the country. "Just promise me one thing, 'kay?"
"Yeah, what's that?" Josh breezed through the foyer and made a beeline for the oak- and brass-appointed kitchen with its stone hearth and hanging copper pots. Noah had already had someone working in the kitchen, even before they moved in. It would be the first room they'd renovate.
"Don't go into the woods without me and a really good map," Noah commanded. He glanced out the long kitchen windows and swallowed, since the one thing that made him uneasy sometimes about his new home was that thick forest. It was stupid, but he guessed it was because he was an urban man. "You could get lost out there."
Josh looked out at the tall cedar and fir trees that towered over their new home. "No worries. It looks cold and wet and I'd hate to be lost out there."
Noah sighed. Would Josh like where they had moved or not? * * * *
He was hungry. And cold. And shivering.
From the bluff above the small gray box, he watched the boy and man walk around the house. Watched the man put his hand on the boy's shoulder at one point, squeezing with what looked like affection.
He made a soft sound, remembering his grandpa. He'd cared about him. Long... long time ago. And thinking about him made his head hurt and his heart race and tears sting his eyes.
He could smell the hot food inside that house. * * * *
It was late, and Jade Moreton knew she had to get home soon. She had night school the next evening right after a double shift at the diner, which felt kind of shitty since sometimes it seemed like all she did was work.
And what she wanted was to get laid.
Trouble was, she'd had all the eligible men in town. Well, all but two.
Right now she was bent over the john, scrubbing Thomas Anderson's en suite. The inquisitive rich teen was lucky enough to live in this posh house, renovated out of the shell of an old bungalow, up on Sullivan's Mountain. He was leaning against the doorway, watching her work, probably staring at her ass, but he was all right. She was firm with him that she didn't play around with kids, but since he'd been to all kinds of fancy places like Paris and Rome, he was fun to talk to.
Jade had always wanted to travel, leave this mudball boring town behind. She loved looking at Thomas's computer photo albums of places he'd visited, listening to his stories of Bangladesh or Sydney, Australia. She knew someone else who had traveled, though it had been in the army, not as a pampered kid. Actually, nothing about Deputy Alec Danvers looked pampered, and she would know, since they shared the same gym--the only gym in small-town Sullivan.
And why was she thinking about him again? Despite how he had come back and was almost a celebrity at their foothills village, he was nothing to Jade, just another man. She'd lived in this hick town with a higher boys-to-girls ratio all her life, so she'd learned a thing or two, and one of them was she didn't want to end up like her foster mother, a single parent working in a crap-ass diner all her life.
She studied hard, and she played hard, but on her terms.
She'd lost her virginity at sixteen and never regretted it, but she'd been careful even then to make sure the boy wore a condom. She was not getting knocked up and knocked down. No, sir!
"You heading up for a swim?" Thomas asked, smiling hopefully. "You don't need to use that old pool at the empty house. Ours is pretty cool. And new."
Jade shook her head, figuring that seventeen-year-old Thomas wanted to see her in her suit. Well, forget that.
She watched him take another hit of the very fine grass he no doubt got from Morley Orris, the local pot farmer. No way could she afford that shit, and she didn't take it when he offered, since she was fairly sure she might lose her job if she got too cozy with the favored son. She was the twice-a-week maid, pure and simple, and Thomas's mom was not a lady you'd want to tangle with. His father was even worse, cold with Jade, spending his free time when he was home fishing or hunting. "I wish I could, Thomas. Nice of you to ask," Jade said with some regret. She didn't have long before she had to head back and cover her friend Marcie Hollis for an hour down at the diner. Just enough time to visit the pool belonging to the new Seattle folks, which was a quick walk through the woods.
She unfolded her six-foot frame from the bathroom floor, finished for the day, catching her reflection in Thomas's newly polished mirror. She liked what she saw, sun-streaked brown hair and toned body.
"That place gives me the creeps," Thomas observed.
"Why do you say that?" Jade poured her pail of dirty water into his toilet and then flushed it while Thomas took another lazy hit.
"It was weird, the family just disappearing one night, as if they were scared off or something, though I guess since Ralph Hindle got hurt and died in the woods, they probably didn't like it here much anymore. He was a cool guy, used to come around here all the time...." Thomas shrugged. "Before they lived there, the place was empty since the old man who built it keeled over from a heart attack. So yeah, the house seems like bad luck."
Jade shrugged, already anticipating a cool dip to get rid of the miasma of cleaning for other people and to ease her sore back muscles. "Well, pool. And I remember the first owner. He wasn't creepy, just old." She was amused. "He was really into gardening, that's for sure, even had his grandson help him out sometimes, though the place has grown all wild now."
"I better walk with you as far as the house," Thomas offered, butting out his grass. "Don't want the ghost of Sullivan's Mountain to get you."
Jade held his gaze, making sure he knew there would be nothing more than walking involved. "Okay." She didn't want to hurt his manly pride by pointing out she could take care of herself. * * * *
But when they broke through the meadow, which was full of buttercups, foxglove, and wild daisies this time of year, Jade and Thomas spotted some lights on and a big Toyota truck taking possession of the uneven old driveway.
"Should you ring their bell or something?" Thomas asked, hesitating.
Jade shook her head, having only spoken to Noah Matthews on the phone. He had said she could use the pool whenever she wanted, but she didn't want to interrupt his first day in a new home.
"There's a road through the woods they used when they were cutting out the lots," Thomas suggested, as if reading her disappointment. "It's not paved and it's a bit rough, overgrown, but it'll take us around the house. We can hike through the trees 'til we get to the pool."
Jade wanted to give him a queenly pat on the cheek, happy to be catered to. It was something she intended to get used to, something she intended to live for real one day. A vision of Alec Danvers, tall and tanned with floppy brown hair, rose in her mind's eye. He seemed perfectly content in this small corner. But something like this would never be enough for Jade. She'd make her way somehow. * * * *
Noah watched Josh looking around his room. The movers had brought everything a couple of weeks back, and Noah had driven out to the country to supervise the unpacking. He'd spent particular time in this room, hoping it would mean the closeness he'd once enjoyed with his son would return. Of course, he knew why they weren't close, and it wasn't Josh who had pulled away. It was Noah.
He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.
As Noah watched, Josh passed a reverent hand over the handsome walnut desk and Dell laptop he'd treated him with. Noah hoped it made up for the chilly, cracked granite-tiled floor and dark, unknown scrap wood that made up the walls. Josh's bedroom was on the bottom level, near the kitchen, but it was cold and, when Noah had first seen it, full of cobwebs and wolf spiders. The ugly things freaked him out a little. "Not bad," Josh noted, amusement in his eyes. "Dad, a new computer and not a stupid desktop!"
"Not bad? Hell of a lot better than I had growing up!" Noah pointed out, shaking his head. But he'd never wanted hard times for his kid. He was grateful that the money his wife had left them, supplemented by his work writing technical manuals for software engineers, meant he'd been able to provide better.
"Yeah, yeah. Poor boy makes good." Josh rolled his eyes. Then he bit his lip. His face looked very young to Noah as he continued, "I wish... Mom could see it. Do you think she can, maybe?"
Josh was very grown-up for his age, but the topic of his mother could sometimes leave him grasping for extra reassurance.
Noah didn't believe in traditional religion, so he sat down, giving himself a moment. He always wanted to say the right thing, the weight of being a single parent heavy. "I think that wherever she is, she'd like to know we're happy, that's what I think, Joshua."
Josh nodded, satisfied for the moment. "But who are you going to date out here, Dad? I mean, you're still pretty young."
Noah felt a blush coming on at his son's frankness. That was one topic he wanted to stay away from! Until recently, he'd lived like a monk since Margaret's death from cancer all those years ago. Raising his son and working like a demon to lose himself in his job and bury his loneliness had taken all his time--well, until a few months ago.
Uneasiness tightened his shoulders. Don't think about it.
He cleared his throat, embarrassed that his heartbeat accelerated. He paused before continuing, again aching to be truthful with his son about so many things... but was Josh ready to know who his father truly was? Noah was too shaky to confide in him--yet. But he hoped some time out here in their new life would change that. "Maybe I'll meet someone right at the church social," he teased with forced lightness.
"Ha ha, yeah, right. Do they still do those things out in the country?" Josh asked, eyes wide, as if he were an anthropologist studying a strange culture.
That look made Noah smile. Shit, he was glad that when Margaret got pregnant from a one-nighter, they'd decided to have Josh, to be married. She'd never been what he'd wanted, but they'd created this amazing person.
Noah shook his head full of carefully styled ash-blond hair. "I don't know. All I know about the country I learned from watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman with you when you were younger." * * * *
Thomas shone his small flashlight into the deep woods off the tiny, rugged road. "I think if we head through there it shouldn't be too far."
"Okay," Jade agreed. "But you can go back if you want; your Mom might want you."
Thomas's face tightened. He and his mother didn't get on well, Jade guessed. Well, the woman was a real dragon with an icy temper, although not as chilly as her husband. "Doubt it. You know this is a total cliche, don't you?"
"It is?" Jade paused to study Thomas, thinking he wasn't such a bad kid, just bored and unhappy. She could certainly remember feeling that way herself.
"I mean, two hot young people heading into the scary abandoned old house or the haunted woods...." Thomas lifted some dry hanging moss in one hand, which was suspended from a dead, bleached branch, reaching out like a skeletal hand. "Every horror movie I ever saw, the kids who have sex wind up dead."
"Okay, one, Thomas," Jade scoffed. "There will be no sex. Second, that's probably a cliche based on prudish Judeo-Christian ideas that being hot was a bad thing."
Thomas blinked as if impressed.
"All the night school I'm taking," Jade confessed, flushing a little. He could totally choose whatever school he attended, but Jade, not so much. "But to tell you the truth, kid, this mountain always gave me the creeps. If I had a shit load of dough, I wouldn't live up here, nuh uh."
Still, she led the way into the damp breath of the trees, watching her footing carefully, since she'd grown up on hiking trails on the Pacific Northwest. Roots and rocks could snag an unwary walker, and she had a scar on one knee from a fall on unforgiving granite.
The only beacon came from Thomas's heavy flashlight, piercing the olive gloom and guiding them over a rough trail, like something animals used through the brush. Mist writhed over the trees and shrubs, which were damp and dripping with the late spring night air.
"Hey... did you see that?" Thomas asked her suddenly, startling her.
Ice feathered down her back again. Jade frowned, ignoring it. "See what? I think we must be almost at the pool."
Thomas's voice was bemused. "I just thought I saw someone moving up ahead there."
Jade swallowed, suddenly dry-mouthed. This was stupid; she was acting like a kid who had played with an Ouija board at a sleepover. Besides, she was the adult, so she had to reassure Thomas. But suddenly this simple walk to take a dip seemed like a bad idea. "Do black bears wander around at night up here?" she asked. Where she lived in the foothills, although it was remote and countrified, it was unusual to see one.
"Sometimes they get into our garbage. In fact, the other night one really fucked up our cans. Dad bought some heavy-duty bearproof metal ones, but something got into it anyway!" Thomas shared. "Probably the fucking ghost that lives up here."
"Crap!" Jade gave a relieved laugh.
"You're trying to scare me. Come on, admit it."
"Actually...." Thomas paused and then shone the light up toward his face, his pale skin, green eyes, and mousy brown hair looking extra washed out in the diffuse misty air. "I seriously wouldn't mind heading back. I, uh, think we might be lost."
"But the house is just ahead. We could make out the lights through the woods just a minute ago!" Jade put her hands on her hips, a little scared for her charge. She hadn't meant for him to join her, get lost up here with her. And if she didn't return to her car soon, she'd miss helping Marcie out with that extra hour her girlfriend needed this evening with her kids. Shit!
"Yeah, but the trail kind of snaked deeper into the woods. I think we somehow missed the house and pool," Thomas said, uneasiness in his voice.
Well, hell, she was uneasy too, though she hated to admit there was anything she wasn't up to handling. She took a deep breath. "Okay, I guess we should walk back, retrace our steps. It's not far, is it? I never wandered around here all the time I've worked in the house."
"I don't think so," Thomas said, sounding eager to follow her plan.
"All right, let's do it then, come on. I'm going to be in so much shit tonight if I'm really late. My girlfriend needed some extra time to see her son's exhibit at the library art show."
Jade skidded down a leaf-covered hill, careful not to slide on the mud and wind up on her ass. Behind her, Thomas's flashlight lit their path, weaving back and forth like the flashlights used on a paranormal investigation TV show.
She turned to check on Thomas's progress when suddenly, the flashlight flickered. Went out!
"Oh, fuck!" he muttered. "I knew I shoulda got new batteries."
Jade wrapped her arms around herself, worried because without light, they had no way to find their way back. "Okay, maybe we should...." She swallowed, not wanting to suggest this plan, but maybe it truly was their only option. "Just stay here. Huddle somewhere together and wait until it gets light out. We should be able to find our way then." She made herself sound confident so he wouldn't be scared.
"I don't know; we weren't too far from the road...." Thomas's voice drifted off, and Jade could tell he was no more wild than she was about spending the rest of the night out here in the forest, waiting for the light to break.
Jade chewed her lip, tempted. All they needed was to make out the house lights again, and they were home free....
She reached out and felt for Thomas's sleeve. "Hang on to me, okay? Your Mom will be really pissed if I don't get you home in one piece."
"Don't worry, Jade; I brought more than a flashlight," Thomas confessed, voice grim. "I got my Dad's gun handy."
"What?" Jade barked. * * * *
In his study, Noah put on his glasses and went over some the hard copy he'd printed out of his next book. He found it easier to catch little mistakes if he read the work in his favorite chair. It was late, but the excitement of finally being here after months of planning kept him wide awake.
But had they moved for the best reason? The thought had raised itself more than once like a persistent ghost, but now, not wanting to think about what had led to his decision, Noah got up and opened the peeling French doors, letting in the cool mountain air. The lights were on around the pool--the ones that were still working and not broken or buried by debris--highlighting the unkempt landscaping, but beyond was the sheer dark volume of the woods, seeming to loom oppressively over tall green grass and sculpted rock.
He frowned, remembering Josh's unease with the surrounding forest. He wondered if his son would come to like where they lived, their new environment--so far he'd been very fixated on the new props of their life, but Noah had made a deliberate effort to sweeten the pot until they could fix up their home. To Noah, their new surroundings were soothing, even though sometimes he saw them in a different light, as if looking at the skull of a person through their skin. But he knew he and Josh just weren't used to this much natural land. It was nothing like where they'd come from.
As he listened to the waterfall spilling down into the broken purple pool, he felt his shoulders relaxing. * * * *
At the diner, Chief Kell Farraday touched his radio and called back County Deputy Alec Danvers, who sometimes offered him welcome backup here in Sullivan, which had a small population of just over one thousand two hundred.
The deputy was currently dealing with a drunk and disorderly, Moss Beacon over at the Road House again. His old lady cheated on him, and instead of giving her hell, Moss picked a fight with someone every Friday night regular, taking out his frustration on travelers since the locals were too smart to mix it up with him.
"Does he need stitches this time, Alec?" Kell asked his friend, grateful for his help. He'd started the day with administration work he had to cover since his secretary was only part-time, delved into a felony investigation, and then topped his time off with doing traffic duty for a bike-a-thon through town.
"Naw, but the guy he hit sure does! Looks like he was mowed down by a truck, Chief."
Kell sighed. Well, that made things more complicated. Why the hell couldn't Moss think things through? "The guy he fought want to press charges?"
"He's out cold, Chief. Want me to ask him when he comes to?"
"Yeah, you do that," Kell drawled. "Meanwhile I'm going to have a nice big piece of peach pie." This was his favorite part of the unpredictable day of a local chief. He made less money than a starting patrolman in most parts of the country, but he liked this town. And this town liked him: They were satisfied, along with the board, with his work, and willing to overlook his personal life. And living here, he knew just about everyone. It also gave a man lots of thinking time, which Kell liked. He was a natural loner, and a couple things in town the past couple of years had made him thoughtful. But he just knew one day he'd get to the bottom of it, like the so-called ghost haunting Sullivan's forest.
"Kell...." Marcie Hollis, a single mother who worked the diner, was at his elbow, her brow wrinkled, her red hair in a band off her face.
"Yes, ma'am?" Kell asked, ever calm and polite, but something in Marcie's expression made him light up, instinctively thinking maybe he wouldn't be having pie and coffee in peace tonight.
"Jade was going to cover my shift for the last hour." Marcie shifted her feet, which were probably sore and swollen. Here was someone else who made her living the hard way.
Kell gave Marcie a comprehensive look, letting her know that he was aware Jade Moreton stayed out late some nights.
"No, Kell, she's completely reliable about work and she never breaks a promise to a friend," Marcie said, clearly worried.
"She up working on Sullivan's Mountain?" The houses were still technically close enough to be part of the town, so it was under his jurisdiction, though right now only two families lived up there.
"Yes sir, at the Anderson place today, I think." Marcie went over to the strawberry pie under the dome and stuck one in a plastic package, handing it to Kell as thanks as he got up, abandoning his half-finished coffee.
"Well, I'll drive on up and see if I can find her, okay?" * * * *
"Thank you," Marcie said, genuinely grateful; he was such a good man. She wished Kell weren't gay. Not that everyone knew, since he was discreet, probably going to another town to do his prowling, but she was the former town bad girl. If Kell had liked pussy, she figured she would have known by now.
Damn, what a waste, she thought as she watched his nicer-than-average ass as he walked out the door. * * * *
Something cold and soft brushed Jade's arm. She gasped, startled, before realizing it was a damn branch! "Thomas, you okay?" Oh, shit, they were totally lost, and she knew Thomas was spooked, which, adding in the gun, was not a good thing. He was convinced someone was up here with them in the woods.
Thomas's hand jerked from Jade's grip.
It was so dark she couldn't make anything out, but she thought she heard something breathing.
"Thomas, where are you?" * * * *
Noah snapped out the light in his office, rubbing his eyes tiredly. He had better get some rest. He was looking forward to breakfast out on the cracked cement of the patio if it were warm enough in the morning. Maybe he and Noah could talk like they used to, before--
The sound sent a cold chill down Noah's back. He snapped on the light again and went to the open doors, peering into the night.
Josh clattered down the stairs from his bedroom, wearing PJs with the solar system on them, his eyes wide and terrified. "Dad! Someone's shooting in the woods!"