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Dark in the Woods [MultiFormat]
eBook by Rosemary Laurey

eBook Category: Romance/Fantasy
eBook Description: When the wild things are stirring, taking sides could get you killed. Uprooted to a remote Virginia mountain town by her husband in a failed attempt to start afresh, Cassie Jackson gets the cold shoulder from his reclusive, dark-haired family of "hunters". And only cool friendship from the tall, fair neighbors across the river. When her husband is murdered, and she is shut out of the burial plans, she sneaks into the funeral home to at least say goodbye and discovers what it is her mother-in-law from Hell didn't want her to see. Something oddly?furry. Silver Grove used to be a quiet town--until Cassie arrived. She has dared to cross the river, and from their first glance, Deputy David Argon found himself drawn to his newly widowed neighbor. Now, in the midst of the biggest crime investigation in years, he feels compelled to shield her from the rising tension among the citizens and the hunters. Except protecting her means his hands-off policy is doomed to failure. And when another murder hits too close to home, staying out of her arms is mission impossible. Warning: If you go out in the woods tonight, you're sure of a big surprise--and we're not talking bears of the teddy variety!

eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2012

"Almost there, Cassie." Alan smiled and glanced sideways as he turned off the county road to an even narrower road, not much more than a track really.

Cassie smiled back and rested her hand over his on the steering wheel. They meshed fingers, then he gave his attention back to the road. Just as well. Since leaving the interstate, they'd been driving on narrow, pitch-dark country roads.

Cassie suppressed the ever-present question as to what the hell she was doing there. Was she an utter wimp that she hadn't told Alan to go off on his own and she'd stay safe and happy in Boston? Okay, maybe not happy. The last miscarriage had pulled her down more than the other two, but weren't they deluding themselves, thinking that moving to the backwoods would change anything? She'd loved Alan once. Still did, right? Cassie sighed. Sometimes she didn't know what she felt except hurt and confusion and a nagging conviction that coming to Andrews Meadows was not a good career or life move.

She'd refused to move, at first, but in the end Alan cajoled, begged and entreated, and she'd given in and agreed to come along.

"Let's give it a try, Cassie," Alan said, his dark eyes earnest and beseeching. "Give it six months. If we can't make a go of things by the end the year, we call it quits."

She'd agreed. Six months wasn't that long. She could give their marriage one last try, but now, looking out at the darkness and dripping rain as they passed under trees, she suspected six months out here would be an eternity.

Alan drove on, headlights startling a small deer by the side of the road as they started climbing uphill and the road narrowed even more.

Cassie's throat tightened. They'd married for sickness and health, for better, for worse. Alan had stood by her during the sickness bit, miscarriages counted as a sickness after all, and now it was her turn to support him. Maybe he was right. Perhaps things would be better here. A new place. A new life.

Alan took a sharp right onto a gravel road that twisted and turned as overhanging trees brushed the roof of the Volvo. Seemed they drove for ages under those dark branches until they reached a clearing and she glimpsed two pickups in the headlights. Alan pulled off the road, parked facing the large, two-story, white house, and sounded a tattoo on the horn.

Porch lights came on. As Cassie got out of the car, the front door opened and three figures appeared on the porch. Alan's two brothers and his mother.

"Come on, Cassie," Alan said, closing the car door. "Mother's waiting." No doubt sensing her reluctance, he grabbed her hand and together they walked across the patch of open grass.

He squeezed her hand as they approached the wide, wraparound porch and all but swept her up the steps to face his mother and brothers. While Alan slapped backs and exchanged hugs with Tate and Seth, Cassie faced her mother-in-law.

"Hello, Mrs. Harrington, I'm glad to see you again." A complete lie but the truth wasn't polite.

She kept both arms folded over her ample chest. "You came with him then?"

What sort of greeting was that? "Yes. Of course, Alan has been wanting to come back home."

His mother didn't even acknowledge that, just turned to Alan. "Why did you bring her?"

Alan stared at her. "Mother, Cassie is my wife."

"Against my wishes and against all good sense." She as good as spat the words. So much for fabled Southern hospitality. "You can come in and have dinner," she said, "but I'll not have her in my house overnight."

So much for Alan's brilliant plans. Cassie straightened her spine and prayed for patience. Damn the woman and her stupid mistrust of Yankees--or whatever it was. "No problem," Cassie said with a fixed smile. "We can find a motel in Christiansburg." And leave in the morning for home.

"Heck no! Y'all can't do that!" It was Tate, the middle brother, the only one who'd come to their wedding. "Y'all are welcome to stay at my place."

"Thanks, bro," Alan acknowledged the offer with a nod. "Okay then, Mom? We'll be gone right after dinner."

Couldn't come too soon as far as Cassie was concerned. By the looks the old bat (rude but not unjustified) was giving her, she had a good chance of finding powdered glass in the gravy or arsenic in the soup.

* * * *

Cassie survived dinner. Maybe endured was a better word. Alan and his brothers talked nonstop about fences, problems with water supply and their prospects for their joint venture into llama farming. Cassie listened, wondering anew if she'd lost all reason. Alan was abandoning corporate law for raising llamas and she was abandoning her nice life--okay, a rather shredded and distraught life--in Boston for the backwoods of Virginia and proximity with a mother-in-law who made Lizzie Borden seem warm and huggable.

But Cassie had to concede Mother Harrington was every bit as good a cook as Alan claimed. Despite misgivings and tension, Cassie succumbed to the aromas of fried chicken, cornbread and grits and gravy, even getting adventurous with black-eyed peas and okra (that last was a mistake) and halfway enjoyed the meal despite the waves of dislike wafting from the end of the table. In fact, Mother Harrington's malevolent glares were much easier to cope with than her conversation, what there had been of it. Cassie vowed she'd learn to ignore the barbs. For Alan's sake.

That decision, coupled with bloody-mindedness and boredom with the damn llamas, had Cassie following her mother-in-law into the kitchen and offering to help with the dishes, while Alan and his siblings disappeared onto the porch.

The kitchen was still warm from cooking. There were stacks of dishes on the table, heaping piles on the draining boards and numerous pots and pans on the stove as well as the load Cassie carried in. Mother Harrington accepted the offer of help with a grim nod and a gleam in her beady eyes as Cassie registered there was no dishwasher. So what? After all those expensive summer camps in Michigan, where she'd learned to wash dishes in the river and scrub greasy plates with handfuls of sand, a white porcelain sink and hand drying was a snap.

"Want me to wipe?" Cassie offered with a smile she suspected looked blatantly insincere.

"Dish cloths are the drawer." Mother Harrington nodded toward a painted cabinet that would have fetched a hefty sum in any New England antique store. Cassie pulled out a stack of folded and--heaven help her--ironed tea towels and set to drying the dishes.

They were through the glasses and starting on the silverware when Mother Harrington said, "Lost another baby, I hear. When will you learn?"

Warm fuzzies she hadn't been expecting, but this was too much. "Yes. Three months ago." It came out terse and sharp but beat crying.

"Didn't I warn you that you were not the right sort for my son? Wouldn't listen, would you? What does it take to convince you that you don't belong with him? How many more babies are you going to lose before you see reason?"

Cassie wasn't sure her heart hadn't stopped beating a second or two. It certainly felt as if it had seized up inside her chest along with her lungs and heart. She let out a gasp. It was either leave, punch out the old witch, or flood the gray linoleum with bitter tears. Cassie pushed open the screen door and ran across the grass toward the nearest cluster of trees.

She leaned against the nearest one, the trunk rough through her shirt, and closed her eyes. Oddly no tears came, just a long, silent scream as she threw back her head and let the warmth of the night envelop her. The scent of honeysuckle and the hum of crickets filled the air. Light from the house sent odd shadows across the ground and between the branches of the trees overhead. A sliver of a crescent moon shone over the hip roof.

Alan was right. It was lovely there. Beautiful, peaceful and soothing. If she discounted the viper in the kitchen. Was she being hypersensitive about this? No, she was not.

As Cassie stood in the night, stirred up and livid, she vowed she was damn well going to show the old bitch in the kitchen that Alan and she did belong together.

With that in mind, Cassie marched round to the front porch, stood at the bottom of the steps and looked up at the three brothers. They could have been characters in some TV commercial, tipped back in the rocking chairs, watching the fireflies.

Tate noticed her first. "You okay, Cassie?" he asked, rocking his chair forward.

Now was not the time to answer that truthfully. "Just wanted to check you meant your offer of a room for the night." It came out perfectly steady, her voice calm and level. Unbelievable.

"Sure I did. It's nothing fancy but you're welcome as long as you care to stay. Here..." He eased a key off the bundle he dug out of his jeans pocket. "Hey, bro." He passed the key to Alan. "Your nice wife looks dead on her feet. You go and get yourself settled. I'll be over later."

Alan looked from Tate to Seth and back to Cassie. "You're ready to leave?"

"Yes!" Any more and she might just tell the three of them exactly how ready she was and why.

"Sure she is," Tate went on. "Heck, we can talk in the morning. You two take the big bed. I'll use the pull out. The sheets are clean," he added. "Changed them this morning, just in case you might want to stay."

So, his mother's behavior was anticipated. A belief confirmed when they stepped into his house--a new trailer a quarter of a mile or so down the road. Seeing the clean towels folded on the freshly made-up bed, Cassie sent very fond thoughts Tate's way and decided to corner him as soon as feasible and ask him point blank what she'd done, or not done, to make his mother regard her so unfavorably.

Right now, Cassie was too tired, weary and rattled to care. She just shrugged when Alan said he'd go back to the house as he really needed to talk to Seth some more. Seth, the silent one, who seemed incapable of more than monosyllables. Alan would be gone ages. She just knew it and she so wanted him to stay, to feel his strong arms around her and hear his husky whisper promising it would be all right.

"Before you run off," she said, "I must tell you. Your mother--"

He never let her finish. "Oh, Cassie. She's going to take getting used to."

"It's not that." She wasn't sure she wanted to get used to her, but said, "She was a bit nasty about the baby."

That earned her a sharp stare. "What do you mean?"

"She asked me how many babies I had to lose before I realized I wasn't the right wife for you." There, it came out.

"Cassie, Cassie," he replied, "you always get the wrong end of the stick."

Unfair, untrue and totally unacceptable. "I don't! She was clear enough."

"You misunderstood her. Things are different down here and we didn't come all this way for you to pick on my mother."

That was rich. "But it's okay for her to pick on me?"

"Don't be silly, Cassie. We left early because you wanted to. That no doubt hurt her feelings."

"After she told us we weren't welcome."

"She didn't say that!"

"Sounded like it to me."

"I'm not arguing with you anymore. Go to bed, Cassie, since you claim to be so tired. Maybe you'll be more reasonable in the morning."

He slammed the door and was gone. Damn! That was no way to settle things. Was she hypersensitive and tired? Weary--yes, pissed off--definitely, but damn, his mother had said precisely that and Cassie was darn sure she meant it too.

What the hell was she doing here? Might was well go to bed. Maybe Alan was right and things would seem better in the morning.

Cassie scrubbed off the grime of travel, using the brand new cake of Ivory soap set neatly in the ledge in the narrow shower and, pulling on a clean nightshirt, crawled between the cool sheets. She didn't sleep right away, but lay wondering if she was totally deluding herself in thinking they could build a future here together. She'd pretty much decided they could and would, if only to show the old witch up the road, when she fell asleep.

* * * *

Cassie awoke to a bright sunny morning and a cold and empty bed and voices in the living room. She pulled on jeans, yanked yesterday's shirt over her head, ran her fingers through her hair, a definite advantage to wearing it short, and walked barefoot into the living room.

Alan and Tate were kicking back in the twin recliners, sipping coffee.

"Morning, everyone!" They both looked up.

Tate got to his feet. "Doing okay?"

"Sure. Just emerged for coffee."

He was up, grabbing a mug off a hook before Cassie had time to point out she was quite happy fixing her own.

Tate went over to the shining, chrome coffeemaker, one of the expensive Swiss ones that did just about everything but stir in the sugar. He pressed a few buttons and handed Cassie a steaming coffee in a flowery, bone china mug. Pink cabbage roses weren't exactly what she'd expected of six foot two, broad-shouldered Tate.

"Thanks." It smelled like warm heaven.

"Want sugar or cream?"

"Black's perfect." It was. Hot and strong. After a couple of cups of this, she could even face his mother with equanimity.

"I've protein bars if you want something for breakfast."

"They're good," Alan added, walking over and giving her a peck on the cheek.

She'd take his word for it. "No, thanks. Coffee's fine."

Cassie had been too flaming irate last night to take in the decor, and what she saw now suggested she'd harbored misinformed prejudices about trailers. The recliners Tate and Alan draped themselves over were upholstered in soft leather. A pair of original paintings hung on the walls. The elaborate coffeemaker sat next to a high-end food processor and the same brand of expensive British toaster they'd received as a wedding present. Heck, even the used glasses sitting in the sink were good quality.

"You've got a lovely place here," Cassie said, taking a sip of coffee.

Tate shrugged. "Sherry-Ann did it up. My ex," he added with a crease of his brow. "When she moved out, she left everything. I've kept it that way. Reminds me of her."

Cassie made a suitably sympathetic, noncommittal sound. It was hardly tactful to ask if Mother Harrington had chased off Sherry-Ann or if she'd fled on her own initiative.

"Look, Cassie," Alan said, "Tate and I are meeting Seth and going to see someone about fences. You'll be okay here until I get back."

He was telling, not asking. A day together would have been nice. They had more than a snag or two to sort out but... "Fine. Just leave me the car. I'll explore. Perhaps go down into the town and see what's available to rent."

Tate looked positively pained. "Heck no, Cassie. Y'all are welcome to stay here. I've got the space."

Cassie hugged him, cutting off his presumed offer of a place to live for eternity. "Tate, you are a love, but we need to find somewhere sooner or later so I might as well get looking. It might take me awhile."

"Now y'all just stay here as long as you need."

"We will, Tate," Alan said. "No hurry, Cassie, is there?"

Yes, there most definitely was. But that she kept to herself. She did not want an all-out argument in front of Tate. "You go off and have your male-bonding-over-fences talk. I'll scope out the neighborhood. And tell you what, I'll fix dinner tonight." Seemed fair enough if they were parking themselves on Tate for a while.

"Mother might expect us up at the house," Alan began.

"I think she made her feelings pretty clear last night!"

"You rubbed her up wrong, Cassie. You'll get used to how she is." Cassie wasn't sure she'd live that long. "We're off."

He might be off now but they were going to have a good, long talk after dinner. Even if they had to walk in the woods to get some privacy. "I'll fix dinner here." Remembering it wasn't her kitchen, she added, "If that's okay with you, Tate?"

He grinned. "Fine with me. Ma won't want us up there two nights running anyway. See you later, Cassie."

They left in Tate's truck. Before they were halfway down the graveled drive, Cassie grabbed her bag and keys and headed for the car.

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