Struggling with a sleep paralysis and a lifetime of unexplained paranormal events, Willow Graves just wants to settle down. Lake Serenity seems perfect until things begin unraveling from the webs spinning in her head. For almost a year, she feels as if she made the right choice, that is, until the locals start turning up dead and a corrupted sheriff is hell-bent on blaming Sterling Walker, one of the few people Willow has grown to trust.
Suddenly, the real reason as to why the mountain is so different from any other place makes itself known, and Willow’s past, and that of the mountain, entangles her within a dangerous web greater than those that haunt her mind.
Can Willow survive? Just what brought her to the lake to begin with, and who is she really? That’s what Willow Graves is about to find out even if it’s the last thing she ever learns.
Click to read a sample or to purchase. (Available in all eBook formats & Print)
By C.H. SCARLETT
Copyright 2010/2013 C.H. Scarlett
Fiction, Paranormal, Mystery
Willow Graves took a moment out of her scribblings to watch an employee stock a large, stone fireplace with wood. Her attention scanned up the chimney that reached at least five stories high into the edges of a colossal skylight, gleaming across a cathedral ceiling.
Wolf Lodge overlooked the Mecova side of Lake Serenity. The surrounding velvety, mountainous terrain of the Blue Ridge cradled the lush views inside and out, while the resort itself boasted a rustic-but-modern-mixed decor.
The entire area lacked the busyness and noise of big, bustling cities. The only near fix for shopaholics existed hours away, and the only store easily accessed by the Lodge itself was a small country haven reflecting the mom and pop stores of yesterday.
So what was so great about this area? Simple. Mecova offered peace and quiet. Simplicity. And that’s why the Liatos family bought up its side of the mountain, or so they claimed, after the lake had been constructed by U. S. Army Engineers a few years back. Despite the protest by people in the nearby small towns, the Liatos, who came from Greece, built their handsome home within the untamed territory, and later, the Lodge, a resort of sorts, which would bring the middle class and at times, the wealthy from all corners of the United States, and sometimes world, into its breathless surroundings. The small, historic town of Mecova remained untouched and unattached except for the tempers of the old timers who were hell-bent on seeing everything the Liatos family owned burn down someday. A not-always-so-silent war constantly brewed between the locals and those who owned and worked for the resort. The dangers of that threatened to bubble over at any moment because the native’s felt their privacy had been invaded by those, who they believed, had no right to be there.
But Willow knew, despite what might explode in a town separated by river, masses of land and dirt road, inside the Lodge’s main lobby, everything else went as scheduled.
The smell of cedar filled the atmosphere, colliding with the sugary temptations baking in the kitchen, leaving her with the delicious, sinful cravings of something sickly sweet. Guests often claimed they gained twenty pounds simply by catching a whiff, and
Willow could certainly relate to that. As she went back to scribbling on her to-do list, she’d swear her bottom had swollen three times its normal size five.
Sinking into the striped sofa, she sipped her Vanilla Nut Cappuccino, thinking these were the days she loved the most. The guests were quiet; no one in housekeeping fought; the near-spring weather felt perfect, and—
"Willow . . . Sheriff Clark is outside." David Meese announced with dread from behind the curvy front desk, running both hands through his short, blond hair. Willow twisted half way around since her back was facing the doors and followed his gaze through the huge, tinted glass. "And guess what?" His tone showed no surprise toward the obvious. "He’s harassing Sterling again."
Well, it was a perfect day, Willow sighed as a hunk of chunky, multicolored hair fell over her eyes. She tucked the wavy piece behind her ear, trying to focus on Sterling Walker’s expression, hoping to tell if he seemed annoyed or not.
Stupid question, she scolded herself. Who wouldn’t be annoyed with Clark breathing down their neck? Her stomach started to riot at the very sight of his salt and pepper, military-cut hair, as he stood with his back to the building. He waved and jerked his hands around, obviously giving Sterling a hard time. She could honestly say he was the one person on the mountain she loathed the most. From day one, his slithering eyes . . . the way he . . . undressed her with those eyes . . . reminded Willow of most men she’d come to despise and—
Doesn’t matter, I’m not screwing up today by harping on the past. No, today is a new day, the first of a fresh beginning. And she meant it this time, or did last night when she promised herself that come morning, the past would be past, the present would be viewed as a gift and . . . oh, it didn’t matter. Today was just a new damn day.
"What’s his problem?" David scoffed, appearing truly annoyed as his chocolate eyes cut the sheriff dry and narrow looks. "Sterling should sue the jerk for harassment."
"And get what? His dump of a shack he calls a home, or that worthless, rusted up Bronco he drives?"
"No, to get the satisfaction of being the one who finally makes him squirm." David replied, with a dash of bitterness in his voice.
Willow knew he hated Sheriff Clark the way most people working for the Lodge did. And like everyone else, David had his own reasons, for with every ounce of his quick snark, he blew straight from Richmond. His gay lifestyle didn’t exactly put him on the most popular-must-have–friends list, either, in this backwoods area. Despite the lack of welcome and hospitality received, David had come here for reasons he rarely, if at all, spoke of. Willow could personally respect and understand his wish for privacy. After all, she had a closet full of unmentionables too.
"Sterling looks pissed." He added, tossing some papers to the side. "One of us had better do something before he hauls off and knocks the hell out of Clark, even though I’d love to see—"
"Which is why I’ll handle it." Willow stood without second thoughts, scuttling from the couch to the front desk, handing her list and Styrofoam cup to David. "I don’t need the queen of all instigators out there egging it on." Giving him no chance to claim otherwise, she turned her back. With a mighty deep breath, she attempted to pace herself with a few, slow steps before going outside. In truth, she would have preferred avoiding the sheriff altogether, but she knew there was no way she could just leave Sterling out there on his own to suffer Clark’s predictable nit-picking.
Willow had formed a very rare bond with Sterling the moment she arrived on the mountain almost a year ago. For a start, they were the same age, twenty-four. But the two had become close in other ways, family, which was a precious and rare gift in her mind. Ever since last night, though, she was fighting mixed feelings and her own world of guilt. She hadn’t been fully honest with Sterling, keeping her past hidden, and it was time to lay it all on the table. Unbalanced emotions had somehow triggered and dared to ruin everything between them, though, and her thorny secrets had no intensions of becoming anything other than secrets. Despite this, she was determined to have his back now as she always did. Besides, he’d have hers if the tables were turned. And when it came to Sheriff Clark, Sterling had a lot more to lose than she did."You’re up here early, Clark." The doors to the lobby swung, scratching their weight against the sidewalk. Willow breezed past four gigantic log pillars carved into wolves. Their heads reared upward, howling silently toward the crystal blue skies.
"Come to get something from our bakery? I warn you, our cook is in rare form this morning. Those sweet rolls are to die for." She faked hospitality before turning her attention toward Sterling. His arms and chest were covered in the primal tattoos of wolves, strange symbols, and haunting moons.
"I need you inside," she said, reaching up to close the twelve inch height difference, and pushing a clump of dark, shoulder-length hair past his bedroom hazels. Flashing her best pearly smile and a quick wink, Willow let him know without words that she was here to save him. "Remember we have a new person starting today, and someone has to take her through orientation."
Giving Clark her attention now, she scraped her heels along the flat, agrestic-style paved driveway, leading to the Lodge. "I’m sorry, did you need the Head of Security for something in particular, or can I help you?" She knew Sterling’s title drove the sheriff nuts. Clark, constantly voicing his opinion every chance he got, couldn’t understand how a total dead-beat could be the head of anything. Willow, however, thought a more appropriate question would be how could someone as crooked as Clark be sheriff?
But before the so-called badge could blast her with his nonsense, Sterling up and stormed away, pounding every ounce of his six-foot-six worth of aggravation against the glass entrance with his thick palms. Normally his hasty exit before Clark finished speaking to him would have given the sheriff cause to follow and hassle him further, but with Willow there, the sheriff had better distractions. Her instincts could sense those ideas too. Not that she needed instincts with him; his testosterone-salivating-creepy-gestures were a dead giveaway. Hence, another reason she hated being around him.
Once she was positive Sterling was far away and lost inside, she batted her eyes at Clark. "Well, I have work to do, so. . . ." She attempted to make her escape, walking back toward the doors. "Have a great one!"
"Hey!" He stopped her.
Oh, damn. Now what?
"There’s a dance over on Pig’s Run in a few weeks. You have a date yet?"
Double damn. She let go of the cool metal door handle and sighed with an extra helping of dreaded doom, not only because he had now asked her out, but also because she’d have no choice but to piss him off with a huge no. If she had only pushed through the doors and disappeared before he had a chance to say anything . . . big, big damn.
"Is asking me to a dance what you came up here for, Clark?" She avoided giving him a direct no, not wishing to kick the hornets’ nest just yet. He could still charge into the Lodge, find Sterling, and make his life a living hell. "Well . . . is it?"
"No, well. . . ." He leaned against his pale green Bronco with a squinted look pressing upon his face as if he were contemplating on how to answer that. He actually had the nerve to unhook the top few buttons of his plaid, short sleeve shirt while doing so. Did he believe some cleavage would make her go all weak in the knees? Then, his slimy, saturated eyes undressed her by skimming her length up and down, real slow.
Someone kill me now. Her mind vomited. God help the woman who finds this jerk sexy.
She stared out across the seamless lake that surrounded two sides of the mansion-sized cedar logs and monstrous stone building, trying not to focus on his unbearable seduction, trying never to focus on anything so repulsive. She swallowed. "You were saying?"
"I got a call last night—"
"Oh? Is it so unusual having someone call you at night?" Willow couldn’t help her sarcasm. She couldn’t play it sweet anymore. Too much sugar would have him buzzing around her head all day.
"Darlin’." Clark’s tight lips flashed teeth while he groped his crotch through his Wranglers as if her usual sharp words and tone were his foreplay. "You are a ray of sunshine."
She couldn’t win for losing. She jerked her head to the side, feeling the strong urge to laugh if not gag, but camouflaged her actions by a quick hand-to-mouth motion, pretending to cough.
"You are much too good for this place." He meant the Lodge, its owners and employees. "If you need a job, I can find you something to do at the station." He offered for the hundredth time. "Or maybe you just need to settle down and have a good, strong husband take care of you. I can see to that one as well. I’m a self-made man you know."
Self-made pervert and jerk. The chill of winter shivered over her skin. Both offers, working for him or being married, made her want to crawl into a hole somewhere and die. Men like him were the reason she couldn’t bring herself to have a relationship with the opposite sex, and why none of his gender caused her to have such feelings . . . until last night, that is, when Sterling unknowingly awakened something within her.
"So, someone called you saying I’m too good for the Lodge?" She had to focus by either pissing him off or forcing him back onto his undesired point. And she had to remind herself to play it cool and not tick him off too bad because if she did, he could cause Sterling more problems later just for spite.
"What?" His bushy brows drew to a point.
"You said someone called you?"
His face hardened again, and he cleared his throat. "Oh, the call, yes. Someone saw Sterling take a deer carcass up the mountain last night about nine and—"
"So?" A brow rose. "So, they think he’s feedin’ the wolves."
"So." She threw it at him again.
"The farmers don’t want the wolves coming off that mountain. They don’t want
them near the livestock or town."
That’s why he’s giving Sterling a hard time? Is he for real?
"Well, seems to me if Sterling is feeding wolves on the mountain then the wolves will stay on the mountain and not go down into the farms or town." It appeared logical to her, and she considered herself to have at least half a brain, unlike Clark.
"And what happens when the wolves don’t get their easy meal? They come off the mountain. Next thing we know, the farmers will have the same damn problem they had with the coyotes. Livestock dead, kids attacked, and—"
"Come on, Clark, that’s a long shot, don’t you think? Besides, can you really arrest someone for dumping a dead deer?" Willow raised a brow.
"Where did he get the deer, since huntin’ season isn’t in?"
"Say what?" Willow shook her head with disbelief. It didn’t matter what she or anyone else said—farmers, hunting season, wolves, and livestock—all weak justifications for his bitter and habitual harassment of Sterling. "You know half the people on the mountain hunt out of season. So why don’t you ever pester them?"
"I haven’t had any calls about anyone else."
"If you did, would you be bothering them right now?"
"I’d check out any call, Willow," Clark said. "I’ve been getting quite a few saying Sterling is huntin’ out of season and without permits when the season is in."
"Whatever." She folded her arms and rolled her eyes.
"I won’t stand here and argue about hunters or the law. You’re a woman; you know not one bushel worth about these things." He insulted her, but then again, that’s how Clark’s mind worked. Women belonged in the kitchen, serving their man, and birthing up a bunch of brats raised on their daddy’s arrogant crap. "Huntin’ out of season is against the law . . . period."
So is hunting while you’re drunk. Her thoughts swirled concerning Clark’s cousin, Billy Groah, and his whole pathetic bunch. She bet anything Billy reported Sterling just for spite, especially after last night.
"Did someone see him kill the deer?" She didn’t give the sheriff a chance to answer. "No, I doubt they did. You know why? Because Sterling was on the clock and I
have the time-card to prove it. The carcass he took up the mountain . . . was road kill. I had him remove the thing—"
"I didn’t get any reports of anyone hitting a deer last night."
"You’re going to tell me everyone calls in a deer hit around here?" She knew better. Half the locals didn’t even have insurance. "I tell you what, if you’re that gung-ho, drive on out to Billy’s place and the rest of his drunk-driving buddies. Check out their trucks and four-wheelers for damage. I bet you anything they were the ones who hit the deer but were too drunk at the time to know it, and when they sobered up to remember, they tried to go back and fetch a potential supper. Only we had removed the carcass, so out of spite, they called you." Willow couldn’t believe she had to fib six ways till Sunday about road kill.
"Well I—" The CB inside the Bronco went off. Mrs. Clay, his half-deaf
receptionist, shouted from the other end, trying to chime-out complicated police code. As always, the adorable, little, dizzy-headed, sixty-year old woman gave up and spoke plainly.
"Clark?" Her high-pitched, southern-thick drawl called out. "Can you hear me?
"Clark here." He thumbed button on the handset. "Over."
"Darrel Walters just called and said he found a body up on Raven Ridge."
"A what? Over."
"A body, I said." Mrs. Clay shouted. "A dead body . . . . Lord, rest its soul." A short
pause came. "Can you hear me, Clark?" A loud bang followed. Willow bet her bottom dollar Mrs. Clay had taken out her frustration on the CB and the table. "How about now? Oh this darn thing never works for me. Clark, if you’re there, I said a body, oh wait . . . . OVER and OUT . . . no, no that’s wrong, wait a minute, I’m not done yet . . . oh fiddle-sticks . . . I hate this thing-a-ma-bob. Clark, can you hear me and what I’m saying?"
Willow tried her very best not to laugh, always finding it very hard to keep a straight face when the rejects of Mayberry were policing the mountain.
"Mrs. Clay, put a lid on it." Clark groaned. "Over."
"Put a lid on what? The CB? What is lid lingo for, and where do I put it?" She paused, maybe searching for the book containing all the snazzy police codes or something? Willow could just imagine. "Oh never mind, Clark, just tell me if you heard what I said."
"The whole damn mountain can hear you!"
"Oh, really?" She shrilled with excitement. "I didn’t think this little gadget could be so powerful." A loud inhale sounded over the line. "Anyway, Darryl was on the mountain, hunting, and found—"
Willow bit her tongue, but she couldn’t stop the laughter spilling forth as Mrs. Clay unknowingly proved her point, concerning people hunting out of season.
Clark shot her a dry, very annoyed look, clicking on the mic again. "Skip all that." He gave his best attempt to shut his assistant up. "You got a number for Darryl?"
"Yes, he’s waiting by the payphone at the overlook where it happened. You know, the phone no one realizes is up there because it’s hidden by all that brush?"
"Call then and tell him I’m on my way." He leaned inside the Bronco through the open window and she heard the volume being turned down. Straightening, he turned back to Willow. "You tell Sterling Walker not to be takin’ off anywhere." He slipped on his out-of-date, seventies, cop sunglasses.
"What?" Willow huffed, clearing her throat. "Why?"
"Because Raven Ridge is only a three minute hike from where he was seen last night." His voice deepened with rage. The dry leather of the driver’s seat squished underneath his weight before the door slammed shut. After turning on the ignition, a grumbling of sorts roared from the engine. He grabbed and lit a half-bent Marlboro from his pocket; the end sizzled as he took a long, hard drag. "You tell him to stay put."
"Give me a break, Clark." She rolled her eyes. "Who even knows if there’s a body up there? It’s not as though ol’ Mrs. Clay can hear very well. And don’t even get me started on Darrel Walters. Everyone knows he’s usually so drunk he can’t even see straight."
"You heard me." His don’t-argue tone drove right through her. He laid his hairy arm on the ledge of the open window and leaned in her direction, slipping his glasses down the bridge of his huge nose. After an uncomfortable stare, he muttered, "You know, Willow, I’m not the bad guy here." He took another short puff of his smoke and tossed the rest to the paved driveway. "As far as Sterling goes, you keep on defending him and running to his rescue, and I’ll have to start wondering if you’re shacking up with the worthless piece of shit. I’d hate to think what I’d do . . . then."
"If I did shack up with anyone, Clark, it’d be none of your damn business."
"Woman, everything on this mountain is my business. You’d be smart to remember that." A truly disturbed smile reaped across his face, giving her the shivering smack of his unbearable ego. "Now, how about that dance on Pig’s Run? What time can I pick you up?"
Damn it, if he didn’t switch moods and subjects the way a two-timin’ man changed alibis.
"How about seven o’clock?" he asked.
"Ever hear the saying, when pigs fly?"
He groaned with displeasure.
"Well, let’s just say those little piggies will be riding first class sipping champagne before I go anywhere with you."
After a glob of disgusting spit grunted from the back of his throat and splattered not far from her feet, Willow choked on the smoke from his tires when he gave up and spun away. Wasting no time once the sounds of his engine faded down the winding driveway, she flipped her cell open, thumbs tapping and texting away in caps . . .
DEAD BODY RAVEN RIDGE
CLARK GONE CRAZY
She hit send, thinking, yep, today was supposed to be a good day.