Contemporary Mystery: Wounded
I decided to try a novel outside of my usual fantasy realm with this one, a contemporary mystery with a bit of a love story that is set on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
Here’s the cover, blurb, and an excerpt of the first couple of chapters:
When Tara Blankenship’s writing assignment takes her to an “eco village” on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, she anticipates a quiet couple of weeks in a quaint setting. (She’s far too mature to use the word boring, thank you very much.) What she stumbles into is anything but quiet and quaint.
Someone has been slaughtering livestock to scare the villagers, mysterious intruders are searching the property at night, and Tara finds a grisly welcome-warning on the porch of her guest cottage. To top it off, the surly neighbor nearly runs her off the road on her first day. Why are the handsome ones always such jerks?
Malcolm Ashcroft is the last person a sane woman would want to deal with, but he may be the only one with the key to solving the mystery—and giving Tara the story of her career. Of course… he might also be the man behind all the trouble.
The car bumped down the muddy one-lane road, ferns and rhododendrons slapping at the windshield. When a pothole with aspirations of becoming a crater came into sight, Tara swerved, trying to avoid it, but one of the tires slipped in. Brown water sprayed up, painting the windows. The car halted with a definitive lurch. The smartphone flew off the dashboard and disappeared under the empty passenger seat. Again.
Tara nudged, pumped, then finally floored the accelerator, but the wheels refused to catch on the mud.
“What are the odds of some kindly stranger with a winch coming along?” She had a vague notion that four-wheel-drive vehicles with winches and tires big enough to belong on tractors were the norm on this side of Puget Sound. “Except that I don’t think the people who live down this road drive anywhere.”
Tara rolled down her window to stick her head out and eyeball the hole. Yup, it was a big one. She sighed and looked over her shoulder, intending to throw the car into reverse. But someone was coming. A black Jeep Wrangler barreled down the road toward her, the mud-spattered vehicle having no trouble with the rugged terrain.
The speed with which it approached suggested the owner didn’t have roadside rescues in mind. Oh, well. She had never liked asking for help anyway. With the car in reverse, she nudged the pedal, again hoping to find traction.
A horn blared, startling a heron to flight from some roadside marsh.
“I know I’m in the way,” Tara muttered. “I’m working on it.”
She tried to wriggle the car free from the pothole, but the Jeep roaring ever closer made her nervous. There wasn’t room for it to go around. It would have to slow down, if it wasn’t going to hit her…
The horn blasted again.
“I’m trying, you bastard,” she growled. The car’s tires finally caught, and she backed into the ferns, hoping the other driver could squeeze past. Actually, she hoped the stupid Jeep would plummet into the same pothole and get stuck as well. At that speed, it might throw its idiot driver out into the mud.
Never slowing, the Jeep bombed past, somehow finding enough road to pass without knocking a side mirror off Tara’s car. The man in the driver’s seat glared at her. He probably didn’t try to hit the pond-sized puddle on purpose, but it sprayed a jet of water to the side nonetheless. Tara saw the mud spatters coming, but couldn’t do more than lift her arm in protection. Dirty water drenched the side of her face and her shirt.
Only through extreme willpower did she refrain from leaning out the window, flipping the bird, and hurling some curses at the bastard. She hadn’t gotten a good look at him, but the glimpse had suggested height, breadth, and the pissed off demeanor of a drill sergeant having a bad day. For all she knew, he had a gun in the glove box. Out here, it would take a long time for someone to find a body stashed under a fern.
Tara snorted. “Someone’s been reading too many murder mysteries.”
Shaking her head at her imagination, she wiped the mud off her face, retrieved her phone, and maneuvered back onto the road. A few minutes later, a sign for Salmon Creek Eco Village came into sight.
The foliage retreated, revealing a couple dozen cottages, communal gardens and greenhouses, a pond, and an abundance of chickens and geese roaming about. She paused to wait for a pig to wander across the road, then turned in where a hand-carved sign read Visitor Center. The proliferation of animals made Tara smile, but her smile dropped when she spotted the other car parked in the lot by the door. The muddy black Jeep.
That guy was a part of the eco village?
Tara shook her head. “He’s probably a visitor, too.”
She considered waiting in the car for him to finish up and leave but swept away the cowardly thought. It wasn’t as if she had done something wrong. She had only thought about flipping him off, after all.
She stepped out of the car and strode up the gravel walkway leading to the entrance of the modest building. Marigolds and daisies bloomed in flower boxes in the windows, and handmade copper rain chains dangled from the gutters. A cheerful place, Tara decided, and willed her mind to push aside the dark thoughts the stranger had left her with.
A step from the threshold, she lifted her hand to reach for the knob. The door slammed open, and an all-too-familiar brute strode out, smacking right into her. Between his momentum and the hard, unyielding surface of his chest, the force sent her stumbling back. Her heel caught on one of the rocks lining the flagstone patio, and she would have taken a mud bath, but he caught her before she fell. Calloused hands wrapped around her bare arms, pulling her back to her feet. She found herself scowling at his collarbone. When she summoned the gumption to lift her eyes to his face, she caught an exasperated you-again? expression before he brushed past her and strode to his Jeep.
“No, no, I’m fine, thank you,” Tara called, unable to squash her indignation this time.
It didn’t matter. He didn’t look back. No doubt he would have continued to ignore her if she voiced her second thought, that cut-off camo pants and flip flops were a stupid look, even if they provided a nice view of his sculpted calves. The fitted gray T-shirt highlighted muscular back and shoulders, with arms to match. Why was it always the utter asshats that had such nice bodies?
“Because they have nothing better to do than biceps curls,” she reminded herself in a low mutter.
He disappeared into the Jeep, and it backed up with an angry crunching of gravel, then he barreled back onto the dirt road and disappeared.
“Hello, can I help you?” someone asked from the doorway. Two women were standing there, eyeing her curiously.
Tara blushed, thinking they had overheard her comment.
An older blonde woman in dusty overalls with a weathered face and stringy build matched the image Tara had of Sam Jackson, the person her boss had spoken with on the phone and had described as “the embodiment of the back-to-the-land movement.” She didn’t know who the other woman was, but guessed she was about her own age. Early twenties with red-brown hair tugged into a ponytail, she wore glasses, had freckles, and clutched an e-reader in her hand.
“Hi, I’m Tara.”
The older woman looked her up and down, then frowned. “You’re the intern?”
Tara fought the urge to shrink back, though she did slip her hands into her pockets to hide her “lavender luster” fingernails. She didn’t think she represented the epitome of the fashion-obsessed, consumer-driven world, but perhaps for this crowd, she should have chosen a T-shirt from Goodwill rather than the cute sequin top from Neiman Marcus. Surely, they couldn’t object to her jeans and boots though. They were rugged…ish and suitable for mucking around in a garden. And her hair… some might see the braids tied back from her temples as whimsical, but she’d thought the style practical since it kept her auburn locks out of her face. And—good Lord, what was the woman scowling at now? Her car? It might not be a hybrid or an electric, but she had gotten a good deal on the used convertible. So what if it was a very girly shade of pink? It had been affordable enough to pay cash for.
When the woman’s gaze stopped roving about, and the disgusted lip curl flattened a touch, Tara forced a smile and said, “I believe so. This is the address Ms. Bouchard gave me.”
Tara wasn’t sure how to respond to this dubious acknowledgment. At least the younger woman gave her a sympathetic smile.
“Well, help’s help. This is a busy time of year for us. I’m Sam.” The older woman stuck out a hand. There was no lavender luster on those working nails, no, ma’am. Her palms were calloused, and the dirt edging her cuticles promised she had been out in the gardens recently. “This is Jasmine. Welcome to Salmon Creek.”
“Who was that?” Tara waved toward the dirt road down which the Jeep had departed.
Sam’s already thin lips flattened. She and Jasmine exchanged looks.
“Our neighbor,” Sam said.
Good, he didn’t live there. Tara remembered her boss saying the eco village spread across fifty acres, so she ought to be able to avoid rude neighbors.
“He almost ran me off the road,” Tara said.
Sam gave her a sharp look. “By accident? Or… maliciously so?”
Jasmine shifted her weight. Uneasily? Tara didn’t know her well enough to be certain.
“Just… negligently, I suppose. I was stuck in a pothole, and he zipped past without slowing down. I didn’t think the road would be big enough for him to keep from hitting me, but…” Tara shrugged. “I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal.” She thought about asking more—like why the guy was so mad and what he had been doing here—but the women might not appreciate prying. One should probably wait two or three days before peppering one’s hosts with invasive questions. “He seemed angry,” Tara said. There, not a prying question, but a leading comment that might invite them to share more.
“It’s my problem to deal with,” Sam said. “Jasmine will show you to a guest cottage and explain your chores.”
So much for sharing. Maybe Jasmine would be more open.
“Should I leave my car there?” Tara pointed toward the small gravel lot. She didn’t see any other vehicles around, or any garages, either.
“You can, unless you’d like to donate it to the pool for the duration of your stay,” Sam said, then lowered her voice to a mutter as she turned away. “I’m sure Brock and Dan would love picking up lumber in that thing.”
Heat rose to Tara’s cheeks, but she bit back a retort. Due to an arrangement that had seemed worth agreeing to at the time, this woman was essentially her boss for the summer.
“I’ll show you to your place,” Jasmine said and led the way back down the path.
Happy to get away from Sam, Tara allowed herself to be led.
“Most people sell their cars before moving out here, or give up ownership of them to the pool,” Jasmine said. “We believe that peak oil has come and gone, so we’re doing our best to limit our use of fossil fuels. It’s not far to the highway, and you can bicycle into Port Angeles. We have friends who keep sailboats nearby, too, and we catch rides to Port Townsend and even over to Victoria now and then. Salmon Creek has sister villages in both cities. We do keep a couple of vehicles and carpool into town when we need something or want to go out for entertainment.”
Tara had been to Port Angeles and some of the other communities on the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula and had a hard time thinking of any of them as entertainment meccas. Then again, she was spoiled by having an apartment in Green Lake, where a few minutes by car or bus would take her to anything Seattle offered. Of course, her apartment was sublet for the summer. Tara reminded herself that she had volunteered for this adventure, so she ought to keep an open mind. But in truth, she was more interested in hearing about the feud with the neighbor. Sure, she might have found a satisfying job as a blogger covering green energy and alternative housing options, but she had studied journalism in college and had a reporter’s instincts for news. Or, as her mother called it, she was nosy.
“What are you reading?” Tara asked, deciding she should get to know Jasmine before asking for the local gossip. “Mollison’s opuses on permaculture?”
“Oh.” The girl blushed. “Nothing much. I have a bunch of things on here. You’ll be pleased to know that we have a satellite dish on the community center, and there’s wireless Internet available in all of the cottages.”
Tara had a feeling Jasmine was trying to divert her. “You’re not trying to avoid answering my question, are you?” she asked as they walked down a meandering path past a pair of large geodesic dome greenhouses. “Have you got something smutty on there?” She grinned to let the other woman know she was teasing.
“I—no, of course not.” Jasmine glanced about—there were people outside working in the garden and on some of the buildings, but nobody was close enough to overhear the conversation. “They’re just… science fiction adventures. You know, in space. With ships and things.”
“Oh,” Tara said, her senses telling her she wasn’t getting the entire story. “Like Star Trek? My older brother, Martin, is a big fan of the original show. He went to a con up in Vancouver once and got Shatner’s and Nimoy’s autographs. He framed them.” That had been about the time Tara had reluctantly admitted she didn’t have the sort of older brother who would leap to her defense and pummel the neighborhood kids, should she need help. In fact, she seemed to remember being about eight and kicking a teenage boy in the shin for bullying Martin. “He’s read a lot of Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, and…” Realizing her knowledge of science fiction authors wasn’t all that complete, Tara finished with, “some other guys.”
“Yes, sort of,” Jasmine said. “But I mostly read female authors. There’s more… character development.”
Tara bit back another grin. That had to mean romance. Well, she was no one to judge. She’d had better luck finding romance in books than in the real world, especially since she’d finished school and hadn’t been surrounded by a campus full of potential prospects. Working from home made things even tougher—no attractive colleagues in adjoining cubicles to flirt with, unless one counted the occasional exchanges about the weather she had with the UPS guy.
“We’re almost to your cottage,” Jasmine said. She seemed relieved that Tara hadn’t questioned her further on her reading preferences. “You can settle in today if you like, then visit the different parts of the village tomorrow and decide what work you would like to do. Most everyone tends the gardens and helps with the livestock, but some people do carpentry and are putting up new buildings. Others fish and forage in the forest. Lots of people have their own businesses. We make everything from pots to furniture to musical instruments here. I’m sure anyone would be excited to show you a few things, especially if you’d consider highlighting their work on your company’s website.” Jasmine gave her a hopeful smile, and Tara wondered if she had one of these businesses that she would like publicity for.
“I think that’s part of the deal.” Tara didn’t know what exactly her boss had promised in exchange for her free room and board for the summer, but had been told to treat this like an internship. Work, learn, and write three posts every day for the blog.
They turned up a path that dead-ended before three cottages, and Tara guessed they were about to reach their destination. Now that she had chitchatted with Jasmine, she thought she could get away with asking a few probing questions.
“Do you think the neighbor will be a problem this summer?” Tara asked casually. “He was a little scary.”
Jasmine patted the air dismissively. “He doesn’t come around much. It’s just… well, we don’t really have the timber to fence our entire property, and nobody wants to disturb the old-growth trees in particular.” She waved to a dense stand of towering firs, cedars, and hemlocks beyond the cottages. From looking at a map that morning, Tara knew the Strait of Juan de Fuca lay in that direction as well, but the grove blocked the view of the water.
“You’ve seen some of our livestock,” Jasmine went on. “Most of them aren’t a problem, but the pigs have started escaping from their pens this last year. Nobody’s quite sure why, but they always end up on his property.”
“Pigs?” Tara’s piqued reporter instincts wilted. This intriguing story she thought she had sussed out was some sort of feud over wandering livestock?
“Pigs.” Jasmine nodded.
“Why does he get upset over that?”
“We don’t know, but the man has more no-trespassing signs around his property than a top-secret government facility.”
Hm. Did he just like his privacy? Or was he hiding something? Tara snorted to herself. What story did she think she was going to rustle up out here in the back of the beyond? Of course, the Hatfield and McCoy feud had started over livestock, hadn’t it? Who knew what might erupt out here?
“You can’t really blame him for being mad about the pigs,” Jasmine said, “but you’re right: he is a little scary. Nobody’s ever seen him do anything but scowl, and if you follow one of the pigs onto his property to retrieve it… Well, I haven’t done it, but apparently he chased Dennis Beckman’s son off with a hunting rifle.”
“Also…” Jasmine had stopped walking. She glanced about again, then lowered her voice. “A few unpleasant things have happened in the last month, and some people think he’s responsible.”
“One of the pigs was killed and left on Yoon Kim’s doorstep. It was mutilated, sort of like those cow mutilations back in the day.”
Tara remembered her thought that this neighbor might be someone who would kill a girl and leave the body under a fern. Maybe that first impression hadn’t been so far off.
Jasmine shrugged. “There were a couple of other instances with the livestock too. We’re all keeping an eye out, especially at night.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Tara said.
“I’m sure it’s nothing you’ll have to worry about.” Jasmine started up the path again. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re here. There aren’t too many other single girls around here to hang out with. Almost everyone’s older and married. Sometimes I… I don’t regret buying in out here, but I do wish there were more people my age around.”
“I can understand that,” Tara said.
They reached the steps to the cottage’s little porch, and Jasmine produced a keychain. “These are for you. I live right over there if you need anything.”
She said a few more words, but Tara didn’t hear them. She was busy staring at something on the wooden boards of the porch. A dark stain lay under it.
“Uhm,” she said, fighting to keep her voice calm. “Is that… a chicken head?”
Camera in hand, Tara picked her way down a cliff-side trail toward a pebbly beach that gazed out upon the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The mid-morning sun poked through the clouds, and seagulls swooped and soared through its rays. The log-dotted beach stretched toward rocky promontories in both directions, creating a shallow cove that she appeared to have all to herself.
Tara told herself to enjoy the beautiful day and to stop thinking about that chicken head, about the fact that it hadn’t been cut from its perch, but ripped from the neck by someone powerful enough to do so. She told herself that it didn’t mean anything that it had been left on her porch; it was just a coincidence. She also told herself that whatever was going on with the mutilated animals would make for a good story, if not for her boss’s blog, then for the newspaper. Somehow telling herself all those things didn’t result in anything more comforting than a sense that she might have been wiser to stay in Green Lake for the summer.
When Tara reached the bottom of the craggy trail, she paused to shoot a few pictures. She had already taken some of the village, but she wanted people to see the rugged beauty of the peninsula in her blog posts as well. With the camera raised to the west, she noticed something perched on a log in the distance. A book? Or a tablet case? She thought of Jasmine with her e-reader, but had seen her recently, placing beer traps in the strawberry beds to capture slugs. Maybe someone had come down to the beach that morning and had forgotten the item.
Tara eyed heavy gray clouds lurking out over the ocean to the west and guessed it would rain that afternoon. She headed toward the log; the item’s owner should appreciate having it rescued from a drenching.
As she drew closer, she realized it was a spiral sketchpad rather than a book or tablet computer. A pen lay snuggled into the binding. She glanced up and down the beach again, not wanting to take it if the owner was nearby. There was still nobody in sight, though the beaches wrapped around the bases of those promontories and continued on. Someone might have left it and gone for a walk.
“I’ll see if there’s a name in it.” Tara bent and opened the cover.
No name on the inside, though she forgot she was looking for identification as soon as she spotted the first picture. It was an engaging portrait of an old woman with a deeply lined face and a few missing teeth, though that didn’t keep her from smiling broadly. It was hard to get a sense of skin coloring from the black-ink drawing, but Tara thought she might be Native American. The artist had captured an adventurous glint in the woman’s eyes, something that made Tara want to meet her in person. The portrait wasn’t signed, though a scribble in the corner marked a date, two years earlier. Several landscapes occupied the following pages, most of the surrounding area, though a couple featured dry scrublands and ponderosa pine forests that one might find in Eastern Washington.
The next sketch, another portrait, made Tara’s heart beat faster and her belly twist with unease. At first, she thought it was the man from the Jeep, but after a moment’s study, she decided it wasn’t. But it looked a lot like him. The subject of the drawing had short dark hair and wore a jumpsuit and parachute. Some brother who was in the Air Force?
Tara closed the sketchpad before investigating further. She didn’t know if the neighbor was the artist, but she would be surprised if this didn’t belong to him, and the last thing she wanted was for him to catch her snooping about in his—
A low growl reached her ears, just audible over the lapping of the waves. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and she turned slowly toward the noise. A big gray dog stood on the pebbles, staring at her with cold yellow eyes. It was close enough that it could reach her in a single leap.
“Nice doggie,” Tara said in her best if-you-don’t-eat-me-I’ll-find-a-treat-for-you voice. She didn’t move. She thought of backing away from the sketchpad, but it couldn’t belong to the animal. Besides, moving might make it twitchy.
“He’s a wolf,” came a cool voice from behind her.
“Of course he is,” Tara muttered. Keeping a wary eye on the creature—yes, it did have the feral mien of something wild—she turned to face her new neighbor.
He wasn’t toting the hunting rifle Jasmine had spoken of, but he would hardly need it to inflict pain on someone, something made quite evident by the fact that he was shirtless, his tanned skin and black hair damp. He must have been out for a jog on the beach. He stood with his fists on his hips, his expression somewhere between exasperation and annoyance as he regarded her, his gaze dropping to take in the fact that she was still holding the sketchpad—his sketchpad.
Tara set it down. “Sorry, is that yours? I thought someone from the village had left it out here, and I was going to take it back. I didn’t want it to get rained on.”
Why didn’t the truth ever sound plausible when one was caught doing something one shouldn’t be doing? He stared at her, his dark brown eyes hard, then he looked at the wolf. Was he contemplating giving it some command to chew one of her arms off? No, he could probably handle the task without the animal’s help. She thought of the decapitated chicken.
“But obviously it’s yours,” Tara said, “so I’ll leave it alone. The drawings are very good though. Have you ever thought of selling your work? Or is that what you do here?” She gave a vague wave toward the cliff top in the direction she guessed his property must lie.
“No, you’ve never thought of selling your work? Or, no, that’s not what you do for a living? I only ask because I know quite a bit about Internet marketing. I specialize in content creation, but I’ve learned a lot about advertising, mailing lists, and building traffic to a site thanks to my current job. I also paid my way through school with an editing and proofreading service that I started. I had to turn away people at the end, because I had so many offers for work.” Tara forced herself to stop her nervous chatter. Why was she telling him all this? If he was responsible for the mutilated animals in the village, she ought to scurry away as far as she could, not offer to help him sell his art online. Of course, that wolf of his was blocking the route back to the trail…
“Internet marketing,” he said. For the first time, he gave her a long look up and down.
It reminded Tara of the derisive sneer Sam had given her. His face was harder to read, but he was probably the type to look down his nose at people with desk jobs. Much more admirable to engage in physical labor—or trot up and down a beach with one’s wolf all day long. Or mutilate the neighbors’ livestock.
Reminded that he might be a criminal, Tara sidled away from the log. She doubted the three years of Tae Kwon Do she had taken as a kid would do a lot of good if he attacked her. With that torso, it would be like kicking someone wearing a suit of armor.
The wolf growled again. Ah, it appeared she needed permission to leave…
“Yes,” Tara said. “Internet marketing. If you need any help along those lines, let me know. I set up an Etsy shop and a blog for a friend, and her part-time income from her artwork is almost what she earns from the day job now. My name’s Tara, by the way. I’ll be here for the summer.” If his wolf didn’t eat her in the next three minutes… “Uhm, if you’ll have your furry friend step out of the way, I’ll leave you two to enjoy the beach.”
She lifted a hand to point toward the trail leading back to Salmon Creek. That was a mistake. The motion caused the wolf to tense. It lowered on its haunches as if it meant to spring. Tara froze.
“Back off, Saber,” the man said.
The wolf gave her the squinty eye, but it rose from its crouch and trotted out onto the beach to sniff at something the tide had washed up. Tara let out a slow breath. Her family had kept pointers when she was growing up, and she wasn’t generally afraid of canines, but that creature was different from the eager-to-please dogs that had jumped onto her bed, insisting to be allowed under the covers.
She had only taken a few steps toward the trail when the man spoke again.
“What do you charge?”
Tara turned. “What?”
“For your consulting.”
“Uh.” She hadn’t expected him to be interested—she’d just been trying to distract him from the fact that she had been flipping through his sketchbook. The idea of following him off into the woods to his house or cabin or whatever he lived in sent trepidation through her. Of course, it roused her curiosity as well. Her boss wouldn’t mind if she uncovered a crime and wrote something up for the Seattle Times while she was out here. Her mother had often lamented that none of Tara’s work had been published in print, making for newspaper clippings that could be sent off to non-computer-savvy grandparents.
If this guy invited her to his place, maybe she could find out if he was the one leaving the dead animals in the village. It sounded like he chased everyone off his property; she might be the first to see it.
And be the first to be buried beneath the ferns along his border…
Except he wouldn’t bury her if he wanted to learn about Internet marketing. Yes, that was a heartening thought. Unless his interest was part of a ruse to lure her up to his place…
For what? They were alone on the beach. If he wanted to do something to her, he could do it right here. Or try anyway. Pectoral armor or not, she would put up a fight.
“I didn’t realize this would be a tough question,” he said.
Tara blushed. Yes, she had been standing there and mulling for a long time. “Well, you see, I’ve only helped friends in the past, and I’ve never taken money for that, so I don’t have set rates. I’d probably charge a hundred dollars an hour for a business, but less for someone looking to sell his artwork.” She had no idea what he did for a living, but there weren’t a lot of high paying jobs out here, so she added, “I’d be open to barter too.” As in, if he let her snoop around his property for proof of nefarious deeds, she would be happy to chat on for hours about optimizing one’s website to increase search engine traffic.
“One hundred dollars an hour is a lot,” he said. “I’d want proof that you know what you’re talking about. Lists of the businesses you’ve helped out.”
Apparently he wasn’t interested in bartering.
“Their online presences, you mean? I can write down their web addresses for you to take a look at. But I said I’d be willing to advise for less if you’re an artist.”
“I’m not interested in selling my drawings.” He walked over to a log and picked up a white button-down shirt draped across a broken branch.
Erg, why hadn’t she noticed that when she first came down? She might have guessed it was his and have never touched his stuff.
“Can you start today?” he asked as he buttoned the shirt.
“What?” What on Earth did he have to sell that was so urgent that he was ready to dive right into this?
“This way,” he said and headed down the beach toward a different trail that headed up the cliff.
Tara licked her lips and glanced back toward the village. She had a feeling she should tell someone that she was going with the man—she didn’t even know his name yet—but nothing about the brisk pace he set suggested he would wait.