Darksilver Book 3
The hunter becomes the hunted.
Wildlife expert Josana Weaver is chasing a hoax. Cougars don’t hunt in packs, no matter how remote the area. But the trip also provides her a way to check on her grandfather’s cabin. But when she stumbles on a medieval encampment on her property, she decides to take it up with their leader.
Blade Lord Tallac of the House of Cougars must warn his vassals of a dangerous rogue. But when he crosses to the old hunting lodge on Terra he finds that someone has trespassed. Only when he meets the trespasser does he realize her true identity, even if she doesn’t.
But as they spar, heated battles lead to fiery emotions, all while the rogue tracks them.
“I told you it takes me eight hours to drive from Vermont to Ontario,” Josana Weaver told the GPS mounted on her dashboard. “Not nine. Not seven. Eight.”
“Right turn ahead,” the device replied in its bland auto-voice.
“If you can’t admit when you’re wrong, then you should shut up.” She jabbed the power button.
After stopping in Temagami for supplies and an early dinner, Jo felt cranky and frustrated with herself. Why had she agreed to come all the way here? Plenty of other cougar experts in North America would have been happy to consult for the Canadians. She already knew this trip would be a complete waste of her time and expertise. A stack of year-end department reports waited for her back at the office in Burlington, and were not going to write themselves while she scampered around the mountains chasing a pack—a pack—of ghost cats.
How many more promises are you going to break? her equally surly conscience demanded.
The last time she had visited her grandfather’s cabin here had been fourteen years ago, on her last hiking trip with her parents. Back then she’d been an outdoors fanatic like her folks, as well as captain of her high school girls’ basketball team. Her natural strength, agility and confidence had made her into a star power forward; the startling growth spurt at fifteen that shot her up over six feet had given her an extra edge as well.
Being a tall, muscular tomboy hadn’t done much for her social life, but that allowed Jo to focus on her studies as well as sports.
“Don’t get pregnant until after you’re married, please,” Jo’s mother had begged her once after learning a neighbor’s rather promiscuous teen daughter was expecting twins. “You can do anything else you want to deal with your issues, but I’m not ready to be a grandmother.”
“So, getting my face tattooed, piercing all my girl parts and smoking crack is okay with you?” She dodged her mother’s half-hearted swat before she added, “Relax, Mom. I’m a jock. My biggest issue is trying to make forty percent of my free throws.”
Luckily Jo was as smart as she was athletic, so academic and sports scholarships had paid her way through college. Despite her love of basketball, she decided against majoring in sports science or pursuing a career as a pro or a coach. Instead, she’d earned her master’s degree in wildlife management to become an animal researcher and conservationist. A summer internship with a research group tagging mountain lions in the Dakotas had sparked her interest in making the elusive big cats her specialty. Now an expert consultant and tracker in addition to working as a conservationist for the state government, she regularly received requests to advise other wildlife departments all over North America.
“At least this time I won’t spend a month in the woods measuring tracks and bagging mystery scat,” Jo muttered as she turned right onto the narrow dirt road leading up to the cabin. “This had to be staged.”
The Canadians had asked her to come to Ontario on what was basically the cougar version of a wild goose chase. A hiker claimed he saw a pack of “ghost cats” hunting together in the mountains, and had taken a slightly fuzzy picture showing what appeared to be a dozen cougars running through the trees.
“We’ve never sighted or photographed even one mountain lion in that area,” the Canadian researcher who had called her said. “How can there suddenly be twelve up there?”
“There can’t be,” Jo assured him. “Cougars don’t hunt in packs. They live completely solitary lives unless they’re mating, or teaching cubs to hunt. Also, they don’t have eleven cubs at a time. The max is generally six.”
“If that’s true, then how do you explain the picture?” the researcher asked.
Jo had tried by running the image through three different photo detector programs, only to discover that it hadn’t been doctored. The most reasonable theory she could offer, that the large, solid silver-furred cats in the picture were custom-dyed taxidermy specimens posed to look like a pack of cougars hunting together, sounded ridiculous even to her. Without any other explanation to offer, she’d agreed to come and see if she could find evidence to support or disprove the hiker’s claim.
“You’re crazy,” one of her colleagues at the Fish and Wildlife Department told her. “Why go all the way to Canada when you know it’s going to be nothing but a snipe hunt?”
Jo hadn’t told anyone at work about the real reason she wanted to get away for a while, so she simply said, “I need a break.”
The Land Rover began bouncing and rocking as she crossed some deep ruts left by the rainy season, so she decreased her speed for the last three miles. The road gradually widened until it ended at a large graveled clearing in front of a rustic log cabin. The land had belonged to her family since Josiah Weaver had settled here seventy years ago, but according to local legend there had been a cabin on this spot since the seventeenth century. Her grandfather, a towering lumberjack who had never left the mountains, had lost his wife to cancer when Jo’s father had been a baby, and yet had raised his son all by himself here.
After inheriting the place from her parents Jo had arranged for a local realtor to take care of the property, and rent out the cabin occasionally to canoers and hikers. This was her first time seeing the place since her teens; she’d made all the arrangements for looking after the property over the phone and by e-mail. Other than a few claw marks left by bears on the squared outer logs, and the remains of a bird’s spring nest in the front gable, the cabin looked well maintained. A pair of white-painted rocking chairs now flanked the entry, and little baskets of ivy had been hung from the eaves.
That doesn’t mean that it’s safe, something muttered from the back of her mind.
“Did I ask you for advice, Fight Club?” Jo asked, eyeing herself in the rearview mirror. “I didn’t, so you can shut up, too.”
She sat in the Rover for a while, hating but still accepting the fact that she needed to wait a bit longer while her combative brain settled down. After being attacked at a downtown parking garage three months ago, getting in or out of her car still made her feel jumpy. She’d never imagined she’d become someone prone to panic attacks, but the aggressive part of her brain was still not coping well with the attack. She also had questions that bugged the hell out of her but would likely never be answered.
Why would anyone want to kidnap me?
Successfully wrapping up a budget meeting on that terrible day, Jo had walked out of the federal building to her car, her echoing footsteps the only sound. It had been broad daylight, with plenty of cars driving in and out of the garage. She still remembered how she’d been running numbers in her head to see if she could rearrange some overhead expenses to allow enough money to bring in a summer intern.
Without warning a big hand had clamped over her mouth and a thick, hard arm had dragged her backward against a burly body.
Instead of being paralyzed by shock Jo had wrenched herself around to face her assailant, whose face was covered by a black ski mask. She rammed her hand down to break his hold on her waist and drove her other forearm up into his chin, knocking him back a step. He’d punched her squarely in the face, knocking her back into the Rover so hard the impact cracked a window.
Jo didn’t remember much after that; she’d completely lost it. According to witnesses she’d viciously attacked the man, repeatedly driving her fists into his throat and face without stopping. She’d beaten him so hard, in fact, that one of the women who watched her had thought she might kill the man, and began screaming for help. Two nearby patrolmen had heard and rushed into the garage, while another man had dragged Jo back from the guy. As soon as he saw the cops, Ski Mask had staggered off to jump in a waiting cargo van, which sped away.
The detective who had interviewed her after the attempted abduction had praised her for fighting back.
“You’re still alive because you did,” the cop had told her. “We’ve got what we need for a DNA match, thanks to you, too. If you don’t mind me asking, why did you go after him like that?”
“I teach seminars on surviving extreme wildlife encounters,” Jo said. She’d already rehearsed this part in her head because the truth would probably get her admitted to a psych unit. “What I did is how you defend yourself against a cougar attack. Like that guy, they’re ambush predators.”
Although Jo had walked away with only some bruises, lacerated knuckles and a black eye, the detective must have suspected something, as he suggested she get some counseling. At first, she’d felt fine, but then she started being hyper-aware of the people who came into close proximity to her. For some reason she also couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was being watched. Even after having a security system installed in her apartment, she felt uneasy, as if it might just be a matter of time before the guy tried to grab her again.
That didn’t make her afraid. It made her want to go out and find her attacker and finish what she’d started in the parking garage.
Hoping to see if there had been any other victims, she started researching news sites for recent abductions in or around Burlington, but found no other case similar to hers. Statistics on how often this happened were non-existent as well. Although hundreds of thousands of people went missing in the U.S. every year—over half a million during the year before her attack—no separate data on how many had been kidnapped was made available.
What baffled Jo most was the motive behind the attempted abduction. Why her?
It couldn’t be for her looks. Friends being kind described her as an attractive green-eyed brunette, but her too-sharp cheekbones and stubborn jawline exempted her from ever being considered pretty. She dressed professionally, wore very little makeup and kept her unexciting brown hair neatly shaped and trimmed. Her height always drew some attention, but most men felt intimidated by that and her lean, muscular build.
As unexceptional as her looks, her personality certainly couldn’t be the reason. She’d learned in school how to curb her bluntness and avoid offending people. She’d never had any drama at work, and what friends she had were more like casual acquaintances. She’d indulged in a few romantic relationships, all of which had fizzled out pretty fast, but she still remained on good terms with all her exes.
That left her personal assets, which could hardly be considered impressive. She made a decent living, but she certainly wasn’t rich; the only thing she actually owned was her car, a modest IRA account, some stocks her parents had left her, and her grandfather’s place in Canada. She had no extended family, so there weren’t any relatives secretly seething over her inheritance.
Whoever had tried to abduct her probably had been an opportunist who would have attacked any woman alone in that situation, or so Jo tried to convince herself.
Glancing at the gun case in the backseat was enough reassurance for now—she’d brought her Dad’s deer rifle with her—but she didn’t need to arm herself before she got out of the Rover. Still, she looked around again and honked the horn a few times to see if anyone would come out of the cabin before she opened the door.
“I have got to stop doing this.” Jo grabbed her bags out of the back and walked up to set them on the porch.
Waiting by the front door sat a large cello-wrapped fruit basket, a bottle of French wine, and a hand-written note from the realtor.
“‘Hope you have a great stay. Call me if you need anything,’” she read out loud before she tucked the note back into the basket and examined the bottle, which was an inexpensive but decent Bordeaux. “Hmmm. A corkscrew and a cute guy to help me drink this would have been nice.”
She unlocked the door, and after taking a quick look around, brought her things inside. Locking and bolting the door behind her felt silly, but added a little extra sense of reassurance. She breathed in the faint scent of pine cleaner, which the realtor had probably sprayed around inside as a bear deterrent; it was a common practice in mountain homes that stood empty for long stretches. She cracked two of the front and back windows to let some air circulate before she took a better look around the place.
“Ack.” Jo rubbed the side of her neck. “It’s the Cabin of Clichés.”
The changes the realtor had made over the years to the interior might have come straight out of some cheesy mountain vacation ad. All of the furniture had been reupholstered with red and black buffalo plaid flannel, and scattered with fleecy throw pillows featuring black bear silhouettes. A new solar set-up provided the cabin with enough electricity for lights, hot water and a mini-fridge, but flame-blackened kerosene lamps and half-burned tapered candles sat in various romantic spots.
Jo grimaced as she eyed the walls, which hadn’t escaped unscathed. The realtor had hung up a pair of ancient snow shoes, a rusted bow saw, and a faded patchwork quilt as décor, all of which looked like they’d come from a thrift store. A huge, truly terrible painting of autumn-yellowed aspens by the kitchen resembled framed, desiccated scrambled eggs. Above the fireplace an artfully-distressed, hand-lettered sign read Only do what your heart tells you in girly script.
The crowning touristy touch was the fake bear skin rug, complete with a snarling head, stretched out on the planked floor in front of the old fireplace.
“My heart tells me that you’re going in the closet first, Faux Bear,” she told the rug as she brought her bag of groceries into the kitchen.
Jo felt like something significant was missing, but she couldn’t remember what.
Unpacking her supplies didn’t take long. She’d only bought enough food at the little grocery store in Temagami to last her a few days. After meeting with the guys at the forest research station she’d have a better idea of how long she’d be staying. Once she debunked the hiker’s sighting, she’d go find a corkscrew and spend a few days as she’d planned. She’d brought her fishing pole and tackle box in hopes that trout still hung out in the stream that ran across her grandparents’ property. She could relax, sleep in, and enjoy some good memories…only she really didn’t want to.
I used to love coming here. Why is it making me angry now? Jo glanced at the fake bear skin rug again, then went and grabbed it and threw it in the closet.
Feeling better, she went back into the kitchen and tested the butane stove, which worked fine. Ignoring the shiny new pod coffee machine installed by the realtor, she put on a pan of water to boil. Taking out a bag of dark roast grounds she’d bought in town, she prepped the French press she’d brought from home.
As cozy as the cabin had been made, Jo missed all of the family photos that once decorated the place. Her grandfather had grown veggies and herbs in a kitchen garden out back, but the realtor had likely mowed over that or yanked it out. Whenever she’d come here with her parents on vacation Jo would hunt and collect the lavender that over the years had migrated from the garden to grow wild around the cabin. Her mother, who loved the fragrance, would add it to her tea with a little cinnamon. When she opened the kitchen window, she could still smell that haunting scent, as if her mother were brewing a cup right now.
Thinking about the tea reminded her about the odd argument she’d had with her parents about the place.
Her mother had been drinking lavender-cinnamon tea while they were discussing her college applications, and out of the blue brought up the old cabin. Jo, honey, you don’t have to go to school in Vermont, or live here after you graduate. But if anything ever happens to me and Dad, we need you to look after Granddad’s property in Ontario.
Jo had laughed. Uh, Mom, I know you guys love that place, but I’m not moving to Canada. They eat cheese curds and gravy on their fries.
You don’t have to immigrate, sweetheart, her father had said after giving her mother a strange look. We’re planning to move closer to it after we retire. But if we’re not around, just promise that you’ll go once a year and make sure it’s all right.
That property has been in your father’s family for hundreds of years, you know, her mother had chimed in. We promised your grandfather that we would take care of it, and never sell it to anyone.
You guys are so weird, Jo had complained after finally agreeing. Why are you worried about it? Nothing is going to happen to you.
“Sorry, Mom and Dad.” She leaned back against the old tile kitchen counter as the guilt washed over her.
Her parents would be living out their retirement here right now if not for an icy, winding road they had taken on the way home from a Christmas party. Jo had been working in the Rockies when she’d gotten the call from the state trooper who had found their wrecked car. He’d gravely assured her that from their injuries her parents had both died instantly. Burying them and dealing with their estate had been the most miserable month of her life. She’d spent five more years after that working all over the country before finally coming to terms with being an orphan.
Jo had never broken a promise to her parents, but every time she thought about coming to the cabin she’d baulked.
The water on the stove started boiling, and she carefully poured it into her French press. While it steeped, she went to put her toiletries in the cabin’s tiny bathroom, which she found repainted snowy white and decorated with fake pine swags and little cone trees. Her mother, whose favorite holiday had always been Christmas, would have loved it.
Jo hadn’t celebrated any holidays since the trooper’s phone call. Since she had no family left, what would be the point?
She turned on the shower, which sputtered a bit before producing decidedly lukewarm spray, and then shut it off. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, she caught her reflection in the small mirror above the sink. She hadn’t gone to the hairdresser for a trim or coloring in a few months, and the gray streak at her right temple had grown out. It looked shinier than she remembered, as if she were wearing a silver barrette.
“I was ten when I started going gray,” her father had told her when it had shown up during her freshman year of high school. “Your granddad had the same streak. It’s like a family birthmark.”
“Then I would have had it when I was born, Dad,” Jo told him. “I’m thirteen, not an old hag. Mom needs to take me to her hairdresser, like right now.”
In the mirror Jo’s eyes widened as she realized what was missing.
She hurried back out to the front room. A patchwork quilt now occupied the space where her grandfather’s stag horn-framed mirror had once hung. She lifted it, only to reveal a large rectangle of heavy paneling. It must have been put in to patch the hole the mirror had left in the wall.
What had happened to the old mirror?
As a girl she’d been fascinated by the large round looking glass set in an intricate frame. To keep it clean her parents had always left it draped, but when they weren’t looking Jo had peeked under the dust cloth. The frame, made of interwoven silver antlers inset with glittering gray crystals, had always felt cold when she’d touched it. Sometimes she thought she could see something in the murky old glass, too, but before she could be sure her mother or father would scold her for touching it.
Jo took out her cell phone and dialed the realtor’s number, only to get a voice mail recording.
“Hi, this is Josana Weaver. Thanks for the wine and the fruit basket, that was a nice surprise.” She walked into the kitchen. “I was wondering what you did with the old mirror that used to be in my grandfather’s cabin. It was hanging where the old quilt is now. Would you give me a call when you have a chance?”
She pocketed her phone and rinsed out her travel mug before refilling it with her fresh brew. Taking it with her out onto the front porch, she sat down in one of the new rocking chairs and looked at the sprawl of the forest around the cabin.
“All right, I’m here,” she said, breathing in the scent of the crisp air, and stretching out her long legs. “Let’s relax and have some fun.”