Dense trees blocked out the sunlight and seemed to close in around the Jeep as Amber Lee drove deeper into the mountains. She peered into the shadows nervously, looking for a familiar landmark that would reassure her she was heading in the right direction. She had only been to the cabin at Fire Mountain a couple of times before, once with Dominic for a romantic getaway, and once with Kat and Tiffany for a girls’ weekend. Both times she had been so caught up with her companions in the car she had barely noticed the scenery. Now she was alone and it made her sad to think back on those happy days that were gone forever.
She was also growing more concerned with each passing minute that she had missed the turn, and she wished she had paid more attention when she had the chance. There was no way she could have guessed back then that she would one day be making this trip on her own, but life had a way of taking unexpected detours she had recently discovered.
Kat had reminded her as she was leaving the city about the large tree with a carving that would appear on the left about one hundred metres before the turnoff to the cabin. When she rounded a bend and finally saw it, Amber should have been relieved. Instead a chill ran down her spine. She slowed down and prepared to turn onto the dirt road that would take her towards the lake, trying not to look at the striking image of a wolf someone had etched into the tree. The effect was very life like, and she was unable to resist taking a peek. On her previous visits she had found it amusing but today, for some reason, it seemed downright sinister.
Trying to ignore the unsettled feeling that came over her at the sight of the carving, Amber continued down the winding dirt road through the woods, stopping once to open a gate she did not recall seeing before. She was beginning to worry again that she had taken a wrong turn when she spotted a break between the trees in the distance. She increased her speed as she drove towards the clearing, and finally she emerged at the cabin.
In front of her the lake sparkled majestically, and all her fears seemed to evaporate in the warmth of the sun. Stepping out of the car she took a couple of deep breaths and she was invigorated by the fresh mountain air. She loved this time of year when the last burst of summer still lingered but the trees were just beginning to change colour. The mountain had been named for the spectacular way it looked in fall when from the distance it appeared to be on fire. There was a hint of the coldness to come in the breeze that ruffled her hair.
Stretching her arms above her head to shake out the kinks from the long drive, she took in the panoramic views surrounding her. The timber cabin perched above the lake was exactly as she remembered it. The woods came right up to the house at the back providing complete privacy. Amber revelled in the isolation and the silence, knowing she’d made the right decision to come here. The only sounds she could hear were distant bird calls and the occasional splash of a fish in the lake. She could literally feel the tension draining from her body. This was exactly what she needed to help clear her head and heal her heart after the drama of the last nine months.
Reluctantly she turned her attention back to the car and began unpacking her bags, but as she stacked them on the gravel drive she could not prevent thoughts of Dominic intruding on the peaceful moment. Unloading the car had always been his job when they went away, and it was ordinary moments like this, when she realized he would never be by her side again, that were the hardest to bear.
“At least he was good for something,” she said aloud, trying to banish the ache in her heart.
“Excuse me,” said a deep male voice behind her, causing Amber to scream and drop the bag in her hand. She spun around. “I’m so sorry.” The words came from a dark haired man who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. “My name is Jesse Davidson. I have a cabin not far from here.”
“Oh my God, you really scared me,” was all she could manage to utter as she put her hand on her heart to try to slow its pounding.
“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I come down to fish from the jetty sometimes. When I saw your car I thought I’d better introduce myself so you didn’t think I was trespassing.”
“That’s okay.” Amber took some deep breaths to calm herself. “I’m not usually this jumpy, but I wasn’t expecting to run into anybody out here.” As she spoke she studied him closely. He was dressed casually in jeans and a checked flannelette shirt and looked to be in his early thirties. His wavy hair came down past his collar, and he had a three day growth that gave him a slightly dishevelled look. His body was lean, and he didn’t seem much like the outdoors type. He was wearing a pair of old-fashioned glasses that were a bit nerdy, but he was attractive in an understated way. She could tell from his expression that he was shy, and she found it a refreshing trait in a man after Dominic’s arrogance.
Amber vaguely remembered Kat saying something to her about a cute neighbour called Jesse when she and Chris first bought the cabin two years earlier, but she had barely taken any notice. She was happily married back then and had no reason to think about other men. She definitely had no reason to think about them now because she had come to the cabin to get away from everything. The last thing she wanted was to encourage visitors. She still had to be civil though, so she held out her hand to him.
“I’m Amber Lee. It’s very nice to meet you, Jesse.”
“You too,” he replied, taking her hand. “Are you here for long?”
“I’m not really sure yet, we’ll see how it goes. What about you?”
“I spend most of the year here. My cabin belongs to my parents but they’re too old to get up here much now, so I pretty much have it all to myself. I have an apartment in the city too, but I don’t use it often. I find the peace and quiet out here really conducive to my work.”
“What do you do?” She was only trying to be friendly but she noticed his discomfort immediately. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, not at all. I’m a writer.”
“That’s great. I’m a writer too. Of self-help books,” she added. She waited, expecting him to tell her what genre he wrote in, but he was silent, forcing her to ask the obvious question. He hesitated before answering.
“Oh, a bit of this and that,” he said, looking away from her and stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Just some short stories and articles for online magazines. Nothing exciting.” Amber studied him closely and decided he was either hiding something or ashamed of his work. He probably writes porn, she thought and tried not to smile at the idea. It was always the ones you least expected.
“I’m glad to hear the peace and quiet works wonders because I need all the help I can get. I have a deadline to meet, and I’ve already had one extension. My editor will kill me if I miss it again. You probably won’t see much of me, but feel free to use the jetty whenever you like.”
“Thanks.” Amber expected him to say goodbye and walk away. Instead he just stood there staring at her, and the silence became uncomfortable.
“I’d better get back to my unpacking now,” she said, trying not to be too blunt.
“Would you like a hand with anything?”
“No, I think I’ve got it. Thanks for introducing yourself, though. It’s nice to know there’s another human being out there amongst all those trees. Not that we’ll see much of each other with me being so busy and all. Good luck with the writing.”
“Thanks. Same to you.” This time he gave her an awkward smile and then turned back down the path leading into the woods. Just as Amber was bending down to pick up the bag at her feet, he turned around again. “I’ve got to say, I’m a bit surprised to see you out here by yourself.”
“Why is that?” she said, straightening up and putting her hands on her hips.
“Not many women would be game to come out here on their own. You don’t know what might be lurking in the darkness.”
She laughed, assuming he was making a joke. “I wasn’t concerned till you mentioned it, but I’m a big girl, it takes a lot to scare me. I’ll be just fine on my own.”
“So your husband isn’t joining you then?”
“I’m not married anymore.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she mentally kicked herself for sharing personal information with a total stranger. As a child she had constantly been scolded for being too open and trusting and she still struggled with these traits. Her marital status was none of his business, and he was way too nosy for her liking.
He glanced at the wedding ring on her finger and then turned back down the path without saying another word. In profile his features were much sharper, and for one crazy moment Amber was reminded of the carving of the wolf on the way to the cabin. She shook her head to clear the image from her mind.
“Enjoy the peace and quiet,” he called behind him, and although she could not be certain, Amber thought she heard him chuckle softly to himself. He definitely seemed a little odd, and she felt glad that she had made it clear she was not up for socializing. She had no idea if he had Kat and Chris’s permission to fish from the jetty, and she hoped he would take the hint and stay away while she was here. His comment about things lurking in the darkness was creepy, but it was probably just his twisted idea of a joke. With a shrug she dismissed him from her mind and turned her attention back to unloading the car.
No one had been at the cabin for a while, and it was dark and musty inside. The first thing Amber did was throw open all the windows and let fresh air flood the rooms. After unpacking and making up the bed in the upstairs room, she fixed herself a late lunch and sat on the porch to take in the magnificent views stretching before her. She was so fortunate to have a place like this to run away to when life became too much, and she was thankful Kat was generous enough to let her stay here as long as she needed to.
She and Chris had cancelled a holiday rental for her sake, but Kat had refused to take any money from her. She was so unlike Dominic who never did a good turn for anyone unless it was of some benefit to him. Thoughts of her soon to be ex-husband were enough to destroy her serenity, and Amber stood up abruptly, carrying her dishes inside. She wondered how much longer he would be there, loitering at the edge of every thought.
She set her laptop up in front of the living room window overlooking the lake, and as she settled into her work, the next few hours flew by. Something finally broke her concentration, and when she looked up she was surprised to see it was dark outside. For a split second she was overcome with the sensation that someone was watching her. Clouds had drifted over in the late afternoon, and there were no stars visible in the darkness. She had forgotten just how pitch black it got out here without the glow from the city lights to illuminate the sky.
Her strange neighbour’s question came back to her and set her nerves slightly on edge. The truth was she had not really stopped to think about what it would be like to be in the middle of the wilderness on her own. She’d been so intent on getting away from her life that the thought had never crossed her mind. Now that she was here with the night closing in around her, Amber realized she may not have thought things through very well. There was no phone in the cabin and her cell phone only had intermittent reception. Kat had warned her about this before she came, but at the time she had thought it was a good excuse not to talk to anyone for a while.
She picked up her phone and saw that it had no bars at all, and she quickly moved to shut the blinds. As she was pulling the drawstring she noticed a sudden movement in the garden near the tool shed. It gave her a start but Amber reassured herself it was just a racoon or fox snooping around. The woods were full of wild creatures, and if she was going to share their home she would have to get used to them.
Later as she lay in bed listening to the trees scraping against the windows and watching the shadows flickering on the wall, she remembered all the stories she had been told as a child about the dangers of venturing into the woods alone. She also recalled the horror movies that began in an isolated location with a psychotic killer or monster on the loose. Many of those stories involved a woman who had put herself in a perilous situation. She’d never had any sympathy for those women before, but now she was developing a whole new perspective. She vowed she would never again mock them and shout at the television that they deserved everything they got. As she strained to listen for any suspicious noises she wondered again if she had made a big mistake coming here alone. Almost forty minutes passed before she finally managed to fall asleep.
Her dreams that night were far from restful, and she awoke in the early hours of the morning. It was Dominic who appeared before her in the darkness, looking just as he had on the day she had come home early to find him in bed with one of her closest friends. His face had been as white as a ghost as he pulled on his clothes and followed her downstairs, trying to explain the unexplainable, but it was her friend’s expression that had really chilled her to the bone. Tiffany had seen her as soon as she entered the room, and she had smiled over Dominic’s shoulder and then closed her eyes and moaned in ecstasy. Unable to utter a sound, Amber had been forced to walk right over to the bed before Dominic noticed her standing there. Looking back she realized this had been what Tiffany wanted all along.
It was Tiffany who had told her to go home early that day when she’d complained about a headache while they were having their usual morning coffee together. Amber spent most of her working day in the library downtown because she liked to get out of the house, but that day she was not feeling herself. She needed a break but with a deadline looming she just could not afford the luxury of time off, until Tiffany talked her into it.
“Go home and get some rest, you silly thing. You’ll feel so much better for it and you’ll get more work done tomorrow. Seriously, Amber, the whole world isn’t going to fall to pieces because you take the afternoon off.” She could remember thinking at the time how lucky she was to have such a caring friend, but when she found her in bed with her husband just a couple of hours later it was obvious Tiffany had orchestrated the whole thing. In hindsight the whole friendship had been an elaborate ploy to win Dominic over, and Amber was just collateral damage.
When she had first met Tiffany at a book club three years earlier they had been casual acquaintances for a long time. It was only after Amber introduced Tiffany to Dominic that their friendship had shifted gears and Tiffany suddenly seemed to be at their house all the time. She began turning up unannounced with food, wine and invitations to exclusive social functions. As a PR consultant she could score tickets to all the A-list events and Dominic lapped it up. He adored rubbing shoulders with the elite, and Amber had felt proud to have such a well-connected friend. Throughout their relationship Dominic had always been the sophisticated one with the interesting friends, but for once she had been able to impress him through Tiffany.
Even when Tiffany insisted on staying over to look after her when she was sick and then pranced around the house in a skimpy negligee in front of Dominic, her suspicions had not been aroused. She had always been ready to believe the best about people, and she’d paid the price more than once. Losing her husband to a close friend was something she did not see coming, and she had vowed she would never be taken in again.
Amber had believed she was starting to get over the shock of Dominic and Tiffany’s betrayal when Kat arrived on her doorstep in the city one night with a serious look on her face.
“I wanted to tell you this before you heard it from someone else. Dominic and Tiffany are engaged and planning on getting married as soon as the divorce is finalized.”
Amber had laughed bitterly at the news. “You know what’s so funny about the whole thing? Dominic doesn’t even realize how much he’s been manipulated. He still thinks it all ‘just happened’ and they couldn’t deny their feelings any longer. He doesn’t know she set her sights on him the moment they met because he has exactly what she wants – lots of money, looks and a good family name.”
“She’s nothing but a shallow little gold-digger, and she’s exactly what he deserves,” Kat had said, trying to lessen the blow.
“I doubt she knows that Dominic begged me to forgive him and take him back just a couple of months ago. I didn’t tell you this, but he sent me an email saying he’d made a terrible mistake and no other woman would ever mean as much to him as me.”
As she lay in the darkness of the cabin she again considered forwarding the email to Tiffany and blowing her world to pieces just as Tiffany had done to her, but she couldn’t bring herself down to their level. All she wanted was to feel happy and at peace again, but it was not going to happen overnight. She had to be patient and give herself time to heal, and that’s why this trip to the mountains was a godsend for her. She could not let her imagination run away with her and ruin it.
In the distance she heard a lone wolf howling but she did not find it disturbing. Its cries seemed to echo with the ancient wisdom of the mountains, and it made her feel better to think about the wolves that had been living here for thousands of years. The sound was so deep and sorrowful that it could have come straight from her own heart, as if the animal shared her pain, and its melancholy song lulled her in a dreamless slumber.
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