Authors: Christina Dodd
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #General
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To my friends who have coaxed, cajoled, encouraged, and most of all listened as I created the world of Virtue Falls—thank you.
You deserve every good thing, and a trip to Disneyland, too.
Writing a woman in jeopardy suspense posed an exciting challenge, one I could not have done without the great team at St. Martin’s Press.
Jennifer Enderlin’s clear-sighted guidance and editorial direction kept me from straying too far from the main story. Her comment, “Christina, sometimes you have to kill your darlings,” has led to a trail of fictional characters written and discarded, leaving only the few that fascinate and beckon. We share a vision, and that is a great thing.
Anne Marie Tallberg, Associate Publisher, and the marketing team of Stephanie Davis, Angela Craft, Jeanne-Marie Hudson, and Jessica Preeg, see
in terms of a publishing event, and generate excitement every day.
The art department, led by Ervin Serrano, captured my vision of
the beauty and the menace, and translated it to the cover.
To everyone on the Broadway and Fifth Avenue sales teams—thank you for placing
in just the right places and at just the right times.
A huge thanks to managing editor Amelie Littell and Jessica Katz in production.
I don’t know what I would do without Caitlin Dareff doing so much so efficiently.
Thank you to Sally Richardson, St. Martin’s president and publisher. I am so glad to be part of St. Martin’s Press.
To retired Air Force Major Roger B. Bell who critiques, edits, and proofreads every one of my books, who is my source for all things military, firearm, and flight related, who nags me when I’m behind, encourages me when I’m plodding glumly through the endless middle, and is a friend I treasure. Thank you!
The highway from Idaho’s Sun Valley travels north into the Sawtooth Mountains with two lanes and strategically located turnouts in case a person needs to change a tire or gawk at the scenery. The road winds past shacks constructed of beer bottles and aluminum siding, past rusty mobile homes and clapboard houses in need of paint. That highway is a drive back in time, to a moment when the West opened its arms to every pioneer and misfit in the world.
Then the National Forest Service moved in.
No one ever said they did it wrong. The world deserves places of wildness, where no one logs trees that have grown since the time of Jesus, where snowmobiles and ATMs can’t challenge black bears to battle and take out rare and delicate flowers. Most people want a place where hikers and backpackers can roam the wilderness, and then only in summer months when winter retreats … and waits.
But even the National Forest Service can do nothing about Wildrose Valley. Wildrose Valley Road turns off the main highway, and rises up and up in hairpin turns that make flatlanders clutch and cringe. The surface is gravel, full of washboard stretches that beat a woman’s teeth together as she drives her rented black Jeep Cherokee toward the place where she had been born.
She tops the summit and there it is—the valley, slung like a hammock between the mountains. Ranchers had settled here in the early twentieth century, carving out tracts of land where they raised cattle and children, grew gardens and alfalfa, fought freezing cold and the Depression and bankruptcy.
But here and now, in August, the valley is wide, yellow with grass, dappled with cattle and antelope. Meadows stretch miles to the far horizon where the mountains close in. The Forest Service likes to think they protect the wilderness; in truth, the Sawtooth Mountains themselves are the sentinels and guardians of the land.
Taylor Summers had spent her first nine years roaming the Sawtooth Mountains in search of a safe place, away from her home, away from her parents’ constant, bitter arguments about her father’s ranch, her mother’s ambitions, and Taylor, who had somehow become the heart of their conflict.
Then, on her tenth birthday, she had moved with her mother to Baltimore, and was never again to see Wildrose Valley … until today.
She drove slowly down the steep grade, absorbing the changes. Where small craftsman-style ranch houses had once stood, mansions now sprawled. Not many mansions, though; rich people bought wide acreages and surrounded themselves by vistas that could not be blocked.
Taylor didn’t blame them. Today, when she rolled down her windows, she heard nothing but the wind through the golden grasses and the occasional call of a bird. She recognized a few landmarks: a stand of maple trees where she used to play, the unpainted wreck of a barn where she’d swung in an exhilarating ride on a rope out of the hayloft and through the wide-open doors.
was the turnoff to the Summers ranch, owned by her family for over a hundred years, until her mother forced her father to sell it in the divorce and divide the profits.
Involuntarily, Taylor’s foot slipped off the accelerator and the car slowed.
The people who bought the place had put up a phony gate, and they had the guts to put up a sign calling the place
They not only had claimed her heritage, they’d also claimed her name.
Taylor rolled up her windows, put her foot back on the gas, and drove through ruts and dust toward the end of the basin and her goal, where the mountains came together, squeezing the road like a vise.
An hour of driving too fast got her at last to the serenity of mountains. Here was the forest she sought. The air was thin, sharp, fresh with the scents of pine and earth and growth and, yes, surely … inspiration.
Taylor had always considered herself a true artist.
Sure, she had gone to college to study graphic design, and sure, she had segued into interior decorating. But for all that she had besmirched her talent with good jobs that made gobs of money, she hugged close a strong sense of superiority. Deep inside, she had believed that if she flung away the trappings of success and became a full-time artist, her talent would change the world.
So to celebrate the crashing destruction of her second engagement, she had flown to Salt Lake City, rented a vehicle, and driven north along the Wasatch Range. She stopped to sketch every vista, expecting that sensitive, brilliant, expressive art would form beneath her fingers.
No. Not once. Not a hint of genius, of uplifting emotion or self-knowledge or glory or pain. All these years of believing in herself, and this … this was it?
Drawn by the conviction that if she got home, she would rediscover her muse, she drove north, into Idaho. In Sun Valley, she rented a room, spent the night, and now here she was, heart pounding as she pulled into an isolated picnic area. She backed the Cherokee into a parking spot hidden by brush and trees. She grabbed a bottle of water, her waist pack, and her drawing pad, and climbed out. She followed a trail that wound through the trees, looking for the one spot she wished, believed,
would reignite her vision.
In less than a mile, the forest ended and a wide, green meadow opened its arms to her, and she recognized this place.
far more than the ranch, was home. Here her father had taught her to camp, to hike, to hunt. Of all her early life, those were the moments she treasured.
Taylor climbed up on one of the smooth, massive black basalt boulders abandoned by the glaciers. To her left and her right, as far as she could see, forbidding and majestic pinnacles pierced the pale blue of the August sky. To capture the grandeur of the Sawtooth Mountains required bold-hued oil paints done on a large canvas by a master.
All they had was her.
But she was here, and she longed to pay tribute to the forces of the earth.
Opening her sketch pad, she took up her charcoal pencil and gave her soul over to the vista before her.
When she had finished, she pulled back and studied her achievement.
In high school, her art teacher had told her anyone could draw a mountain, but a true artist depicted the soul of the mountain and gave the viewer a sense of glorious austerity or forbidding heights or searing cold. A true artist created not art, but feelings: longing, terror, love. Most of all, Taylor’s art teacher warned her against making mountains look like ice-cream cones.
Taylor could state with great assurance the mountains she had sketched did not look like ice-cream cones.
They looked like ingrown toenails.
She rifled through her sketch pad, looking at each and every one of her drawings. How had she reduced the imperious majesty and eternal grandeur of the western mountains to such a disgusting human condition? She had dreamed of and planned for this, imagined her artistic talent would blossom in the place so long cherished in her childhood memories. Instead, she was a failure, such a failure that she was almost relieved when she heard a car bouncing along the washboard gravel road behind her. She shut her drawing tablet, slid off the rock, and headed into a stand of pines.
Not that she needed to hide. She had as much right to be here as anyone. But she was a woman alone. The car probably contained a rancher or some tourists, but wild game attracted out-of-season hunters, old gold claims dotted the creeks, and longtime residents carried guns. Up here, it was better to be safe than sorry.
When a black Mercedes came around the bend, hitting every rut as if it was a personal challenge, she grinned.