Title: In the Winter Woods
Author: Isabelle Adler
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: December 14, 2020
Heat Level: 1 - No Sex
Genre: Contemporary Holiday, LGBTQIA+, contemporary, romance, gay, bi, seasonal/holiday, Christmas, Vermont, writer, law enforcement, crime, crime procedure, mystery, small town, maple syrup
When he starts receiving anonymous letters threatening him to leave, Declan realizes his solitary writer’s retreat isn’t at all what he bargained for. And if the threats aren’t enough, a killer strikes, casting Declan in the role of the most likely suspect. Now it’s up to him and the handsome local Public Safety Commissioner Curtis Monroe to find out the truth before Declan spends Christmas (and the rest of his life) in jail. But as dead bodies pile up and dark secrets are revealed beneath Maplewood’s picture-perfect facade, Declan’s heart may yet be in more danger than his life…
ExcerptIn the Winter Woods
Dusk was beginning to settle by the time I arrived at the cabin. It looked much as it did when I was a child—a robust two-bedroom bungalow, situated about three hundred feet from the shoreline, which was almost concealed from view by the thick growth of pine, ash, and maple. A small deck with a couple of ancient Adirondack chairs faced the lake, and a narrow winding path led from it down to the water’s edge.
Everything was covered in a thin layer fresh snow, and I would have stopped to admire the lovely picture it presented were I not cold, tired, and hungry. Commissioner Monroe was right about the taillight, but I figured it was too late in the day to go looking for a car repair shop. It wasn’t as though I was going anywhere anytime soon; I could take care of it next time I was in town.
I glimpsed another house nestled between the trees a few hundred yards away, light coming out of a tiny window. It was situated farther away from the water than mine, and the forest was thicker around it, giving it more privacy. As a disgruntled teenager forced to endure what then had felt like pointless weekends away with my family, I hadn’t paid much heed to the neighbors, and now I couldn’t recall whose cabin that was. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to brave the hardships of rough living. Besides, I had to admit I was a little relieved at not being all alone in the woods at night.
I parked my Honda at the end of the driveway and hurried to get inside with my groceries. The lock was a little clunky, but thankfully, the key fit, and I let myself in. The damp, musty smell of a house long left unoccupied wafted in my face.
I switched the lights on and was greeted by the sight of the old plaid sofa and the brown rug in front of the fireplace, which was surrounded by tall bookcases. The worn spines beckoned to me like old friends from a simpler, happier time; I remembered reading them on the deck while Dad and Jenny were fishing.
Tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away, even if there was no one here to see me cry. I had too much to do before I could let myself break down—like maybe getting the heat going. The officer hadn’t been kidding when he said it was freezing up here.
That was the trouble with rash decisions. I hadn’t let myself think about the practicalities of living in what essentially was a summer cottage and the small matter of a lack of central heating. But that was part of the reason I’d come, wasn’t it? To shake things up, get out of the rut, both personally and creatively. And if that meant chopping wood and shoveling the snow in the driveway, I was willing to give it the old college try.
Leaving the lights on, I brought the rest of my things from the car before it became truly dark outside. I’d left most of my stuff in storage and brought only what would fit into a large duffel bag. Looking at it now, I probably hadn’t packed nearly enough for a prolonged stay, but I didn’t need that many changes of clothes while being here on my own.
Coming up the driveway, I’d spotted a tarp-covered firewood rack right next to the cellar door, on the south wall. I flipped on the light on the deck for some illumination and slipped outside to get some kindling for the fireplace.
My breath came out in white puffs as I pulled out the bits of wood, struggling to balance them in my arms. To distract myself from the cold creeping beneath the layers of my clothing, I turned my thoughts to my next project. If I was here to restart my career, I might as well jump right at it.
My dashing detective, Owen Graves, was losing steam. My agent had been increasingly blunt about it, and even if she hadn’t been, my recent royalty statements painted a rather unequivocal picture. Maybe there was some way I could inject new life into the series. Send Owen on a mad adventure abroad to partake in a political plot of global proportions, James Bond-style? Break his heart and have him find a new romance while exposing a government cover-up?
All the concepts seemed equally far-fetched. And, to be honest, I was getting tired of Owen and his increasingly implausible escapades. Some kind of change was in order, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what it should be.
A twig snapped some distance behind me, pulling me out my musings. I wheeled round, nearly dropping the kindling I was holding.
My only answer was an owl hooting somewhere to the north. Darkness had settled, and deep shadows gathered between the tree trunks. It would be all too easy to imagine some sinister presence lurking out there, watching me with unconcealed malice.
A cold shiver ran down my spine. I was never the easily spooked sort, but the setup reminded me of every horror flick I’ve ever watched. I gathered all the wood I could get my arms around and hurried inside. After piling all the pieces in a niche next to the fireplace, I took another peek outside before locking the door, but everything was quiet.
This was ridiculous. I was letting my nerves to get the better of me for no reason. What I really needed was a distraction.
It took me some time to get the fire going, but eventually it was crackling behind the cast-iron vertical grate, and pleasant warmth was spreading through the living room. Having stocked the little fridge in the kitchen (which was thankfully in working order), I settled down in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee and my laptop.
The silence was by no means complete, with the sounds of the burning wood and the gentle lapping of the waves filtering in, but after half an hour or so of staring at a blank screen, I found it oppressive. Perhaps I was simply tired after a long drive and needed a couple of minutes to decompress before diving into work.
I retrieved a book from one of the shelves, sat back down on the sofa, and pulled a knitted throw over my legs. I didn’t know what made me choose a collection of poems by Robert Frost; I’d never been a great lover of poetry. But something in his words resonated with me tonight, and I turned the yellowed pages with a sense of a mellow sort of melancholy until I drifted into sleep.
I don’t know what woke me, but I came to with a jolt that sent the book tumbling from my hands. Diffused morning sunlight streamed in from the windows, and for a minute, I watched the dust specks dancing in the air. I was used to waking up to the sounds of a busy city, and now the quiet threw me off.
I groaned as I sat up on the sofa and stretched my neck. The fire had died out during the night, and the room was once again cold and damp as a tomb.
“Coffee,” I muttered and dragged myself to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
After brushing my teeth and fueling up with two cups of coffee, I felt marginally better. It was promising to be a beautiful day, crisp but bright, and I decided to take a walk around the cabin, maybe go down to the water’s edge to get a better view of the beautiful lake. Yesterday, it had been too dark to survey the surroundings, though it seemed the driveway was in dire need of clearing if I wanted to park any closer to the entrance.
There should be a shovel in the shed. I put on my coat and threw open the front door, fully intending to start the day by busily procrastinating, but as soon as I stepped out onto the porch, all thoughts of work of any kind evaporated.
I stared at the piece of paper pinned to the door, my heart thumping wildly. Large letters, cut out of some printed text, were glued sloppily and unevenly to it, but the message they spelled was clear.
Get out or die.
Meet the AuthorA voracious reader from the age of five, Isabelle Adler has always dreamed of one day putting her own stories into writing. She loves traveling, art, and science, and finds inspiration in all of these. Her favorite genres include sci-fi, fantasy, and historical adventure. She also firmly believes in the unlimited powers of imagination and caffeine.
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