The Dark Forest
The Dark Forest
by Jo Fenn
Genre Erotic Romance
Tags interracial romance, outdoor adventure, environmental concerns, nature
Imprint Wild Darkness Calls
Release October 14, 2014
Content Editor Susan Davis
Line Editor Greta Gunselman
Cover Designer Shirley Burnett
College professor Bette Anderson hikes into the Dark Forest of central Arizona with the intention of doing reconnaissance work for her upcoming natural history field trip, but quickly realizes that she has become the object of study and pursuit.
She sees signs that something unusual is happening that she can’t identify. Her fear grows as she glimpses possibilities of a stalker, but she presses on chalking up her worries to an active imagination.
The deeper she enters into the forest, the more she loses perspective while a summer storm churns and darkens the world around her.
Bette’s priorities vacillate from gathering information to getting out safely with a pursuer hot on her trail…
A raven flew across the road and a black slash ripped through Bette’s heart. She saw a dirt road up ahead, braked hard, and came to a shuddering stop, her heart pounding. Even after six months, the loss of her midnight-haired Mexican lover still shook her world. When she’d started the affair she knew it would be temporary—he was only in the U.S. to make money to build a house back in Mexico—but she hadn’t planned on falling so deeply for him.
He was so short compared to her five-ten frame that when they’d walked together she put her arm across his shoulders and he wrapped his around her waist. It wasn’t only the difference in height that was so exciting—she’d grown partial to smooth, dark, almost hairless skin that contrasted with her peachy, freckled fuzziness. And hearing another language spoken had added a rich mystery to her life.
“You gotta let go, Bette,” she said quietly to herself then released her grip on the steering wheel and drew in slow regular breaths.
When she’d left Prescott that morning it was clear, calm, and hot, but during the hour it had taken her to drive north, the sky darkened and the wind picked up. She stood outside her parked car and watched clouds scuttle by. The summer monsoon rains almost religiously dumped around two in the afternoon so she calculated at least four hours to hike before she had to be back at her car. Might as well head out, realizing how much she needed to put her head in a different place. Marco was gone and wasn’t coming back. She slipped on her binoculars, pulled her straw hat down firmly on her head, and strapped on her backpack. She’d only walked ten feet when she had to take both hat and pack off in order to crawl under a barbed wire fence. At least the bottom row of the four-strand fence was goat wire—no barbs—so she slid under it without having to worry about cutting her skin and snagging her golden mane.
Could her students manage that? Bette was here to do some reconnaissance, see if it would be a good place to take her class of conservation biology students for a field trip. Surely they were savvy enough about the outdoors to be able to shimmy under a fence.
Within a few yards she remembered why the early explorer John Whipple had called this the “dark forest” in his journals. It wasn’t physically dark like the coniferous forests of the Northwest with their majestically tall trees and dense underbrush. Here, because of the gentle slope of the land and the breadth of the junipers and oaks, a person couldn’t get any perspective to see through it. The sun still shone in brightly since the piñon and juniper trees weren’t that tall, but it was dark in terms of not being able to tell where you were. Until she found a canyon’s edge or a hill to climb, she would only know her direction by the sun. And that was fading fast behind high clouds.
The brick-red soil was dry and crumbly and she stumbled on the basalt rocks that sank and shifted in the fragile soil. The mammillaria cactus—little boobs—looked just like the moss green rocks, and she had to catch herself mid-stride several times from stepping on them. They were struggling hard enough without her tearing them from the soil. She was surprised to see banana yucca chewed down to nubs. It was one of the toughest and driest plants around so whatever was eating it must be pretty desperate. Javalina? Cows? They’d have to be pretty hungry. Surely not a mountain lion. What was going on here? Bette stood with her hands on her hips and turned in a slow circle. It all looked the same, trees, trees, and more trees, but something was off. She shook her head and said, “It’s the drought, silly.”
She trudged on, the hike taking more effort than normal because of the sandy soil tugging at her boots. Could her students handle this? If she, in her late thirties, could, then there was no reason a group of twenty-year-olds couldn’t manage. A hare came tearing by her in a pattern of movement similar to her own—veering right, then left, then right again. She was covering a lot more territory than a crow. Or a raven, as the case was—there were no crows in this part of Arizona.
She stood still and listened for what might have scared the hare. Something behind her. She scanned back and forth until a glint of light drew her attention and her heart started beating faster. Were those eyes peering at her? She took her straw hat in her hand and spread her arms out wide. “I mean you no harm,” she said loudly, waving the hat up and down. “I’m just passing through.” Bette had been hiking alone another time near Granite Mountain when she’d heard a loud noise behind her. A mountain biker, she thought, but when she turned around she saw a buck running full tilt with a mountain lion hot on its trail. The cougar was stretched out and its tail flew straight out behind it. After that experience, she had studied up on them and knew that a person should try to make herself look bigger if confronted by a lion, to make noise, and don’t bend over.
Bette moved her head back and forth and noticed that the glinting faded to nothing at a certain angle. She crept forward, still waving her hat, until she could see that the “eyes” were a broken beer bottle. “Assholes,” she muttered and bundled the remains into a plastic bag. As she was packing that into her backpack, she looked over her shoulder and stood quickly from her crouch. No, no, no, she admonished herself. You’re imagining things.