Men who looked like him weren’t supposed to exist, not in real life anyway. They were supposed to live in movies, magazine centerfolds, and Photoshopped pics on the web. Where women like Taylor could drool over them on their lunch breaks or in between trains on the daily commute. There was a certain comfort in knowing that men like him didn’t actually exist, though most women didn’t realize it.
He pulled up to the gas station in a white pickup truck. It was covered in a clay-like mud, compliments of the unpaved North Carolinian back roads and a summer rainstorm. Taylor watched from inside as he got out to survey the state of his vehicle.
She studied him, trying to find some obscure flaw somewhere between the strong cut of his jaw, his broad chest, and his long legs. A leather jacket was draped over one muscular arm while his free hand combed absently through shoulder-length dirty blond hair. She had never been into blonds, but this man was an exception in every sense of the word.
“Shit or get off the pot.”
Taylor’s palm fisted, but she quickly reined in her annoyance as she turned to face the surly clerk. One of his beady eyes was still and glassy, while the other perused her body, much in the way a man looked at a woman when he knew looking was the best he could get.
She gave him a saccharine smile. “Sorry. It’s the summer heat,” she said, fanning herself with her hand. “Forgot I was standing in line for a minute.”
The man grunted in acknowledgement before spitting an impressively precise stream of tobacco from the side of his mouth into a small bucket on the counter. Her attention was drawn to what was under the bucket, a tobacco-stained copy of the Sunday paper with a nauseatingly familiar photo on it.
“Used to use soda cans,” the clerk said. “But m’boy kept trying to drink from ’em.”
“That’s very considerate of you,” she said, unconsciously inching back from the counter. “Hey, is there any chance I can use your bathroom?”
“Bathroom’s for paying customers only.”
Her eyes flickered over to the demigod outside, who was cleaning the mud from his windshield.
She pointed towards him. “That’s actually my boyfriend.” In my dreams. “He’s going to be buying gas.”
“I ain’t see you pull up with him,” the clerk said.
“He dropped me off around back at the bathroom. I honestly didn’t realize you needed a key, so I walked around.”
The man scrutinized her for a moment, and then reached beneath the counter to produce a silver key that dangled from a piece of twine. He placed it on the counter, but didn’t immediately move his hand.
“You got five minutes, then I come in after ya.”
She smiled again, but this time with much more effort. “Sure thing.”
Taylor grabbed the key. On her way to the door, she paused and glanced over her shoulder. The clerk was tucking a pinch of chewing tobacco behind his lip. In a quick motion, she grabbed a copy of the Sunday paper from a rack and slipped out the door.
* * * * *
The cramped bathroom reeked of bleach, but it was air conditioned, so Taylor couldn’t complain. She shrugged off her backpack and grabbed her empty water bottle from the side compartment, then filled it up with lukewarm sink water. After screwing the cap back on, she set the bottle aside and leaned down to splash the water on her face.
In lieu of paper towels, she patted her face off with her sleeve. The sweltering humidity outside made it impossible for any makeup to stick, so she’d given up on it a few days back. Ten days on the road had given her unusually pale skin a bit of color, which helped to make her look vibrant despite the fact that she felt like she was running on empty. She pinched her cheeks and grabbed the newspaper, taking it with her to the toilet.
Taylor had originally just wanted to fill her water bottle. She’d tried to nick one from the convenience store, but the clerk had been watching her like a one-eyed hawk as she’d meandered up and down the aisles. The most she’d been able to grab was a candy bar, which she munched on while scanning the paper.
No matter how many times she saw the picture of herself, it still didn’t seem real. Not because she couldn’t believe that she was one was one of the most vilified people in America or that she was on the run from the FBI—those two things she could deal with. What she couldn’t believe was the picture they were distributing to the press.
Her roommate Patty had splurged on a camera phone earlier in the summer, and ever since then had been obsessed with taking grainy photos wherever they went. This particular picture had been taken the night of the party, a week and a half ago. For the first, and probably last time in her miserable life, Taylor had gotten drunk. Patty had immortalized the night with a picture of Taylor, slack-jawed and flipping off the camera with the hand that wasn’t holding a beer.
The headline was probably the most amusing one she’d seen yet: THE DARK SECRETS OF A CALL GIRL ASSASSIN. Apparently, she was now a prostitute. Wonderful.
She snatched her bag off the floor and crammed the newspaper inside. Having lost her appetite, she tossed the other half of the candy bar in as well.
Heat blasted Taylor’s face as she exited the bathroom. The sun had come out from behind the clouds with a vengeance, and she lifted an arm to shield her eyes as she made her way around to the front of the store.
A blue Chevy was parked opposite the white pickup truck and neither driver was anywhere to be seen. She looked over at the convenience store window. There was a glare on the glass and she squinted reflexively.
Standing in line, presumably behind the Chevy driver, she could just make out her blond demigod. His head tilted slightly and his intense gaze met hers. Taylor didn’t flinch or look away. She stared back, shamelessly drinking him in while she could.
Men who looked like him shouldn’t exist, not in real life anyway. They should stay in movies, magazine centerfolds, and web pics, where they belonged. Because when they stepped down off their clouds and into reality, all they did was remind women like Taylor of what they would never have.
She placed the bathroom key on the hood of his truck and then turned to walk away. There were six more states between her and Mexico, and time wasn’t a luxury she had.
Alder watched the female walk away, wondering where she was going and yearning to follow her. It was the same urge he battled nearly every time he set foot into the human territories—the urge to take a mate.
The dirt road curved into a wooded stretch of land. The female disappeared behind a bend, gone from his line of sight. He wondered again where she was going, but this time in a less abstract manner.
He knew the road well. It was the same road he traveled four times a year, at the end of each season. There was a twenty-mile stretch of forest between the gas station and the nearest hub of humanity, a truck stop and an all-night diner just before the entrance to the highway. Was she walking there all by herself?
The patron in front of Alder finalized his transaction. With a tip of his hat and a mumbled goodbye he was gone and Alder moved to take his place.
“Thirty on two,” Alder said, placing his cash on the counter.
Money was a strange concept to Alder. In the four years since Beka had taught him to drive, he had seen the value of money fluctuate wildly, most notably when it came to gas. Where he came from, they would never put stock in such capricious scraps of paper.
“Ain’t going nowhere till your missus comes back with my key,” the clerk drawled. He smelled strongly of tobacco and stale beer. Alder assumed he was intoxicated.
Firmly, he said, “I’d like thirty dollars’ worth of gas on pump number two.”
The clerk still didn’t take the money. “And I’d like my bathroom key back. Already done changed the lock twice this summer, ain’t changing it again.”
“I don’t have your key,” Alder said, pushing the money forward impatiently.
“I know that,” the clerk said, pushing the cash back. “Your girl came in not but five minutes ago and took it. I want it back.”
Alder blinked at him. “The woman who was just here? Pale, red hair?” Brown eyes, beautiful lips?
The clerk looked around in mock confusion. “You seen any other women around here?”
Alder glanced out the window again. Sunlight glinted off the small object on the hood of his truck. He pressed his lips together before saying, “I’ll be right back.”
Outside, he found the silver key where she had left it. He hadn’t paid attention to it before. He’d been too wrapped up in speculation over who she was, while reminding himself of all the reasons he shouldn’t go after her.
* * * * *
Nature had always mystified Taylor. She had grown up in cities, where stunted trees were sectioned off in concrete prisons and the sky was the color of steel. The only wild animals she’d ever seen were the rats that lurked in subway stations and the pigeons that gathered beneath overpasses and on power lines.
The countryside was a foreign, but not unwelcome, change of pace. Trees of all shapes and sizes crowded alongside the dirt road, sporting leaves of every shade of green Taylor could imagine. Their branches were full of chirping birds and squirrels that flew from tree to tree on little pockets of skin beneath their arms.
Walking down the road at a brisk pace, Taylor imagined that maybe, in some parallel universe where she hadn’t screwed up her life beyond repair, she’d like to live in a place like this. Sure, there were a few downsides to living on the fringes—the places where human civilization thinned and nature prevailed. There was limited government support there, which made for a lot of corruption in the particularly rural towns. Then, there was also the threat of werewolves—if you believed in that sort of thing.
Taylor slowed as she arrived at a wooden bridge. It was weathered, but appeared sturdy enough. She placed her hands on the railing and looked down at the river below. The whimsical child in her imagined what it would be like to live in the forest. She could build a house in a tree, bathe in the river, and dine on wild strawberries.
“And if the FBI doesn’t hunt you down like a dog, you’ll probably get eaten by bears,” she muttered to herself. Forget bears, a well-coordinated team of those flying squirrels could probably take her out.
The sound of an approaching vehicle drew her attention. She glanced back the way she came, somehow already knowing what she would see.
The white pickup truck appeared around a bend, slowing as it neared the bridge. Taylor turned away and tucked her hands in her pockets, trying to look as inconspicuous as a redhead wearing high-heeled boots and a neon orange backpack in the middle of the woods could look.
Apparently, she failed miserably.
The truck slowed almost to a complete stop as it pulled alongside her. She looked up, giving the man a polite smile while focusing on anything but his face. That was one distraction she really didn’t need right now.
“Can I take you where you’re going?”
He didn’t speak loudly, but he had one of those deep voices that seemed to project at any level. It was a rich voice that bore the faintest hint of an accent, though not one that Taylor could readily place.
Can I take you where you’re going?
The question caught her off-guard. She had expected him to say something like ‘Can I give you a lift?’ or ‘Where ya headed?’ but instead, he had simply asked if he could take her where she was going.
She couldn’t stop herself from looking at him then, no more than she could stop her body’s immediate reaction to the sight of him.
People always looked better at a distance. The closer you got, the more apparent their imperfections became. At least, that was what Taylor had always believed, but staring at this man, she was beginning to have her doubts.
He was too perfect. His hair, which she had originally pegged for dirty blond, was actually a rich tableau of gold and brown hues. Tawny stubble covered his strong jaw, accentuating the masculinity of his striking face. There was an intimidating slant to his thick brows, but his eyes—his gorgeous eyes—held a genuine kindness.
Her throat tightened, and she had the rare impulse to be completely honest. To tell him that her life was a disaster and she had no idea where the hell she was going.
Instead, she raised a brow and asked, “You don’t happen to be going to Mexico City?”
One corner of his sensuous lips curved. “Is that where you’re going?”
Was he flirting with her?
“Maybe,” she said, suppressing a grin. “Summer’s almost over. I’m thinking I should head somewhere warm.”
“I can take you as far as South Carolina.”
“Sorry,” she said. “You seem very nice, but I don’t take rides from strangers.”
She openly stared at him as she walked, particularly fascinated by his eyes. They almost seemed liked they were two different colors, but she wasn’t quite close enough to discern which.
“My name’s Alder. And yours?”
Okay, he was definitely flirting.
“Taylor,” she said without thinking.
She mentally winced. It wasn’t the worst thing she could have said, because ‘Taylor’ was technically not her legal name. It was the middle name, the one she’d gone by as a child, because her first name royally sucked.
Alder didn’t miss a beat. “Now we are no longer strangers.”
She pushed a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. “I suppose we aren’t.”
They were nearing the end of the bridge now, and she really didn’t want to watch him go. For the first time in days, she felt normal. It was kind of nice to pretend, if only for a little while.
A good, considerate woman would have let him down easy and kept walking. A good, considerate woman would never have gotten into his truck—would never have mixed a nice guy up in all of her bullshit.
But good, considerate women generally weren’t murderers. And so, she opened the door and climbed in.
Everything about him, from his ridiculously good looks to his intoxicating scent, had Taylor’s hormones in a chaotic disarray. With one hand out the open window, she kept herself pressed against the door, the fresh air affording her a modicum of relief.
One blue, one gold. Those were the colors of his eyes, and they were even more gorgeous up close. They had to be contacts.
She was starting to wonder if this Alder guy was some great big cosmic joke. Where were men like him when she was eighteen and sweet and starry-eyed? Why did he have to come along when she was on America’s Most Wanted?
Casually, he asked, “Where are you from?”
And so it begins.
“Maine,” she said.
“I’ve never been there,” he said. “What’s it like?”
He kept his face trained on the winding back road, but Taylor could feel that she had his full attention.
“It’s all lobsters and lighthouses. Pretty boring, really.”
“And what brings you this far south?”
There was an easiness to the conversation that had Taylor relaxing in the leather seat and falling into her usual pattern of lying.
“Honestly, it’s not a very interesting story. I was on my way to Dallas when my car broke down. It was a beater. I really shouldn’t have driven it this far, but I can’t stand flying.”
“Afraid of heights?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m afraid of crashing.”
He laughed, a soft, pleasant sound, and Taylor found herself wanting to make him laugh again.
“So how far is this Dallas place?”
Now it was her turn to laugh. “It’s Dallas, Texas.”
“Ah. I see,” he said smoothly. “Were you planning on walking all the way there?”
“I was hoping to get a bus. The guy back at the store said there was a Greyhound station up this way. You know, past all the woods and stuff.”
“This road empties onto the highway. I don’t recall seeing any stations in the area.”
She sighed. “Go figure. I knew there was something off about that guy.”
Alder glanced over at her. “He seemed to think we knew one another.”
Taylor read him quickly. There was a shrewdness to his gaze that made her wary, and she opted for a half-truth, rather than an outright lie. “Yeah, that’s my fault. I hope he didn’t give you any trouble about the key.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Honestly? He was saying some things that made me uncomfortable.” She gave him an apologetic look. “I figured if he thought you were my boyfriend, he wouldn’t try anything weird.”
Alder looked concerned for her, and in a small, remote corner of her conscience, she felt a pang of guilt.
“It must be difficult, being on your own out here.”
Offhandedly, she said, “I’m okay with being alone.”
He kept one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the gear stick. They were strong hands, calloused, with light scarring that contrasted with his bronze skin. She tried to imagine what kind of work he would do to have hands like that. Somehow, she couldn’t picture a man like Alder doing manual labor.
“You don’t ask a lot of questions,” he remarked.
“I don’t like to be lied to.”
A wry smile played on his lips. “You think I would lie to you?”
“Everyone lies. It would be a much scarier world if we couldn’t.”
“Hn,” was all he said, and she was okay with that.
* * * * *
They were greeted with unusually heavy traffic on the highway, but Alder didn’t mind. It was more time he could spend with the human.
Her name was Taylor. It was not a name he was familiar with, certainly not a name one would give a wolf, but it was different and he decided that he liked it.
It was not the only thing Alder liked about her.
He liked the color of her hair, somewhere between red and orange, and he liked the way she tucked it behind her ear when she was embarrassed. He liked her lips, smooth, pink, and slightly swollen from the way she nibbled at them when there was a lull in their conversation. He liked her nose, the way it crinkled just before she smiled and the way it flared when she took in his scent.
More than anything, Alder liked the way she dressed. Few females wore clothing where he lived, at least not on any regular basis. Clothing was hot in the spring and summertime, and at all times of the year it was restrictive and made shifting from human to wolf a hassle.
Most males would likely find the prospect of living among naked females to be desirable, but to Alder it was simply the natural way of things. Clothing was Alder’s favorite human convention. The less skin he saw, the more his interest was piqued, and Taylor’s outfit had his mind running rampant with speculation.
She wore fawn boots that covered her calves, leaving only a small space of flesh between the boots and the edge of her green skirt. Her shirt was the kind that buttoned up—his favorite. He enjoyed the way many females left a triangle of cleavage showing, but Taylor’s shirt was buttoned all the way to the collar. Oddly, that was even more arousing. He could imagine himself plucking open those buttons, one by one.
When the afternoon faded into evening, she finally pushed back her sunglasses. As they inched down the congested highway, Alder drew her into another light conversation, shamelessly using it as an excuse to examine her facial features.
He said, “I’ve never known this road to be so busy.”
Aside from her beguiling lips, very little stood out about her face. Oval-shaped with broad cheekbones and an understated nose. Her hazel-brown eyes were pretty, but rimmed with dark circles that spoke of more than one sleepless night. On the whole, there wasn’t much to set her apart from the countless other human females he’d seen in passing, except that for whatever reason, he had felt compelled to get closer to her.
“Yeah, it’s weird this far out in the sticks.” She yawned, covering her mouth almost as an afterthought. “There must be an accident. Maybe someone hit a deer or something.”
He gave her a pointed look. “You can rest if you’d like. I’ll wake you once we cross the state line.”
“No, that’s okay,” she said, shaking her head. “I can never sleep on the road.”
“Do you travel a lot?” he asked.
“Not really anymore, mostly when I was a kid. My mom was a pretty popular wedding photographer. We were always going from place to place, wedding to wedding.”
“You must have seen a lot of interesting places.”
Her eyes brightened. “Yeah, we went all over the world together. Paris, Rome, Singapore—we even spent a week in Mauritius.”
Alder recognized some of the names, but they were little more than abstract concepts to him. He had been born and raised in the mountains, and aside from his seasonal forays into the human territories, much of what lay beyond the Carolinian back roads and the long stretch of highway between them was a mystery to him. Still, the subject of faraway lands intrigued him, and there was the added bonus of being able to watch Taylor’s lips move.
“What was it like?” he asked.
“Honestly, it was pretty boring for a little kid. All I ever wanted was to settle down, put down roots, ya know?”
“Yes, I do.”
Growing up, Alder and his brothers had lived a nomadic lifestyle as well, though not by choice. The past few decades had been a tumultuous time for his kind, primarily due to human military forces invading their territories and indiscriminately massacring shifters.
Four years ago, the attacks came to an abrupt halt when the military’s concentration was shifted to overseas wars. Alder did not know the specifics of the situation and he didn’t trust that the peace would last. While other shifters flooded back into the lowlands, he and his brothers maintained a firm grasp on their more defensible western mountain territories.
When he looked at Taylor again, she was staring out the passenger-side window, her eyes drooping sleepily. He inhaled deeply, taking in her scent. There was nothing flowery or overtly feminine about it. She smelled like rainwater and the musk of travel.
He wondered again what it was about her that appealed to him so much. What had made him stop and offer her a ride, when he knew he shouldn’t involve himself with human females? What was it about her that made him want to keep driving, all the way to Dallas, or Mexico City, or wherever it was she wanted to go?
Earlier, when she had explained why she didn’t ask questions, she had been right. If she had asked him about his family, or where he was from, or what he did, Alder would have had no choice but to lie.
But true to her word, she hadn’t asked him any questions. He didn’t have to lie to her, to fabricate a human persona that did not exist. For a short while, Alder felt, at least to some degree, that he could simply be himself with her.
From farther down the road, flashing lights drew his attention. Alder inclined his head out of his window, trying to ascertain why the police would be up ahead. There were no readily apparent signs of an accident. As they inched forward, he noticed that there were officers on either side of the congested road, dipping their heads into cars before signaling for the drivers to proceed.
Uneasiness stirred in his gut. Logically, he knew that aside from his height and muscle mass, there was no way they could distinguish him from an ordinary human male. As they neared the checkpoint, he placed both hands on the steering wheel and straightened his spine.
Many emotions—agitation, elation, arousal—had a scent. In most creatures, it was difficult for Alder to discern and he relied on subtle physical cues to determine their state of mind. But in wolves and in humans, there was nothing more telling than a scent, and Taylor’s was steeped in fear.
He glanced over at her, giving her a questioning look. She was craning her neck out the window, gazing down the row of cars with visible apprehension. In her lap, her hands restlessly fidgeted.
Alder reached over, placing a hand over hers. They were small and clammy. She tensed when he touched her, but he didn’t pull away.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
She stared up at him, ambivalence swimming in her brown eyes. As the car in front of them began to move forward, she swallowed hard.
In a hoarse voice, she asked, “Can I trust you?”
Alder didn’t waste time considering the question. “Yes.”
She looked out the window again, and then back to him.
“I think that’s a roadblock,” she said slowly. “And I think they’re looking for me. And I think if they find me, I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison, or worse.”
Alder looked remarkably calm. So calm, in fact, that Taylor was sure he was going to tell her to get out of his truck or flag down the cops. He definitely didn’t look like he was about to veer off the road, over the median, and onto the opposite side of the highway. But that was exactly what he did.
There was little traffic on the inbound road, and Alder was able to weave in between cars at a leisurely eighty miles per hour.
From the moment she’d seen the flashing lights of the state troopers, a terrible feeling of dread had permeated her body, cutting right to the bone. That feeling was gone now, replaced with a level of euphoria that only one who’d narrowly avoided certain doom could attain.
“That was so awesome,” she said to him, adrenaline still rocketing through her veins.
Alder wasn’t paying attention to her. His gaze was fixed on the rearview mirror, and after a few seconds, Taylor realized why. Sirens rang out, and in the distance, far behind them but far too close for comfort, she could see the ominous red and blue lights flashing. Alder bore down on the gas pedal and Taylor pressed her back against the seat as they flew down the highway.
“I think you need to start explaining,” he said.
His tone was just as calm and controlled as his face, which confused her, given the circumstances.
“It’s kind of a long story. I dunno if now’s the time,” she said as they cut in front of a minivan.
He turned to pin her with a hard look. The kind, friendly man she’d gotten into the car with seemed to have completely checked out, and she was sure that her future hinged on what she said next.
The plain and simple truth was neither plain nor simple, and she didn’t know him well enough to know if he would understand why she had done what she did. Some days, she wasn’t even sure if she understood it herself. So she lied.
“Okay, I’ll tell you, just please keep your eyes on the road,” she said. He complied, just in time to swerve out of the way of a semi truck.
Once she’d caught her breath, Taylor said, “They think I killed a man.”
She saw genuine surprise register on his face. “Did you?”
“No,” she said. “Honestly, I would never do something like that. This a really high-profile case and they just want someone to pin the blame on.”
His face had fallen back into the implacable mask he wore so well, and Taylor couldn’t tell if he believed her or not.
She said, “I know everyone says they’re innocent, and I understand if you don’t believe me. Even my own family thinks I did it.”
“Who do they think you killed?”
Reluctantly, she said, “A state senator.”
“A person in your government?”
The question struck her as odd, but what was stranger to her was that he wasn’t familiar with the case. The grainy picture of her face had been on the cover of every newspaper in the states for the past ten days. She was all over the web and the national news as well.
“You really haven’t heard about it?”
Alder veered onto an exit ramp. The road curved sharply, and Taylor braced herself on the dashboard, certain that the truck would flip. By some miracle it didn’t, and in a few seconds they were cruising down a winding back road at a breakneck speed.
“I’ve been away,” he said, and it took Taylor a moment to remember what they’d been talking about.
“Oh,” she breathed, still gripping the dashboard. “Hey, um, not for nothing, but do you know where you’re going? I mean, do you have a plan?”
She glanced in the rearview mirror. There was nothing but woodlands and an empty road behind them, but she didn’t trust it.
“We’re not going to lose them,” Alder said, confirming her fears. “We have too much of a lead for them to catch us from behind, but they will eventually cut us off from the front.”
She was surprised at how quickly he’d assessed the situation. “Okay, so what do we do?”
“We have to ditch the truck.”
Her eyes widened. “Then they’ll catch us for sure.”
“Not if we go into the forest.”
It sounded like a ridiculous proposition to Taylor, but seeing as how she didn’t have any better ideas, she decided to play ball.
“Even if they can’t track us by foot, they’ll hunt us down with dogs.”
“Only to a point,” he said. “They won’t follow us into the mountains.”
For the first time, Taylor realized where they were. The Appalachian Mountains loomed in the distance, looking like dark blue hills, but Taylor knew they were anything but. The Appalachians were not only a natural barrier between the east coast and the midwest, they were also notoriously dangerous.
In the seventies and eighties there had been several large government campaigns to encourage impoverished city dwellers to populate the foothills. Real estate was dirt cheap and oftentimes acres of land would be given away to able-bodied men willing to enter the coal mining and logging industries. Families flocked to the foothills in droves, hoping to make better lives for themselves.
Instead, they were met with underdeveloped housing communities, inadequate medical care, deadly mudslides, seasonal flooding, and frequent animal attacks. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the government actually stepped in to support the fringe towns, and even that only lasted for a few years. With the growing popularities of plastics and oil, as well as several foreign wars, providing aid to the mountain communities became increasingly unpopular in the cities.
Nowadays, the foothills were littered with abandoned homes and buildings, whole towns swallowed up by the wilderness. The towns that remained were mired in poverty and superstitions, many believing the mountains to be full of werewolves and demon animals.
Alder turned onto a narrow dirt road that curved and twisted deeper into the forest. Tree branches scraped along the side of the truck, and at one point the road dipped into a shallow creek. The entire time, Taylor kept her eyes glued to the mirror, expecting to see the blue and red lights, but it seemed that at least for the moment, they had evaded the police.
The truck finally came to a stop in front of a long, rusty gate. Someone had wedged a warped stop sign in between the bars. Taylor noticed that the gate was attached to a barbed wire fence that stretched into the forest, and then the car lights clicked off and she saw nothing but darkness.
“Grab your bag and let’s go,” she heard Alder say.
Taylor complied, grasping her backpack and throwing it over one shoulder. Opening the truck door, she stepped out and onto the wet ground. Mud clung to her boots as she followed Alder to the gate. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noted that he was carrying a backpack as well.
There was a large open field beyond the fence, and if she squinted Taylor could make out a tree line on the edge of it, where the forest began again.
“Do you think this is somebody’s land?” she asked as he climbed over the gate.
“It used to be farmland, but it’s been abandoned for some time.”
“You’ve been here before?”
Taylor lifted her leg, trying to hook it over the fence as Alder had done, but she was too short. Either trying to help her or just being impatient, Alder grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her up and over the fence in one swift movement. After he set her down, Alder took her hand and pulled her along, talking as they ran.
“I live on the other side of Mount Ezra,” he said, as if that told her much of anything.
“So you live in…the mountains?” Taylor asked between gulps of air.
She was pretty good at running in heels, but the field was soft from the earlier rain and her heels dug into the earth with each step. Thankfully, Alder was crazy fast and his grip on her arm helped to keep her surging forward.
When they finally reached the other side of the field, Taylor looked back to see the flashing lights of at least one police car. Not watching where she was going, she stumbled over something on the ground. Alder caught her before she fell, pulling her up and dragging her forward.
“Don’t look back,” he ordered.
Panicking all over again, she said, “They found us!”
She felt him squeeze her arm. “But they won’t catch us.”
And with that, they disappeared into the wilderness.