The faery queen has forbidden Aidan from stalking his prey, but Cassie should have known that nothing would keep him from what he wants: to steal her away forever into the realm of the Fae. Cassie struggles to pick up what’s left of her life, keeping true to her promise to watch over her best friend’s son. But despite the faery queen’s promise of safety, the shadow of Aidan is ever present in her mind, haunting her dreams and turning forest shadows into nightmares. The Fae haven’t left yet. Cassie knows because Laney lingers still, drawn to the son she gave up, the foliage at his window sill bright green and flourishing at her touch. Laney’s son is safe in the arms of his adoptive parents, and the babe has Cassie to watch over him from afar. When the faery queen’s threat of departure becomes all too real, Aidan takes matters into his own hands, throwing the Fae into a battle that risks their very existence. His action impels Laney to choose which side she really belongs on—human or faery—and forces Cassie to decide just who she can trust, at last, with the truth.
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Branches knit overhead, a woven cage that kept Cassie tethered to the forest floor. It wasn't the first night she felt that way, rubbing the fabric of her silky sleeping bag between her fingers and the zipper, wearing the material and worrying a callus onto her thumb. The sensation grounded her. It reminded her that the forest hadn't claimed her yet. The very existence of the manufactured sleeping bag, a sheer combination of soft filling, sleek fabric, and heavy stitching, meant that the creatures of the forest hadn't made her their own yet.
For all of Corra's promises, Cassie's chest still clenched when she woke under the swaying branches. The dark, shifting foliage obscured the starry sky beyond as she breathed into wakefulness, her lungs full of resin-scented air, and for a wild moment, every time she woke, she imagined dirt creeping over her lips and down her throat.
Next to her, in a silky bag of black, Ryan shifted in his sleep.
He had been out on the trail — his beloved Appalachian Trail — for over a month now. He was supposed to be gone for the entire summer, but after watching Cassie walk out of the forest, covered in dirt and blood and gripping a newborn, he seemed unable to leave her. Cassie tried. She begged him to go. It wasn't that she wanted him to leave; it was that she already felt like such a burden to those around her. She couldn't stand the thought of hijacking the experience Ryan had planned for so long.
Ryan had persisted, though, coming to her house and driving her to her appointments. It took four weeks of Cassie acting normal before he felt safe enough to go, and even then, it was only with the promise that his girlfriend would join him for the last week of hiking.
It was Lucy's suggestion that Cassie join Ryan; that's what truly convinced him in the end. It was Lucy who had also convinced Cassie's parents to let her go.
Cassie had wanted to do this for so long, yearned for the comfort of the trees and the exhilaration of independence. Over the past year, however, the branches had turned to prisons, and independence left Cassie feeling vulnerable and alone. She had broken free of this fear, if momentarily, when she had run through the forest to confront Aidan and Corey and the rest of the Fae. That next dawn rose over a world without Corey. Bright rays shone down on a devastated and changed Laney, and Cassie's world had shifted — from one of perpetual fear to one of fear tinged with hope. There was a way to win, a way to defend. Cassie kept her little iron dagger near at all times. And yet, still, she felt she couldn't risk the forest.
She didn't risk the forest then, not until she thought Ryan had needed her. He hadn't; it wasn't him that went running off into the forest hand in hand with Rebecca. That night, the night Laney gave birth under the fireworks, cemented a new reality for Cassie. Her parents were terrified to let Cassie out of their sight, and Cassie was happier under lock and key. It wasn't healthy, not for any of them.
Cassie's new therapist, Lucy Michaels, pointed that out.
It had been at the suggestion of Officer Gibbons, Cassie's guardian angel with a gun, that Cassie started therapy. Lucy Michaels was the therapist the police department used after horrible cases.
Cassie still wasn't sure how she felt about therapy, but she was out here now, hiking with Ryan, and she felt fairly certain that wouldn't have happened without Lucy's prompting.
Ryan's hand reached out in the darkness, a sliver of pale skin in the moonlight. His fingers pawed at the smooth fabric of her sleeping bag, soft shushing in the night.
"You're awake," he mumbled, voice raspy with sleep.
"Sorry," Cassie whispered back. She met his fingers with her own, and he laced their hands together, gripping firmly.
"Back to sleep, you," he said, rolling closer, her hand still held tenderly. Something warm melted in Cassie's chest, and a soft puddle of affection settled in her gut, soothing her anxiety. She burrowed deeper into the polyester folds, keeping her one limb out, warmed by Ryan's grip. She turned and faced him. His lips held the barest impression of a sleepy smile, but the sudden fluttering of his eyelids confirmed that he had already slipped back to dreamland.
"Yes, sir," she teased, knowing he was already beyond hearing her. She lay close enough to feel his warm breath caress her cheek, but far enough away that he wouldn't feel the muscle stiffness she held, a tension that seemed to never ease. "Sweet dreams, Ryan."
Her boyfriend's consciousness had waned, but the forest watched over her still. Trees knit, and whispered, and sung. Owls flew overhead in watchful swoops. The stars offered subtle light and direction. Cassie felt protected, and yet on guard. She was waiting, waiting for that one set of eyes — clear-blue and intense — to come seeking again.
* * *
"Last night was better, wasn't it?" Ryan asked, crawling out of his sleeping bag and stretching. A thin strip of bare skin showed as his shirt pulled free. He had lost some weight during his hike but had absolutely gained some muscle as well. Cassie smiled up at him, still exhausted but determined not to show it.
"Totally," she affirmed.
"Did I grab your hand, or —"
"You did, and I love you for it."
Telling him she loved him came easier and easier, especially when he smiled at her.
"It's an easy one today," Ryan said, bending low and fiddling with his gas burner. It flared to life with a soft blue burn. He placed his pot over the flame and reached for his canteen. The sound of water sloshing got Cassie up and out of her sleeping bag. She rummaged in her pack for her toiletry bag as Ryan kept speaking. "Only a handful of miles left."
"You sound sad," Cassie teased, grinning over at him as she brushed her auburn hair from her eyes.
"Of course I'm sad," he answered. "Tonight, we'll be back in town, sleeping in beds."
"Oh, the horror!" Cassie laughed.
"Sleeping alone in our beds," he stressed.
"Now that is something to be sad about," Cassie agreed, trying for serious. She couldn't help but laugh again, however, as Ryan pounced at her, pushing her down on top of her sleeping bag and nuzzling into her. "Ouch, your beard!" she squealed, squirming away.
"You love it," he teased. His nuzzling turned to kisses, warm and soft on her neck. Cassie's laughter shifted to breathless giggles before stopping altogether. He trailed his mouth along her jumping pulse point and then lower, using his fingers to shift the neckline of her shirt so his could press his lips lightly across her collarbone.
They hadn't slept together in their week hiking. But mornings like this, when they woke next to each other, made coffee, stopped their morning routine entirely to spend an hour exploring each other — these were the times Cassie would miss the most.
"Come here," Cassie murmured. Ryan's fingers trailed across her bare stomach, his breath warming the little hollow in her neck as he raised his hooded gaze to hers. A tiny grin hitched his mouth.
"I'm sure I have morning breath," he said, a bit sheepish.
"I don't care," Cassie answered. He moved in an instant, covering her mouth with his. And she didn't care. She could taste and feel and sense every part of him. His lips moved seamlessly with hers; his tongue traced hers gently. She threaded the fingers of one hand into the scruff of his hair and stroked his bearded face with the other. She could feel his jaw move as he kissed her and was so thrilled at the sensation — of feeling his kiss not only on her lips, but through her fingertips — that she couldn't help the shifting movements her hips made.
He growled low in response, and the hand that had been tracing light circles on her side rucked up and under her shirt. His thumb stroked the underside of her breast.
Cassie groaned — and then startled as a throat cleared behind them. Ryan whipped around so suddenly, Cassie almost flipped herself. Instead, they lay together, still pressed tightly, and both looked up at the stranger that had wandered upon them.
"Sorry about that," the man said, rubbing the back of his neck. He was obviously a hiker, a thru-hiker, if Cassie were to guess. His gear was clean and orderly on the pack he still had strapped to his back, but it was worn in places. His beard was longer than Ryan's and speckled with gray, though he wasn't old. He didn't seem even as old as Cassie's dad. He avoided their gaze, looking from his dirt-spattered boots to the restless trees and down the path that stretched into the forest.
Ryan recovered first, clearing his throat as he pulled his hands from Cassie's flushed skin. He moved to sit on his own sleeping bag and reached for his boots as he began introductions.
The water they had set to boil was bubbling and hissing in the small pot Ryan had filled before he pounced on Cassie. They offered a cup of coffee, which their new guest — whose name turned out to be Lawrence — accepted politely.
"I'm trying to get through this pass here as fast as possible," Lawrence said, pulling his bag from his back and taking out a stainless-steel coffee mug. He squatted down at the edge of Cassie's sleeping bag and nodded down the trail as Ryan poured some dark liquid into the man's cup. "Been feeling like a storm's coming, know what I mean?"
Cassie knew. She had been getting that same awful gnawing in her gut, that uneasiness that something just wasn't right. She felt along the inside of her sleeping bag for the little iron dagger that was never far away. Her fingers grazed the worn, wooden handle, and she pulled it out of the silky folds of her bedding in a quick, fluid movement, tucking it into its rightful spot between her sock and her calf muscle before Ryan or their guest could notice.
Ryan replaced the pot on the still-warm burner. He looked to the canopy of branches overhead, as though he was trying to assess the weather patterns from the morning's collection of clouds. He shook his head. "The weather report's been consistent, nothing too big brewing at this point," he said. His brow furrowed in concentration and his pulled his cellphone from his bag, hitting the power button.
"My phone says the same," the man murmured, eyes still down the trail. He took a long swig of the hot coffee, wincing slightly. "Just the same, I think it'd be best to get through this section as fast as possible."
"We're almost home," Cassie said. "This is our last day, actually."
She wasn't sure why she was telling him. Something registered in his expression though, a soft dread, one he didn't want to acknowledge. He nodded, then drained his coffee.
"Maybe it'll clear up," he offered, forcing a smile. "Much obliged for the coffee."
He stood from his crouch, his knees popping with the effort. With a quick squirt of water, his mug was rinsed and back in his bag. As he shouldered his pack, he looked from the weaving branches back down to Cassie, still nestled in her bedding of synthetic fibers. "Keep an eye out for that storm, won't you?"
Ryan looked over, confused. "Seriously, mister, the weather report —"
"'As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.' Do you know that one?" Lawrence asked, his gaze never leaving Cassie's. She shook her head. "It's Solomon. Keep an eye on this one, too." He pointed at Ryan with a smirk, jerked his thumb over his finger, and was away down the trail before Ryan could do so much as blink.
"What was that about?" Ryan wondered aloud. Cassie shrugged. She feigned confusion, but something in her knew. There was a storm brewing ahead, one that Cassie could feel coming and Ryan couldn't, just like before.
The stranger left as fast as he came, whistling lightly in the brisk morning air. The notes carried, even after he hooked a bend in the trail and vanished between tree trunks. As he went, Cassie couldn't help but wonder if he also had a bit of iron tucked safely against his skin.CHAPTER 2
Michael and Claire Gerrick seemed like decent people.
Laney had been watching them for months now. Three months and six days, to be precise. Michael left for work every morning at eight o'clock sharp. Claire worked two nights a week as a waitress in the next town over. Her mother watched the baby when she worked, until Michael came home, of course. Michael called those nights "Daddy nights," which almost always meant a game — or highlights — on the television, and a seriously bad rendition of a popular song, with the words changed to reflect the night's activities.
There were songs about sleeping and songs about spit-up. Claire's favorite was her husband's song about diaper-changing.
"Butt up, butt down," Laney would hear Michael murmur. "He shakes his booty all around. Butt up, butt down. Liam shakes his booty —" Claire supplied the chorus, "Booty, booty," and Liam giggled and giggled at that silly song.
They seemed like decent people.
They kept his name.
Liam Gerrick. It fit, Laney decided. She ignored that crushing sensation in her gut, the ache in her arms to hold her son. She pressed it all down inside herself, built a mental wall, brick by brick, against the thought of ever being close to him. He wasn't hers to have.
And yet he was hers. He had her eyes. In those brief glimpses, she saw it, and she knew. Yes, those were her eyes. Her eyes from before. He was Corey's, too. In the shape of his face, it became more apparent every day. That was her lover's face, those were his features. Liam was this tiny, perfect mashup of the two of them. In life, eternity had escaped Laney and Corey, but in Liam, they would truly last forever.
Tonight was one of those nights when Claire worked. Michael had already put Liam to bed in his crib — he had just started sleeping in his own room — and now the strains of his favorite television station leaked from around the closed windows onto the grounds that surrounded the tiny house.
The foliage was dying. It would be autumn soon, Laney could feel it in the still air, but that's not what caused the foliage to dry up like it had. It was simply that it had been hot heading from July into August in New England, and there hadn't been much rain. Beyond any normal human perception, the scent of death grew daily. It was both exciting and calming. Autumn brought with it a joyful celebration — another ending, and, of course, a beginning. Life began in darkness, and so too did the years, the endless years that stretched before Laney. Each would begin with a celebration of fire and light and warmth. The last of the apples would be devoured from trees raised in grottos, even as the scent of death grew in concentration. The life leeched from the trees, each one fading from this world a fraction every day. Slumber, peace, rest; it came for all. It came for Laney. She would awaken in the springtime, fresh and alert and joyous.
At least, she hoped for joyous. She had awoken that way this spring, though she had been wrapped in Corey's arms throughout the winter, blanketed in moss and earth and a cold, snow covering. Yet she awoke warm, refreshed, and more in love than she could ever remember being. Every part of her ached for that feeling again.
Winter slumber would be good for her. As the years went on, she wouldn't need it so desperately. Aidan had no need to sleep through the wintertime; he took rest in bits and pieces. Corey could have done the same, Laney knew, but he chose to stay by her side, lovingly cradling her on her first journey through the season. This winter she would be alone, and she knew the thoughts that would plague her wouldn't only be the loss of Corey's arms but also the growth she was missing. Her son would grow by leaps and bounds; she'd barely recognize him when she woke.
She scaled the side of the house, clinging delicately to the clapboard siding. Liam's room was a study of green, which Laney liked. Subtle stripes adorned the walls, and the toys were mostly stuffed animals. They were funny, too — not just a cliché teddy bear, but woodland creatures. Laney had already seen a raccoon peeking from a bookcase, a stuffed bunny perched on the rocking chair in the corner. There was also a set of squirrels, one holding a tiny, stuffed acorn. Liam liked those the best, Laney knew, because he watched them as he drifted to sleep.
The ivy by his bedroom window was still lush and green. The Gerricks had speculated about it, blaming it on the northern exposure from that side of the house. They figured the ivy was spared the hot August sun, so that was why it flourished as it did. Laney knew better. Her very touch, consistent and gentle, had encouraged this growth to flourish well past its time. She lovingly petted a waxy leaf, smiling.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beyond The Wild Wood"
Copyright © 2019 E.M. Fitch.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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