BLACKBERRY COVE, a Sunset Bay novel

Chapter One

At the gate to the old man’s property, Abby cut the engine and stepped out of the truck. Tentative late-morning sunlight splintered between

Available December 18

the naked trees crowding the narrow, winding road between Sanctuary Ranch and Roman’s place, not yet strong enough to commit to spring. Heavy evergreens swallowed what was left and the drifting Oregon fog made the dying ticks of the old motor sound like pennies dropped on a wool blanket.

The Byers’ low sprawling ranch house was hidden from the road, deliberately secluded. But the solitude was an illusion. Creatures small and large, land-bound or with wings, skittered, skulked, and stalked in those misty-green depths. They triggered a heightened awareness dosed with awe and respect, but not fear. Abby absolutely believed that those wild things were more afraid of her than she was of them.

Humans were different. Predator and prey looked alike until experience, and hindsight, offered up the subtle distinguishing clues.

Solitude was safe, though as Roman Byers was learning, not great as a long-term plan.

Trust, for joy, Abby reminded herself.

Suspicion, for survival, her primitive brain replied.

She walked around the vehicle, reached into the passenger side, and slid a covered basket across the bench seat, wedging it against her hip. Inside were carrots, turnips, beets, and a few parsnips from the cellar, topped with a bunch of fresh parsley that she managed to keep growing year-round in the cold frame.

She came by as often as she could without raising questions. The man’s secret was still hidden, so far. But it kept her up at night, eating at her stomach, and every time she arrived to visit, dread quickened her steps. With high season just around the corner, it would soon be even harder for her to keep tabs on him.

A rise and slope of wooded hillside, a creek that emptied into the ocean, and a couple of miles of gravel road was all that separated the ranch from their nearest neighbor, but Roman had stayed hidden from them for years. Once found, though, he couldn’t be unfound. He was a stray and Sanctuary Ranch collected strays like honeybees gathered pollen.

Lucky for Roman. Until Jamie, Abby’s friend and coworker, had happened upon him, he’d been on track to be one of those headlines: HUMAN SKELETON FOUND ON ISOLATED PROPERTY. FOUL PLAY NOT SUSPECTED.  Abby bent low to get herself and her package through the rusted metal rungs of the gate, wondering why he still insisted on keeping it up. A sign reading BEWARE OF DOGS listed sideways on a single nail in the wooden side post.

Beware of dogs. Ha!

“Roman, it’s me,” she called as she rounded the bend leading to his house. “Don’t shoot.”

It was a running joke with everyone at the ranch, now. When Jamie had first knocked on his door, she’d been greeted with a shotgun. Turned out the gun wasn’t the weapon to worry about. Nature had given Roman Byers a tongue as sharp as his mind, a defective brain-mouth filter, and a stubborn streak a mile wide.

Pain had honed those weapons to a wicked edge and loneliness taught him to wield them. Abby recognized what lay behind the attitude. Pity infuriated him. Verbal jousting was the way in.

“Chaos,” she called, looking for the man’s dog, “I’ve got a treat for you.”

Usually, that was the signal for Roman’s beautiful, brilliant and diabolical young Labrador to come pelting toward her.

Nothing. No dog in sight.

She continued up the path, hefting the basket on her hip. The old man preferred to be left alone, but occasionally, when the training sessions he and Chaos took at the ranch went long, Roman joined the rest of the staff in the main house for supper. Daphne loved feeding guests, and always made plenty, just in case.

Over the past winter, however, he’d been forced to ask for help. He’d chosen Abby, and sworn her to secrecy. She drove him to his appointments, physiotherapists, doctors, specialists. More specialists. Usually, if he wasn’t hurting too much, they stopped for coffee. Sometimes, they had lunch.

“Roman?” Abby checked the yard, with its mature fruit trees and great mounds of perennials greening up from the black soil. She could see now that he’d neglected them the previous season. As soon as the bulb garden was done, she’d come help him out.

How that must have pained him.

“Hey, old man.” You better not have died on me.

All those times she’d baited him, and he’d just smiled.

She bit her lip, looking past the fence to the woods. Roman refused to give up his birdwatching walks but Chaos was trained to stick close, help him up if he fell, and lead him home if he got disoriented. He’d also been taught to bring Roman his mobile phone, his pills, the remote control for the TV, and in case of a true emergency, to cut through the wooded hillside to Sanctuary Ranch for help.

Now, she feared Chaos gave him a dangerous sense of self-reliance.

She climbed the wide plank steps to the back porch, pulled open the screen, and rapped on the door. Immediately, the sound of claws scrabbling on hardwood greeted her.

The dog was inside, whining and howling, throwing himself at the door between them.

She tried the knob. It was unlocked. She pushed inside and nearly tripped over the dog, who bolted past her, stopped at the first bush, lifted his leg, and peed and peed and peed.

She dropped the basket. “Roman?”

Chaos hadn’t been out in hours and his doggy door was still locked, which meant something had interrupted Roman’s usual morning routine.

“Roman?” Abby glanced around the great room. The man wasn’t in his armchair or lying on the couch. She pushed through doors, shoved furniture, looked down the stairs to the cellar. He wasn’t in the kitchen or pantry or sunroom.

As she ran toward his bedroom, she heard the sound of water trickling.

Oh no.

He was in the bathroom, on the floor, naked and motionless, while water slopped over the edge of the bathtub onto the floor.

You better not have died on me.

“Roman!” She reached around him to close the faucet, which was trickling ice-cold water, then dropped to the ground. Her knees slid sideways in the puddle. Her brain stuttered at the scene before her.

Blood feathered from a cut over his eye. He was wet and shivering. The puckered, spotted skin on his back was bluish-white and dotted with silver hair, and small circles where bathwater had evaporated.

His thighs were clenched together and quaking, the bones visible beneath the sagging skin. He’d managed to drag a small towel over his genitals, and clutched it with one clawed hand, a desperate grasp at dignity that broke her heart.

“Roman, can you hear me? Wake up, please. Please!”

He opened his eyes and gave a low groan that ended with an expletive.

“Oh, thank God!” Abby exhaled in a huge rush. He was awake, conscious, and breathing.

“Took you…Goddamn…long enough,” she heard him say.

She grabbed a hand towel, folded it, and pressed it against the cut.

“Hold this.”

He tried, but his hand was shaking too hard.

She tucked another towel under his head. Under the thin gray stubble, his scalp was damp and oily, his skin ashen, his eyes sunken and wreathed with lines.

“Hang on,” she said. “I’m going to get a blanket.”

With trembling hands, she yanked the comforter off his bed and ran back to the bathroom where she tucked it around him. Preserving body heat was essential but protecting his battered pride was just as important.

“Can you get up?” she asked, winding her arm beneath his shoulder.

He cried out at the movement. “Bloody…hip…” he said through gritted teeth. “I can’t move.”

“How long have you been lying here?”

“How the hell should I know?” he muttered.

It was nearly noon. He’d likely been lying here for hours.

A cold nose nudged her from behind. Chaos, whining at the state of his master, pacing back and forth, not knowing what to do.

Abby knew the feeling.

She patted the pockets of her hoodie, feeling for her phone. First she called 9-1-1. Then she called the ranch.

Last, she called Roman’s son.

Surely, now, Roman would tell him the truth.

Get your copy of Blackberry Cove here.

Published by Kensington Publishing December, 2018

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