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Read Chapter Four of @JenniferMEaton ‘s FIRE IN THE WOODS for free! Question and answer session after. @Month9Books

Woohoo we’re 4 days in!

Welcome to day four of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!

Fire in the Woods Cover

Chapter 4

I yanked my jeans free of a thorny bush. I swear I had to be crazy. Just that morning something screeched in the woods so loud it almost burst my eardrums. But here I was, wandering around in those same woods, probably lost, bent on finding and helping a boy I didn’t even know. My chest ached with pressure from my short, choppy breaths. Why did the forest seem so much more sinister than it normally did?

Auoi calinart, est.”

The gruff, masculine voice echoed through the trees. The language was odd, musical. Kind of like singing, or maybe Norwegian—or maybe a Norwegian guy singing. I couldn’t decide.

An elderly man wearing a long, dirty winter jacket slapped a tree branch as he sped-walked around a bush. He nearly plowed into me.

“Sorry,” I said, backing off the path.

The man gazed up at me. His nose crinkled as if a foul odor suddenly hit him. He blinked and continued on his way, but his icy cold countenance hung with me for a minute. And his eyes … No one had eyes so blue. Except maybe David.

I shivered. Not sure why, but the old dude creeped me out. His head bobbed as he moved through the bushes. He had to be delirious, wearing that warm coat in the middle of August.

“Pardon me.” A woman with gorgeous long blond curls ran up the same path. Her jacket brushed against me as she passed. When she caught up to the old guy, she grabbed him by the arm. They muttered, heads close, before he shoved her away and continued down the trail. The woman turned her face toward the sky, fisted her hands, and continued on after him.

The dude had to be her father or something. Why else would she take that kind of crap from him? I sniffed out a laugh. I hoped that wouldn’t be me and my Dad in twenty years.

I pushed through the brush and plodded on. The trees were probably laughing at me, because I was pretty sure I’d seen the one with the big black knot in the bark at least three times, now. Stinking, stupid, big, black, knotty tree.

A rustling of leaves deep within the trees startled me. I froze, and stared down another gorgeous, enormous buck. Or was it the same one as that morning?

“Hey, beautiful,” I whispered.

Swirling antlers blended with the landscape. He barely seemed to notice me.

“Good boy.” I clawed for my camera, slipping it out of my pack. “Just stay right there.” I pressed the picture button and zoomed in. Click. Gotcha. But a closer shot would be even better.

I inched forward. Majestic black eyes emitted a sense of serenity, calming me from within their gaze. Crack. The twigs broke beneath my feet. Dernit. The deer’s ears twitched.

“It’s okay buddy. It’s me, remember?”

Two little baby steps brought me closer. I held my breath, trying to keep quiet, but my phone vibrated, the ringtone reverberating through the trees. The buck bolted.

“You’re not going to chase him again,” I told myself. A grin broke across my lips. “Oh, yes you are.”

Jumping over fallen trees and stomping in muddy patches, I followed him deeper into the woods. My phone finally stopped ringing, but the buck was long gone … again. I laughed and leaned over, resting my hands on my knees. I was starting to make a habit out of this.

“Jess?”

I screamed and whirled toward the voice.

David raised his hands. “Sorry. I thought you saw me.”

“Saw you? I was looking at the stinking deer.” I held my hand to my heart, willing it to stay within my chest. “You scared the crap out of me.”

His lips contorted into the cutest pout as he settled onto the ground. “Sorry.”

“Well, wear a bell or something next time. Geeze!”

Okay, heart. You can slow down now.

I caught my breath. “Are you feeling any better?”

“Maybe.” He rotated his shoulder. “Either that or I’m numb.”

Dirt and pine needles scattered in a puff as I dropped my backpack beside him. “Okay, let’s get to it, then.” I grabbed the Ziploc bag.

“What’s that?”

“Ice. What did you think?” The cubes scraped together inside the plastic.

“Umm …” His eyes widened.

“If your shoulder is swollen, and you won’t go to the hospital. You need a cold compress.”

He swallowed hard. “Okay.”

David bent forward. I brushed traces of bark and dirt clinging to his back as I knelt beside him. The muscles in his neck and arms tensed.

“Loosen up. It’s just ice.” I carefully placed the bag on his injury.

David trembled. He steadied himself against a sapling, gripping the slim trunk in a shaky fist. “It burns! Owe, it burns!”

I pulled the bag away from his skin. “How can it burn? It’s cold.” I set the Ziploc on my leg and let the ice chill my skin. “Look. No burn. You can’t be such a big baby. This is supposed to help. Can we try again?”

David nodded, but flinched as I lifted the bag.

“Okay, tell you what …” I picked up his tee-shirt from the ground. “Let’s get this back on you.”

His head popped through the opening, and a gentle tug brought his right hand through the armhole. I elevated his left arm as slowly as I could, but he still stifled a groan as the rest of the shirt slid on.

“This is like torture,” he whispered.

“Sorry.” I gently replaced the bag. “Your shirt should protect a little against the ice but still leave it cold enough to stop the swelling.” I smiled, proud of myself for remembering something from first aid.

David grimaced. “It’s still pretty cold.”

“It’s supposed to be. That’s the point.”

David’s eyes closed. He took in a deep breath through his nose, and his lips parted slightly to release it. I watched the tight, white cotton expand and retract across his back with each breath. Holy shmoley. Okay, Florence Nightingale, get a grip.

David’s body quaked, and he grunted through clenched teeth. He grabbed the sapling, snapping it in two.

“Hey, what’d that tree ever do to you?”

His hands formed into trembling fists. He shook like a rocket trying to take off until he bolted upright. The ice fell to the ground.

“I c-can’t,” he stammered. “It’s just too cold.”

“All right.” I picked up the bag. “But I don’t think it was on there long enough to help you.”

“Then I’ll have to deal with the pain. I’ll get over it.” He grimaced, settling back down on the ground. “Eventually.”

He rubbed his shoulders. His gaze seemed distant.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I can’t seem to get warm.”

“Warm? It’s like eighty degrees. It’s gorgeous out here.”

“I know, but I keep getting a chill.” He scuffed the dirt, making an imprint with the front of his sneaker. A spider shimmied from the divot and crawled up a tree to his right.

The sun funneled through the canopy, flickering splotches of light into his hair. What was it about this boy? I just wanted to sit there and stare at him. Well okay, he was gorgeous, but it was something more than that. I felt compelled, like a gentle tug inside, drawing me to him. I bit back a grin. It’s called hormones, Jess. Let’s just keep it together and don’t make a fool out of yourself.

The wind blew lightly through the treetops, rustling the branches over our heads as I slid down beside my bag. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes, famished.” His eyes lit up, the color actually brightening. It must have been the sun.

“Great. I made a few PB&J’s. I hope that’s okay.”

“I guess.”

I handed him a sandwich. He flipped it over, squinting at the jelly running down the crust. Okay, so, I wasn’t Betty Crocker. Get over it. I removed mine out of the plastic wrap, and David followed suit. He watched me take a bite before tearing into his own.

What did he think, it was poisoned or something?

“This is good.” He swallowed and nodded. “Really good.”

A snicker escaped my lips. “I guess anything would taste good if you hadn’t eaten since yesterday.”

“Mm-huh. Thank you.” He finished the last bite and ran his tongue slowly along his pointer finger, licking off a glob of jelly.

I shifted my weight, watching his tongue glide across his skin.

Wow.

I bit my lip and cleared my throat.

Get. A. Grip. Jess.

Looking away—definitely a good option. “Listen, you can’t stay out here. There is some kind of dangerous fugitive or something on the loose.”

“Or something?”

The spider beside him dangled from a branch before swinging back up, a stream of silk glistening behind it.

“That’s about all I know. I just thought you should know. You know?”

Ugh. How much dumber could I sound? Why did I act so goofy around this guy? Pfft. It had nothing to do with the perfect tan, the washboard abs, those unbelievable arms …

“So, what does this fugitive look like? It’s not a young girl with long brown hair and blue eyes, is it? Because that would kind of suck.”

I laughed. “If I were a fugitive I wouldn’t be making PB&J for some sappy guy in the woods.”

“Well, I guess today’s my lucky day, then.”

He licked another finger. I forced my eyes back up to the spider web. The sunlight caught the square outline of the miniature piece of art before it disappeared, fading in and out like a mirage.

My stomach churned anxiously. “So, do you want to tell me why you’re out here?” Please, please, please don’t tell me you’re a dangerous fugitive.

He looked down. “I told you …”

“I know. You don’t want to be found. I get that, but the Army is out there looking for someone suspicious. If they find you …”

David’s eyes sprang open. He leapt to one knee, just missing the spider web. “Where are they looking?”

“I don’t know. Around, I guess.”

A refreshing breeze blew through the woods, invigorating me, but a shiver rattled David’s shoulders. “It’s getting colder.”

Dark clouds wafted over the treetops, shrouding the forest in a dim gray before the sun broke through once more.

“It might rain, but it’s still, like, eighty degrees.”

He wrapped his arms around himself and sat hunched over. A pang deep within my gut warned something wasn’t right, that I should run, but the sensation quickly ebbed away. As if erased.

I knelt beside him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m just cold.”

“Maybe you have a fever? You should really see a doctor.”

“No. No way.” He raised his hands in a defensive position.

“All right—if you tell me what’s going on, maybe I can get help, but we’re not really getting anywhere here with me doing all the talking.”

“Okay, let’s talk.” He looked to the right and moved closer to the web. He seemed to focus on each strand the spider spun.

The sunlight sparkled in his dark hair and gleamed within the web. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my camera and adjusted the focus so both David and the web popped crisply from the outlining scenery.

Whoa. The preview looked like a magazine ad. The lines in his face, his nearly pore-less skin—just perfect.

David smiled as I raised the lens again. I set off the shutter on high speed repetition, hoping to get some of the sparkle from the spider’s web.

“You like to take pictures, huh?”

“Yeah. It’s an obsession of mine. You don’t mind, do you?”

He shook his head, and I snapped some more. The last one had a beam of sunlight in the background. Damn if I couldn’t sell those as pictures of Jared Linden and gotten away with it.

I closed the lens. “I’m still waiting for your story. I love photography, but I’m not that easily distracted.” Well, not right now, at least.

“I’m not sure where to begin. Do you get along with your dad?”

I leaned back, surprised. “I guess. I mean, most of the time. He’s a little judgmental, though.”

“Mine too. In a big way.”

“Is he the reason why you’re out here?” A fly buzzed my ear. I swatted it away.

David shrugged. “Indirectly. If he’d just listen, just try to understand …”

“I know what you mean. My dad’s got this crazy idea I can’t make good decisions.”

“Yeah, mine too. He said I was worthless, and I’ve never done a selfless thing in my life. What does that mean, anyway?”

“My dad thinks I don’t listen.”

David propped his elbow on his knee and rested his chin on his fist. “Well, you’re listening now.”

I smiled. A little girly tingle jittered through my chest. He was cute, and said the right things. Score another notch in that lottery ticket.

My cheeks burned up in a flush under his sparkling gaze. Those eyes—so darn blue. I broke our stare, clearing my throat. “So, you had a fight with your dad, huh?”

“Something like that. I tried to prove I was worth something.”

“Did it work?”

He took a deep breath and let it out in a puff. “If it did I wouldn’t be here.”

The fly buzzed around David’s head and darted toward his right, snagging itself in the spider web. The more it thrashed, the more the webbing ripped and covered its wings … until the struggle abruptly ended. The web seemed to wink in and out of existence as the spider inched toward its prey.

Despair settled into my gut. The thought of being totally overpowered—and to die like that—it just didn’t seem fair. The clouds drifted, and the web faded once more. So beautiful, but nothing more than an elaborate trap.

David’s gaze moved from the spider back to me. He seemed to search through me, and his brow furrowed. Did I surprise him somehow, or was that confusion in his eyes?

His expression faded into a smile. “Jess, you …”

Another cooling breeze encircled us. David clamped his arms around his shoulders. His hands shook as they rubbed his skin.

The hair on my arms stood on end as the sky darkened ominously overhead. “David, are you all right?”

He wheezed, his body trembling as he bent over into a ball.

“Okay, that’s it,” I said. “I’m getting you out of here.” I lifted him to his feet. He barely struggled, but drew away once we were standing.

“I can’t leave the woods,” he said.

“Oh, yes you can.”

I nestled my camera into my backpack and flung the bag over my shoulder.   David’s body seemed rigid as I pulled him to his feet.

“Jess, please don’t …” His words were lost between chattering teeth.

“Don’t nothing. You need help.”

I yanked on his arm. Luckily for me, he was too busy trembling to fight me. We slunk through the trees, stopping each time David’s chill shook him too hard to walk.

This is insane, Jess. You don’t know anything about this guy. Lord knows what’s wrong with him, and … A moist tap hit my head, then another. I glanced up. The clouds thickened. Another raindrop grazed my nose as a few birds flew for cover.

Great. A rainstorm was all I needed at the moment.

David studied a drip run down his arm, and turned his eyes up to the trees. “What …”

“Come on,” I said, giving him a tug. “The trail is this way.” At least I hoped it was.

Ferns scraped against my jeans as I pushed branches away from my face. I stopped once to untangle David’s shirt from a sticker bush before the woods opened up to the dirt path beside the road. It wasn’t where I’d come in, but it was close enough to get home.

David tensed as we stepped away from the trees. Small circles appeared on the ground, darkening the sand from tan to brown as scattered droplets fell from the sky.

David retreated toward the woods. “I can’t … I can’t.”

“You don’t have much of a choice now, do you?” I led him forward.

His muscles relaxed, but his eyes told me it was in defeat rather than agreement. David hunched his shoulders, ducked his head, and stumbled as I nudged him forward. I slowed my pace, hoping it would help him keep up.

This is crazy, Jess. Just bring him to the … I stopped, alarmed by the movement at the gates to the base housing. Two men in uniform tossed their packs beside the door to the guard house. One fumbled with keys.

In the entire four years we’d lived on that base, I’d never seen guards stationed at the entrance. A wave of adrenalin swept through my body. Sweat formed at my temples.

David gripped my arm. Turquoise eyes, wide with fear, met mine.

A twinge in my gut forced my whole body to tremble. I was right all along. It was him. He was the guy they were looking for. We were in deep shi … well, we were in a lot of trouble. Or was it just me? Was I in trouble? Was David dangerous?

I forced a smile. Every part of me screamed to run, to flee to the guards and tell them, but when I looked into David’s eyes, the mistrust melted away, disappeared.

Wait. Why did it disappear? I was scared to death a minute ago, wasn’t I?

His eyes softened me. I was safe with him. I always had been.

“I’m not going to turn you in. I promise.”

His shoulders relaxed. “Can we please go back to the woods?”

“There’s no way to warm you up out there. Now come on, and act natural.”

I kept watch on the guard house as we walked toward the gate. One of the guys talked on a cell phone while the other unpacked his bag. Just keep walking. A large raindrop pelted my shirt, then another.

David brushed away a rain droplet dribbling down his cheek and looked toward the sky. He gaped, his eyes questioning. Why did rain freak him out? Everybody’s seen rain, right?

His nose and lips distorted before he ducked his head down again. Not really as inconspicuous as I’d hoped for, but at least he was keeping up.

Relief washed over me as we passed through the gate. I couldn’t believe it. We’d actually …

“Excuse me.”

Oh. Crap.

Every muscle in my body tensed. I could feel David’s bicep contract as I turned toward the MP. “Yes?”

“Can I see some ID please?”

“Oh, umm, yeah.”

I reached into my pocket and grabbed my wallet. He made note of my driver’s license on a clipboard.

The MP motioned to David. “And yours?”

“He doesn’t have his license yet,” I stammered. “He’s only sixteen.”

My tense muscles got even tenser. There was no way David would pass for sixteen. He looked eighteen, nineteen. My brow furrowed. Just how old was he?

A crack of thunder boomed overhead. David nearly jumped into my arms. The wind whipped up. I glanced to the MP. Please let us go, dude.

David turned from my shoulder and stared at the MP. The officer moaned and blinked his eyes. He looked up at the sky and handed my license back.

“Okay. You’re cleared. Thank you.” He walked back to the booth, massaging his forehead.

No way.

I shoved my license back in my pocket. “I don’t believe it.”

David didn’t comment beyond a tremor as I maneuvered him across the street.

We’d been incredibly lucky. The guy hadn’t even made a note of David. Maybe MP training wasn’t as hard-core as I’d heard.

We moved past a bush near the edge of the sidewalk, and a sparrow hopped out. The bird fluttered its spotty brown wings as it snatched a squiggling worm on the concrete.

David reared back, nearly knocking me over. “What the …”

I tightened my grip on his arms. “Dude, it’s only a bird. Chill out!”

“I’m sorry. It frightened me.”

His eyes remained on the little brown-spotted minion-of-doom as it hopped onto the road. What kind of idiot got spooked by a bird? I didn’t push it. David obviously had serious issues. Hopefully they weren’t the homicidal kind.

I cringed.

No. He was just a guy who needed help. No homicidal anything.

David’s gaze shifted from left to right. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“Don’t be so scared. It’s not like the whole world is looking for you. What are the chances of your father just happening to be on Maguire, and driving down this road at this very minute?” I tried to gauge his reaction, but his expression didn’t change. He was worried about more than his father, I could tell. Was it really the MPs? The regular police? Worse? Maybe eventually he’d open up to me.

As we turned onto my street, an open-top jeep sped toward us. David cried out and jumped away from the road. One of the soldiers inside waved as they drove by.

“I really think I need to go back to the woods,” David said.

The jeep turned the corner, not even hesitating at the stop sign. “It’s nothing. They’re only going to work. You need to lighten up.”

You should bring him back to the gate. Turn him in. This is bigger than you, and you know it. If the Army is looking for him something is seriously up.

I scoffed at my own idiocy. Paranoia was so un-cool. He’d be fine. He was just out of sorts with a fever or something. Besides, if he was a fugitive, and I helped him, I may just be setting myself up for the story of a lifetime.

Or a lifetime behind bars.

I decided to go with the first scenario. Much better karma.

Head tucked down low, David allowed me to guide him while I kept a careful watch on the neighbors’ windows and front porches. The last thing I needed was a nosy housewife calling my dad.

David dug in his heels as we turned up my walkway. He wrenched against my grip. “What’s that?”

“My house.”

“Your house?”

“Yeah, this is where I live. David, are you delirious or something? Where did you think I was taking you?”

I placed my hand on his arm. Perspiration beaded on his brow and his tee-shirt seemed far damper than it should have been in the light rain.

Sweat?

David scrunched his eyes closed and stumbled foot over foot. A torrent of unintelligible words streamed from his lips as his body went limp.

My knee slammed on the pavement as I reached down to catch him—but he was nowhere near as heavy as I expected. Weird.

His eyes opened and rolled back into this head. He coughed once before his gaze re-focused on me.

“You’re done. I’m calling an ambulance.”

He grabbed my arm. “No! I just need to get warmed up.”

I shook my head and helped him back to a standing position. “I think it’s more than that, and something really strange is—”

“I promise you, I’m just cold. Please just …” His words lost themselves inside a moan, and another shaking chill brought us both to our knees. David’s shoulders stiffened between my hands, becoming board-rigid before shaking fitfully.

“Shoot,” I whispered, rubbing his arms in a fruitless effort to warm him.

The sky opened up. Rain pummeled us. The sound roared through the compound.

David’s pupils fixed on a point behind me. His jaw vibrated in time with the tremor. Dark wet tresses matted to his forehead. Water trailed from his bangs and down his cheeks.

I gripped his face and pointed it toward mine. “David. David, listen to me. I need to get you into the house.”

His eyes didn’t focus. His teeth chattered.

“Okay. Let’s hope you heard me.” He grimaced as I hauled him to his feet. His shiver tightened his joints. The stiffness in his body fought against me as we made our way to the door.

[end of chapter four preview]

Things are getting interesting! There’s the fourth chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. There is almost too much going on here to come up with questions. How about the imagery? Can you feel Jess’s inner struggle? What are you feeling about David at this point?

To read the fifth and final chapter of this preview chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS click here. (Available after December 5)

JenniFer_EatonF

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Read Chapter Three of @JenniferMEaton ‘s FIRE IN THE WOODS for free! Question and answer session after. @Month9Books

Hi there!

Welcome to day three of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!

Fire in the Woods Cover

Chapter 3

I sprinted down my street and stopped at the edge of the sidewalk. Busted. Dad’s car sat in his favorite parking space, still creaking as the engine cooled. How in God’s name was I supposed to sneak a bag of ice out of the house with Dad home? The back door!

The handle of the rear screen door clicked as I tiptoed into the kitchen.

Dad’s voice came from the living room. “I did tell her to stay home. Mom, I just don’t know what to do with her anymore. She doesn’t follow orders at all.”

Why was he talking to Grandma about me? Didn’t matter. I had to get that ice. I inched toward the freezer.

“I know she’s not one of my soldiers. Believe me.  If she was, she’d think about the big picture and not focus on herself all the time. And she wouldn’t do such stupid things. I swear she does this to piss me off.”

I gritted my teeth and slid the ice tray out of the freezer. What dad considered stupid things were all the things that were important to me that he didn’t understand. If he’d look up and beyond that stupid uniform he wore all the time, he’d realize there was more to life than—

“And this dumb photography thing—dammit Mom, I wish you never bought her that camera.”

I froze. My heart wiggled its way into my throat.

“Give her space? Let her make her mistakes? What kind of advice is that?”

Photography wasn’t a mistake. It was my life, my passion, my—

“Mom, I need help with her. I thought I could manage it alone, but I can’t. All I’m asking is for you to come for a week or so, just until school starts. There’s too much going on and I just can’t trust her anymore.”

Can’t trust me?

Grandma?

My stomach did a somersault and missed the landing. The ice container slipped out of my hands and crashed on the floor.

“Mom, she’s back. I gotta go.”

I dropped to my knees, taking deep breaths as I scooped the slippery cubes off the linoleum. My hands shook. Why couldn’t he understand how much that camera meant to me? Why couldn’t he understand that his dreams weren’t the same as mine? I shoved the container back into the freezer and sat down at the kitchen table. I doodled the deer’s antlers on the edge of a pad, trying to calm myself down as I prepared for the impending fight.

Dad barreled around the corner. “Jess, where have you been?”

“I told you, I went to the store.”

“You were supposed to stay home.”

“You said last night. I went out this morning.”

His face reddened. “When I tell you to stay home, I need you to stay home.”

“I left a note and everything, didn’t I? And I called, like a good little soldier, but as usual, you didn’t pick up the phone. You never pick up the phone.”

“Don’t you try to turn this around on me.”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t do any more stupid things.” I pushed past him and stormed up the stairs.

“Jessica!”

I slammed my bedroom door. The covers poofed up around me as I flopped onto my bed. Only think about myself? Dumb photography? What did he know? I rolled over and hugged my pillow. It was the same argument, different day. Nothing would change. Ever.

By now, Dad was probably half way to counting to a hundred to calm down. He’d need to get to two-hundred before he’d come up here and give his stylized lame apology. God, I hated that part.

I rubbed my face, remembering why I’d come home in the first place. I needed to find a way to smuggle some ice past Dad. But how? There was no chance of getting out of the house again until he stopped focusing on me.

A prisoner until the game played out, I decided to kill time with Maggie. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and dialed her up. “Hey girl.”

“Hey, you. What’s up?”

“My dad as usual, but guess what just happened in the woods? I was chasing after a deer—”

“Again?”

“Yeah. Anyway, there was this noise, and it felt like my head would explode, and then there was this guy, and he heard it too.”

“A guy?” She giggled. “Okay, now I’m interested. I thought you were going to tell me another stupid Jess chases an animal story. So, fess up. Was he cute?”

A sigh slipped from my lips. “Didn’t you hear about the noise? I mean, it was really loud. Did you hear anything?”

“Nope, no noise. Now spill it about the guy.”

I rolled over onto my stomach. “His name is David.”

“Isn’t David the name you made up for your dream prince?”

I giggled. “Omigosh, how’d you remember that? We were, like, thirteen.”

“I remember those juicy stories you made up about him—all tall, dark and Greek-God delicious.”

The more I thought about it, David actually did look a lot like—

“So was he running through the woods taking pictures of animals, too?”

“No. Can you keep a secret?” I rolled onto my back. “He’s hiding out there from someone.”

“Hiding? Girl, you’re not hooking up with a serial killer or anything, right?”

“He’s not a serial killer. He’s like, seventeen, eighteen tops.”

“Didn’t you see that movie Scream? Those two were—”

“Can we come back to reality please?”

“Okay. Okay. Okay. So, what’s he running from?”

“Dunno.” I rubbed my fingertips, remembering the heat radiating from his skin. “He said it wasn’t the cops. I’m hoping he talks to me when I go back.”

Maggie snickered. “You’re going to meet him again in the woods? Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, are you finally going to do something naughty? And without me?”

I sat up, knocking the pillow off my bed. “No. I just want to help him. He’s hurt.”

“I bet you want to help him.” She giggled.

“Stop. You are so bad.”

“But seriously, Jess. You don’t know anything about this guy.”

I chewed the top of my lip, thinking about Dad’s conversation with Grandma. Was I being stupid? I needed to make a good decision here. “You know what? You’re right. Can you come out there with me?”

“You know I’d love to meet your prince charming but I need to go school shopping while my mom’s credit card is still squeaking, and tonight is family movie night. No getting out of that in the Baker household.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot.” Oh well. So much for reinforcements.

“You know what? Just don’t go. Tip off the MP’s that someone’s out there, and they’ll find him.”

“You want me to turn him in?”

“No, not turn him in, but if he’s in trouble … You know … They have shelters for kids like that. Confidential and all. They won’t call his parents.”

I fingered the chain on my neck. “No. It doesn’t feel right. He needs my help.”

Someone knocked on my door three times.

“Maggs, I gotta go. My Dad’s revving up for another pep talk.”

“Okay, but be careful if you go out there, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever.” I clicked off the phone and opened my door.

Dad’s hand was poised at eye level, about to knock again. His chest expanded for the obligatory breath before an apology speech. “Jess, I don’t want to fight with you. I just wish you’d listen once in a while.”

I folded my arms. “I only went to the store.” With a little side-trip into the woods.

“It’s not just that and you know it.” He ran his palm across the top of his cropped hair. “You know it’s been hard without your mom here, but I’m trying.”

“I know.” Dang he was good with the guilt trips. An uncomfortable silence lingered, stifling me like an invisible curtain.

“Listen. I’ve never been able to keep you cooped up, and I realize you’re into all that photography stuff, but until things die down and I can confirm everything is secure, I need you to stay in the house.”

Crap.

You see dad, I can’t stay in the house. There’s this drop-dead gorgeous guy in the woods, and I promised to bring him ice. Nah. That wouldn’t go over well. Certain things a girl should just keep to herself.

“Dad, what’s going on? And what was all that buttercup stuff about last night?”

He rubbed his face with his palms. “You weren’t really old enough when your mom and I came up with the word buttercup. I was hoping you’d understand what I was trying to say.”

“Mom told me once to listen if you ever said buttercup during an emergency. That’s all I remember.”

“Well, we were in an emergency. You did good.”

“There was someone on the phone, wasn’t there? They were making sure you didn’t tell me anything.”

Dad leaned against my doorframe. “You know I’m not allowed to talk about work.”

“Work smirk. I don’t care about security clearance.”

“There was a possibility of danger. I just needed to know you were safe” He kissed my forehead. “I gotta get back.”

“You’re leaving again?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but the whole base is on alert status.”

“For how long?”

“It depends on how long it takes us to find …”

I waited for a word that didn’t come. “Find what?”

His head tilted to the side. “Nice try.”

“Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

So, the army was looking for something. Interesting.

“I’ll be back in the morning for a bit. We’ll have breakfast, okay?”

“Uh-huh.”

Dad headed down the stairs, and I counted to a hundred before following.

So, the army was all jacked up in another one of Dad’s top-secret operations. I still had no idea what Dad did in the army, but what I could gather from Maggie’s eavesdropping habit, Dad’s division dealt with dangers of the “who” kind, not the “what” kind. They called my dad to track people down. If Dad was involved, whoever they were looking for had to be pretty big potatoes.

David was hiding from someone, and he was hurt. Could he be running from the military? A vision of David’s bright eyes and the perfect cut to his jaw flashed through my mind. I shook my head. Why would Dad be hunting a kid? He certainly had better things to do. Terrorists and the like were out there. Real criminals. There was no way Dad could be looking for David. My gaze settled on my camera case.  I grabbed it … just in case.

Shooting over to the kitchen, I opened up the cupboard, pulled out a gallon-sized Ziploc and filled it with ice. The bag fit neatly into the bottom of my backpack. I threw together a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tossed them in with a couple bottles of water and my camera. The ice chilled my back as I threw the pack over my shoulder.

I hesitated, my hand on the front door. Dad wanted me to stay home. Until everything was secure. That meant that there was a safety risk, and if Dad was involved, it had to be a pretty big one. He expected me to be a good little soldier and stay inside. But how could I?

David was out there, alone. Hurt. I couldn’t just leave him there, especially if there was some kind of dangerous fugitive on the loose. I’d made him a promise, and I had to keep it.

[end of chapter one preview]

So there we are! The third chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. How do you feel about Dad’s attitude toward Jess? Did Dad push Jess to go back out there by insinuating she thinks of no one but herself? What would you do if you were in Jess’s shoes?

To read the fourth chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS click here. (Available after December 4)

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