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Poacher's Prey

By: Lorna Locke
Published By: Blushing Press
Copyright: ©2016 by Blushing Books® and Lorna Locke
13 Chapters / 45,000 words
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Millicent never believed she’d find someone to love and cherish her, someone she could trust and respect. She’s survived for years under her stepfather’s thumb, but when she meets and falls for a handsome young Game Warden, she realizes something has to change if she ever wants to live with the sense of safety and belonging she never knew was possible.

Tom abandoned an easy life in the big city for adventure as a Game Warden in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. While the dramatic landscape and mysterious forest around Black Creek captivate his imagination, something is missing. Until he meets young Millicent Nelson, that is.

Millicent’s combination of wild innocence and seductive beauty turn Tom’s world upside down and awaken in him a surprising dominant streak. With a rampant poacher on the loose, the forest can be a dangerous place. Will Tom and Millicent’s love and trust in each other be enough to deliver them safely from wild animals and wily humans?

Chapter One

The bull elk stood calm and still on the hillock in the middle of the clearing. He was magnificent, otherworldly, an enchanted stag from a fairytale. Millicent guessed the bull must be at least five feet at the shoulder—almost as tall as Millicent herself—and his antlers looked to span a good four feet, with more points than she could count at a distance.

Nearby, the bull’s harem of twenty cows grazed lazily in the clearing. Millicent smiled to see the female elk, safe and unworried under the watchful gaze of their protector. They all wore their dark, reddish summer coats.

Millicent sighed and set down her basket. She stretched, relishing the warmth of the sun on her bare limbs. Out in the forest, Millicent was free to push up her sleeves and knot her skirt for the sake of soft August breezes and sunshine. In that moment, just at the edge of a clearing, she imagined herself to be as safe and contented as those elk.

It would be easy, too easy, to get lost in daydreams and let the whole afternoon slip away. With the kind of extravagant sigh she would never indulge within earshot of her mother and stepfather, Millicent tore her gaze from the elk herd and turned toward home. She still had a quarter hour’s walk through the woods to look forward to, and vowed to enjoy it as much as possible without dawdling.

The day was lovely, warm without being too hot, and the golden afternoon sunlight lent a soft glow to the riot of greenery that surrounded Millicent as she picked her path through the duff and brush of the temperate rainforest that surrounded her home. On days like this, Millicent could easily daydream her way into believing she was living in a fairytale—especially with that magnificent stag as guardian of this enchanted wood.

Arriving home, Millicent was reminded that every fairytale needs its ogre.  “Oh, good afternoon, D-dad,” she said, stuttering as she always did when she called Spaulding Enos “Dad,” as he insisted.

Spaulding was sprawled messily at the table that took up most of the space in the kitchen half of the Enos family shack. Slowly, he lifted his big, square head and squinted at his stepdaughter. Spaulding grunted and let his head drop back onto his chest.

Millicent babbled, “I-I didn’t expect you home so soon—”

“Hm! And what do you care what hours I keep?” her stepfather snarled. He was in one of his bad moods.

Millicent swallowed. It was difficult to keep from babbling when she was startled and dismayed, and she was certainly both of those things upon stepping into the kitchen and finding Spaulding there in the middle of the day. Something bad must have happened to bring him home so early, and in so foul a mood. Maybe a hunt went poorly and his client had refused to pay. That didn’t happen often, but when it did Spaulding sulked dramatically. Millicent pressed her lips together to keep meaningless words, words that would only aggravate and provoke her mother’s husband, from tumbling helplessly out of her mouth.

She turned to put away the wild mushrooms and berries she’d foraged during her walk, hoping Spaulding would fall asleep so she could tiptoe out of the kitchen and get started on her evening chores without hassle. The scrape of his chair legs across the rough wood floor set the hairs on the back of Millicent’s neck on end. Millicent did not turn around to see, but instead sensed her stepfather’s bulk looming over her. His breath rasped uncomfortably close to her ears. She never knew the smartest way to respond, or not respond, when Spaulding got like this, so Millicent defaulted to freezing up.

“I asked you a question,” he said.

Millicent’s mind went blank. He’d asked her a question? Panic set in; what was it? “Uh…”

“You my boss-man now, Milly?” He prodded her in the ribs with one of his long, broad fingers. “What were you planning, child, that coming home and finding your ol’ dad in the house gives you such a scare?”

He was standing too close. Millicent barely managed to keep from wincing away from his damp breath on the back of her neck. “Nothing, D-dad. I was just lost in thought, I guess, and it startled me to see anybody home.”

Spaulding grunted and retreated to the table. Millicent busied herself putting up mushrooms to dry while her breathing returned to normal and she regained control of her wobbly limbs. When she was finished, Millicent had to squeeze past her stepfather to get to the other room of the cabin, but he held up a hand to stop her.

“Yes, sir?”

Spaulding just looked her up and down for a moment, establishing that she had to wait on him to speak. Millicent stood obediently, hands clasped, eyes cast down to the rough-hewn wood of the kitchen floor. He said, “You ought to be careful when you head out into the woods, Milly.”

“Yes, sir.”

He snorted. “I mean it. With these national park men prancing around acting like they own the game, and the timber, and the ground itself?” He clasped his hand on her shoulder possessively. “They’d probably love to catch Spaulding Enos’s daughter poaching mushrooms and berries. So just watch yourself, girl, and keep to yourself.”

“Of course, Dad. Of course. Thank you for the warning, Dad.” She didn’t think it would be prudent to point out that her berries and mushrooms had been harvested outside the park and were perfectly legal.

He removed his hand from Millicent’s shoulder with a grunt and lumbered from the kitchen to the living quarters. Spaulding threw himself across his bed and soon enough was snoring.

Millicent had to get out of the house. Spaulding Enos simply sucked up all the air and took all the space in the tiny cabin. If only Mama was home, she thought, and immediately felt like a traitorous little wretch. The reason she wanted her mother home, Millicent realized miserably, was that when Mama was in the cabin, Spaulding’s rage was likelier to fall on her than on Millicent. At least the two women together could share the burden of managing Spaulding’s moods. With Mama gone to nurse Aunt Sissy through her latest miscarriage, Millicent was Spaulding’s handiest target.

Outside, light drained from the sky. Evening was approaching. It would be hours yet until true darkness descended, for August evenings in Constance were long, but the sun and its warmth seemed to have withdrawn to secret places for the night. Millicent shivered.

Chapter Two

It was time for Millicent to retrieve her mother from town. Aunt Sissy and Uncle Vance lived down in the village of Black Creek, about an hour’s ride from the Enos family shack. Ethel, Millicent’s mother and Spaulding’s wife, had been summoned to her sister’s bedside when Vance showed up, hat in hand and face white as lard, to say that Sissy was having some pains and could Ethel come stay a bit? Of course, Ethel said yes, and Millicent was glad her mother could be a comfort to her aunt—but after a week she was also grateful to get her mother back. Spending nights alone with her stepfather in the isolated cabin wasn’t good for Millicent’s sanity or health.

Though she was anxious to see her mother and offer condolences to poor Aunt Sissy, Millicent did not hurry. She allowed Alfonse, the sweet old draft horse who had belonged to her parents since before Papa died, to take his time clomping along the trail. Millicent sat on the seat of the wagon and let her mind wander as the ruts and ridges of the road bumped them along.

It was another beautiful day. A doe, startled by the wagon, leapt away into the sheltering darkness of the woods. With the sunshine warm on her bare arms and face, Millicent felt her body begin to relax. By the time she and Alfonse rolled into Black Creek, she was in a positively good mood. In fact, Millicent hadn’t felt so well since the magical interlude a few days earlier when she’d happened upon the grazing elk herd and seen the beautiful red stag. That had felt very special, and maybe like a good omen, even.

Priscilla and Vance Edwards lived in a white foursquare home, impressive by the standards of Black Creek, that overlooked the banks of the creek that gave the village its name. Twenty years earlier, Vance made good money with the railroad, and now he was working on a second fortune in timber. He’d fallen hard for Priscilla Marten, who’d been staying in Black Creek to comfort her recently widowed sister, Ethel. Soon Sissy Marten was Sissy Vance, living a good life in a big house with a hired housekeeper—the envy of all the Black Creek housewives.

That is, until a few months into Sissy’s first pregnancy, which ended in cramping and blood and tears, just as her second and third would. It was beginning to look like Sissy and Vance would never have the children they wanted so badly, and Millicent sometimes wished they’d just adopt her so she could come live in the big white house by the creek.

What a selfish thought, Millicent scolded herself as she tied up Alfonse and crept into Aunt Sissy’s house.

Indoors, the curtains were drawn and all was dark and still. Millicent’s feet sank into the rich carpet Uncle Vance had ordered from a fancy importer down south in Portland when he married Sissy and moved her into their new house. Again, a tiny stab of envy poked at Millicent—the floorboards in the cabin are so rough; what would it be like to walk every single day on soft, lovely carpet? But those ugly thoughts skittered away when she entered the parlor and saw Mama and Aunt Sissy.

Sissy sat up on the davenport, her lap covered by a quilt, her hair in one long silver-shot braid that snaked down her front and pooled in her lap. Sissy was proud of her hair, and it shook Millicent to see her aunt without her hair done in a fashionable roll or pompadour. That single forlorn braid spoke volumes about Sissy’s devastation.

Mama sat next to her sister and held her hand. Mama was ten years older than Sissy but looked like she could be the younger woman’s mother. Marriage to a man like Spaulding Enos aged a woman. Mama and Aunt Sissy looked up at the same time, and Millicent was struck by how similar they looked to each other, pale faces lined with care.

“Millicent!” Aunt Sissy tried to rise, but Mama gently pushed her down. A smile spread across Sissy’s face. She raised her arms for a hug and Millicent rushed to embrace her.

“How are you feeling, Auntie?”

“Unwell, darling girl, but better than I was a few days ago.”

“I’m so sorry for…”

Sissy nodded. “Thank you, child.” She stroked Millicent’s cheek. “I’m grieving for what could have—should have—been, but I will not forget to count my many blessings. Chief of which is the best big sister west of the Mississippi.” She smiled at Mama.

Mama went to gather her things, clearly reluctant to leave her sister’s house. While Mama took her time at that task, Millicent sat with Aunt Sissy. Outside, birds could be heard chirping and the creek babbled as cheerfully as if the world wasn’t full of sadness.

Aunt Sissy wanted to be distracted. The two of them chatted about this and that. She asked, “How old are you now, Millicent?”

“I turned nineteen last month, Auntie.”

Aunt Sissy’s face grew wistful. “So young! Do you have a sweetheart, perfect and beloved niece of mine?”

Millicent blushed. “N-no, Auntie, I don’t. I don’t really know anybody.”

“That’s a shame, to be spending your loveliest years lonely.”

Millicent didn’t know quite what to say. She agreed, but wished her aunt hadn’t said anything on the subject. But Aunt Sissy was mourning and recovering from a physical ordeal, so Millicent wouldn’t hold it against her. She sighed, though. She did want a sweetheart, and not just as the escape route she often fantasized about, the handsome knight on a white steed swooping in and carrying her away from Spaulding Enos and that lonely cabin. Millicent was a nineteen-year-old girl with all the natural curiosity and friskiness of any young animal. A noble knight, a hot-blooded mate, a friend and confidant...any one of those things felt like too much to hope for, let alone all of them. Millicent silently reprimanded herself for her fairytale hopes.

“Well,” Millicent said lamely, “I suppose I’m lucky to live so close to the forest.”

Sissy patted Millicent’s knee. “I don’t mean to interrogate, dear. I suppose a healthy amount of auntie-meddling takes my mind off my heartache.” She smiled sadly.

“Oh no, Auntie, you’re not interrogating me.” Millicent blushed. “I do wish I had a sweetheart. It’s difficult to meet any young men, though.”

Sissy’s face darkened. “That man keeps you too busy, dearest. He expects you to give up your life to serve him. Your poor mother, too. He’s no husband; he’s a jailer.”

I don’t disagree, Millicent thought, but said nothing. Even here, an hour’s ride away from home, in the company of her beloved and sympathetic aunt, it didn’t feel safe to say aloud how she felt about her stepfather. Instead, she simply shrugged.

Mama bustled in, fussing with her rucksack and smoothing her hair and hunting for a misplaced hatpin and tugging up her stockings—somehow doing all these things and at the same time, accomplishing none of them. “Sissy, are you sure you’ll be all right? I can stay another night if you need me to.”

“You’re the soul of kindness, Ethel, and I’d keep you forever if I could. You know that. But I’m fine to get around during the day now, as long as I take it easy. Susana will help me,” she added, naming the housekeeper, “and Vance will be here at night.”

“But Vance works so hard all day. What if he’s fast asleep when you need help? What if…”

Sissy raised her hand and Mama was quiet. Mama cried a little, but neither Sissy nor Millicent said anything. The two sisters hugged for a long time. Sissy whispered something in Mama’s ear that Millicent couldn’t hear. Whatever it was made Mama cry harder, but nod her head vigorously. Mama said, “I will,” and then they all said goodbye to each other. Mama made Aunt Sissy promise to send for her if needed, and then finally Millicent was helping her mother onto the wagon seat, and getting Alfonse ready for the trudge back up the mountain to home.

For a while, neither of them said anything, but sat in silence thinking their own thoughts. At last, when they were about halfway home, Ethel sighed and said, “Poor, poor Priscilla. I just can’t stand it. She’d be such a beautiful mother.”

Millicent nodded. “It’s a shame.”

“Although I suppose a baby unborn is a baby who’ll never get hurt, never cry, never have her heart broken…”

This wasn’t like Mama. This was a level of gloom that worried Millicent, a degree of helpless misery beyond the gray numbness that had become Ethel Marten Nelson’s usual state of being since becoming Ethel Enos. Millicent was shaken nearly off the seat of the wagon by a sudden, terrible vision of her mother taking her own life. In addition to the unbearable loss of her dear mother, Millicent would be left alone and wholly dependent on her stepfather. She resolved to keep a close eye on her mother, and to put all her strength into being a better daughter to relieve some of Ethel’s burdens.

When the two women arrived at the cabin, they were startled to see a pair of unfamiliar, and stunningly beautiful, bay horses staked and grazing near the cabin door. Each horse wore a fine leather saddle and other equestrian kit and gleamed with good health and care. Unlike solid old Alfonse, this pair was graceful and sleek and looked like they could go fast. Where on earth could they have come from?

“Hello?” Mama said softly as they came inside. It was difficult to see inside the darkness of the cabin after the brightness of their ride up from Black Creek.

“Ethel!” Spaulding boomed. As Millicent’s eyes adjusted, she saw her stepfather and another man, who must be connected with the pair of bays grazing outside.

Spaulding was playing the part of the hale-and-hearty head of the household. The transformation was eerie: his big head bobbing, a wide smile that looked alarmingly unnatural on Spaulding’s face, his massive arms and wide hands flailing about in an elaborate attempt to look like a normal, enthusiastic, happy man welcoming home his wife and daughter.

“Mister Dwerryhouse, this is my wife, Ethel, and my daughter, Milly.”

“Charmed, charmed! Charmed and delighted!”

Mama and Millicent found themselves having their hands pumped by a short, skinny, shiny-faced man in an expensive outdoorsman’s outfit, complete with polished riding boots and crop. Dwerryhouse was about fifty, with luxurious mustachios and sideburns that made his head, already an awkward oblong-shape, appear out of proportion with his scrawny body. He smelled of high-quality tobacco, saddle soap, and money.

How on earth had this exotic personage, who looked like a caricature of a titan of industry from one of the Portland papers that sometimes made their way up to Black Creek, ended up in the company of a marginal character like Spaulding Enos?

Spaulding said, too jovially and too loudly, “Ladies, allow me to introduce Nestor Dwerryhouse, of Seattle.” Mama and Millicent murmured their pleasure at making Mr. Dwerryhouse’s acquaintance. Spaulding continued, “Mr. Dwerryhouse just bought a hunting lodge east of town.”

“Correct!” Mr. Dwerryhouse said. “And I simply had to seek out the guide who led my chum Reynolds to take down the biggest grizzly this side of the Cascade mountains.” He slapped Spaulding on the shoulder and guffawed, a laugh that set his spindly frame rattling. “Set a record, that one did! Reynolds had the old fellow stuffed and mounted and now he, the bear, not Reynolds, lives in the foyer of our club in Seattle. I intend to best Reynolds and add a few trophies of my own to the club library, and your father is just the man to guide me to all the trophy bucks and wolves and whatnot that will make Reynolds break down and cry like a little girl. Ha, ha!”

“Oh, I see,” Millicent said. So this very wealthy man was going to pay Spaulding to act as a hunting guide. This was a big deal for Spaulding—and by extension Millicent and Ethel—as most of the folks who grudgingly agreed to pay Spaulding to lead their hunts were at best “Black Creek rich,” which meant “rich” the way Uncle Vance was rich, they had money, more than most of their neighbors, but they certainly didn’t buy hunting lodges 150 miles away from their posh big-city clubs.

How much would Nestor Dwerryhouse pay her stepfather for a hunt? Or hunts, plural? Does it even matter, though? It’s not like any amount of money would convince Spaulding to move us into town, or do anything other than spend even more money on whisky. A windfall from taking Nestor Dwerryhouse hunting would just dissolve into a barrel of whisky like every other penny that passed through Spaulding’s hands (or his wife’s, or even more rarely his stepdaughter’s)—the only difference would be the quality of the whisky.

Dwerryhouse was enthusiastically pantomiming shooting a gun as Spaulding egged him on. Soon, Mama was frantically putting together a meal and pouring mugs of beer for the men (fortunately, she had a good hamper of food Sissy had insisted she take). Millicent thought she might be able to sneak out unnoticed and go for a walk in the woods, or at least get to some of her chores while it was still light out, but apparently her attendance at this informal dinner was required.

“So, Miss Enos,” Dwerryhouse began. Napkin across his lap, he hunkered down at the table, apparently enjoying this little foray into rustic living. “Are you a little Diana?”

For a moment Millicent didn’t respond, not realizing their esteemed guest was addressing her. A stern look from Spaulding corrected that impression. She wasn’t used to be called by her stepfather’s name, and didn’t quite catch his meaning at first.

“Oh! Beg your pardon, Mr. Dwerryhouse?”

“Daydreaming, ah?” His eyes twinkled. “Forgive the lofty allusion. Do you hunt?”

“Not often, sir.” As a little girl she would accompany Papa on some of his hunts, and he was vigilant about making sure little Millicent knew her way around firearms, traps and snares, and was confident dressing game. But she’d been so small when he was killed that Millicent never really got to go along with Papa as a hunter rather than a watcher/helper. At nineteen, she wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of heading into the woods with Spaulding, either alone or with his friends or clients, and she was particularly uninterested in being around him while he was armed, especially since he was known to enjoy draining a flask of whisky while pursuing his quarry.

“A pity! There’s nothing like the sight of a lass with her cheeks apple-pink in the cold, cocking her rifle and bringing down a doe. Ha, ha! You’d be most fetching, my dear, with your Pocahontas braids and that little frown of yours. So serious!” Nestor playfully tugged one of Millicent’s braids, and Spaulding roared with laughter. Millicent and her mother exchanged looks, but said nothing. Millicent knew it was in her best interest to smile, so she did, but the effort made her face ache.

A few hours later, Nestor Dwerryhouse took his leave, thanking Ethel for the “hearty and humble and sumptuous repast” and planting a wet kiss on the back of Millicent’s hand, which he followed up with a wink. She was proud of herself for suppressing a full-body shudder, and could tell by the approving nod from her stepfather that there would have been consequences had she appeared anything less than girlishly flattered by the attention.

The upshot of an evening spent entertaining an unexpected guest was that Spaulding was in a better-than-usual mood. He even fell asleep early, sprawled across his and Ethel’s bed fully-clothed but smiling. Millicent took the opportunity to grab a shawl and take a quick walk, just to feel blood pumping in her veins and fresh air in her lungs.

She stood at the edge of the woods and concentrated on breathing in, and out, and in, and out, trying to believe her problems were lighter than air and would float up to heaven, where Millicent Nelson—she was not an Enos—wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore. It had been a long day, and Millicent was exhausted. The sadness that fell like a veil over her aunt and uncle’s usually happy home, the bleakness of her mother’s statement on the drive back up to the cabin, then the tiring and unexpected multi-hour performance of “happy family” for the benefit of a wealthy stranger. Altogether, it was about as much as she could physically bear.

Aunt Sissy’s words about finding a sweetheart played in Millicent’s head as she gently rested her cheek against the comforting trunk of a cedar tree. A confidante, a friend, someone who would care for her and receive her care in return, that was someone Millicent would love to meet. But as long as she lived out her days under Spaulding’s thumb, this was unlikely.

It wasn’t safe to be out too long after dark, so with great reluctance Millicent turned her steps toward home. Something caught her eye, and took away her breath. In the silvery light of the rising moon stood her great red stag, not a hundred feet from Millicent. She shivered. The bull elk looked her way and it was as if all the ancient beauty and power of the rainforest was in his dark eyes. He ambled away, unhurried, and Millicent felt she had been blessed.

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