The first book in the Dare Lake Trilogy is coming soon!
Every Monday, Dellanee Mason hiked up Dare Mountain Road as far as she could before snow banks barricaded further progress, and every week since the beginning of June, she’d gained a little more altitude. She estimated in another week or so, maybe by the fourth of July, she’d be able to reach her destination, the lake near the top of the mountain. In the middle of the lake was a small bit of land. For years, she’d heard about the house on the island. The mountain, the lake, and the house belonged to her, and she wanted to possess them in the same way knowledge of their existence had possessed her from the moment she’d first become aware of them.
For months she had kept her mouth shut about why she had moved to Dare Lake, Colorado. Her co-workers assumed she was just another seasonal drifter. They probably expected her to move south to the beaches of Florida for the summer, but she wouldn’t. Dellanee was planning on hanging around town indefinitely. Besides, her car would have never made it all the way to the Gulf coast had it lived long enough to attempt the multi-day drive south.
She had gotten the hostess job at the only steak restaurant in town, just as the first snows began to fall in late September. But now it was June, and fewer and fewer customers wandered into the Dare Lake Bar & Grill as ski season melted away with the spring thaw.
Winter was making one last effort to remain alive. A useless effort. Spring was already sending shoots of new life up through thin patches of snow and popping up around the rivulets of run-off coming down the mountainside. The waterfall high up on the pass above the town barreled down the chasm at full volume, splashing and bouncing off huge boulders in its path. The tops of the mountains on either side of the valley were still white, but patches of green were starting to appear at the lower elevations. The snow pack on the runs was getting thinner and thinner, wetter and wetter.
Some nights, the restaurant closed early when the last customers left. The owner lived in Denver, and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. The manager, who was really the bartender, didn’t care. It was usually his suggestion to call it a night. Most of the night crew ended up at Joe’s Bar up the highway. Dellanee rarely joined them. Alcohol had a way of making her divulge things she shouldn’t reveal.
The hour was pushing nine when the front door swooshed open with a blast of frigid air. Dellanee sighed and dropped the bar towel in the basket beneath the counter.
The man hesitated just inside the door. When their eyes met, he acted shocked, as if he were surprised to see her, but the expression on his face quickly disappeared. He smiled, and it seemed the man’s cheeks were mostly dimples. “Are you closed?”
Something about him was vaguely familiar, but she would swear she’d never met him before. “We’re still open. Choose a seat. Wherever you like.”
He glanced around the empty dining room and chose a table near the fireplace.
Dellanee followed and moved past him to stoke up the fire. When she turned toward him again, she tried her best to hide her disappointment that she wouldn’t be able to go home as soon as she’d hoped. All of the wait staff had already left, so it was up to her to serve this guy. “What can I get you to drink?”
“Water with lemon.” He paused for a moment. “I have an early morning tomorrow.”
What was there to do in Dare Lake that the man needed to rise early? She lifted her eyebrows even though the stranger owed her no explanation. Of course, he was sort of apologizing for not ordering something besides water. She could have told him she couldn’t care less what he drank. She shoved a menu at him and headed for the bar to pour his water. After she’d hung a lemon wedge on the rim, she returned to his table.
He lifted his gaze from the menu and stared at her with brilliant blue eyes. “What’s the house specialty?”
Dellanee graced him with another lift of her eyebrows. Surely he was kidding. “Steak.”
He laughed, and it seemed his laughter filled the dining room. Not a sarcastic laugh. A warm laugh. The kind of laugh that people who know each other intimately share when they are comfortable with each other. “Well, yeah. This is a steak place. So…” He opened the menu and studied the short list of steak cuts. “I’ll have a ribeye. Medium. With a baked potato, loaded.”
“You get another side.”
She shook her head. “We’re out of broccoli.”
He grinned. “Okay, let’s make this easy. What do you have left tonight?”
“You should probably forget the baked potato and go for the French fries. Stu will drop some fresh for you.”
“Steak and fries. Okay, then.”
She smiled at him because his smile made her want to smile. “We’ll get that right out to you.” She started to walk away and then stopped and turned to face him. “Piece of cheesecake on the house.”
He leaned back and studied her. “That’s very generous, considering I came in late and disrupted your closing routine.”
A crazy thought popped into her head. “Did the owner send you here to check up on us?”
“No.” He didn’t deny knowing the owner.
Dellanee bit her tongue to keep from asking him why he was in Dare Lake.
Twenty minutes later, she set his meal in front of him and headed to the bar to finish her closing routine, but his comment, that sounded more like a question, stopped her in mid-stride. “I’ve heard this building is haunted.”
She shifted so she could catch the expression on his face.
“Is it true?” He was more than mildly curious.
“I haven’t seen any ghosts.”
“But others have?”
She hadn’t said that, but she was aware that her comment was open to interpretation. “That’s what I’ve heard.” She tried to keep her expression neutral. “I wasn’t here when any of that was supposed to have happened, and I haven’t met anyone who was.”
“So the stories are…”
“Just stories.” She hadn’t heard any of the rumors until after she’d accepted the job.
“Are there any other places around here that are haunted?”
His question set her early warning system off. Of course, there were other rumors about strange things that happened. Maybe not ghost stories, but other rumors that hinted at things that weren’t normal. She didn’t want him asking about those things. She had her reasons.
She smirked. “Are you a ghost hunter?”
“No, I’m not. I’m just curious. A lot of these old west towns have ghost stories.” His words said one thing; his voice said another. He was more than just curious. This man had an underlying motive for asking his questions.
Dare Lake wasn’t that old. The current town had been in existence less than fifty years. It had been built to service the ski slopes on the north face of Dare Mountain. The abandoned mining town called Dare Lake was high up the mountain, past the lake for which it was named, and near the end of Dare Mountain Road. One day when the snow had thawed enough, she would find the lake, explore the house on the island, and hike up to the ghost town. There was something up the mountain she wanted, more than anything, and it could be anywhere up there: in the ghost town, in the house on the island, or under a rock. Anywhere.
She left the man to finish his meal, but his probing questions wouldn’t leave her for days.
That night, Dellanee stared out her kitchen window into the darkness. She lifted a glass of water to her lips, stopped before taking a sip, and listened. No. Just her imagination…this time. But she had heard strange noises coming from up the road many times. Usually in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep.
The water cooled her parched throat. She hoped she wasn’t coming down with a cold. It would be her first since moving to Dare Lake. She didn’t want to miss work and lose the money she would have earned for the days she was out. Even though she had access to money back in Boston, she didn’t dare use any of it because she didn’t want to be traced to Colorado. So she tried to live on what she earned from the restaurant, which wasn’t an easy thing when she’d been used to never worrying about money.
Not that she was extravagant. She had tried to live simply because she hadn’t earned the money she lived on in Boston. Once she realized where the funds had come from, she had refused to touch any of the generous allowance deposited into her bank account from the trust fund every month. That money had blood on it.
The bartender/manager had dropped her off at her house on his way down the road to a bar that locals favored over the nicer establishments on the highway near the resort. He had tried to talk her into coming along with him. Everyone on the night shift would be there, so he said. She couldn’t count on that. Patch gave her the creeps, and she didn’t want to be alone with him any more than necessary. Sometimes he was the only ride she could get to and from work. She didn’t like depending on anyone, especially Patch.
She lived in a house on the edge of town, just where the highway took a turn west. A narrow winding track that curved and switch-backed up the mountain veered the other direction at the curve in the highway. A person wouldn’t know the gravel and dirt road was there if they weren’t looking for it. Dellanee had known exactly where the cut off was before she had moved there. Her Uncle Dave had told her all about Dare Lake before he died from emphysema.
Dave hadn’t been dead that long. She still grieved him. He’d passed on to the other side of life without finding what he had been searching for. That saddened Dellanee every time she thought about his bitter disappointment. She had made it her mission to finish what Dave had started. He hadn’t asked that of her. In fact, he probably would have begged her to promise that she wouldn’t. But here she was. Doing exactly what Dave wouldn’t have wanted.
Whenever she was at home, she watched the mountain road from her front porch when the weather wasn’t freezing or from her kitchen window when it was too cold to tolerate being outside. No one ever ventured up the road. Not while she was at home anyway. Probably because at the quarter-mile mark the track had been covered in four to six feet of snow. Progress from that point would be difficult enough on foot, if not impossible, during the dead of winter. Not even a four-wheel-drive vehicle could navigate the tight, curving, ice and snow-covered passage. The road supposedly hit a dead-end at the ghost town and didn’t continue on over the pass to the other side of the mountain.
The first snowfall of the season had come early that year in the first week of September. By the time she had settled into her house and found a job, the snow was already too deep for her to hike all the way up the road. Maybe she could have driven up there, if her car had been four-wheel drive, which it wasn’t, and if it hadn’t gasped its last breath shortly after she had arrived in Dare Lake.
Her first week in town, she had trekked up the road until the snow had stopped her. She’d had no choice but to turn back and patiently wait for the spring thaw. Patience was not one of her strengths. What was the Biblical word for it? Long-suffering. Her Catholic school education had stored the phrase in her vocabulary vault to be brought out occasionally when it was necessary to resuscitate her guilt. Dellanee was not emotionally or mentally equipped for long-suffering. The interminable winter was teaching her how to wait. Funny. The winters had been long when she was growing up, but those seasons of her life hadn’t seemed to produce so much impatience.
Most of the locals pretended the narrow road up the mountain didn’t exist or they didn’t know anything about where it led. Oh yeah, she’d asked a few people, pretending interest because she lived next to the cutoff. For a bunch of people that knew everything about everything, they could get pretty vague when it came to Dare Mountain. From what little she’d been told, there were some strong superstitions surrounding the mountain. Fear crept into voices. Something had happened up there, and the people who might know anything about that didn’t want to talk about it.
Spring might inspire an adventurer or two, some of those city souls who came up to the mountains to prove they knew how to get back to nature. If they came to her door asking questions, she’d be ready for them with non-answers. She hoped to catch who went up the road and more importantly who came back down. That’s why she’d agreed to work the night shift at the steak house. So she could watch the mountain during the day. Most people wouldn’t dare go up there at night.
She placed her empty glass in the sink and peered into the night. Her back window faced the thick woods and the lower elevations of Dare Mountain. Was that a flash of light? She waited. Held her breath. Would it appear again? When it didn’t reappear, she turned and headed toward her bedroom to get ready for bed. But she didn’t think she’d sleep. Not tonight. The glasses in her cabinet were rattling, which meant the mountain was trembling again. Most nights the subtle vibrating lulled her to sleep, but tonight, for some as yet undefined reason, she was sure it would keep her awake.
A few days had passed. Dellanee had seen the man around town—new people hanging around for days and days without skis were noticed—but he hadn’t come back into the restaurant. Once or twice she could have sworn he was watching her. Every time she saw him, his eyes seemed to be on her. And every time she’d catch him, he’d look away as if he hadn’t seen her. She had convinced herself she was being paranoid because that was what she did best. Being a Mason had taught her paranoia.
She pushed open the door of Sid’s Market. The place was more like a convenience store than a grocery. Sid kept necessities stocked, and that was about it. The market was popular with the locals because it was around the corner and out of sight from the main street through town. Visitors often overlooked it. That was fine with Sid. He had expressed his opinion of out-of-towners often enough. When she’d first moved to Dare Lake, he’d snapped his mouth shut when she walked through the door. But over time, he’d kept right on talking. Dellanee supposed her presence in town was now tolerated, a step up from the side eye she got from almost everyone for the first two months she lived in Dare Lake.
“Hey, Dellanee?” So Sid knew her name.
She turned toward him with a loaf of bread in one hand and a half-gallon of milk in the other and lifted her eyebrows.
“Who’s that new guy hanging around town?”
She played ignorant. “What new guy?” And how was she supposed to know who he was talking about? Except, she probably did.
“He’s asking all sorts of questions about the restaurant.” He leaned across the counter and pretended to whisper. “Do you think he’s wanting to buy the Grill?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything like that.” What was it to Sid if the Grill sold? He never patronized the restaurant. “What kind of questions is he asking?” Would Sid tell her the truth?
“He thinks the building is haunted.”
She couldn’t pretend like she didn’t know who Sid was talking about anymore. “Oh, that guy.” She rolled her eyes. “He came in and said he’d heard the place was haunted.”
Sid’s face glowed with curiosity. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him…” She paused, just long enough to make impatience pop in Sid’s stare. “That I’d heard stories, but all of that was supposed to have happened before I came to town, so I didn’t really know anything about it. I haven’t seen or heard anything. I think that kind of stuff is ridiculous anyway. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Sid rubbed his hand across his wrinkled, stained t-shirt, the one he wore all the time with the ZZ Top logo on it. “Who told you those stories?”
Interesting that he hadn’t asked what stories she’d heard, just who had told them. Nobody had actually told her anything, but she’d overheard a lot. Dellanee stared at Sid. She waited a few seconds. Someone was about to be in trouble for talking. She knew what that vibe felt like.
“I overheard some things.” She wasn’t going to rat anyone out. Not to Sid. She plopped her bread and milk on the counter in front of him. He didn’t make a move to ring up her groceries. She pointed at the items. “Can you check me out? I’m running late.” She had to stop by the house and drop the stuff off before heading back out to work.
If she didn’t pick up the milk and bread before work, the store would be closed when she got off, and there was practically nothing left in the house to eat. She needed her paycheck and the few tips she would make that night before she could do a serious shopping trip at the only supermarket in town. Waiting for payday wasn’t easy, but it was a point of pride for her.
Sid rang up her order but was clearly unhappy that she hadn’t given up any more information about who was talking about the haunting of Dare Lake Bar & Grill.
When Dellanee slipped into work fifteen minutes late, the new man in town was sitting at the bar with one hand wrapped around a beer mug. His eyes caught hers for a second. He quickly turned his attention back to the bartender. Patch was carrying on about something or other. He could drone on about nothing longer than anyone she’d ever met. Dellanee tolerated his blather, but his constant chatter just about drove the cook out of his mind. That’s why Stu stayed in the kitchen.
Dellanee might arrive late every day, but Patch would always leave early, and if Patch left early, everybody left early. Patch held the only set of keys to the place. They had this unspoken understanding that neither would rat out the other to the boss, not that Dellanee had any contact with the boss anyway. The rest of the staff wouldn’t talk about their bad work ethic either. Their work habits might not bear scrutiny. All of them were a bit scared of the restaurant’s owner. None of them wanted to give the man any reason to cease his absentee ownership and become more involved in the day-to-day operations of the Grill. They didn’t know much about him, but what they’d heard was all bad. So they covered for each other.
It had just gone four-fifteen, so the restaurant wouldn’t begin to fill with early diners for another forty-five minutes or so. The older folk would come in early so they could go to bed early so they could get up early so they could make good time getting on down the road. Dare Lake was only a stop in a longer journey for the road warriors just passing through, unlike those who came to the mountain during ski season. Skiers showed up fashionably late in the evening around eightish. They tended to drink heavier, talk louder, and tip less. She would have thought the retirees would have been more frugal than the crowd with the larger disposable income. The retirees quietly complained; the bad tippers complained at the top of the lungs, often asking for the manger. Patch didn’t care how much anyone complained about anything. He never comped anyone.
Dellanee began her nightly routine. Setting out menus, napkins, and silverware for the first guests seated. Lighting the candles in the center of the tables. Stoking up the fire. She wiped the dry-erase markings from the seating chart. The day shift hostess never cleaned up her mess or set up for the next shift.
She walked a few menus over to the bar, just in case a bar patron asked Patch for one.
The man and Patch were in deep conversation.
“Someone told me strange things happen on Dare Mountain.”
“What kind of things?” Patch was playing ignorant.
The new man in town leaned toward him. “Like floating lights and high-pitched howling and weird-shaped shadows. Is it true? Do you know anyone who’s seen or heard anything strange up on the mountain?”
Patch wiped some imaginary spilled liquid from the bar. “I haven’t heard anything like that myself. Have you, Dell? You live out there where the road goes up the mountain, don’t you?” He knew damned well that she did. He’d dropped her off and picked her up at her front walk a bajillion times.
She didn’t like being called Dell. Her father had called her that when he was angry with her and couldn’t quite spit her whole name out of his foul mouth. When he was drunk and wanting to fight someone. Her brother had taken the brunt of their father’s abuse until the day Jim Mason had gone to jail and his brother Dave had taken in his children. None of them had seen Dellanee’s mother in twenty years. She certainly wasn’t around when her husband was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Dellanee glared at Patch. Why did he give the weird new man in town directions to her house?
The man turned his steady gaze on her. Electric anticipation sizzled through her. It wasn’t sexual. It was a different sort of connection. Some would say a spiritual connection. She didn’t believe in that stuff. She wanted to shrug it off. Discount it. What she’d just felt…just her imagination.
“There isn’t anything happening on the mountain. That’s just talk.” She hoped she sounded convincing because once again she’d told a big, whopping lie. She had seen something in the distance, up the mountain, that she couldn’t explain. She’d heard noises that didn’t sound natural. More than a few times. She’d felt a restless energy that kept her awake at night. Kept her expectant and on edge. The mountain hummed and vibrated beneath her. As if it were alive. How could she explain how the mountain made her feel without sounding like she was one of those tinfoil hat people?
“Why is the town named Dare Lake? There’s no lake here.”
Patch grabbed a glass and polished, rubbing harder than necessary. “There is a lake here.” He cut his eyes westward. “Near the top of the mountain.”
“You’ve seen it?” The new man seemed unnaturally anxious to get Patch’s answer.
“Never been up there.”
“You know anyone who’s gone all the way up the road?”
Patch snorted with derision. “A bunch of high school kids crapped their pants up there one summer awhile back.”
“So what happened to them?”
Patch shrugged. “Dunno. They won’t talk about it. Must’ve been bad though. If they were that freaked out.”
This was the first Dellanee had heard of the incident. She glanced toward Patch and caught his gaze for a half-second. The gleam in his eyes suggested he was making the whole thing up. She wished he wouldn’t do that.
“Who owns the mountain?” Impatience had edged into the new man’s voice. He sounded almost like a cop interviewing a reluctant witness.
Dellanee froze, her heart racing.
Patch’s thinking face appeared. “Well, I suppose the ski resort owns the mountain.”
“Fifty years ago they signed a lease. They’ve been paying rent to a management company, but their lease is about to run out.” So the man had done some research. “So do you know who owns Delmco Management?” Did he really expect an answer?
Patch frowned. “Never heard of Delmco Management.”
The man turned toward Dellanee. “What about you?”
Her heart skipped a beat. “What about me?”
He smiled as if he read the thoughts zooming through her mind. “Do you know who owns the mountain or the management company?”
Her eyes met his. “I’m a hostess at a steak house. What would I know about things like that?” She held his gaze. “Why do you want to know who owns the mountain?”
He extended his hand to her. “Michael Johnson.” He said his name as if she should recognize it and automatically know why he was stirring up trouble. Should Michael Johnson mean anything to her?
She reached to shake his hand. When their fingers touched, a rush of electric energy flowed between them, like her secrets were passing to him and his to her. Only his touch hadn’t revealed anything except a physical attraction that she could ignore if she wanted to. She pulled her hand back, not willing to give anything of herself away, equally unwilling to receive anything from him. “Dellanee.”
“Nice to meet you, Dell.”
“It’s Dellanee. Nobody calls me Dell. Ever.” She shot Patch a mean scowl. “Not if they want me to be nice to them.” She wasn’t Dell. Never had been. Never would be. Dell was dead. “How long are you going to be in town?” Not a polite question to ask if she wasn’t interested in him on a personal level. She was and she wasn’t. And as long as she had mixed feelings about that…well, as her Uncle Dave used to say, when in doubt leave it out.
Michael’s smile widened into a grin. “I’ll be in town a while longer. Maybe we could—”
“Not happening.” She walked away before she changed her mind. Curiosity demanded she find out what this man was doing in town and why he was asking the questions he was asking. Caution pushed her to stay away from him. Michael Johnson was the kind of trouble her Uncle Dave had warned her about.