The Last Woman in the Forest

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9780399587047: The Last Woman in the Forest
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From the national bestselling author of Breaking Wild, a riveting and powerful thriller about a woman whose greatest threat could be the man she loves....

Marian Engström has found her true calling: working with rescue dogs to help protect endangered wildlife. Her first assignment takes her to northern Alberta, where she falls in love with her mentor, the daring and brilliant Tate. After they’re separated from each other on another assignment, Marian is shattered to learn of Tate’s tragic death. Worse still is the aftermath in which Marian discovers disturbing inconsistencies about Tate’s life, and begins to wonder if the man she loved could have been responsible for the unsolved murders of at least four women.

Hoping to clear Tate’s name, Marian reaches out to a retired forensic profiler who’s haunted by the open cases. But as Marian relives her relationship with Tate and circles ever closer to the truth, evil stalks her every move....

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About the Author:

Diane Les Becquets, a former professor of English and MFA director, is an avid outdoorswoman, enjoying backpacking off the grid, snowshoeing, archery, and swimming. A native of Nashville, she spent almost fourteen years living in a small Colorado ranching town before moving to New Hampshire. Breaking Wild, her debut novel, was an Indie Next pick.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Diane Les Becquets

 

Prologue

Victim #1

Natasha Freeman

Natasha was the prettiest of all the girls, with long, reddish-brown hair, the color of brindle. She was a little over five foot six, and two inches taller in the boots that she wore. She wasn’t from Montana, though that was where she had lived for the past four and a half years. Natasha was from Massachusetts, where her father still lived in Franklin, one town over from where the Patriots played. Natasha didn’t care for Massachusetts, and she wasn’t a Patriots fan. Natasha was interested in cowboys and had her heart set on marrying one. She didn’t know anything about cattle or ranching, or cowboys for that matter, so she left Massachusetts five years after her mother passed away and drove to towns where cowboys lived. Lately she’d been thinking about moving back to Massachusetts, or somewhere close to Franklin, like New Hampshire, because she missed her father, who had never remarried, and the only cowboy Natasha had loved had left her for someone else.

She would save a little more money, finish her coursework. She would visit her father, find another job. Maybe schools would be hiring.

Natasha and the cowboy had been living on a gentrified ranch outside Montana City. The cowboy didn’t own the ranch, but he helped take care of the cattle, and he and Natasha had a sweet spot in an apartment above the barn. Natasha was working as a teacher’s aide in a second-grade classroom four miles from where they lived. She liked the children and hoped that soon she and the cowboy would marry and have their own family. Two evenings a week, Natasha made the two-hour drive to Missoula where she was enrolled at the University of Montana. The cowboy paid for her classes. He’d said she’d make a good teacher. But he’d gotten lonely on the nights she’d been away, and on the other nights when he’d wanted her to come to bed and she’d stayed up at the kitchen table studying and drinking so much coffee that she didn’t go to bed at all.

She might have forgiven him. He’d said a man had needs. She tried to tell him she was sorry, that she would cut back on her classes, that she would stop staying up so late. But the man wasn’t interested in reconciling. He was interested instead in a woman he’d met, a cute little thing at the feedlot, who had been buying dog food for her allergy-sensitive Irish setter.

That was when Natasha left the cattle and the sweet spot above the barn. She moved into an apartment in Helena that she could afford on her teacher’s aide salary. She continued to make the two-hour drive, two nights a week, to the University of Montana. She didn’t think about cowboys or big skies or the smell of cattle. She’d think of her father and the picture of her mother on the bureau beside his bed. Brian Freeman, who told his daughter she had her mother’s eyes, said he wasn’t lonely even though he missed his daughter. He had his job and his friends. He watched the Patriots and went to church and threw office parties. Natasha wasn’t like her father. She didn’t have any friends. When the cowboy walked out of her life, she’d lost the only friend she’d had.

Natasha liked the class she was taking the spring after the cowboy and the little woman and the Irish setter moved in together. Creative Drama and Dance was offered through the theater department and was required for education majors. The course focused on the use of drama and dance as types of educational tools. Natasha was especially fond of the dance portion of the class. She enjoyed the way the music entered her body and rooted her someplace else, her childhood perhaps, when her mother would sway behind the steering wheel, to the melody of a song on the radio, and her fingers would tap out the tempo as she drove. Her voice would sing off-key and Natasha would change the station. Then her mother would swat her daughter’s hand and laugh and change the station back.

Natasha wondered if her mother had been swaying to the music and singing off-key when she slid on the black ice and crashed into a guardrail. While paramedics rushed to the scene, Natasha waited to be picked up from her seventh-grade CCD confirmation class at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Natasha didn’t own a cell phone then and everyone else at the parish had already left. She thought her mother would be arriving soon and continued to sit on the curb beside the parking lot. She finally gave up waiting when her fingers began to turn numb, and decided to walk the seven miles home. After thirty minutes, she saw Papa Gino’s on her right. She went inside and asked to use a phone. A patron overheard her and said she could use his. She dialed her mother’s number, but the call went to voice mail. Then she called her father. He picked up on the first ring. “Oh, God, oh, God.” He was crying. He said he was sorry. He told her he’d be right there.

 

The Creative Drama and Dance class was supposed to end at nine. It often let out early, and Natasha would stop by one of the clubs where a local band would be playing. She’d order a margarita and find a seat somewhere toward the back of the room. She’d drink her margarita slowly to make it last and let the music loosen up something inside her, all that brokenness that she’d never paid much mind to. She’d find hope on those nights, a brief levity, like a rising tide that would carry her east along Interstate 90 to the exit for Highway 12. She’d head over the highlands, a fifty-mile stretch, to the small apartment she’d yet to call home. As she drove she’d hum tunes from whichever club she’d been at and imagine a life different from the one she had. Maybe she’d marry a teacher, or an electrician, or a dentist like her dad.

 

These were Natasha’s thoughts on that cold Wednesday evening in early December. She’d been listening to music at the Top Hat on West Front Street. She’d even ordered a second drink. She’d liked the band that was playing. After she’d listened to the band and had begun to make the drive to Helena, she’d felt her sadness lift more than it had on previous days.

By the time she took the exit for Highway 12 it was later than usual for her, just past eleven, and there was little traffic, only a solitary vehicle here and there. That was why she was startled when a truck came up behind her and flashed its lights. She was a couple of miles outside the little town of Elliston, with about a half hour more to go to her apartment. She thought the driver behind her might want to pass, so she slowed down and veered onto the shoulder. But she’d forgotten about the warmer temperatures that day. She hadn’t anticipated how soft the shoulder would be. Her right front tire sank a good several inches and then began to spin. Within seconds her back right tire was spinning as well. The truck that had been flashing its lights had already sped on. Natasha kept a shovel in the extra cab of her truck. She climbed out, opened the extra cab extension door, and retrieved the shovel. She wasn’t worried. She’d gotten stuck before, and despite the fact that the sky was dark and she didn’t have a lot of room on the shoulder to work, she was still in a good mood. She dug slush and mud out from around the right front tire, but no matter how much she dug, the ground remained soft.

For a moment she thought of the cowboy and wished she could call him for help. But then she thought of the cowboy’s girlfriend. She would call for a tow truck before she would call her ex-boyfriend, even though she knew the tow truck would cost her more than what she had in her bank account.

After fifteen minutes, she heard a vehicle approaching from behind her and soon saw the headlights of a truck coming around the corner. She’d left her own vehicle running and the lights on so that other vehicles would see her. The truck pulled up beside her. The passenger window was rolled down. A man’s voice spoke to her through the rolled-down window, though Natasha couldn’t see the man’s face.

“I’ve got a chain in the back of my truck,” the man said. “How about I give you a hand?”

The man pulled up just ahead of her truck and got out. He lowered his tailgate and retrieved the heavy chain. He walked to the front of Natasha’s truck, and as he did, she heard another vehicle approaching, this time from the opposite direction. The vehicle was a midsize SUV carrying an older couple. The passenger, a woman who looked to be in her sixties, rolled down her window and asked Natasha and the man if they needed help.

“We’re good,” the man said.

“But thank you,” Natasha said. She almost asked if the couple would wait until her truck had been pulled back onto the road. She wasn’t sure how comfortable she was being alone with this man whom she didn’t know. But she looked at her watch, and it was already going on midnight. The couple was no doubt tired and ready to get home, so Natasha just stood there and waved at the couple as they drove away.

The man said he’d have her on the road in no time. He hooked the chain to her truck’s front axle. “Where are you coming from to be out so late?” he asked her.

She’d been hoping he wouldn’t try to make conversation, but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful or appear rude, so she told him about her class.

“I take night classes there, too,” he said. “I thought you looked familiar.”

Natasha felt herself breathe more easily then. This man was also a student, which she took as a good sign.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

While they stood there and talked, Natasha’s truck was still running. Maybe it was because she was tired and it was late, or because of that second drink she’d had, but she’d forgotten how low on fuel her vehicle was. She climbed in her truck and shifted it into drive so that the man could pull her out of the soft shoulder. That was when she saw that the fuel gauge needle was just a hair above empty. She knew she might not have enough gas to drive the twenty miles or more over the mountains and back to her apartment.

She had enjoyed talking to the man. She’d already thanked him for pulling over to help her. She’d learned that he was taking classes in engineering, that he had an apartment in Missoula but was driving to Helena to visit his parents. She’d told him it was nice that he was close to his parents and that she missed her father, who was back home in Massachusetts. The man asked her about her mother, and she felt an awakened melancholy that the man seemed to register. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Something terrible must have happened.”

The man drove forward, pulling Natasha’s truck back onto the road. At that time another truck approached from the opposite direction. Natasha waved the vehicle on when it slowed down.

Then the man who had helped her climbed out of his vehicle and walked back toward Natasha. “How are you holding up on fuel?” he asked her.

He looked at her fuel gauge before she had a chance to answer and told her to follow him up the road a ways to a pull-off. Then he would give her a ride back to the Elliston Store, which had a fuel station. He said he had a five-gallon gas container in his truck. At first Natasha insisted that she had enough gas to make it back to the store on her own. The man seemed concerned. What if she didn’t make it, or the pump was out of order? He assured her he didn’t mind giving her a ride. Natasha thought the man was handsome and she didn’t want to offend him. She even thought they might be flirting with each other, which she told herself wasn’t a good idea.

He removed the chain and returned it to his truck. As he pulled forward Natasha followed him. The alcohol had worn off and the sky was black. She’d stayed up way too late studying the night before. She was tired and eager to get back to her apartment and turn in.

In a few hundred yards, the man pulled off at a gravel section where in daylight people could view the Continental Divide. Natasha pulled up beside him. She could turn around and head back to Elliston on her own, and yet she was being foolish. She hadn’t found a reason not to trust this man. She even entertained the thought of them meeting up after class one night and having a drink together. She shut off her ignition, climbed out, and locked her doors. With her keys in her hand, she walked around her truck and over to the man’s vehicle. She opened the passenger door and when she did the interior lights came on that allowed her to see into the extra cab, as well as the bed of the truck. She didn’t see a fuel container. The air tightened in her chest for as long as a second. But then she saw a heavy coat in the backseat and thought there might be a fuel container beneath the coat. With that in mind, she climbed into the truck and shut the door. The man was smiling at her. His eyes looked kind and helpful. She realized once more how handsome he was.

“All set?” the man said.

Natasha nodded. She wore purple knit gloves on her hands. After she fastened her seat belt, she tucked her hands beneath her legs and stared straight ahead.

The man pulled back onto the highway and drove west toward Elliston. He continued to talk to her in a friendly way. How did she like her classes? What made her want to be a teacher, and how honorable he thought that was that she wanted to work with kids.

But then as they approached a gentle curve, the man slowed down more than Natasha thought was necessary. He turned left onto Little Blackfoot River Road.

Natasha’s palms turned clammy inside her gloves and she asked the man what he was doing. He just wanted to check on something, he told her.

“This isn’t the way to Elliston,” Natasha said. She reached for the door with her right hand, but when she did so, she heard the locks click.

“I wouldn’t do that,” the man said.

She reached again for the door and tried to unlock it, but the man’s arm shot out across her chest and pinned her to the back of the seat, and in his right hand was a knife with a blade about four inches long that was angled precariously close to her neck.

“Don’t move,” he said in a voice that was tight and loud.

She tried to speak calmly. “What are you doing?”

“We’re going to help each other out,” he said. “You help me, and I will make sure you get on your way.”

When the truck stopped, she struggled to turn her shoulder away from the man. She reached for the door with both hands, but the man was quicker than she. He’d shut off the engine and whipped his right arm over her head and around her neck, the knife still in his hand, and pulled her away from the door. Now his left arm was free, and he wrapped that arm around her as well. He pulled her across the seat toward him. She screamed and kicked her feet against the glass.

“Shut up!” he yelled.

She tried to bite his arm, but he was still wearing the denim coat and leather gloves.

He dragged her out of the truck, kicked the door shut behind him, and pulled her around the vehicle, his left hand now held over her mouth. She smelled the rust from the chain he had held earlier and the cold air and her own fear. She tasted blood from her mouth from where she had bitten down on the inside of her cheek.

As he hauled her downhill in...

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