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Wild Homecoming (Dark Pines Pride Book 1) by Liza Street (1)

Chapter One

While the Ford Raptor barreled over the mountains, Jackson stared at the road through the windshield, looking between Will and Hayley, his brother and sister, who sat in the front seats. They were quickly approaching the Washington border. So close to home. But as always, they’d careen right past it and head up to Canada.

Always on the run. But after driving around the US for four years, it was hard to feel any fear. If the boogeymen were still after the Jaynes siblings, they’d have caught up by now.

Jackson’s phone buzzed in his lap, and he glanced at the screen. Another notification from one of the Licorice Fiddles’ social media accounts. His sister turned around, watching him from the front seat, while he unlocked his phone and scrolled through the comments on SocialBook.

“Didn’t you just check that?” she asked, her bright blue eyes narrowed in judgment.

“Hayley,” he said. “It’s my job.”

“Dick nozzle,” she said, her voice affectionate, “they don’t pay you to monitor their online stuff all the time.”

“What else am I gonna do?” He gestured at the constantly changing scenery beyond Will’s giant pick-up truck. Now, it was autumn, and the deciduous trees were changing color, peppered in among the evergreens.

Will, as always, drove with his hands looking relaxed on the steering wheel, although Jackson knew “relaxed” wasn’t possible with Will.

“I don’t know what else you could do,” Hayley said. “Get a life of your own, maybe?”

He flipped her off, and she flipped him off, and then she turned around to face the front of the truck.

The message icon at the top of his screen lit up—a personal message, not something intended for the band whose accounts he managed.

SMG: Where are you today, Mr. Globetrotter?

Jackson’s heart lifted in his chest, and he had to look outside to make sure it wasn’t because of a sudden rise and drop in the road. Nope, there was nothing wrong with the road. He was just reacting to another message from Summer.

JRJ: Approaching the Washington border and fighting with my little sister. #FamilyRoadTrip #FromHell

She sent back a laughing emoji.

He noticed she didn’t ask whether his family would be stopping near Huntwood.

The little town of Huntwood, with its nearby Paris Lake, was what he and Summer had in common, and it was the element that had kickstarted their online correspondence. She lived there now, and up until four years ago, Jackson had lived there his whole life. Huntwood had been the closest town to his family’s territory of Dark Pines, which bordered the lake.

He thought for a second, then messaged her again.

JRJ: What I wouldn’t give to see your real smile.

She didn’t respond. Maybe he was coming on too strong. He’d been exchanging private messages with Summer for two months now, and any time he got too personal, she’d disappear for hours or even a full two days. But he couldn’t help wanting to get to know her better.

She wouldn’t give him her last name. That was fine—he didn’t want to pry for personal details that made her uncomfortable. But what did she look like? Her profile on SocialBook was a faraway shot of her standing by the lake he’d grown up next to. She was wearing jeans and a pink sweatshirt, and a big floppy hat that shadowed her face.

He hated that fucking hat. He wanted to see her eyes, see her smile.

His phone had gone black while he waited. Maybe she wouldn’t respond. He cursed his impatience—he should stop saying things about wanting to meet her, wanting to know more about her.

Suddenly, a notice had his phone buzzing again.

Hayley turned around in the front seat and hissed at him. “I swear I’m gonna take that phone and chuck it out the window.”

He curled his arms around the phone protectively, because he believed her. She’d done it before, somewhere in Louisiana or Florida—he couldn’t remember the exact state, just that there had been swamps and alligators. At least Will had made her buy him a new phone.

Jackson was twenty-five, Hayley twenty-one. And Will, at twenty-nine, was pretty much parenting them. It was messed up. Jackson wanted out. He wanted to stop running from place to place, and find a territory, and settle down again.

Sighing, he pulled up the message app again. Then he laughed. In response to his message about wanting to see her real smile, she’d sent him an image. There was a smile there, all right—the smile of a yawning elephant seal.

JRJ: Hilarious.

SMG: I know, right?

He stared at the message screen for a minute. They were so close to his family’s territory—or they would be, as they went up through Oregon toward Washington. Maybe he could stop by the Dark Pines territory. See Summer in Huntwood, if she’d agree to that. Visit Paris Lake again, the lake where their parents had taken them every weekend in the summer for picnics and swimming.

JRJ: Hey, Summer, do you know anyone by the last name of Clausen in the area?

SMG: I don’t know anyone personally. Are you trying to get in touch with an old friend?

Something like that. He wrote back, Just want to know if they’re still around anymore. My family knew theirs pretty well.

Until the Clausens had decimated the Jaynes family, tearing the Dark Pines Pride apart forever.

SMG: You want me to ask around? I talk to a lot of different people each day.

JRJ: That’s the closest you’ve ever come to telling me what you do.

SMG: Yep. Vague for a reason, buster. Doesn’t matter how many puppy dog eyes you send me.

JRJ: A man has to live in hope.

She sent another smiling emoji, then her “online” status changed to “offline.”

And that was the end of that. He went into the account of the Licorice Fiddles and responded to comments, then posted a clip of them performing. He responded to a couple of bloggers who wanted to get interviews with the band, and then he brainstormed some posts for the next week, gathering clips and quotes to use across all of their social media accounts.

Every few minutes, he went back to SocialBook to look at the photo Summer had sent him. A smiling elephant seal. Maybe she actually did look like an elephant seal, to some extent. Would that bother him?

Not really, he decided. As long as she had the personality she presented in their SocialBook messages, he still wanted to meet her.