In Strange Woods
by Claire Cray
Release Date: August 28, 2020
Cover Artist: Sneaky T
Genre/s: Contemporary M/M Romantic Mystery, M/M Gothic Romance
Trope/s: Instant attraction, Hurt comfort, Tortured protagonist, Family secret, Long lost relative, Country boy/City boy, Rural romance, Fish out of water
Themes: Healing, Found family, Redemption, Heritage, Belonging, Homecoming
Heat Rating: 3 - 4 flames
Length: 71 370 words /204 pages
It is a standalone book.
Buy Links - Available on Kindle Unlimited
In the stormy coastal woods of the Pacific Northwest,
roots run deep and passions run wild.
Reeling with grief after the mysterious massacre of his wealthy family, moody New York photographer James Worthington Crane decides to take his downward spiral somewhere far away: to the rural Oregon Coast, where he’s just inherited a random piece of property hidden somewhere in the woods upriver.
But when James pulls into the decaying seaside town of Brooks, everyone thinks he’s someone else—an elusive local outlaw named Beau. Now James must fight through his grief to unravel a tangled web of family secrets and forgotten history...with help from a soft-spoken local hunk named Hunter Quaid.
Hunter’s been on his own since he left his fundamentalist family at the age of fifteen. It’s taken years of hard work to build the steady life he has now, fixing up seaside houses while living alone in a trailer by the river. Then James blows in like a winter storm, disturbing the peace and stirring up a hunger like nothing he's ever felt.
As Hunter helps James search for the truth, their lives intertwine in unexpected ways—and they begin to discover what it means to find out where you really belong.
Hunter pulled his truck into one of the slanted parking spaces along the Brooks sea wall and turned off the ignition, cutting off Bobbie Gentry in the middle of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ to let the roar of the waves take over. It was windy out, and he took a second to rake his dark-blond hair into a stubby ponytail at the nape of his neck before getting out of the truck.
His work boots hit the asphalt with a heavy thud, and he strolled over to the rustic stone barricade to look out at the dark ocean. A wave immediately exploded up in front of him, white foam fanning out and dissolving like a burst of fireworks, and he filled his lungs with the sharp, salty air. It never got old, no matter how many times he came here. None of it did, though. Not the trees, the rivers, the sunsets, the storms. This rugged little chunk of the coast had been his most consistent, and sometimes his only, source of joy since the first summer his parents dropped him off at his grandma’s place upriver, where he now lived alone.
Today had been long as hell, but satisfying. He was in the middle of renovating a beautiful midcentury house on Cedar Crest, a wooded cliffside high up on the north edge of town. It was the biggest project he’d ever landed since striking out on his own as a contractor, and it was turning out to be a dream come true. The owner was some Portland banker who didn’t give a sh*t what he did as long as he stayed within budget, and Hunter relished the freedom to make actual design choices.
Matter of fact, life was pretty good these days, wasn’t it? Business was good, anyway, and that was a lot. Yeah. Steady work with nobody telling him what to do, a place to sleep by the river, all the ocean air he wanted every day…what more could he ask for? There was a time when he wouldn’t have dared to dream so—
A car alarm went off suddenly, jarring him from his thoughts, and he turned his head. Several seagulls were scattering noisily from the sea wall near a black hatchback several spaces away, its horn blasting and lights flashing. He couldn’t see what had set it off. A nosy gull, maybe, or the splash of a wave. At any rate, that wrapped up his relaxing after-work sit by the ocean.
But just as he was about to turn back to his truck, the driver’s side door of the hatchback clunked open and slowly creaked ajar.
Hunter watched, intrigued, as a hand slipped out through the crack, followed by an arm, and then a mop of wavy dark hair. Then, to his amazement, an entire tall, slim man slid out onto the pavement, pooling there in a tangle of long limbs and dark clothing.
The alarm was still making a ruckus. The man groaned low and rolled to his side, wrestling with himself for a moment before yanking a key fob out of his back pocket. He jabbed it toward the car several times until the alarm stopped, then fell on his back with an unintelligible mutter. Just then, a big wave spouted over the wall and showered him with seawater.
Hunter winced sympathetically. Hell of a place to be drunk off your ass. Dude definitely wasn’t from around here. He looked about Hunter’s age, stylish in a cool, classic kind of way. Black jeans, black boots, battered brown leather jacket. Nothing flashy, but obviously outside the local dress code of Carhartts, hooded sweatshirts, and rain gear. Hunter couldn’t help admiring the long lines of the stranger’s body, his carelessly tousled hair.
With a shake of his head and a soft sigh, he turned his gaze back toward the ocean again. Life was good, and all. He loved it here. So what if it wasn’t overflowing with romantic options for a quiet gay man with a taste for tall, slim guys dressed like drifters from the 1960s? No one got to have it all.
Life is good, he told himself stubbornly. Life is fine. Life’s going just great.
The sound of an approaching engine made him glance back over his shoulder, and suddenly he sprang into motion before he could think.
The drunk man was staggering onto the highway, his dark silhouette backlit by the high beams of a log truck that was roaring around the bend.
Another half-second would have been too late. The driver didn’t even seem to see them. The air from the passing truck threw him off balance as he yanked the drunken dumbass out of the road, and they both fell back on the pavement.
“You okay?” Hunter asked breathlessly.
I’m normally not much of a mystery book reader, but something about this story caught my eye and said “read me”…and I’m really glad I did. Yes, there was a bit of a mystery revolving around the murder of James’s family, along with the mystery of whoever in the small town to which he escapes that everyone there seems to think he is. But more prevalent—at least for me—was the hurt/comfort theme of James trying to cope with the murders, and Hunter offering that comfort which James so desperately needs.
I was hooked from the start, and both James and Hunter’s characters were so easy to become attached to with every page read. I can’t imagine the pain James was going through. Then to add on top of that the unknown person in town for whom he apparently is a dead ringer? The weight on his shoulders was massive. Hunter though is the perfect balm for all of this, and is everything James needs—and not just in the moment.
As the intrigue with his lookalike comes to the forefront, it opens up so much more about his family. I do admit—I was worried at first. And while I did figure things out before they were revealed in the story, getting to that reveal was a treat.
As for James and Hunter together, everything about them just clicks…and don’t even get me started on their incredible chemistry physically. It will have you rooting for them to stay together permanently just like I was.
In Strange Woods was an overall 4.5-star read for me. This was the first book I’ve read by this author, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more from her in the future. This story is meant for readers 18+ for adult language, sexual content, and some gruesome descriptions of the murders of James’s family.