“If you’ve seen Bigfoot, raise your hand.”
Lilly Ray refrained from snorting…barely.
If her dad or brothers could see her now, they’d totally be making fun of her. But a job was a job, and this one, as one of four camera operators for a brand-new show set to begin airing in the fall, was one of the better-paying gigs she’d had recently.
Though, when she’d signed on, she hadn’t known exactly what the show was about. If she was honest with herself, however, she had to admit it wouldn’t’ve made a difference. She’d needed a job, having quit her last one after the director wouldn’t stop sexually harassing her. Female camera operators were becoming more common, but apparently not enough for some of the men she worked with to believe she took the job just as seriously as any male—and that she wasn’t receptive to sex with anyone and everyone who expressed an interest.
Lilly wasn’t a prude. She liked sex as much as the next person. Just not with conceited jerks who thought they were entitled to sleep with whomever they wanted.
So she’d quit, moving home to West Virginia to live with her dad and save money, as well as to regroup and figure out what she wanted to do with her life. At thirty-four, it felt weird to be living at home again, but her dad had been thrilled. And things were good for about a month, until she’d begun to feel stifled…and she remembered why she’d been so happy to move out when she’d finished high school.
Her dad was awesome. Supportive and encouraging. But he was also uber protective. He wanted to know where she was going and when she’d be back every time she stepped foot outside the house. The protective bubble had begun to smother her.
Her four older brothers were carbon copies of their dad. Lance was forty, Leon thirty-nine, Lucas thirty-seven, and Lincoln thirty-five. The “baby” of the family, and the only girl, Lilly had spent her life trying to prove she could take care of herself. Which was why returning home after her last gig had been a bitter pill to swallow.
So Lilly had taken the first job she could find, for a new show called Paranormal Investigations. It had sounded interesting, which was a bonus. She’d worked on plenty of shows that had bored her to tears.
Unfortunately, the gig would’ve been more attractive if every single thing portrayed on the show wasn’t as fake as the boobs on every woman on the last reality show she’d filmed.
Lilly had been super intrigued when they’d gone down to Mexico to investigate the infamous Chupacabra, but after watching the producer—a slimy man by the name of Tucker Ward—and the four “investigators” set up and manipulate shot after shot to “prove” the infamous beast existed, she was quickly disillusioned and disgusted.
The trickery continued when they spent the night inside a supposedly haunted abandoned hotel in Nevada. The noises they’d heard and the piece of wood flying through the air had all been caused by one of the employees of the show.
They’d almost been arrested in Area 51 by the government, when they’d gotten too close to the famed research facility in the desert trying to prove the existence of aliens. And spending two weeks in Roswell, New Mexico, had been positively painful, as they’d visited the homes and sites of supposed alien abductions.
They’d even been to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and “investigated” the existence of Mothman. Lilly had been embarrassed for her home state.
It wasn’t that she didn’t think there were things happening in the world that were unexplainable. She did. But after watching Tucker pay people to go on camera and retell their “experiences”—all totally made up—she’d become much more cynical.
But the paranormal was big business, and made a lot of money, which was why she currently had a job. There were countless productions about the paranormal, everything from shows like the one she worked on, to dramas like The Walking Dead, to blockbuster movies.
The setup for each episode of Paranormal Investigations was similar. Tucker and his three assistants traveled to the towns in advance, to scope things out. He’d arrange a location for the “town hall meeting,” where they’d ask for stories from locals about whatever was being investigated. He’d then find a few people he could pay to tell said stories—the ones Tucker had already dreamed up. Then the cast and crew arrived, the town hall meeting would take place, and the “investigation” would begin.
Lilly was one of four camera operators, one for each investigator. Michelle Becker, Chris Carr, Trent Morrison, and Roger Kerr were the talent, chosen for their good looks…not because of any scientific experience they might have in the paranormal.
Trent was the backbone of the show’s creation. Rumor had it that he and his friend, Joey Richards—one of the camera operators—had brainstormed the entire premise one night while drunk off their asses.
So, here they were in Fallport, Virginia. The small town was smack dab in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains in the southwestern part of the state. It was half an hour or so from Interstate 81, the main artery that went through Virginia. People didn’t just accidentally show up in Fallport; the place was off the beaten path, so any visit was intentional.
It reminded Lilly a lot of the small town where she’d grown up. Quaint and old-fashioned…there was a Walmart, but it was on the outskirts of town, along I-480, near a Dollar Store and a Sonic restaurant, all staples of small towns in the south.
The setup for this particular town meeting had taken longer than normal. Tucker apparently had a difficult time finding people interested in lying on camera for money. With little wonder—this episode was all about Bigfoot. Despite the lack of interest from locals, Lilly had to admit, Tucker had picked a perfect place. It was likely anyone watching the show would believe Bigfoot might choose to hide in the densely forested area. There were hills and mountains all around them, the highest being Eagle Point, a majestic peak that gave the town a postcard-like appearance.
The high school gym was packed to the gills tonight. The townspeople might not be happy to have the show filmed there, but they were curious enough to want to find out exactly what was going on.
When Chris asked if anyone had seen Bigfoot, about half the hands in the room went up. Again, Lilly wasn’t surprised. She’d seen this scene play out many times in the last few months.
Trent and Chris took turns choosing people, asking them to stand and tell their stories. The only people they picked, of course, were the ones Tucker had already paid ahead of time, but instead of rolling her eyes at the outlandish tales, Lilly kept her face a blank mask. As she’d been told many times by the producer, her job was merely to film. She wasn’t supposed to bring any attention to herself whatsoever. She shouldn’t make noise, ask questions, and never, ever, get involved in whatever was happening on the show.
That was easier said than done, especially when someone got hurt or was in a dangerous situation…which happened from time to time. Just recently, Michelle had been interviewing someone in Roswell about aliens and they’d gone off on her out of the blue, shoving her hard enough that she’d fallen on her ass. Lilly’s brothers had taught her how to defend herself—enough to possibly get out of a dangerous situation and get help—but she’d known if she attempted to help Michelle, Tucker would’ve lost his shit. He loved confrontation or when the talent got hurt. Said it made for better TV.
The hair on the back of Lilly’s neck stood up—and suddenly she knew someone was watching her. It was an uncomfortable feeling; she didn’t like not knowing who had her in their sights. She risked looking away from the viewfinder briefly, to see if she could figure out who was staring.
She was standing on one side of the room, and most of the townspeople were either looking at Roger, Trent, Chris, and Michelle—who were standing on a slightly raised platform at one end of the space—or at whoever was telling their Bigfoot story. Her eyes slowly roamed to the back of the room, where at least two dozen people stood watching the proceedings.
There was a man wearing a police badge, standing with his arms crossed and a frown on his face. To his left was another man, looking disheveled in a dirty shirt, ripped pants, scuffed shoes, and a baseball cap pulled low over his brow, his greasy, stringy, too-long black hair sticking out from under the hat. A flamboyant-looking woman probably in her mid-fifties, wearing a flowy black dress and about ten necklaces, had an amused grin on her face as she watched the proceedings.
There were several other men and women in the group, watching with interest…but it was the seven men standing nearest the door, slightly apart from the others, that caught Lilly’s attention.
They were all fairly tall, well built, each with varying lengths of beard on their faces. Men who likely spent most of their time outdoors, who Lilly would describe as “rugged.” She had no idea who they were, or what they might think of the proceedings…but a small shiver went through her at the sight of them.
Whoever they were, whatever they’d seen and done in the past, had marked them. They looked like hard men. Men who didn’t care for bullshit. Who definitely wouldn’t put up with the kind of shenanigans Tucker and the rest of the crew had brought to their town.
Lilly instinctively knew she didn’t want to be on their bad side…but judging by the scowl one particularly handsome man was throwing her way, it looked like that was where she was, simply because she was associated with the show. The man had short black hair, with dark brown eyes that reminded her of the earthy bank of the river she and her dad liked to fish from. He had a square jaw, outlined by a mustache and trimmed beard. His brow was furrowed as he stared, as if trying to figure her out. She could make out a tattoo on his right bicep and inked words on his forearm.
A shiver ran through her, and out of self-preservation, Lilly turned her attention back to the camera. She focused on Michelle, who was now sharing some bullshit statistics that Tucker had probably made up.
Lilly’s heart was beating fast, and she bit her lip as she stared through the lens. She wanted to look back at the man, to see if he was still watching her, but she forced herself to concentrate on what she was doing. Tucker would lose his mind if she screwed up the shot. The town hall meetings were the one thing they couldn’t re-do if anything went wrong. He’d lectured her, Kate, Andre, and Joey, the other camera operators, over and over to pay attention and never, ever turn off their cameras, no matter what happened.
She had no idea why the man was staring at her. She hadn’t done anything to bring attention to herself. All she’d done was stand off to the side and film. His expression hadn’t been hostile…exactly. It had been more probing. As if he could somehow see through her and figure out her motivations for being there.
She practically snorted. Her motivation was a paycheck. She was saving the money she earned on this job to get a place of her own once filming was over. She wanted a home base, somewhere she could come back to between jobs. She’d already decided she wasn’t going back to California. Hollywood had sucked the life out of her. Yeah, she’d had steady jobs, but they weren’t worth the toll the city had taken on her psyche. Not to mention having to dodge handsy men who believed every woman they saw was fair game.
Lilly wanted to believe in love, but with every year that passed, the dream of having her own family seemed less and less likely. She certainly hadn’t found love in California. It seemed she may have to be content being Aunt Lilly to her brothers’ children.
When Roger began his speech about the exciting days to come and how he and his fellow investigators appreciated everyone attending, Lilly knew that was her cue to pick up her camera. As the townspeople began to leave, she put the camera on her shoulder and headed toward Trent. She’d been assigned to him tonight. The talent would mingle with the townspeople and basically act like politicians…smiling and saying all the right things.
She stayed glued to Trent, aware the seven men at the back hadn’t budged from their spots against the wall. They were observing to the very end of this meeting, apparently.
Trent worked his way toward the back of the room, and Lilly’s stomach dropped. She didn’t want to go near the men, especially the one who’d been intently watching her, but since that was where Trent was heading, she had to follow. She wasn’t afraid the men would attack her or Trent or anything, but they definitely made her uneasy with their pointed attention.
Trent headed for Chris, who was shaking the police officer’s hand.
“We appreciate you being here tonight,” Chris said.
“I want to make sure I know what’s going on in my town,” the man replied without even a hint of a smile.
“This is Simon Hill, he’s the police chief,” Chris said as he introduced the man to Trent.
“It’s good to meet you,” Trent said with a smile.
“Have you decided where you’re going to film this cockamamie show of yours yet?” the chief asked.
It took everything in Lilly not to grin. She liked this guy. He had the balls to say what she suspected a lot of people in the room tonight had been thinking.
Trent glanced at her and shook his head slightly. Lilly had been working with him long enough to know that meant she should put the camera down. She took it off her shoulder and stood nearby, somewhat awkwardly. She wanted to back off, to find something else to film, but remained glued to the spot.
Andre had dropped his camera too, but he didn’t seem to have any problem with retreating from the somewhat tense scene.
“You might not believe in the paranormal, but I can assure you, after the things we’ve seen and experienced, it’s real,” Trent said.
Lilly couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes. Luckily, she’d lowered her head and no one was looking at her.
Or so she’d thought. She glanced up and saw the man she’d noticed earlier, staring right at her. When their eyes met, his lips twitched. It was a slight movement, gone almost as soon as it happened. Had he been amused at her reaction?
She didn’t dare look at him again after that.
Instead, she looked around the room for a distraction—and was surprised to note that everyone was gone. Everyone except for the police chief, the seven men, and the crew and talent for the show.
“Since it seems as if you’re really going through with this ridiculous farce, I think I should introduce you to the men who will have to come find your asses when you get lost in our mountains,” the chief said.
Tucker had joined them at that moment, and he said somewhat haughtily, “No one’s getting lost.”
A snort sounded from one of the men, and it took everything Lilly had not to smile.
“Right. That’s what everyone says before they head off into the woods,” the chief retorted. “These men are our local search and rescue team. They’re the ones called when anyone goes missing. This is Ethan, Cohen, Zeke, Drew, Brock, Talon, and Raiden.”
Ethan. That was the name of the man who’d been examining her so closely all night. His attention was focused on Tucker at the moment. “You need to leave a detailed account of where you’re going to be filming,” he said sternly.
Tucker shrugged. “I can give you a general area, but we go where the investigation leads us. Bigfoot isn’t exactly predictable.”
“I guarantee if you go tromping around in the forest without a plan, you’re gonna get lost,” Ethan warned.
“And we’ll be called away from our jobs to come find your asses,” the man next to him added. Lilly thought his name was Cohen.
“For the record, we don’t mind getting called out when there’s a real emergency, but if we have to go looking for you after you refuse to provide a well-thought-out plan of where you’ll be…we won’t be happy,” Zeke said.
Lilly silently agreed. They were right. Of course they were. It also didn’t help that Tucker preferred to do most of the investigations at night. It was easier to trick the audience and slink around perpetuating hoaxes in the dark, rather than in the daylight. But walking around a wilderness as vast as the Appalachian Mountains was very different from wandering in the deserts of the southwest or being confined inside a building.
She knew better than most, thanks to her dad and brothers drilling it into her head when they were hunting, how dangerous it was to go off trail. It was very easy to get turned around and lose your way…especially in the dark.
Tucker held up his hands in a conciliatory manner. “No one wants to get lost, not with creatures like Bigfoot out there. We’ll be careful. And I’ll be sure to look over the maps and let the chief know where we’ll be hunting. The last thing we want, however, is someone to learn our location and come out to sabotage our search, or think they’re funny by pretending to be Bigfoot.”
“Oh, yeah, wouldn’t want that,” Raiden, the redhead with the matching bloodhound, said under his breath.
Lilly bit her lip to keep herself from laughing out loud.
“You really think you can find anything out there with just four people, plus four cameramen—sorry…cameramen and women—a sound guy, and a producer tromping around?” Brock asked.
“Maybe,” Trent said, entering the conversation. “And while there’ll be times when we’ll have cameras following us, other times we’ll use our handhelds, so it’ll just be us investigators out there.”
That was another lie. There wasn’t one second when the camera operators weren’t around. Tucker didn’t trust the hosts of the show to get the best shots.
Ethan sighed. “Anyway, we aren’t trying to be dicks,” he said. “You’d be surprised how often we get called out to look for lost hikers. People who thought they were prepared, who knew the area. If you go off trail, you’re gonna get lost. I’m not trying to scare you or stop you from doing whatever you’re planning to do out there. I’m just urging you to use common sense. Cell phones don’t work once you get on the trail, so you can’t rely on them to save you if you can’t find your way back to civilization.”
“We have radios,” Trent said, somewhat stiffly now.
“Which is good, except when they get out of range of each other,” Drew replied.
“Look,” Tucker said, obviously trying to be a peacemaker. “We’ll be careful. We aren’t stupid. Is there a reason you don’t want us to find proof of Bigfoot?”
“Oh, good Lord,” Raiden said with a shake of his head. “Come on, Duke. I’m sure you have to pee,” he said to his bloodhound. The large dog stood up and shook himself, impressively sending a blob of drool flying across the room, before trotting after his owner.
“You might come across a black bear. Maybe even a bobcat, along with a shit ton of smaller mammals, but Bigfoot isn’t in these mountains,” Brock said.
Tucker didn’t seem fazed by the skepticism. “That’s what everyone says until we find proof. You’ll be eating those words when you see our show.”
Lilly was definitely uncomfortable at this point. Tucker was talking out his ass, just like always. He was a good producer. But he was also a scammer, which annoyed her.
She took a step backward, intending to extricate herself from the uncomfortable conversation and atmosphere.
“Don’t move, Lilly,” Tucker scolded harshly.
She inhaled sharply and nodded. She was well aware of the rule he’d pounded into her and the other camera operators. They weren’t to turn off their cameras, ever. Even if they weren’t holding them, Tucker wanted them running…just in case. He’d used someone’s words—words they thought were off the record—against them in the past. So her camera was on, recording the entire conversation.
Since Andre had bailed before the conversation started, she was stuck.
Ethan took a step away from the wall at Tucker’s tone. The look in his eyes said he was pissed off. Lilly held her breath, praying the men wouldn’t come to blows.
“How long is this gonna take?” Ethan growled.
Tucker looked confused. “How long is what going to take?”
“This investigation? How long are y’all gonna be in town?” he clarified.
Tucker shrugged. “As long as it takes. I’m guessing it will take longer than the others, since there’s so much ground to cover.”
“Fuck,” Talon muttered, then turned and headed for the door.
Lilly mentally sighed. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could work on this show. It went against every moral she had. Lying, cheating, paying people off. It was nauseating…but the job paid well. She hated that she was putting money above her beliefs.
Even though she wasn’t thrilled about her job, the little she’d seen of Fallport, she liked. The people were generally friendly, and while they were leery of newcomers, like residents of most small towns, they weren’t hostile. Which she knew would change if they discovered what was really going on with this show.
“Just remember, it’s not only your neck you’re putting on the line,” Ethan told Tucker. “You’re endangering everyone who works on the show.” With that, he gave the chief a small chin lift and turned to follow his friends.
The others didn’t stick around either. They all followed Ethan out the door.
The second they were gone, Lilly let out the breath she’d been holding. She was both glad and disappointed the search and rescue team had left.
“I hope he’s not going to be a problem,” Tucker told the chief.
The older man shrugged. “They won’t. And if something does happen out there,” he gestured to the trees beyond the windows, “you’ll be glad they’re here.”
“They’re that good?” Tucker asked, sounding skeptical.
“Yes,” the chief answered succinctly.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” he said. “Now if you’ll excuse us, the team has some planning to do.”
The chief of police nodded. “After you,” he said, gesturing to the door.
Lilly took that as her cue to head to where she’d left her camera bag, so she could pack up. She was half afraid Ethan and his friends would be waiting for Tucker and the rest of them when they left, but the parking lot was empty.
“I’ll call and let you know where to meet us tomorrow,” Tucker told Lilly and the other camera operators. Per usual, the producer and the talent decided on the filming schedule. Lilly and the others just had to show up when and where they were needed. Which was good, because it always gave her some free time between shoots.
It was bad because she had no idea what they might be planning to do, in order to provide the “proof” the show needed to stay relevant and interesting.
Andre and Kate nodded and immediately headed toward the car Andre had rented. The two had gotten close over the course of the show and had no problem being left out of the day-to-day decisions about the program. Joey and Trent walked toward Trent’s rental. They were best friends, and Lilly fully believed the rumor that they’d dreamed up the ridiculous show together.
Michelle, Chris, Roger, and Tucker, along with Brodie, the sound guy, all headed for the van one of them had rented. They tended to stick together when they traveled, which suited Lilly just fine. They all drank a little too much for her liking.
She wasn’t close with any of the people from the show. They didn’t have a lot in common. So little, in fact, Lilly had found separate living arrangements at the last few locations, apart from the rest of the crew. She preferred to find smaller independent places to stay. Bed and breakfasts that supported the local economy, rather than the larger chain hotels where the crew preferred to lodge.
She liked having time away from her co-workers, and unlike a lot of people, she enjoyed her own company. Maybe it was because she so rarely got time and space to herself when she was growing up. Her brothers had always wanted to know where she was, what she was doing, and who she was doing it with. She’d also loved hanging out with her brothers, but there were days she’d just wanted to be by herself. She hadn’t had the opportunity often, surrounded by so many overprotective males.
She headed for her own rental car, put her camera on the back seat, then settled behind the wheel to drive back to the adorable B&B she’d found. It was called Chestnut Street Manor and was run by a sweet older woman, Whitney Crawford. Dinner tonight was going to be pot roast, and Lilly couldn’t wait. It had been a long time since she’d had a homemade roast.
Trying her best to put thoughts of what she’d be doing in the upcoming week or so out of her mind—as well as the man named Ethan, who managed to make her feel both uncomfortable and alive at the same time—she pulled out of the school lot.
* * *
The man settled into his hotel room and sat on the bed, scowling as he stared blankly at the wall. Today had been frustrating. With every show they filmed, it was becoming crystal clear that nothing was going the way he’d planned.
Everyone had acted like idiots tonight, forgetting what they’d been told about the area and Bigfoot right before they went on air. Cameras were pointing in the wrong direction, stupid statements were made that would have to be edited out, and it had been almost impossible to get the sound right in the large auditorium. Not only that, but the townspeople seemed more skeptical here than any other place they’d been. They hadn’t even found someone willing to lie on camera about seeing Bigfoot until right before the town hall meeting.
Yeah, it was safe to say he had a bad feeling about this shoot. They needed everything to go off without a hitch.
Nothing had turned out the way he’d wanted so far with the show, and given the local skepticism, this episode could make or break the entire season. He hadn’t wanted to use Fallport as the location for the shoot, and it looked as though he’d been right. But had anyone listened to him? Of course not.
Changes would have to be made with how things were going…and if his demands weren’t met, he’d make sure his involvement ended after the first season.
For a moment, he wondered if anyone would care. Then he clenched his teeth and pushed that thought to the back of his mind.
Of course they’d care. This show wouldn’t exist without him.
Taking a deep breath, the man stood and began to unpack his suitcase. One week, give or take. Then they’d be done with this shoot and headed to Canada for the final episode.
After that, the real work would begin. Sifting through hundreds of hours of footage. Trying to make people sound smarter than they are. Cobbling together episodes and salvaging shitty sound.
If he didn’t think he was on the verge of making it big in the industry, he would’ve turned around and left before now. But he believed in this project, and he’d do whatever it took to make it a success. Even if he had to lie, cheat, and steal.
Nothing and nobody would keep him from being famous.
New York Times Bestselling Author
Ethan “Chaos” Watson never expected to use his skills as a former Navy SEAL and current search and rescue expert to track down Bigfoot. But when a paranormal investigator goes missing while filming in the mountains near Fallport, Virginia, Ethan and his team are called in to find the man. A task made harder when they’re trailed by a camera crew.
Camerawoman Lilly Ray was already reaching the end of her rope on the hokey, ridiculous paranormal shoot. Now the producer has ordered her to stick to the SAR team to get their every move on video. Admittedly not a hardship; she noticed Ethan her first day in town, and the more time they spend together, the more attracted she becomes. When the search stretches on for days, then weeks, it seems clear her co-worker didn’t just wander off trail, getting lost in the woods. Foul play is evident, and soon, everyone on the cast and crew is suspect.
As the team steps up their search, someone is equally determined to use the disappearance to their advantage. Then Lilly herself goes missing, and Ethan and his team will turn over every rock and leaf in the Appalachians to locate her…before it’s too late.
He wasn’t looking for love, but it found him anyway—and he’s not letting anyone take away the woman who’s become his whole world.
** Searching for Lilly is the first book in the Eagle Point Search & Rescue Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
Searching for Lilly
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