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A tent had been pitched on the leeward side of a closely packed stand of pines, and a small fire burned merrily in a shallow pit near the center of the camp. A short distance away, an underground spring had made a random aboveground appearance. Sparkling water trickled over and formed a small pond around a jumbled grouping of rocks. Mark was wondering where the camper had disappeared to when a man emerged from the tent as though in answer to his thought.
Mark's breath caught in his throat at that arresting sight. The stranger was tall, exceeding Mark's own five-foot-nine-inch frame by four or five inches. Dark blond hair, long and caught back with a band at the nape of the man's neck, gleamed beneath the bright sunlight, the bulk of the locks falling over one broad shoulder as he ducked through the tent's entrance. A few shorter strands that had escaped the band fell artlessly over his wide forehead. Streaked blond brows and long lashes shaded deep blue eyes. Below them, the camper's nose was straight, with a slight downward curve at the end that drew the eye to a pair of lips that had Mark licking his own. His firm jaw was accented by the barest hint of sexy stubble. An open coat revealed a tucked-in tee as well as an unbuttoned flannel shirt over a pair of jeans, accentuating what appeared to be a slim, yet muscular body. A well-worn and rugged-looking pair of hiking boots completed the outfit.
Despite the shadowed and preoccupied expression that rested upon his fine and faintly patrician features, this modern-day rendition of a rugged mountain man was one of the most devastatingly attractive males Mark had seen in a long time. He had the distinct impression he might'veseen this man somewhere before, but had that truly been the case, surely he would have remembered where. Someone who looked like that would not be easily forgotten. Regardless, his stomach clenched, and he inwardly cursed at how just the sight of this stranger sent his pulse racing.
Momentary surprise crossed the camper's features when his blue-eyed gaze turned in Mark's direction, but he quickly recovered and offered Mark a tentative smile. "Oh, hey, I wasn't expecting to see anyone out here." His voice was rich and smooth, the almost husky timbre like a warm caress down Mark's spine.
Mark repressed a shiver as his toes curled inside his hiking boots. "Sorry. My dog and I were out hiking and I smelled your smoke." He grimaced. "I mean the smoke from your fire, not cigarette smoke. I didn't mean to imply you were smoking. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, although it is bad for your health." Mark felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment and wanted to kick himself for his rambling, tongue-tied explanation. "Do you have any idea what I'm getting at here?"
The stranger chuckled. "I think I do. You thought something might be burning. It was considerate of you to check." He came forward and offered his hand. "I'm Joe Moning."
Admonishing himself to get a grip, Mark reached for Joe's hand. Startled by a spark and snap, he snatched his hand back. "Ow!"
Joe's rumbling laughter broke out. "Sorry about that. I've been zapped a couple of times myself this morning. It's the blasted static electricity from the dry air--either that, or it's your electric personality," he added with a teasing wink.
Mark raised a brow, giving Joe a slightly scornful scowl that he diluted with a half smile. "Yeah, right," he scoffed. "Better stick with the dry-air theory. I'm Mark Bartel. Pleased to meet you, Joe."
"Same here. So what brings you to the great outdoors?"
Mark indicated the dog who sat obediently by his side. "Just getting some exercise, me and Chip. We're on vacation and staying at my cabin about five miles north of here. Thought I'd take advantage of the weather and get some hiking in before that snow the weatherman's calling for starts flying in a couple of days."
"Good idea. I plan to be out of here myself before it hits." Joe turned a puzzled frown on Mark. "I didn't realize they allow private homes in the park."
"Oh, they don't. My land and the park share a boundary."
"Um, you're lucky. I wouldn't mind having a home around here." Joe's face took on a somewhat melancholy expression. "I love this place." He seemed lost in thought for a moment, then returned his attention to Mark. "I was just about to fix some coffee. Care to join me for a cup?"
Mark accepted with a smile, squelching the memory of the thermos of coffee that rested in his backpack. He wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to spend a little time in Joe's company. It wasn't every day that he stumbled across a gorgeous man in the woods.
It's certainly better than a shitting bear. Wait till I tell Char, Mark thought with an inward smirk. He followed Joe toward the fire pit, releasing Chip to run free for a bit.
The two men continued to chat as Joe fixed the coffee. Mark surreptitiously watched the man's every move, trying hard not to be obvious about his attraction--especially when he noticed the gold wedding band on Joe's left hand.
He heaved a mental sigh. He's married. Not that Mark had expected anything to come of this unexpected meeting, but still, it would have been nice to not have had that momentary fantasy disrupted by reality. He's probably got a sweet, beautiful wife tucked away somewhere, waiting impatiently for him to come home. Hell, if he was mine, I'd never let him leave home without me.
As the men's conversation continued, Mark was surprised to find out Joe lived near a small town that wasn't far from the city where Mark resided and worked. Joe revealed that he was a carpenter; in addition to working on homes, he designed and sold handmade wood furnishings. Apparently, he had quite a queue of clients lined up and was kept constantly busy with the demand for his work. His eyes lit with enthusiasm as he described the pleasure he derived from taking simple, raw wood and creating pieces of furniture that were not only functional, but beautiful as well. Joe also mentioned a weekly show on the public broadcast system in which he taught woodworking skills.
"Oh, my God, I've seen that show! Now I know why you look so familiar to me."
Joe smiled. "You do any carpentry, Mark?"
"Not really. I'm an architect, no hammer and nails for me. My work gets done on paper. I rarely have time for any hands-on building, but I've caught your show a few times while channel surfing."
"And I haven't managed to entice you to the dark side?"
Mark chuckled. "I'm afraid not." But if anyone could, it would be you. He had watched Joe's hands as the other man had spoken about his work and wondered what it would be like to have them touch him with the care Joe clearly lavished on his projects. It would probably be breathtaking.
Mark felt a twinge of regret and a frisson of jealously but managed to smile at his odd emotions. Jealous of pieces of wood? Pathetic, Mark. However, as he again found himself focusing on Joe's hands, his chest tightened. Not that I know what it's like to be touched by a lover.
"That's too bad. I have a feeling you'd like it."
Lost in his musings, Mark's eyes widened in shock as Joe's comment brought him back to earth with a thump. Had the man managed to read his thoughts?
His gaze flew to Joe's, and the two of them seemed to connect somehow, generating a near-tangible tingle of awareness. An intense and searching look on Joe's part caused Mark's heart to beat faster. His cock gave an interested twitch. Breaking the eye contact, Mark rushed to fill the silence, alarmed at how exposed and uncertain he felt.
Of course he didn't read your thoughts, dummy. He was just following the thread of our conversation but ... is he coming on to me? The idea was exciting, yet it filled Mark with trepidation. This was the kind of situation he wasn't prepared for, the kind of thing he'd avoided for so long, that now, when he really wanted to act, he didn't know how.
Not really wanting to hear the response, but desperate to shift the focus elsewhere, Mark kept his eyes averted and spoke. "I noticed your ring. Does your wife not care for camping?"
When Joe didn't immediately answer, Mark chanced a glance in his direction. Joe was looking at his wedding band, his face bearing a look of ineffable sadness. The thumb and forefinger of his right hand gently rubbed and twisted the polished gold ring. Finally, he said, "I don't--"
Chip's frantic barking interrupted his words.