Amy Michaels loves her new life in Lucky Harbor. A waitress in the local diner, she's looking forward to her first weekend hike through the mountains. But when a wrong turn takes her off the trail, she finds herself up close and personal with forest ranger Matt Bowers. And even though she's tempted to kiss that sexy smile right off his face, she won't make the mistake of getting involved with the town heartthrob.
A former cop whose life went south, Matt doesn't let anyone get too close. But something about the feisty beauty caught his eye the moment he first saw her in the diner. After a hot night under a starry sky, Matt can't deny their attraction-or the fact that for the first time in a long time, he feels the stirrings of something more. Now it's up to Matt to help Amy see that, no matter what is in their past, together they can build a future in Lucky Harbor.
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By Shalvis, Jill
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Shalvis, Jill
All right reserved.
Everything’s better with chocolate.
I’m not lost,” Amy Michaels said to the squirrel watching her from his perch on a tree branch. “Really, I’m not.”
But she so was. And actually, it was a way of life. Not that Mr. Squirrel seemed to care. “I don’t suppose you know which way?” she asked him. “I happen to be looking for hope.”
His nose twitched, then he turned tail and vanished in the thick woods.
Well, that’s what she got for asking a guy for directions. Or asking a guy for anything for that matter… She stood there another moment, with the high-altitude sun beating down on her head, a map in one hand and her Grandma Rose’s journal in the other. The forest around her was a profusion of every hue of green and thick with tree moss and climbing plants. Even the ground was alive with growth and running creeks that she constantly had to leap over while birds and squirrels chattered at her. A city girl at heart, Amy was used to concrete, lights, and people flipping other people off. This noisy silence and lack of civilization was like being on another planet, but she kept going.
The old Amy wouldn’t have. She’d have gone home by now. But the old Amy had made a lifelong habit out of running instead of taking a stand. She was done with that. It was the reason she was here in the wilds instead of on her couch. There was another reason, too, one she had a hard time putting into words. Nearly five decades ago now, her grandma had spent a summer in Lucky Harbor, the small Washington coastal town Amy could catch glimpses of from some of the switchbacks on the trail. Rose’s summer adventure had been Amy’s bedtime stories growing up, the only bright spot in an otherwise shitty childhood.
Now Amy was grown up—relatively speaking—and looking for what her grandma had claimed to find all those years ago—hope, peace, heart. It seemed silly and elusive, but the truth was sitting in her gut—Amy wanted those things, needed them so desperately it hurt.
It was harder than she expected. She’d been up since before dawn, had put in a ten-hour shift on her feet at the diner, and was now on a mountain trail. Still on her feet.
Unsure she was even going in the right direction, she flipped open her grandma’s journal, which was really more of a spiral notepad, small enough that it fit in the palm of her hand. Amy had it practically memorized, but it was always a comfort to see the messy scrawl.
It’s been a rough week. The roughest of the summer so far. A woman in town gave us directions for a day hike, promising it’d be fun. We started at the North District Ranger Station, turned right at Eagle Rock, left at Squaw Flats. And with the constant roar of the ocean as our northward guide, headed straight to the most gorgeous meadow I’ve ever seen, lined on the east side by thirty-foot-high prehistoric rocks pointing to the sky. The farthest one was the tallest, proudly planted into the ground, probably sitting there since the Ice Age.
We sat, our backs to the rock, taking it all in. I spent some time drawing the meadow, and when I was done, the late afternoon sun hit the rock perfectly, lighting it up like a diamond from heaven, both blinding and inspiring. We carved our initials into the bottom of our diamond and stayed the night beneath a black velvety sky…
And by morning, I realized I had something I’d been sorely missing—hope for the future.
Amy could hear the words in her grandma’s soft, trembling voice, though of course she would have been much younger when she’d actually written the journal. Grandpa Scott had died when Amy was five, so she couldn’t remember much about him other than a stern face, and that he’d waggled his finger a lot. It was hard to picture the stoic man of her memories taking a whimsical journey to a diamond rock and finding hope, but what did she know?
She hiked for what felt like forever on the steep mountain trail, which sure had looked a whole lot flatter and straighter on the map. Neither the map nor Rose’s journal had given any indication that Amy had been going straight up until her nose bled. Or that the single-track trail was pitted with obstacles like rocks, fast-running creeks, low-hanging growth, and in two cases, downed trees that were bigger than her entire apartment. But Amy had determination on her side. Hell, she’d been born determined. Sure, she’d taken a few detours through Down-On-Her-Luck and then past Bad-Decisionsville, but she was on the right path now.
She just needed that hope. And peace would be good, too. She didn’t give much of a shit about heart. Heart had never really worked out for her. Heart could suck it, but she wanted that hope. So she kept moving, amongst skyscraper-high rock formations and trees that she couldn’t even see the tops of, feeling small and insignificant.
She’d roughed it before; but in the past, this had meant something entirely different, such as giving up meals on her extra lean weeks, not trudging through the damp, overgrown forest laden with bugs, spiders, and possibly killer birds. At least they sounded killer to Amy, what with all the manic hooting and carrying on.
When she needed a break, she opened her backpack and went directly to the emergency brownie she’d pilfered from work earlier. She sat on a large rock and sighed in pleasure at getting off her feet. At the first bite of chocolately goodness, she moaned again, instantly relaxing.
See, she told herself, looking around at the overabundant nature, this wasn’t so bad. She could totally do this. Hell, maybe she’d even sleep out here, like her grandparents had, beneath the velvet sky—
Then a bee dive-bombed her with the precision of a kamikaze pilot, and Amy screeched, flinging herself off the rock. “Dammit.” Dusting herself off, she stood and eyed the fallen brownie, lying forlorn in the dirt. She gave herself a moment to mourn the loss before taking in her surroundings with wariness.
There were no more bees, but now she had a bigger problem. It suddenly occurred to her that it’d been a while since she’d caught sight of the rugged coastline, with its stone arches and rocky sea stacks. Nor could she hear the roar of the crashing waves from below as her northward guide.
That couldn’t be good.
She consulted her map and her penciled route. Not that that helped. There’d been quite a few forks on the trail, not all of them clearly marked. She turned to her grandma’s journal again. As directed, she’d started at the North District Ranger Station, gone right at Eagle Rock, left at Squaw Flats… but no ocean sounds. No meadow. No diamond rock.
And no hope.
Amy looked at her watch—six thirty. Was it getting darker already? Hard to tell. She figured she had another hour and a half before nightfall, but deep down, she knew that wasn’t enough time. The meadow wasn’t going to magically appear, at least not today. Turning in a slow circle to get her bearings, she heard an odd rustling. A human sort of rustling. Amy went utterly still except for the hair on the back of her neck, which stood straight up. “Hello?”
The rustling had stopped, but there, she caught a quick flash of something in the bush.
A face? She’d have sworn so. “Hello?” she called out. “Who’s there?”
No one answered. Amy slid her backpack around to her front and reached in for her pocket knife.
Once a city rat, always a city rat.
Another slight rustle, and a glimpse of something blue—a sweatshirt maybe. “Hey,” she yelled, louder than she meant to but she hated being startled.
Again, no one answered her, and the sudden stillness told her that she was once again alone.
She was good at alone. Alone worked. Heart still racing, she turned back around. And then around again. Because she had a problem—everything looked the same, so much so that she wasn’t sure which way she’d come.
Or which way she was going. She walked along the trail for a minute but it didn’t seem familiar so she did a one-eighty and tried again.
Still not familiar.
Great. Feeling like she’d gone down the rabbit hole, she whipped out her cell phone and stared down at the screen.
Okay, don’t panic. Amy never panicked until her back was up against the wall. Eyeing the closest rock outcropping, she headed toward it. Her guidebook had said that the Olympics’ rock formations were made up of shales, sandstone, soft basalts, and pillow lava. She would have said they were sharp and craggy, a fact attested to by the cuts on her hands and legs. But they were also a good place to get reception.
Climbing out onto the rocks was fine. Looking down, not so much. She was oh-holy-shit high up.
But she had two bars now for her efforts. She took a moment to debate between calling her two closest friends, Grace or Mallory. Either of the Chocoholics were good in a tough situation, but Mallory was Lucky Harbor native, so Amy called her first.
“How’s it going?” Mallory asked.
“Taking a brownie break,” Amy said casually, like she wasn’t sitting on a rock outcropping a million feet above earth. “Thought you could join me.”
“For chocolate?” Mallory asked. “Oh, yeah. Where are you?”
Well, wasn’t that the question of the day. “I’m on the Sierra Meadows Trail… somewhere.”
There was a beat of accusatory silence. “You lied about meeting you for a brownie?” Mallory asked, tone full of rebuke.
“Yeah, that’s not exactly the part of my story I expected you to fixate on,” Amy said. The rock was damp beneath her. Rain-soaked mosses adorned every tree trunk in sight, and she could hear a waterfall cascading into a natural pool somewhere nearby. Another bush rustled. Wind?
“I can’t believe you lied about chocolate,” Mallory said. “Lying about chocolate is… sanctimonious. Do you remember all those bad girl lessons you gave me?”
Amy rubbed the spot between her eyes where a headache was starting. “You mean the lessons that landed you the sexy hunk you’re currently sleeping with?”
“Well, yes. But my point is that maybe you need good girl lessons. And good girl lesson number one is never tease when it comes to chocolate.”
“Forget the chocolate.” Amy drew a deep breath. “Okay, so you know I’m not all that big on needing help when I screw up, but…” She grimaced. “Help.”
“You’re really lost?”
Amy sighed. “Yeah, I’m really lost. Alert the media. Text Lucille.” Actually, in Lucky Harbor, Lucille was the media. Though she was seventy-something, her mind was sharp as a tack, and she used it to run Lucky Harbor’s Facebook page like New York’s Page Six.
Mallory had turned all business, using her bossy ER voice. “What trail did you start on and how long have you been moving?”
Amy did her best to recount her trek up to the point where she’d turned left at Squaw Flats. “I should have hit the meadow by now, right?”
“If you stayed on the correct trail,” Mallory agreed. “Okay, listen to me very carefully. I want you to stay right where you are. Don’t move.”
Amy looked around her, wondering what sort of animals were nearby and how much of a meal she might look like to them. “Maybe I should—”
“No,” Mallory said firmly. “I mean it, Amy. I want you to stay. People get lost up there and are never heard from again. Don’t move from that spot. I’ve got a plan.”
Amy nodded, but Mallory was already gone. Amy slipped her phone into her pocket, and though she wasn’t much for following directions, she did as Mallory had commanded and didn’t move from her spot. But she did resettle the comforting weight of her knife in her palm.
And wished for another brownie.
The forest noises started up again. Birds. Insects. Something with a howl that brought goose bumps to her entire body. She got whiplash from checking out each and every noise. But as she’d learned long ago, maintaining a high level of tension for an extended period of time was just exhausting. A good scream queen she would not make, so she pulled out her sketch pad and did her best to lose herself in drawing.
Thirty minutes later, she heard someone coming from the opposite direction she thought she’d come from. He wasn’t making much noise, but Amy was a master at hearing someone approach. She could do it in her sleep—and had. Her heart kicked hard, but these were easy, steady footsteps on the trail. Not heavy, drunken footsteps heading down the hall to her bedroom…
In either case, it certainly wasn’t Mallory. No, this was a man, light on his feet but not making any attempt to hide his approach. Amy squeezed her fingers around the comforting weight of her knife.
From around the blind curve of the trail, the man appeared. He was tall, built, and armed and dangerous, though not to her physical well-being. Nope, nothing about the tough, sinewy, gorgeous forest ranger was a threat to her body.
But Matt Bowers was lethal to her peace of mind.
She knew who he was from all the nights he’d come into the diner after a long shift, seeking food. Lucky Harbor residents fawned over him, especially the women. Amy attributed this to an electrifying mix of testosterone and the uniform. He was sipping a Big Gulp, which she’d bet her last dollar had Dr. Pepper in it. The man was a serious soda addict.
She understood his appeal, even felt the tug of it herself, but that was her body’s response to him. Her brain was smarter than the rest of her and resisted.
He wore dark, wraparound Oakley sunglasses, but she happened to know that his eyes were light brown, sharp, and missed nothing. Those eyes were in complete contrast with his smile, which was all laid-back and easygoing, and said he was a pussy cat.
That smile lied.
Nothing about Matt Bowers was sweet and tame. Not one little hair on his sun-kissed head, not a single spectacular muscle, nothing. He was trouble with a capital T, and Amy had given up trouble a long time ago.
She was still sitting on the rock outcropping, nearly out of sight of the trail, but Matt’s attention tracked straight to her with no effort at all. She sensed his wry amusement as he stopped and eyed her. “Someone send out an S.O.S.?”
She barely bit back her sigh. Dammit, Mallory. Out of all the men in all the land, you had to send this one…
When she didn’t answer, he smiled. He knew damn well she’d called Mallory, and he wanted to hear her admit that she was lost.
But she didn’t feel like it—childish and immature, she knew. The truth was, her reaction to him was just about the furthest thing from childish, and that scared her. She wasn’t ready for the likes of him, for the likes of any man. The very last thing she needed was an entanglement, even if Matt did make her mouth water, even if he did look like he knew exactly how to get her off this mountain.
Or off in general…
And if that wasn’t the most disconcerting thought she’d had in weeks…
“Mallory called the cavalry,” he said. “Figured I was the best shot you had of getting found before dark.”
Amy squared her shoulders, hoping she looked more capable than she felt. “Mallory shouldn’t have bothered you.”
He smiled. “So you did send out the S.O.S.”
Damn him and his smug smile. “Forget about it,” she said. “I’m fine. Go back to your job doing…” She waved her hand. “Whatever it is that forest rangers do, getting Yogi out of the trash, keeping the squirrels in line, et cetera.”
“Yogi and the squirrels do take up a lot of my time,” he agreed mildly. “But no worries. I can still fit you in.”
His voice always seemed to do something funny to her stomach. And lower. “Lucky me.”
“Yeah.” He took another leisurely sip of his soda. “You might not know this, but on top of keeping Yogi in line and all the squirrel wrangling I do, rescuing fair maidens is also part of my job description.”
“I’m no fair maiden—” She broke off when something screeched directly above her. Reacting instinctively, she flattened herself to the rock, completely ruining her tough-girl image.
“Just the cry of a loon,” her very own forest ranger said. “Echoing across Four Lakes.”
She straightened up just as another animal howled, and barely managed not to flinch. “That,” she said shakily, “was more than a loon.”
“A coyote,” he agreed. “And the bugling of an elk. It’s dusk. Everyone’s on the prowl for dinner. The sound carries over the lakes, making everyone seem like they’re closer than they are.”
“There’s elk around here?”
“Roosevelt Elk,” he said. “And deer, bobcats, and cougars, too.”
Amy shoved her sketch book into her backpack, ready to get the hell off the mountain.
“Whatcha got there?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She didn’t know him well enough to share her drawings, and then there was the fact that he was everything she didn’t trust: easy smile, easy nature, easy ways—no matter how sexy the packaging.
If God had meant for us to be thin, he wouldn’t have created chocolate.
Matt loved his job. Having come from first the military, then Chicago SWAT, the current shortage of blood and guts and gangbangers in his workweek was a big bonus. But his day as supervisory forest ranger for the North District had started at the ass crack of dawn, when two of his rangers had called in sick, forcing him to give the sunrise rainforest tour—a chore he ranked right up there with having a root canal.
Talking wasn’t the problem. Matt liked talking just fine, and he loved the mountain. What he didn’t love were the parents who didn’t keep track of their own children, or the divorcees who were looking for a little vacay nookie with a forest ranger, or the hard-core outdoor enthusiasts who knew… everything.
After the morning’s tour, he’d measured the snowmelt and then gone to the Eagle Rock campsites to relocate one royally pissed-off raccoon mama and her four babies from the bathroom showers. From there, he’d climbed up to Sawtooth Lake to check the east and west shorelines for reported erosion, taken steps to get that erosion under control, patrolled all the northern quadrant’s trails for a supposed Bigfoot sighting, handled some dreaded paperwork, and then come back out to rescue a fair, sweet maiden.
Only maybe not so sweet…
She was still sitting on the rock outcropping, her mile-long legs bent, her arms wrapped around them, her dark eyes giving nothing away except her mistrust, and he felt the usual punch of awareness hit him in the solar plexus.
So fucking beautiful. And so full of 100 percent, hands-off-or-die bad attitude.
She wasn’t his usual type. He preferred his women soft, warm, giving, with a nice dash of playful sexiness, so he had no idea what it was about Amy Michaels. But for the past six months, ever since she’d moved to Lucky Harbor, they’d been circling each other.
Or maybe it was just him doing the circling. Amy was doing a whole lot of ignoring, a real feat given that she’d been serving him at the diner just about every night. He could have asked her out, but he knew she wouldn’t go. She turned down everyone who asked her.
So instead Matt had regularly parked himself at Eat Me, fueling himself up on diner food and her company when he could get it. Then he’d go home and fantasize about all the other ways she might keep him company, getting off on more than a few of them.
Today she wore low-riding jeans and a black tank top that hugged her curves, revealing slightly sunburned shoulders and toned arms. Her boots had both laces and zippers. City girl boots, meant to look hot.
“You going to tell me what’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing’s going on.”
“Uh huh.” She was revealing a whole lot of nothing. Basically, she would admit to being lost over her own dead body.
Usually people were happy to see him, but not this woman. Never this woman, and it was a little baffling. He knew from watching her at the diner, serving everyone from the mayor to raunchy truckers with the same impassive efficiency, that she had a high bullshit meter and a low tolerance for anything that wasn’t delivered straight up. “So Mallory’s what, on crack?” he asked.
“She thinks she’s funny.”
“So… you’re good?”
“Pretty much,” she said.
He nodded agreeably. Fine by him if she didn’t want to break down and admit to being lost. He enjoyed her fierceness, and the inner strength that came with it. But he still couldn’t just walk away.
Or take his eyes off her. Her hair was a deep, rich, shiny brown, sometimes up, sometimes falling softly about her face, as it was today. She wore aviator sunglasses and lip gloss, and that tough-girl expression. She was a walking contradiction.
And a walking wet dream. “You know this trail closes at dusk, right?”
She tipped her head up and eyed the sky. Nearly dusk. Then she met his gaze. “Sure,” she said with a tight smile.
Hmm. Not for the first time, he wondered how it’d be to see her smile with both her eyes and her mouth at the same time.
She retied her boots, those silly boots that didn’t have a lick of common sense to them. He was picturing her in those boots and nothing else when she climbed off the rock and pulled on her cute little leather backpack, which was as impractical as her boots. “What are you doing all the way up here?”
“Just hiking,” she said carefully. She was always careful with her words, careful to keep her thoughts hidden, and she was especially careful to keep herself distanced from him.
But Matt had his own bullshit meter, and it was deadly accurate. She was lying, which stirred his natural curiosity and suspicion—good for the cop in him, dangerous for the man who was no longer interested in romantic relationships. “Hiking out here is big,” he said. “But it can be dangerous.”
She shrugged at this, as if the dangers of the forest were no match for her. It was either cocky, or simply the fact that she’d spent a hell of a lot of time in far more dangerous situations. He suspected the latter, which he didn’t like to think about.
She moved back to the trail, clearly anxious to be rid of him. Not a surprise.
But along with Matt’s BS meter came a honed ability to read people, and he was reading her loud and clear. She was exhausted, on edge, and his least favorite: scared, though she was doing her best to hide that part. Still, her nerves were shining through, and he knew it was because of him.
He wasn’t sure what to do about that. Or her. He wasn’t at all used to explaining himself, but he needed to explain a few things to her. Such as exactly how lost she was. “Amy—”
“Look, I appreciate you coming out. I did lose track of time, but I’ll be going now, so…”
Knowing the value of a good, meaningful silence, Matt waited for her to finish her sentence.
Instead, she was clearly waiting for him to leave, and he suddenly got it—she wanted to follow him out. Pride sucked, as he knew all too well. “Okay, then,” he said. “I’ll see you at the diner real soon.”
“Right.” She nodded agreeably, the woman who was the singularly most disagreeable woman he’d ever met.
Having much more time than she, he leaned back against a tree, enjoying the flash of annoyance that crossed her face. “Right,” he mirrored. It’d been a hell of a long day, and it was shaping up to be a longer night. He didn’t have enough Dr. Pepper left to get him through it, but he was perfectly willing to try.
Amy sighed with barely concealed annoyance and stalked off down the path.
In the wrong direction.
Funny, Amy thought, how righteous indignation could renew one’s energy level, not to mention make them stupid. And oh, how she hated being stupid. Even worse was being stupid in mixed company. She’d done it before, of course. Too many times to count. She’d thought she’d gotten past it but apparently not.
With a grimace, she slowly turned to face Matt. Yeah, she needed help, and they both knew it.
He was still leaning against the tree, arms crossed over his chest, the gun on his hip catching the sun. He looked big and tough as hell, his shoulders broad enough to carry all her problems. His hair brushed his collar, a little shaggy, a lot tousled. Sexy. Damn him. He stood there as if he had all the time in the world and not a concern in his head.
And of course he didn’t. He wasn’t lost.
But there was something else, too. There was a sort of… crackling in the air between them, and it wasn’t a bird or insect or frigging elk call either.
It was sexual tension. It’d been a long time, a real long time, since she’d allowed herself to acknowledge such a thing, and it surprised the hell out of her. She knew men, all of them. She’d been there, done that, bought and returned the T-shirt. She knew that beneath a guy’s chosen veneer, whatever that may be—nice guy, funny guy, sexy guy, whatever—lay their true colors, just lying in wait.
But she’d been watching Matt for months now, and he was always… Matt. Amused, tense, tired, it didn’t seem to matter, he remained his cool, calm, even-keeled self. Nothing got to him. She had to admit, that confused her. He confused her. “I’m actually okay,” she said.
He expressed polite doubt with the arch of a single brow. Her pride was a huge regulation-sized football in her throat, and admitting defeat sucked. But there was ego, and there was being an idiot. “Fine,” she said. “Just tell me which way is south.”
He pointed south.
Nodding, she headed that way, only to be caught up short when he snagged her by the backpack and pulled her back against him.
She startled, jerking in his hands before forcing herself to relax. It was Matt, she reminded herself, and the thought was followed by a hot flash that she’d like to blame on the weather, but she knew better.
He turned her ninety degrees. “To get back to the ranger station and your car, you want to go southwest,” he said.
Right. She knew that, and she stalked off in the correct direction.
“Watch out for bears,” Matt called after her.
“Yeah, okay,” she muttered, “and I’ll also keep an eye out for the Tooth Fairy.”
Amy craned her neck and froze. Oh sweet baby Jesus, there really was a bear at three o’clock. Enjoying the last of the sun, he was big, brown, and shaggy, and big. He lay flat on his back, his huge paws in the air as he stretched, confident that he sat at the top of the food chain. “Holy shit,” she whispered, every Discovery Channel bear mauling she’d ever seen flashing in her mind. She backed up a step, and then another, until she bumped into a brick wall and nearly screamed.
“Just a brown bear,” said the brick wall that was Matt.
“Would you stop sneaking up on me?” she hissed over her shoulder. “I hate to be sneaked up on!”
Matt was kind enough not to point out that she’d bumped into him. Or that she was quaking in her boots. Instead, he set his drink down and very softly “shh’d” her, gently rubbing his big hands up and down her arms. “You’re okay,” he said.
She was okay? How was that possible? The bear was the size of a VW, and he was wriggling on the ground, letting out audible groans of ecstasy as he scratched his back on the fallen pine needles, latent power in his every move. Sort of like the man behind her. “Does he even see us?” she whispered.
As she spoke, the bear slowly tipped his big, furry head back, lazily studying Amy and Matt from his upside down perch.
Yeah, he saw them. Reacting instinctively, she turned and burrowed right into Matt. “If you laugh at me,” she warned as his warm, strong arms closed around her, “I’ll kill you.”
He didn’t laugh or mock her. For once, he was unsmiling, his jaw dark with stubble, eyes hidden behind his reflective Oakleys. “No worries, Tough Girl,” he said, his warm, strong arms closing around her. “And anyway, I’m hard to kill.”
There’s more to life than chocolate, but not right now.
As Matt drew Amy in close, he thought that laughing at her was just about the last thing on the list of what he felt like doing at the moment. Kissing her was on the list. Sliding his hands down her back to cup her sweet ass and rub up against her was also on the list.
But laughing? No. She’d nearly leapt out of her own skin a second ago, and it hadn’t been all fear of the bear. Nope, a good portion of that had been when Matt had touched her unexpectedly. That bothered him, a whole hell of a lot. “I’ve got you.”
“I’ve usually got myself,” she murmured into his chest. “I’m just not much of a bear person.” Her voice was soft and full of the reluctant gratitude he knew she’d never actually express. He liked this better than the wariness she usually showed him, but not even close to what he’d rather she be feeling.
He ran his hand up and down her back, trying to soothe the quivers he felt wracking her, trying not to notice how good she felt against him. Or how… fragile.
He’d never thought of her as fragile before, ever. He’d spent a lot of time watching her carry loaded trays at the diner and knew she was actually strong as hell. “You’re not going to be bear bait,” he promised, turning her so that she was behind him. “Not today anyway.”
She grabbed a fistful of the back of his uniform shirt and pressed up against his back. “How do you know?”
“Well, you’re behind me, for one thing. So if anyone’s going to be bear bait, it’ll be me. And brown bears are extremely passive. If we take a step toward him, he’ll take off.”
She let go of him, presumably so he could do just that, even giving him a little nudge that was actually more like a push. With a laugh, Matt obliged and stepped toward the bear, waving his arms. With a look of reproof, the bear lumbered to his feet and vanished into the bush.
Amy collected herself with admirable speed, which was just the slightest bit of a bummer because he’d been enjoying the contact. “A lot can happen this far out here on the mountain,” he said. “You need to be ready for anything.”
“Yeah, I’m getting that, thanks.” In those ridiculous but sexy-as-hell boots, she moved unenthusiastically to the trail.
“Sure you don’t want an escort out?” he asked. Or some more comforting…
“I’ve got it.”
Just as well since he was out of the practice of comforting a woman. Several years out of practice, actually, since his ex had so thoroughly shredded him back in Chicago. He was still watching Amy hike off into the sunset when his radio squawked, and then Mary, his dispatcher, came on. “You find her?”
Mallory had called his office an hour ago, and Mary had reached him on the radio. Now Mallory was probably calling to check on Amy. “Yeah, she’s on her way out now. I’m still up here near 06-04,” he said, giving his coordinates.
“You might want to think about sticking overnight.”
“One of the standing dead fell about twenty minutes ago, across the fire road at 06-02.”
His route out.
“Can’t get a saw up there until daybreak,” she said.
This left him two choices—leave his truck and hike out like Amy or sleep up here. He wasn’t going to leave his truck. Overnighting wasn’t a hardship in the slightest since he had all his gear with him and had stayed out here many a night. “I’ll stick. Take me off the board.”
Matt turned and went in the opposite direction Amy had gone, stepping off the trail to take a considerable shortcut back to where he’d left his truck. He didn’t hurry through the stands of spruce, hemlock, pine, and cedar. There was no need; he’d still beat her. And sure enough, when he’d gotten to his truck and four-wheeled farther down the narrow fire road to where it intersected with the Sawtooth trail, he came out just ahead of her. She came around a blind corner and kept moving, not seeing him.
She whipped around, feet planted wide, eyes alert, ready for a fight.
“Just me,” he said easily.
“What the hell are you doing, besides trying to scare me to death?”
She’d been really moving. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, she was also limping a little bit in her boots. “Just making sure you’re still going in the right direction.”
Breathing a little heavily, she tore off her sunglasses and narrowed her dark eyes at him, hands on hips. “You had your truck all along?”
“I offered you help. Think you’re going to be okay for the three-mile hike back?”
“Three miles? What the hell happened to the ‘moderate, two-mile round-trip hike that everyone can enjoy’ that the guidebook promised?”
“If you’d have stayed on the Sierra Meadows Trail, that’d have been true,” he said. “But you cut over to the Sawtooth Trail.”
She blew a strand of hair out of her face. “You need better trail signs.”
“Budget cuts,” he said. “Next time stay on the easy-access trails down by the station. Those are clearly marked.”
“Easy is for pansies.”
“Maybe, but at least all the pansies are safe for the night. Because once it gets dark out here, it’s best to stay still. And that’s in about…” He tipped his head back and studied the sky. “Ten minutes. Ever been out here at night?”
She glanced upward uneasily. “No.”
“It’s a whole new kind of dark. No street lights, no city lights, nothing.”
“Why aren’t you in a hurry then?”
“I’m not going anywhere tonight,” he said. “The fire road’s blocked until morning by a fallen tree, and I don’t want to leave my truck.”
“So you’re going to stay out here all night?” she asked. “Beneath the velvet sky?”
“It’s not mine.” She pulled a small penlight flashlight from her backpack and flicked it on in the dusk, looking relieved that it actually worked. “You don’t think I can get back before dark, do you?”
She sighed. “So if I stay out here, you going to ticket me for not having a overnight permit?”
“I think I can cut you some slack.”
It wasn’t often he didn’t know what he wanted to do with a woman. In fact, this was a first. She was obviously unprepared. All she had was a flashlight. No water, no tent, no sleeping bag, no food that he could see.
Not that it was a problem, since he was prepared enough for the both of them. Plus, he’d be sticking to her like glue, and not because he’d been lusting after her for months, but because she was a statistic waiting to happen. “I have camping gear, if you want to share.” Christ, listen to him. Such a sucker for melted-chocolate eyes.
Her mantra. And there was no doubt that she was extremely fine standing there, her long, lithe body throwing off attitude as she looked at him with that devastatingly powerful gaze, shadowed by things he didn’t understand but wanted to. “Sleep near your fire,” he advised, playing it her way. For now. “Keep the coyotes back.”
“Coyotes,” she repeated faintly.
“And douse yourself in mosquito spray. It’s getting to be that season. Keep your jean legs tucked into your boots when you lie down. You don’t want any extra creepy crawlies getting up there.”
She stared down at her skinny jeans, then at the boots that were most definitely not hiking sanctioned. “Creepy crawlies?”
“It’s a little early for snakes, but you should keep a watch out for them, too,” he said. “Just in case.”
She nodded and took a long, uneasy look around them.
He had no idea what she thought she was doing, or why, but he wasn’t that big an asshole to let her do it alone, no matter how brave she thought she was. “You know,” he said quietly. “Sometimes, being alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
She thought about that a moment. “You really have gear in your truck?”
“Standard operating procedure,” he said, and it was true. But what wasn’t SOP was to offer that gear to stranded hikers, no matter how sexy they were.
No fool, she slid him a long, steely-eyed look, and he did his best to look innocent.
“Listen,” she finally said. “I might’ve given you the wrong impression when I… bumped into you with the bear thing.”
“Bumped into me?” He couldn’t help it, he laughed. “You tried to crawl up my body.”
“Which is my point,” she said stiffly. “My sleep-out adventure isn’t going to include crawling up anyone’s body.”
“Will it include sleeping?”
She continued to study him, thinking so hard that he could smell something burning. He left her to it and turned to the surrounding woods, gathering dry kindling from the ground as the sky went from dusk to jet-black night in the blink of an eye. Moving to the center of the clearing, he quickly and efficiently built a fire, then grabbed the tent and sleeping bag. He raided his lockbox, pulling out—thank Christ—a can of Dr. Pepper, some beef jerky, a bag of marshmallows, and two bottles of water. “Honey, dinner’s ready.”
This earned him another long look across the fire.
“Tough crowd.” Typical of mountain altitude, one moment it was a decent temperature, and the next, it was butt-ass cold. He moved closer to the fire, next to his camping partner, who was standing huddled-up as close as she could get without singeing her eyebrows. There was no moon yet, though a few stars began to glitter like diamonds in the huge, fathomless sky. Didn’t get skies like this in Chicago, he thought, and took a moment to soak it in.
Amy was hands-out over the flames. He doubted her tank top was offering much, if any, protection against the evening breeze. This fact was confirmed by the way her nipples pressed against the thin knit material. Nice view. But he went back to his truck, grabbed his extra sweatshirt, and tossed it to her.
“A way to get warm.”
She stared down at it as if it were a spitting cobra.
“Works better if you put it on,” he said.
“Wearing a guy’s sweatshirt implies… things,” she said.
“Yeah? What things?”
She didn’t answer, and he dropped another log on the flames. By now she was visibly shivering. “It’s just a sweatshirt, Amy, not a ring. It doesn’t come with a commitment. Now my Dr. Pepper, that I’m not sharing.”
She snorted and pulled on the sweatshirt without comment. It dropped past her hips to her thighs, swallowing her whole. She tugged the hood up over her hair, shading her face from him. “Thanks.”
He should have just kept his mouth shut and let it go, but he couldn’t. “Just out of morbid curiosity, what exactly did you think I’d expect in exchange?”
She slid him a long look that said it all, and once again he wondered what kind of assholes she’d come across in her life. “Come on,” he said. “For a sweatshirt? I mean, maybe, if I’d given you the Dr. Pepper, that I could see. Or if I’d had to wrestle you from the bear…”
She actually smiled. It was a lovely smile that made her eyes shine, and he smiled back. “So who told you a guy gets sex for sharing his sweatshirt?” he asked.
“Guys only think about one thing.”
He chewed on that for a few minutes, keeping his hands busy setting up the tent, tossing in his sleeping bag. “Sometimes we think about food, too,” he finally said.
Amy laughed outright at this, and Matt felt like he’d won the lottery. He kicked a fallen log close to the fire and gestured for her to have a seat. When she did, he tossed her the beef jerky and marshmallows. “Dinner of champions. Which course do you want first?”
She eyed both, then opened the marshmallows. “Life’s short,” she said. “Dessert first.”
“I like the way you think.” He stoked the flames, then pushed aside the two burning logs to reveal the hot ashes—the sweet spot for roasting marshmallows. Moving to the edge of the clearing, he located two long sticks then handed one to Amy.
She in turn handed him a marshmallow for his stick. Look at them, all companionable and domestic. They roasted in silence for a few minutes, Amy staring speculatively into the fire. “Being out here makes me want to draw,” she said quietly.
He looked at her. “Wait—Did you just offer a piece of personal information?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not a complete social moron. I can do the casual conversation thing.”
“But your drawing isn’t casual to you,” he said.
She held his gaze. “No. It’s not.”
Forget her great laugh. Now he felt like he’d just won the lottery.
“Do you draw?” she asked him.
Was she looking for common ground? He’d like to give it to her, but this wasn’t going to be it. “Stick figures,” he said, blowing on his marshmallow before eating it. “I’m good at stick figures when I have to be for a report, but that’s about it. Doesn’t mean I can’t get how inspiring it is out here though. What do you draw?”
“Landscapes, mostly.” She glanced around at the dark night. “I’d love to do the trees silhouetted against the dark sky. Or the waterfalls that I saw on the way up here. I can still hear them.”
“Yeah, there’s more than sixty glaciers melting out here,” he said. “Along with all the heavy rains we got this year. All that water’s rushing 24-7 to the sea.”
She handed him another marshmallow from the bag, and their fingers brushed. Her breath caught, and the sound went straight through him. She busied herself with her toasted marshmallow, popping it into her mouth, sucking some of it off her finger. He tried not to stare and thereby prove that she was right with guys only think about one thing, but Christ. She was sucking on her finger. A completely involuntary sound escaped him, and she stopped.
He met her gaze, and though he couldn’t quite read her expression, she didn’t look disgusted or pissed off. She nibbled on her lower lip for a beat, and suddenly it seemed like all the cool air got sucked out of the night, leaving only heat.
Lots of heat. But hell if he’d do one damn thing about it. Beautiful as she was sitting there by the fire’s glow, he knew making a move on her would be fatal to any friendship they might have.
But she kept looking at him like she’d never really seen him before, and then suddenly they were a lot closer, their thighs touching. His hands itched to reach for her but he forced himself to stay perfectly still. Perfectly. Still. Which was how he knew that she leaned in first. Oh, yeah, but just as her mouth got to his, a coyote howled—a bone-chilling, hair-raising cry that was immediately answered by another, longer, louder howl that echoed off the mountain caverns.
Amy jerked, straightening up with a startled gasp.
“They’re not as close as they sound,” he said.
She nodded and leaned over to fiddle with her boot, using the ruse to scoot close again. He’d have teased her about it but he didn’t want to scare her further off.
Another coyote howled, and then more joined in. Amy went rigid and set her hand on his thigh.
Matt silently willed the coyotes to come closer, but they didn’t. Instead, when Amy realized where her hand was, she snatched it away. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. You can hold on to me anytime.” He threaded a row of marshmallows onto her stick for her, and then did the same for himself, watching Amy keep an eye on the shadows of the woods around them as though maybe, if only she concentrated hard enough, she’d be able to see through the dark.
“Not a big camper, huh?” he asked sympathetically.
“I’m more of a city girl.”
“New York. Miami. Dallas…”
“All of them?”
“Chicago, too,” she said. “I moved around a lot.”
He pulled his stick from the fire and wished he had chocolate and graham crackers to go with the perfectly toasted marshmallows. “I’m from Chicago,” he said. “Born and bred in the rat race.” Which he didn’t miss. Not the weather, not the job, not the ex… Although he did miss his family. “When were you there?”
“Ten years ago.” She shrugged. “Just for a little while.”
He knew she was twenty-eight, so that meant she’d been eighteen when she’d been there. “You went to high school in Chicago?”
“No. I took the GED and got out early. Before Chicago.”
“Ten years ago, I was just out of the Navy,” he said. “Working as a cop. Maybe our paths crossed when you were in town.”
“Yeah, not likely,” she told him. “You were SWAT, not a beat cop running homeless teens off the corners.”
He wasn’t surprised that she knew he’d been SWAT. Everyone in Lucky Harbor knew everyone’s business. He just wished he knew hers, but she’d been good at keeping a low profile. “You were a homeless teen?”
She let out a single syllable hum that could have been agreement or just a vague “don’t want to talk about it.”
Too bad that he did want to talk about it. “What happened to your parents?”
“I’m the product of what happens when teenagers don’t listen in sex ed class. Nothing you haven’t seen before on 16 and Pregnant.”
“That bad huh?”
She shrugged and stuffed the marshmallow into her mouth.
Conversation over, apparently. Which was okay. He’d get another chance. He enjoyed watching her savor each marshmallow like it was a special prize. He especially enjoyed how she licked the remnants off her fingers with a suction sound…
“You give good marshmallow,” she said.
He gave good other things, too, but he kept that to himself.
When they were high on sugar, they balanced it out with the beef jerky. Amy unzipped her backpack, and he unabashedly peered inside, catching her drawing pad, colored pencils, a hiking guide, lip gloss, and a pocketknife before she pulled out an apple and zipped the pack closed.
She was a puzzle, he thought. All tough girl on the outside, girlie-girl on the inside, and a whole bunch of other things he couldn’t quite put a finger on yet.
She handed him the apple. He took a bite, then handed it back. They shared it down to the core, drank their waters, and then Amy yawned wide.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and yawned again. “I had the morning shift at the diner. I’m exhausted.”
“Bedtime then.” He stoked the fire, then rose and pulled her up as well, turning her toward the tent.
She stared inside at the still rolled-up sleeping bag. “This is yours. I can sleep in your truck.”
“The bucket seats suck, and the truck bed’s ridged and cold as hell. You’ve had a long day and need some sleep. Take the tent.”
She bit her lower lip, her eyes suspicious again. “And you?”
“I’ll be by the fire. I have an emergency blanket, I’ll be fine.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t let you do that. You’ll get cold.”
“Are you offering to share the tent?”
Her gaze dropped down to his chest, and she chewed on her lower lip again—which was driving him insane. He wanted to chew on that lower lip and then soothe the ache with his tongue.
“Sharing is a bad idea,” she finally said. “A really, really bad idea.” But she gave him another slow sweep. His chest, his abs, lower… Her pupils dilated, giving her away.
Either she had a head injury he didn’t know about or looking him over had aroused her. “Sometimes,” he said, “bad ideas become good ideas.”
“No, they don’t.”
He didn’t like to disagree with a woman, especially a pretty, sexy woman whom he’d been dreaming about getting naked and licking every inch of her body. But he absolutely disagreed on this.
Instead of voicing that, he gave her a nudge into the tent. “Zip up behind you.”
When she did, he let out a long breath and stood there in the dark between the fire and the tent for a long beat. You’re an idiot, he told himself, and shaking his head, he moved closer to the flames. Leaning back, getting comfortable, or as comfortable as he could without a sweatshirt or his sleeping bag, he stared at the sky. Normally, this never failed to relax him, but tonight it took a long time.
A very long time.
It was his body’s fault, he decided. He definitely had a few parts at odds with each other, but in the end, it was his brain that reminded him of the bottom line. He’d come here to Lucky Harbor for some peace and quiet, to be alone.
To forget the hell his life in Chicago had turned into.
And it had been complete hell, having to turn in his own partner for being on the take, then facing the censure of his fellow cops.
And then there’d been his marriage.
Shelly had never liked his hours or the danger he’d faced every day. In return, he’d never liked that she hadn’t taken her own safety seriously enough. And when it had all gone bad and she’d gotten hurt… well, that had been another sort of hell entirely.
And his fault. He 100 percent blamed himself.
That had made two of them. Shelly had told him in her parting shot that he was better off alone, and he honestly believed that to be true. All this time he’d thought it…
At some point during this annoying inner reflection, he must have finally fallen asleep because he woke up instantly at the sound of Amy’s scream.
A day without chocolate is like a day without sunshine.
Breathless, heart pounding, Amy lay flat on her back in the pitch dark. Shit. Okay, so that was the last time she ever tiptoed into the woods by herself to find a nice, big tree to pee behind. Her downfall had been the walk back to camp. It’d been so dark, and her flashlight had given enough light for exactly nothing.
And she’d slipped on something and slid.
She’d lost her flashlight on the descent, and now she couldn’t see much except the vague black outline of the canopy of trees far above her. Or at least she hoped those were trees. Claustrophobic from the all-encompassing blackness, and more than a little worried about creepy crawlies, she sat up and winced. Her left wrist was on fire. So was her butt. Great, she’d broken her butt. She could see the headline on Facebook now—Amy Michaels cracks her crack during a potty break on the mountain.
The worst part was that this was all her own fault. She was street smart and had been cocky enough to believe she could handle herself. Her mistake, because she should have known better—bad things could happen anywhere. They’d always happened to her, from back as far as when her grandma had died. Back then, a twelve-year-old Amy had gone to live with her mother for the first time, and oh how she’d hated that. Her mother had hated it, too, and Amy had grossly misbehaved, acting out in grief and teenage hatred. She’d sought attention, bad attention, in the form of inappropriate sex, using it as a way to manipulate boys. Then the game had been turned on her, and she hadn’t liked it much. It’d taken her far too long to realize she was destroying herself, but eventually she’d given up dangerous sex. Hell, she’d pretty much given up men, no matter how gorgeous and sexy they were.
It’d been so long she felt like a virgin. At least an emotional virgin.
And now she was going to die as one.
A beam of light shined down on her from above. Not God. Not a fairy godmother. Just Matt, calling her name, concern clear in his voice.
“Down here,” she said. Where all the stupid girls end up on their broken butts. “I’m coming.”
“I mean it, Amy. Not a muscle.”
“Well jeez, if you mean it…”
No response to that. Seemed the laid-back forest ranger wasn’t feeling so laid-back right now.
He got to her quickly and without falling, she noted with more than a little bitterness. And unlike her, he could apparently see in the dark. Crouched before her, he was nothing but a big, built shadow holding her down when she’d have gotten to her feet. “Stay,” he said, voice firm.
“Stay?” she repeated with a disbelieving laugh. “What am I, a dog?”
“Where are you hurt?”
He flicked the light over her, eyes narrowing in on the wrist she was hugging to herself. “Hold this,” he said, and put the light in her good hand so he could probe at her other wrist.
She hissed in a breath, and he slid his gaze to hers. “Can you move your fingers?”
She showed him just how much her middle finger could move.
“Nice,” he said. “So nature call, huh?”
She didn’t answer, distracting herself by shining the light around them to make sure they weren’t being circled by bears or mountain lions. What she did see stole her breath more than Matt’s gentle maneuvering of her wrist.
They were at the base of a meadow. “Sierra Meadows?”
“Yeah, although this is the back way in.” Matt glanced up at her face. “Why?”
“Why do you try to bullshit a bullshitter? You were looking for Sierra Meadows?”
“It’s not a very well-known place,” Matt said. “Hard to get to—well, unless you fall into it.”
“Ha ha.” She wondered how hard it’d be to find this place again on her own.
“So why Sierra Meadows?”
“I read about the wall of diamond rocks. I wanted to see them.”
“They’re a couple of hundred yards across a very soggy meadow from here. But worth seeing—in the light of day.” He took the flashlight back. “I don’t think your wrist is broken but you’ve got a good sprain going. What else hurts?”
He obviously didn’t buy this since he gave her a rather impressive eye roll and began running a hand down her limbs with quick, impassive efficiency.
“Hey!” She pushed his hand away. “I already had my annual.”
Finished with her arms, legs, and ribs, he merely tilted her head back and looked into her eyes. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“One,” she said. “But as I already showed you, it’s much more effective when it’s the middle finger.”
He smiled. “You’re fine.”
“I keep telling you that.”
“Come on.” Rising to his feet, he pulled her to hers.
At the movement, pain shot up her tailbone, but she controlled her wince and let him help her back up the hill.
“I’ve seen just about everything there is to see out here,” he said at the top. “But I’ve never seen anyone fall down that ravine before.”
“So glad to give you a first.”
“You should have woken me up.”
For a pee escort? Hell no. They were at their campsite now, and he gave her a little nudge toward the tent. She crawled inside and back into the sleeping bag, pulling it over her head, hoping to pretend that she was at home, in a warm bed. But at home, she never had worries about bears and mountain lions, and for all she knew also the big bad wolf. She certainly never shivered like this at home either.
Excerpted from At Last by Shalvis, Jill Copyright © 2012 by Shalvis, Jill. Excerpted by permission.
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