After his sister’s death, Sam Goodall buried himself in his work as a backpacking guide in Gracely, Colorado. His clients don’t mind his strong, silent demeanor, and he’s happy to spend his down time at his off-grid cabin. But he owes his life to the Evans brothers who employ him at Mile High Adventures. And when they ask for a favor, he can’t refuse.
Hayley Winthrop is looking for something she’s never had—a true sense of belonging. Finding her half-brothers was the first step. Discovering her purpose is the next. With hunky Sam agreeing to train her as an outdoors guide, she’s torn between exploring the great outdoors and their undeniable attraction. But while Sam is stuck in the past, Hayley is looking toward her future. Is the connection between them strong enough to bridge the gap?
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Sam Goodall knew an ambush was coming. He'd known it for approximately three days and had made himself exceedingly scarce. He appeared at the cabin that headquartered Mile High Adventures with just enough time to get ready before he guided his next excursion, and no time to have conversations with anyone.
He was a quick man, an agile man, and he'd spent the past five years putting nearly all his effort into being a silent partner in Mile High Adventures, taking on the riskiest and most challenging trips, and mostly staying out of the way. He could disappear easily and quickly and hoped his streak would continue until whatever was being planned for him fizzled out.
Five years ago his best friends, Brandon and Will Evans, had lured him from a fishing boat in Alaska, back to his home state and their once-shared dream of this outdoor adventure company, but they hadn't lured him back to the land of normal.
That land had been demolished a long time ago.
Sam winced at the feminine lilt of Lilly Preston's voice. He liked Lilly well enough, despite her ever-present Grunt Jar and chatter and questions, but this would be none of those things.
This was only the beginning of the ambush.
"On my way out," he grumbled, barely pausing in his quick retreat out the back. His Jeep was parked in the front, and all he needed to do was turn the corner and disappear and he'd be safe for another day.
"I'm really not feeling up to chasing after you, Sam."
He cursed under his breath. Though he had no qualms about running from a pregnant woman, he knew Lilly would have no qualms about following him, and if she did something stupid like trip and fall, Brandon would likely kill Sam where he stood.
Which actually might be better than whatever was waiting for him.
Still, he stopped. He slowly turned to face the bright pop of color that was Lilly, Mile High's public relations specialist. She was excellent at her job, a good fit for Brandon, and most of all, she usually let Sam keep to himself. He liked her.
He glowered down at her, arms crossed over his chest regardless of any like.
Lilly merely smiled serenely. "Have dinner with us."
She pursed her lips before responding through gritted teeth. "It wasn't an invitation."
"Still no." She grunted, and his scowl loosened. "I believe that means you owe a dollar to the Grunt Jar."
Her hands curled into fists, her quicksilver-blue eyes flashing with temper. "Sam Goodall, you are the most frustrating part of this business, and this business includes Skeet, of all people."
"Thank you," he replied earnestly.
"You don't even know who I wanted you to come to dinner with, or why."
"Brandon and Will, so you three can ambush me with whatever you've been whispering and plotting all week."
Her mouth dropped open and she blinked. "For someone who's never here, you're remarkably astute."
"Goodbye, Lilly. I'll see you tomorrow." Or he'd avoid her tomorrow. Time would tell.
"Sam." She exhaled loudly as he began to walk away. "We need your help."
He didn't stop, didn't pause, didn't even hesitate. "No you don't," he returned, and kept on walking.
When Sam woke up the next morning, he scowled. Something was off. He knew the typical sounds of the small clearing high on the mountain where he'd built his cabin, and something wasn't right.
The stillness of the air up here had been interrupted by something. The usual summer chatter of birds and animals had stopped. Sam blinked at the darkness outside his window. It was too early for much of anything to be an interruption.
Apparently the ambush had come to call.
He swung off the tiny mattress that was shoved into the corner of the big square room that was his home. The only other room in the cabin was a small bathroom off to the back.
He didn't live primarily off the grid for any moral reasons, any grand desire to save the environment or live some authentic simple life that would bring him closer to spiritual enlightenment. He did it because it felt necessary, and because it kept people away, and probably for a few other reasons he refused to spend any time considering.
Pulling on a T-shirt, Sam grumbled to himself. He pulled on socks and shoved his feet into his boots, and when he stepped outside into the pearly dawn of a summer morning, he swore. Loudly.
"Good morning to you too, sunshine," Will Evans greeted cheerfully. He and Brandon stood leaning casually against Will's Jeep in the middle of Sam's yard.
Though the Evans brothers were twins, and looked remarkably alike, especially when sporting beards, they were nothing short of opposites. Which Sam had always supposed kept them from killing each other.
Once upon a time, Sam had been the instigator of trouble in their little group, Will always the willing follower, Brandon frequently the voice of reason. But things had changed for Sam, and he'd only agreed to return to Colorado and start this business with his friends because Will and Brandon had accepted those changes.
"Go away," Sam grumbled, running his hands through his sleep-tangled hair. He needed a haircut, and a shave, but his unkempt appearance kept people at bay. Customers he guided tended not to ask too many questions of the hairy, grumpy yeti. A description that bothered him not at all.
"Stop being a coward, Sam. We've got a favor to ask." Brandon's reasonable tone scraped against the peaceful quiet of dawn.
"I don't do favors."
Will rolled his eyes. "Yes, we know. You're very gruff and scary. Now stop being so damn difficult and hear us out."
"Why should I waste your time and mine? I've got things to do." Which wasn't a lie. He had a schedule; living primarily off the grid meant anytime he wasn't working at Mile High he was working at the complex task of living stripped of most modern conveniences.
He had laundry to do by hand, firewood to chop for heat, and a mind to keep occupied in solitary, physical pursuits.
"You owe us. You know you do." Brandon's voice was quiet but tense, and brooked no argument.
Sam gritted his teeth, hating to be reminded of just how much he owed the Evans brothers. They'd saved him, he had no doubt of that. He was just more than a little shocked they'd stoop so low as to use it against him. "Didn't expect that one to be thrown in my face."
"We didn't expect you to be such a dick about something so important, before you even know what it is," Will returned, a relaxed ease to his tone.
"You're alive because of us, Sam." Brandon was all edge and fury, a direct opposite to his brother.
"Who says I wanted to be kept alive?" he grumbled.
"Yourself," Will replied simply. "You'd be dead if you wanted to be."
Just because it was the truth didn't mean Sam particularly wanted it pointed out to him. "Fine. Talk. But I've got work to do." He stomped toward the back, any reference to a past he'd rather forget poking at every angry, ungenerous, destructive impulse he'd ever had.
He'd had a hell of a lot of those.
Brandon and Will followed him, and despite Will's calm demeanor, tension and stress radiated off both men.
"We need you to act as intermediary," Brandon said, wasting no time, as much because he wasn't a man to prevaricate as because Sam wouldn't stick around for any fluff.
"Between what and what?"
"We want to offer Hayley a position with Mile High," Will stated, obviously taking the role of explainer so Brandon's head didn't explode from trying not to demand something. "She refuses to talk with us. She's barred any attempt to speak with her. But she's still here, in Gracely. That's got to mean something."
"What the hell do I have to do with your family drama?"
"We need an intermediary," Brandon repeated, the way he was grinding his teeth audible across the yard as Sam picked up an armload of wood that he'd take inside to heat his stove. God knew he'd need coffee after this.
"Between you and your half sister? I'm the last man to ask."
"No. You're the only man to ask. You're our partner."
"Silent partner." Sam stalked back to the cabin's entrance. He had no time for this, no patience for this. Brandon and Will should know better than to try to manipulate him into anything that had to do with family, let alone sisters — even if the mysterious Hayley Winthrop was only their sister by half.
"You can be as silent as you want. After you offer her a job," Brandon said as if it were a foregone conclusion.
"And train her. If she takes it."
Sam whirled on them, and he knew the sizzling anger wasn't appropriate for the situation, but they'd poked at every sore spot he had, far before he'd been ready to let it roll off his shoulders. What he owed, how he'd been saved, and worst of all family. "No." He wasn't sure if he yelled it or if he growled it.
Brandon cursed and stalked to Will's Jeep, and Sam should have been relieved. He should have been happy it hadn't come to blows, but he found himself itching for a fight. Mostly because of this whole thing, but at least partly because of the edgy feeling that had been dogging him for weeks.
There wasn't enough work to keep his mind engaged lately, which didn't make any sense because it was the same work there always was, and summer was high season. He was busy and challenged and yet something had been under his skin like a splinter for a while.
Yeah, a fight would have been nice. He wouldn't have had to think about that.
So, he glared at Will, but Will only shook his head sadly.
"It's beneath you, Sam. All of this."
"Right back at you, Will." He didn't even have to give Will a meaningful look for that barb to hit. No matter how close the three of them had once been, they all had their secrets. And they all had their no-go zones.
This "favor" was Sam's no-go zone, and Brandon and Will had both known it before they'd even set up this ambush. They shouldn't be pissed that Sam had been an ass. They had to have known this would happen.
But no matter how much Sam tried to convince himself of that, he went through the rest of the day feeling like a complete and utter tool.
The tool feeling didn't magically dissipate all through the afternoon. Sam guided a kayaking group, got irrationally irritated anytime he had to repeat an instruction, and just narrowly missed exploding at an idiot who overturned his kayak.
Normally, despite his lack of charm or cheer, he was a helpful and informative — if disinterested — guide. Calmness and distance had become something of Sam's hallmark. Oh, he was gruff and grumpy on occasion, but the kind that caused people to give him nicknames and develop an elaborate, tragic backstory about him.
He was 99 percent certain the customers on this expedition just thought he was an arrogant prick. Which was bad business and simply not the man he'd turned himself into.
He had to shake this dogged wrong feeling, and the only way he knew how to do that was with physical activity. Since he had to get his shit straight with Brandon and Will, that could only mean one thing.
Once he returned from the kayak excursion and cleaned up, Sam collected three sets of climbing gear. It'd be nearly sunset even if they did one of the easier climbs, but he needed this edgy, destructive feeling inside of him gone.
So, he strode into the office of Mile High Adventures. Skeet, the old man who acted as something between troll and receptionist, greeted him with a grunt and Sam returned it, but he didn't pause. He headed straight for Brandon, Will, and Lilly, who were huddled in the main room looking over brochures or pictures or something.
It was a cozy, homey place, full of dark woods and thick rugs. Even before Lilly had stamped her presence on everything, the walls had been decorated with mountain prints and cheerful sayings about the outdoors.
The furniture in the main room was all dark brown leather couches, situated around a giant fireplace that dominated the room. It wasn't lit today in the middle of summer, and Lilly had covered the entrance with a large bouquet of wildflowers and greenery.
Brandon, Will, and Lilly looked like the picture-perfect family or group of friends, and Sam ignored the familiar pang that hadn't dogged him in a while.
He dropped the climbing equipment in front of the twins, waiting till three pairs of eyes were on him. "If you can both beat me to the top, you win."
Will and Brandon exchanged a look while Lilly stared at Sam as if he'd lost his mind. "Beat you to the top of what?" she asked.
"So, we both have to beat you?" Brandon demanded, always one to get the rules lined up before they did anything.
"Both of you."
"And who's the judge if it's close?"
"If it's that close, I'll forfeit." Because while Will and Brandon were adept climbers, Sam was usually the one to lead those expeditions, which gave him more practice and more skill.
Brandon and Will began to stand, and Lilly all but spluttered. "What on earth . . . Explain this to me."
"Rock climbing. We'll just do, what, the south cliff face?" At Sam's nod, Brandon looked back toward his fiancée. "No big deal."
"No big deal?" Lilly's eyebrows drew together in two angry points. "You're not actually going to agree to that!"
Will and Brandon shrugged in tandem, and Lilly turned her glare to Sam. "You're going to risk your neck trying to climb the rock face of a mountain the fastest, instead of just doing this favor like a good friend?"
Sam didn't say anything to Lilly's glare or accusation. He found that silence was almost always the most effective answer when it came to the force of nature that was Lilly.
"It's tradition," Brandon replied before Lilly could argue further. "Rock climbing races have solved many an argument. It's perfectly safe." He pressed a kiss to her temple before collecting one set of gear Sam had dropped. "We should be back by dark."
"We'll wear headlamps just in case," Will joked, which helped Lilly's outrage not at all.
"You're going now?" she all but screeched, hopping to her feet. "Of all the pseudo-macho, irresponsible, foolish —"
"Just think, it'll give you carte blanche on finalizing the new brochures," Brandon offered.
Lilly whirled. "It'll give me carte blanche on your corpse," she said, stalking down the hallway and then slamming the door to her office.
"I'm going to pay for that."
Will made an unmistakable whip sound and just narrowly ducked out of Brandon's reach and a punch to the gut.
"I'm going to kick both your asses," Brandon said.
"Side wagers, then?" Will asked cheerfully. He and Brandon argued about a side bet while they loaded up Sam's Jeep with the climbing equipment and drove to the south cliff face where they held most of their rock climbing training. It was an easy to moderate climb, good for teaching people on.
Or, in this case, good for a speed challenge.
They got out of the Jeep, Brandon and Will trading good-natured trash talk. It hit a little hard, all this . . . Well, it was very much like those "old days" that Sam did his best to forget.
"It's been a while," Brandon murmured as they got into their gear.
Sam didn't meet Brandon's discerning gaze, and he immediately regretted doing something from before, but ...
It was an easier apology, this gesture, than an actual apology. A little competition Sam wouldn't win would give the twins what they wanted, a nod to the old times would be an apology for not agreeing in the first place.
The Evans brothers got what they wanted, and Sam didn't have to say much.
"All right, ready?" At everyone's assenting nod, Will counted off, and at his "go" they each took a different path up to the top of the cliff face.
The climb was steady and challenging without being overwhelming. Sam could have pushed harder, and he had no doubt he could have beaten Brandon and Will — if not easily, definitively. But ... he didn't push. He was careful, overly so, and when both men reached the top before he did, he didn't even feel a twinge at the loss.
The three of them rappelled down in silence, and when they reached the bottom they all sat on the ground for a few minutes to catch their breath.
"You let us win, didn't you?"
Sam watched the sky above them darken, took slow breaths as stars twinkled to life. He still didn't want to do the damn favor, sticking his nose in the tricky family business that involved the half sister the Evans brothers had recently found out about.
Sam could think of few things he wanted to do less than this. But once upon a time, he'd had nothing except rock bottom, pain, and guilt. The Evans brothers had given him the tools to climb out of rock bottom. They'd put him on that fishing boat, then they'd brought him back to Colorado.
Excerpted from "Mess With Me"
Copyright © 2017 Nicole Helm.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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