Sometimes getting lucky had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with the right footwear and a willingness to get sweaty. Today, Molly Dekker was more than willing to get sweaty—and she had the right footwear.
She tossed her hiking boots into the extended cab of her pickup and shouted across the lawn. “Josh! Get your tush in gear! We’re going to be late!”
Her ten-year-old son was a flash of movement as he sprinted out the front door and jumped off the porch. It was only three feet high, a distance he could easily land, but he chose to hit the ground in a roll and jump to his feet without pausing. She laid her arm across the truck’s open window and tried not to let her eyes do the same roll his body had just done. “Just watching you makes me tired.”
“I gotta know how to roll when the bull bucks me off. Otherwise I could break my neck.”
“I know, and that’s why I won’t let you near a bull till you’re at least fifty-seven. You still got plenty of years to practice before you ever get near an arena, cowpoke.”
He skidded to a halt in front of her. “Fifty-seven! I might as well be dead by then.”
“You won’t be dead. You’ll be happily married with two sweet babies and a safe job in an office. Ooh! I know! You could be an accountant,” she teased.
“I don’t know what that is, Mom, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be one.”
“You don’t think so? It’s someone who does math all day.”
He gagged, jabbing his finger toward the back of his throat before miming throttling himself. Then, just in case she hadn’t gotten the picture, he collapsed onto the driveway and his limbs twitched in a macabre death dance. Her face contorted as she watched his grotesque display. She knew he did it for a reaction, but she couldn’t help giving it to him. When his twitches died down to tiny flinches, she tapped his leg with her toe. “The scouts’ll leave without you if we don’t get going.”
He shot back to his feet, and a strange vision flitted through her mind—Josh, tall and muscular, rolling in the dirt of some arena as a crowd screamed and a bloodthirsty bull pawed the ground behind him. She shivered and it disappeared. Sometimes she wondered whether he’d gotten a single one of her genes, but then she looked at him and saw her father’s shaggy brown hair and never-met-a-person-I-didn’t-like smile and realized he was a Dekker through and through.
Except for all the frenetic energy. That belonged to her ex, Greg.
He tried to skip past her, but her arm shot out and wrapped around his chest, dragging him close for a big, smothering hug.
“Mom! Gross!” he cried as he pretended not to cuddle closer.
Both arms around him, his back to her front, she held him tight and rocked back and forth. “You know you’ll always be my little boy, right?”
“Nope. One day I’ll be a grown man with a job as a count-it and then I’ll quit because I’ll be fifty-seven and you promised I could join the rodeo circuit then.”
“What about your two sweet kids?” she asked, pretending concern. “My grandbabies will miss their daddy if he’s traveling all the time.”
This she knew from experience—her own growing up and as a single mom raising her son a thousand miles from his dad.
“They won’t be sweet. They’ll be wild, and I’ll let them. They won’t have to go to school, and they can travel with me. I’ll need someone to muck out the stalls.”
She laughed and pressed a quick kiss against his soft cheek. “Go shut the front door and get in the truck.”
He swiped at the mama-cooties on his cheek and dashed off, leaping onto the porch instead of taking the three stairs and—
—slamming the door shut.
“—ly.” She sighed. She probably should’ve given up asking this kid to be gentle about anything by now, but something still drove her to do it. Some sort of perverse desire for a moment’s peace and stillness. She never got it at work—being the ringleader in a circus of kindergartners meant she left work every day smelling like Play-Doh and hearing the echo of laughing, crying, and whining for hours until she thought her head would burst open like a jack-in-the-box.
But tonight Josh was going camping on Copper Mountain with his scout troop, one last gasp of summer before school started on Tuesday. And that meant it was Mama time.
Not that she’d call it that when she got to Gabriel’s cabin. Hi, want some Mama time? Mama wants some time with you! Talk about a turnoff.
At least, she hoped he didn’t have any mama fetishes.
As Josh hoisted himself into the truck, slammed the passenger door and started chattering about spending the night in a tent, she turned the key in the ignition and let her mind find peace and stillness in her fantasies about the way things would go down—ahem—tonight.
Gabriel had grown up on her street and been best friends with her brother, Scott. He was five years older than her, so they hadn’t overlapped in school, but he’d probably spent more time at her house than his own. And who could blame him? His family could’ve had their own reality TV show, while hers had been as boring as the Cleavers.
She’d worshiped Gabriel throughout her childhood, but he’d barely noticed her. He and Scott had spent almost every second together. They’d graduated together, enlisted in the Air Force together, and joined the elite force of combat search-and-rescue specialists together.
They’d even been together when Scott died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. The only time they hadn’t been together was at Scott’s funeral, since Gabriel had also been wounded and was being treated in Germany.
She had no idea when he’d come back home. He hadn’t visited her or made his presence known. People had simply started sharing snippets of gossip whenever they saw her, as if she had the same claim on him her brother had. Did you hear Gabriel’s back? He’s moved up to his grandpa’s cabin on Copper Mountain, just outside the National Forest land. I don’t even think that place has electricity!
All summer she’d debated hiking out to his cabin to see how he was doing. He had to be grieving Scott’s loss as much as she was, and she wanted to see how he was recovering from his own injuries, whatever they were. According to Carol Bingley, Marietta’s most accomplished gossip, he walked a little stiffly but otherwise seemed fine. And if he needed prescriptions, he wasn’t getting them filled at Carol’s pharmacy, or the whole town would’ve known.
But something had held her back, a gut feeling he would’ve spotted her motives from a mile off. Pity for all he had to be suffering. Desperation to see his gorgeous face, hear his deep voice, smell his scent.
Gabriel wouldn’t welcome either her pity or her desperation, so she’d talked herself out of the trek time and again.
Molly hadn’t caught a glimpse of him until last week at the grocery store. She’d only gone in for milk, so she hadn’t picked up a basket. But then she’d remembered she was out of Josh’s favorite cereal. And she didn’t have enough sugar for her coffee in the morning, which meant she was liable to kill someone by lunchtime. Oh, and eggs—she needed eggs. As she’d grabbed everything, she’d experienced an irritating twitch in her lower belly that signaled the start of God’s monthly revenge on her distant ancestor for eating that dang apple. Unsure whether she had any tampons at home, she’d grabbed a small box and got in line at the checkout, realizing with a start that Gabriel stood right in front of her.
He hadn’t noticed her, a blessing for which she was grateful since she was wearing a T-shirt decorated with her former students’ handprints, and the tampon box was balanced precariously in her overloaded arms. He just stood there, looking fit, healthy, tall, and beautiful. But then the woman in front of him had frantically searched through her purse to find her wallet and pulled it out with such triumph that Gabriel had taken a hasty step back and bumped into her. She’d been so captivated by the broad sweep of his shoulders that her groceries had gone flying before she’d realized he’d moved.
The eggs had taken a suicide plunge onto his boots. The milk carton had exploded at her feet, soaking into the hem of her long skirt and creeping upwards. The sugar bag had hit the edge of the counter and torn before tumbling over and dumping granules into the milk and eggs. And the tampons had fallen onto his bag of carrots on the conveyor belt.
Her cheeks had burst into flames. She’d always wanted to be the kind of woman who could toss around tampons or condoms without giving a fig—a woman like her friend Lily, who came off as overflowing with confidence until you got to know her. But she wasn’t. Never had been. Bodies were private and bodily functions even more so. So she’d stood there frozen, wishing she could sink into the batter at her feet and die a thousand gloopy deaths.
But he simply gave her a sympathetic twist of his lips before picking up one of those plastic divider thingies, laying it down behind his groceries, and plunking her tampons on her section of the belt without a word. Like a true gentleman. A worldly gentleman who knew women got periods but wasn’t fazed by it—unlike that nimrod Scooter Gibbons behind her, who’d said loudly, “Someone get paper towels—oh, wait. Molly has her super-absorbency tampons for extra-heavy flow here. They should soak all that up.”
Gabriel’s clear green eyes had glared at Scooter, and he gave her another of his lip twitches that clearly said Ignore that idiot. You’re beautiful and sexy, and I’m not thinking of your flow at all.
Or something along those lines. Anyway, they’d shared a moment. They totally had. As a member of staff mopped up and handed them a roll of paper towels to wipe off their shoes, they’d connected in a zap of heat that should’ve turned the batter into a fully cooked cake.
Except it would’ve needed flour.
Either way, he’d finally noticed her.
“Mom, are you even listening to me?”
“What?” She shook her head clear of Gabriel’s eyes and remembered where she was and who she was with. “Uh, yeah. Of course, sweetheart. I was just thinking about what you were saying about… Colton Thorpe being pretty darn good.”
“Right. But not the best. I’m going to be the best.”
Phew. Pretty easy guess, since the local-boy-turned-rodeo-champion was Josh’s hero. But still. She shouldn’t fade out on him like that. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t polite, even if it was sometimes necessary to preserve her sanity. She focused on her boy for the rest of the drive to his scout leader’s house, making sure to give him every bit of her attention.
Sadly, she couldn’t shake her body clear of her residual longing. It pulsed through her with every heartbeat. If just the thought of Gabriel did that to her, what would the reality of him be like?
Ten minutes later, she kissed Josh goodbye and gave him a final warning to mind the grown-ups before she jumped back into her truck for some camping of her own. She’d told everyone she was going to take advantage of a rare opportunity for solitude. She’d packed a sleeping bag and the two-person tent she and Josh usually shared, but hopefully she wouldn’t need either of them.
She parked in a small lot at the trailhead that led through the woods toward Gabriel’s cabin. From what she heard around town, he lived about two miles hard trekking off the path, so she grabbed her hiking boots from behind her seat and put them on. She slid on her big backpack, which was crammed full of her camping gear, and locked her truck. Then she headed out into the wilderness to get herself some of that lucky everyone was always talking about.
Gabriel bent over and placed another log on the chopping block behind his cabin. Sweat trickled down his spine to the waist of his camo pants as the September sun beamed on him. Before picking up his ax, he drew his shirt over his head, wiped his grimy face with it, and tossed it onto his porch railing. He’d been working all morning, preparing the cabin for the long winter. He’d started at sunrise, sanding his wooden window frames and the porch. This afternoon he would paint them with a layer of sealant so they’d be protected from the wet winter weather.
Today was all about the wood. As he grabbed the handle of his ax and swung the blade hard through the log, his body filled with the soreness that signaled a morning well spent.
Bend down. Grab a log. Place it on the stump. Pick up the ax. Swing and split. Add firewood to the pile.
The routine soothed him. The physicality focused him on the parts of his body that worked rather than the ones that didn’t. More than anything, physical labor left him little room to think. Thinking was never good. Thinking led to dreaming, which led to longing, which led to disappointment.
Bend down. Grab a log. Place it on the stump. Pick up the ax—
The bushes at the edge of the clearing rustled and he glanced up to make sure he wasn’t being visited by the mama bear and cub he’d surprised this morning as they’d rummaged through his composter. But a frisson of surprise rippled through him as he noticed the woman standing there, carrying a heavy-looking backpack with a tent bag secured to the bottom.
No cub with her this time, but he certainly recognized this mama bear.
Molly Dekker had stared at him all through his teenage years. No surprise there, since most people had stared at him and his twin sister, Camila. Maybe they waited for signs of the sinful nature he and Mila inherited from their parents’ betrayal to emerge. Mila had spent her teenage years living down to their expectations, until she’d messed up her life so badly she’d needed a complete do-over. Gabriel had spent his time more wisely, working hard to build the life he wanted, staying out of people’s way. With the exception of the Air Force and his friendship with Scott, he’d never joined in on things that looked like they involved bonding. Bonding was just a couple letters away from bondage, and—call him crazy—but Gabriel had never been a fan of slavery. His job meant he rushed head-first into chaos and did his best to save whomever he could. His personal life—what was left of it—meant he rushed head-first into solitude.
But the morning’s solitude had been disrupted by pretty Molly, the sweet girl who’d surprised approximately no one by growing up to become a kindergarten teacher. She took a hesitant step forward, and then one more. Before he knew it, she was just a few steps away. “I—I was looking for a camping spot. I didn’t realize your cabin was here.”
He bit down gently on the inside of his cheek and looked at her, not really sure what to say. He could point to the cabin and say Well, it is, but that was obvious.
She shifted her weight, slipping her hands under the straps of her backpack to ease some of its heaviness from her shoulders. His silence seemed to unnerve her.
He wasn’t an asshole. He knew how to behave. But that didn’t make him good with small talk, especially when he hadn’t been able to prepare himself for it.
He cleared his throat. “Going camping?”
Nice one, shit for brains. That was even more obvious than pointing out the cabin’s existence. But for some odd reason, it seemed to jumpstart her side of the conversation.
“Yeah. Josh—my son—he’s ten years old, you see, and he’s a Boy Scout and they’re camping on Copper Mountain for the next two nights, so I thought I’d treat myself to some alone time.”
He blinked, all the words hitting him at once in a wall of sound he wasn’t used to experiencing at his cabin. “Wouldn’t you be alone at home?”
Her mouth softened a little, as if she hadn’t thought of that. “Oh. Um. Yeah. I guess I would be.” She shifted again, rolling her shoulders uncomfortably. “Gosh, I hadn’t expected to walk so far. It’s so beautiful up here I just kept going and going.” She laid her palm on her throat and her voice suddenly went as scratchy as his grandma’s old records. “Could I maybe get a glass of water?”
That galvanized him. Finally—a task. He swung hard and buried the ax’s blade in the stump before heading toward the cabin. “You should carry water with you,” he called over his shoulder.
She didn’t respond, and he glanced back to find her following him, which he hadn’t expected. But of course, most people would invite a guest in for a drink, not bring it out to them. It had been a long time since he’d had any guests. Actually, Mila was the only one who’d ever been here, and twin sisters didn’t count as guests. His manners were as rusty as the hinges on the door of his woodshed.
He stepped onto the porch and held open his back door as she approached. She squeezed past him, her backpack nearly smacking him in the face as she tried to get it through the doorway. Odd. He would’ve expected her to drop it on the porch. Why bring it inside? It wasn’t like she was staying, though the bag did look like it was carrying more than he owned. “How long did you say you were camping for?”
Jesus. “What do you need other than a tent and hardtack?”
“Water.” She winked at him over her shoulder, and he was surprised by his own burst of laughter.
“What else is in your bag?”
“Camping stove and fuel, food, metal container to hide that food from bears, extra layers of clothes in case it gets too cold, first aid kit, sleeping bag, travel pillow—”
He coughed. “Did you just say travel pillow? You brought a pillow camping? Why don’t you just bunch up a sweater or something?”
“I fell on some ice last winter and jarred my neck. It’s usually fine, but I have to sleep with a firm pillow or I can hardly move in the morning.”
He grunted. Acceptable answer. The stove and fuel were ridiculous, though. “You know it’s easy to find kindling and wood around here, right? I mean, that’s why they call it the woods.”
She dropped her backpack next to his kitchen table and grinned. Just like that, heat rushed through him from head to toe, centering on certain sensitive areas and making them tight, tingly.
“I said I wanted alone time, not manual labor time. Believe me, I get plenty of that at home. And at work, come to think of it.” She glanced around his humble kitchen, and he followed her gaze, trying to see it the way she did. A fridge and freezer—both powered by his wind turbine and generator—so he didn’t have to go into town much during the winter, a tiny counter just big enough to gut fish on or dress whatever bird he’d managed to bag, a sink fed by his rainwater harvester, curtains he’d sewn using fabric from a few tattered dresses he’d bought at the Good Will, a table and a wobbly chair he’d made himself.
Damn. When had his life become this pathetic?
“Would you like to sit down?” He gestured toward the chair, as if she had a lot of other options.
“Thanks,” she said and slid onto it before he could tell her there was a trick to mastering the chair. With two legs slightly shorter than the others, it tumbled over easily. One second, Molly was lowering herself and the next her legs were flying up as her torso fell back. Gabriel lunged forward and caught her head before it hit the floor, but his bad leg gave way. He lost his balance and braced his arm on the other side of her. The move made his body hunch over her head with his crotch in her face like the world’s clumsiest lap-dancer.
They both went completely still, except for their increasingly erratic breathing, which seemed to echo even in the tiny room.
He pushed himself back, hiding his grimace and surreptitiously adjusting his body so she wouldn’t see how the movement had wrecked him. “You okay?”
Her face was flushed, her breathing heavy, and his brain started to slip into professional rescuer mode despite the fact his body recognized the signs as something other than distress. “Molly, where does it hurt?”
Still looking dazed, she let her hand hover over her ribs. His gaze followed as her hand traveled downward until it fluttered over her crotch. “Here.”
He blinked. “Um…What…”
Now his face flushed, along with the rest of him as heat rushed all through his confused body, until it reached one hardening destination. He hadn’t used any nails in the chair, since he’d been trying to teach himself old-fashioned carpentry techniques. But occasionally he could feel the uneven edge poking uncomfortably into his ass. Maybe she’d rubbed against it the wrong way. “Did you hit something sharp?”
She shook her head, still cradled protectively in his palm. The tip of her tongue wet her lips nervously, and he enjoyed the sight far, far more than he should’ve. “No. But I’d like to.”
All of a sudden, her meaning became so blindingly clear that even his brain could no longer deny it. “Molly Dekker, are you trying to seduce me?”
Her face turned beet red, and he wished he could reel the words back in as fast as a fishing line. She grimaced, and the column of her throat flexed as she swallowed. Hard. And damn but didn’t that sight make him harder?
“That depends on whether it’s working.”
Adrenaline shot through him, making his fingers and toes ache. All day, he’d craved a physical distraction… He owed Molly more than that, though. This was probably the most he’d ever talked to her, but Scott had been close to her and Gabriel had tagged along on some of his outings with Josh, so he knew she was a nice woman with a son who buzzed with energy. He knew she’d married young and divorced several years ago. And he knew she taught kindergarten. All those things added up to a woman who deserved more than to provide momentary physical relief from his agonizing memories.
Apparently his answer had taken too long because she rolled away, knocking her knee against the table leg and sucking in a pained breath. He winced and reached for her, but she was already on her feet and backing toward the door. “I’m sorry. I just… I thought… this would be easier.”
He stood slowly, not wanting to spook her. “What’s this?”
She waved her hand between them. “I thought, after the way we connected the other day…”
He racked his brain. “The other—?”
Horror hit her face and her hand flew up to cover her wide-open mouth. “Oh, my God. You don’t even remember. You don’t even… oh my God. Sorry. I’m going. Forget I was here. Please. You’re having a dream. I’m having a nightmare.”
She grabbed her backpack and tried to swing it over her shoulder, but he managed to block the door before she could escape. Holding out his hand to calm her, he said, “Take a breath. This isn’t a nightmare. You’re talking about the store. The milk and eggs.”
She nodded, her jaw clamped so tight he worried it might break in half.
“And they looked so sexy on my shoes that you decided to come up here and seduce me.”
The tight lines of her face softened bit by bit as his teasing sank in.
“Was it all that rubbing I did to get the egg off my boots? Back and forth, back and forth, getting a nice polish on the tip… of my boot? That kind of turned me on too.”
The corners of her lips twitched.
“Be honest—did the milk spraying onto the eggs make you as hot as it made me?”
She squeezed her eyes closed and shook her head, but her whole face smiled. When she finally looked at him again, she was less tense than he’d seen her since she’d arrived. “That’s gross.”
He reached over, lifted the strap of her backpack off her shoulder and lowered the heavy thing onto the floor. Growing more serious but keeping his voice gentle, he asked, “What are you looking for, Molly?”
She swallowed again, but at least she didn’t look away. “Orgasms. At least three.”