“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.