They sucked in a collective breath. Except for TJ. He didn’t breathe. Samantha James had been his college girlfriend. Supporting herself through college as a river guide, she’d brought him into her world. Unfortunately, she’d been wilder than he’d ever even thought of being, and had lived more on guts and luck than actual skill.

She’d gotten herself killed on a river trip, and though it hadn’t been TJ’s fault-hell, he hadn’t even been on that trip-it’d hit him hard because it’d been an unnecessary tragedy. If only she’d followed her brain instead of her gut, if only she’d been better prepared, if only…

He really hated if only’s. When he’d decided to stay in the world that Sam had introduced him to, he’d promised himself that he’d never put himself in an if only position. As a result, he was a far more careful, more controlled guide for it. Stone and Cam called it anal. He called it smart. “This has nothing to do with Sam.”

They all looked at him with varying degrees of concern. In general, they weren’t an overly demonstrative family, which wasn’t a surprise when one considered their childhood. Annie had done her best to help, but the truth was, she’d been barely out of her teens herself, and they’d needed a jail warden far more than they’d needed a caregiver. Still, she’d somehow pulled it off, getting the three of them into adulthood without any jail time. She hadn’t done it by being a softie. “This has nothing to do with Sam,” he insisted. “What happened to her sucks, and yeah, I think about her, but me needing to get out of here has nothing to do with her, nothing to do with any of you actually, and everything to do with me.” He just needed to go, to get as far away from that daily dose of overwhelming love and happiness soaking the entire lodge. “Until another big trip comes along, I’ll just lighten the load around here with the shorter trips, I guess.”

“Fine with me,” Cam said. “We’re overbooked, and so far the only response to our ad has been either crazy, adrenaline-rush junkies or people who lied on their app and don’t know a snowcat from a snowmobile. But now that we have you sort of captive for the next few months…”

“We’ll definitely take advantage,” Stone finished. “In fact, we have a new client, some CEO who met you on your glacier trip. He wants to take his VPs on a memorable seven-day trek out to Weststar Peak, and by memorable, he means he wants to kick the VPs’ asses. He’s asked for some video to see the landscape before he decides for sure. Cam was going to go out there today, but you can do it.”


“Which leaves me free this afternoon.” Cam waggled a brow at Katie, who grinned.

Stone pulled up the schedule on the computer and they spent the next half hour reworking it, taking trips from Cam’s and Stone’s queue and loading up TJ. When they were done, TJ looked at both of his brothers. “So whose idea was it for Harley to go to Desolation Wilderness alone?”

“Alone?” Cam raised a brow. “She didn’t say anything about doing it alone when she asked for the maps.” He looked at Stone, who shook his head.

“Bad idea,” Stone said.

“Agreed,” TJ said.

“You should go with her,” Stone told him. “You’re the one looking to get out of here.”

Cam laughed at that. “Are you kidding? They’ll kill each other.”

“I’m not going with her,” TJ said. “She doesn’t want me to.”

Cam looked at him for a beat. “You still have a secret thing for her?”

“I don’t think it’s so secret,” Stone said.

“Well, me either,” Cam replied. “But I try not to give him an excuse to pound me into the ground. In fact”-he carefully scooted out of reach of TJ-“here’s what I’d do. Find a way to go with her, then wait until it gets dark. Let her get spooked by something, and when she gets scared and crawls all over you, comfort her. Then suddenly she’s no longer irritated at your presence.”

Kate was staring at him like he’d grown horns. “Let her get spooked by something? You do realize this is Harley, our close and dear friend?”

“What? He’s going to comfort her.”

“Not to mention,” Katie went on, “that the whole getting-scared scenario sounds like some cheesy made-up Penthouse ‘Forum’ fantasy.”

Stone smiled wickedly. “Honey, those things aren’t made up.”

Jesus. TJ stood up. “You’re all insane.” He shoved his fingers through his hair. “No one knows better than us exactly how dangerous it can get out there.” Hadn’t they just brought up Sam? “Things pop up, where nothing short of experience will save you.” And Harley was far shorter on experience than Sam had been.

“You know,” Cam said, watching him. “You could just tell her the truth. That you have a thing for her. Maybe she’d want you to go with her.”

Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Annie stood up and gave TJ a long look that had him bracing for a lecture or a smack to the back of his head as she came close. One never knew with her. Instead, she pulled him in for a hard, tight hug that he endured with a sigh.

“We think you want out of here because we’re all so disgustingly happy,” she said.

“Well, you have the disgusting part right.”

“Oh, TJ.” She pressed her face to the crook of his neck and squeezed him tight, adding a little sniff that terrorized him.