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“We started from scratch. Remember? The handshake.”

He nods slowly, his gaze making deliberate strokes along my entire body.

Violating bastard!

“Owning a suitcase with wheels that cost five hundred dollars each severed our newly formed friendship.” He shrugs, turning back toward the bed of his truck to grab the cooler. “Did your preacher dad forget to tell you that there are starving people in the world?”

“Thanks for the biblical shaming. I didn’t realize my driver is holier-than-thou.” I drag my suitcases through the grass, cringing as the wheels thunk against the uneven terrain, jarring my injured hand.

“I’m not your driver, or bellhop, or lightning shield.”

“Then what are you besides terribly unmannered?”

Jake plops the cooler down in a small clearing at the bottom of the hill, not too far from the creek.

“Well…” he turns, squinting against the setting sun “…since we agree I’m holier-than-thou, then I’d say I’m your savior. But don’t worry…” he heads back toward the truck “…I’m not expecting constant praise and worship. Silence is your best gift to me.”

“If you get struck by lightning tonight, but leave your truck keys next to my purse, that would be the best gift for me.”

He chuckles. “Noted.”

CHAPTER SIX

Jake

Avery Montgomery is an interesting creature.

Flip-the-visor-down-every-twenty-minutes interesting.

Part-her-hair-a-hundred-different-ways-to-check-for-something interesting.

I’m not sure what she’s checking for with the constant scalp inspections, but I have a good guess.

After I unload everything and set up the tent while she files her nails, frown pinned to her face, I get my dinner.

“Beans? That’s it?” She swats at the swarm of bugs preying on her, thanks to her strong perfume.

“No.” I point my spoon toward the bag of greens on my lap.

“Looks super yummy. Plain beans and greens with no dressing. Scat!” She slaps her arm, squashing a bug.

I return nothing more than a single peaked eyebrow.

“I’m just saying, you own a restaurant—two restaurants. I’d expect you to be more creative than beans and greens.”

“I’m easy to please.”

“No. You’re not. I have yet to please you.”

I return two raised eyebrows this time.

“Ouch!” She slaps her neck. “Don’t give me that look. I’m not implying I’m going to suck your dick like these stupid bugs are sucking my blood.”

Choking on my food, I lean forward and cough into my fist.

Avery sighs, inspecting the ends of her hair much the same way she does her scalp. “I’m just saying it would be nice if we could get along on this trip. You know? Let’s get to know each other. I just don’t want you to think I’m some materialistic person.” She holds up her cell phone. “Gah! No cell service. How can that be? Do you think if I walk closer to the truck I can get internet from your friend’s house?”

“Maybe.” I wipe my mouth with the bottom of my shirt.

Her nose wrinkles. “Ever heard of a napkin?”

“T-shirts are great reusable napkins. Very eco-friendly. Now … get going.” I shoo her toward the truck. “Go find some Wi-Fi.”

Lightning flashes, followed by a crack of thunder.

Avery jumps out of her seat. “There’s metal in the chairs! Get up!”

I glance around, taking another bite of my beans. “Don’t you mean, leave my truck keys by your purse?”

This earns me an evil scowl. “I was kidding. Whatever. I’m going to get some internet so I can message my dad and my sister to let them know I’m still alive.”

“Okie dokie. Hope you don’t get zapped by lightning since you’re wearing so much metal. Maybe before you head toward the truck, you should leave your purse by my keys. I’ll put the rest of the gas on your credit card if you die.”

“Good luck with that,” she mumbles, using her cell phone light to see her way back toward the truck. “Come, Swarley.”

He lifts his head from his blanket by the tent, giving me the is-she-fucking-crazy look. I return the yes-she’s-totally-fucking-crazy look, and we go back to what we were doing before she ruined my dinner by speaking.

“Swarley, now!”

“Why does he need to go with you?”

“To protect me.”

“From what?”

“Raccoons. Badgers. Skunks. Snakes. I can go on all night.”

“Please don’t. Just simply go. I could use a few minutes of peace and quiet.”

“It’s going to rain. I won’t be long.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

“About the rain?”

“About your imminent return.”

“Ha ha. Not funny. Swarley, get over here now. You owe me for chasing that cat and ruining my hand.”

The old dog lumbers to his feet. He must know she’s the hand that feeds him, even if it’s a gimpy hand.

“Sorry, buddy. Watch out for the bears.” I pat his head as he walks past me.”

“Bears?”

“Shh …” I lean back in my chair, closing my eyes. “My peace and quiet starts now.”

“Don’t say bears then shush me. Are there bears around here? I’m from Illinois. I don’t recall there being bears. I’m pretty sure the bear population around here ended in the late 1800’s, but they anticipated a repopulation. Have there been sightings?”

I have no clue, but I now believe it’s possible Avery may have told the truth about the scholarship she turned down. And just like that, she’s become that much more interesting.

Likable?

No.

But definitely interesting.

“Go.” I keep my eyes closed.

There is no sound more beautiful than her fading steps, leaving me with my thoughts. I reclaim my solitude as the humidity hits its breaking point, chasing the animals into hiding and leaving the tree leaves waiting idly for the storm.

I had so few moments of this kind of quietude when I was younger. Now I crave them like I used to crave fighting, fatiguing my body, proving my strength, and silencing the demons.

Several drops of rain hit my face, and before I can sit up straight, the clouds let loose.

“Dang! That was fast.” I jump up, collapse the two chairs, slide them under the outer flap to the tent, and slip inside.

Avery.

I sigh. This is where I usually plop down on my sleeping bag and listen to the storm. Instead, I have to find her. Maybe Miss I Turned Down A Scholarship is smart enough to find her way back or take cover somewhere else until it lets up.

“Jake! Ahhh!”

Maybe not.

I unzip the tent. Rain surges inside. Why did I agree to this?

Thunder booms, branches screech under the gusts of wind, and a dog barks. It’s hard to see my hand in front of my face, let alone the path uphill toward the truck.

“Jake! Hurry!”

I follow the sound of Avery’s cries for help, my pace picking up as my mind starts to go in crazy directions. Fuck … what if there are bears? What if a tree branch broke and landed on her. How will I explain this to her dad and Deedy? I should have gone with her. My need for a few minutes to myself overrode all other thoughts that might have involved going with her.

Swarley runs up to me, barking while circling me and leading me to the steep embankment. I squint, unable to see her.

Dammit! She fell over the edge.

“Avery?”

“Jake!”

I track her voice. It’s coming from further up the hill. As I jog closer, her silhouette comes into view. She didn’t fall over the edge.

“Hurry!” She points down the embankment.

I inspect her drenched body from head to toe, not seeing any injuries.

“My shoe!”

Glancing over the edge, I catch site of her sandal hooked on a broken root sticking out from the dirt.

“Get a rope before it blows off and lands in the creek.”

“What? How did this happen?”

She turns, revealing mud and grass stuck to her ass and the backsides of her legs. “I slipped and lost my shoe over the edge.”

“Tough break, Princess.” I turn back toward the tent.

“Are you getting a rope?”

I chuckle as the rain starts to let up. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m a chef and I can throw a few good punches, but a lassoing cowboy I am not.”

“But what about my shoe?”

I stop and turn. “You have two suitcases. Surely someone who owns a tiara must travel with more than one pair of shoes.”

“Did I mention they are custom made from Italian leather?” Her fight starts to dissipate into a drowned-rat defeat.

“Yes. Blessed by the Pope, Italian leather. Had you not had that poor cow killed to custom make your shoes, it could have dug its hooves into the ground to keep you from falling off the embankment.”

“Don’t be that person.”

“You mean holier-than-thou?” I wink and keep walking.

“Jake?”

“What? For fuck’s sake, woman. What do you want now?”

She lifts her shoulders. “I can’t walk with one shoe. I could step on something that could cut my foot.”

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