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Copyright 2017 by Tabatha Kiss
All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from
the author.

This is a work of fiction intended for mature audiences only. Any resemblance to actual
persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

This novel contains explicit descriptions of erotic and sexual acts that some may find
offensive, including perverse adult language.

All characters are 18+ years of age and all sexual acts are consensual.

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Also by Tabatha Kiss

Lumberjack BOSS
1. Hazel
2. Leo
3. Hazel
4. Leo
5. Hazel
6. Leo
7. Hazel
8. Leo
9. Hazel
10. Leo
11. Hazel
12. Leo
13. Leo
14. Hazel
15. Hazel
16. Leo
17. Hazel
18. Leo
19. Hazel
Youre Invited!
More Romantic Comedy
Old Habits
Old Habits
1. Jovie
2. Jovie
3. Will
4. Jovie
5. Will
Also by Tabatha Kiss
About the Author


Stand-alone romances. Interconnecting stories.
One unforgettable adventure!
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Bad boys, billionaires, bakers, and so much more!
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Lumberjack BOSS
Old Habits
2 in the PINK

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Wealth. Power. Wood.

Three things I have more of than anybody else around here.

Its taken me two years to get this new housing development off
the ground and I wont let anyone else stand in the way.

Except Hazel.

She rolled into town, intent on halting this project in its tracks
and nothing Ive done will convince her to stop her protest.

She wont take my money. She doesnt care about my familys


Maybe a little wood is what she needs.

And Ive got more than enough to give her.

T hey were lost for hours, I say, digging my fingers into

the diarys leather binding, just wandering around in
circles out in the middle of the woods until they came upon the
river. Thats when my father took her hand, brought it to his
lips, and said, Im sorry. I know youre distraught and tired and
hungry but youve never looked more beautiful to me.
Then, he kissed her and they laid down a blanket and made
love in the middle of a field of hazel plants. I chuckle. Thats
how I got my name; Hazel. Im pretty sure I was conceived there.
Afterward, they got up and my dad walked to the nearest tree
and he carved their names into it because if they were never
going to forget that moment, then the damned forest wouldnt
either but thats my dad, he says things like that.
I pause and look at the old woman sitting beside me.
She sighs and clutches her chest. Thats beautiful, sweetie.
I had no idea any of that happened until last week when I
found this. I hold up the diary. And then I thought, This is it!
This is a sign. So, I packed a bag and now Im here. I gaze out
the bus window. My parents spent their honeymoon
somewhere out in these woods. In her diary, my mother said that
she never truly knew who she was, never understood her
purpose in life, until she set foot on Lovers Trail. I guess Im
kinda hoping the same happens to me.
She reaches out and lays a wrinkled hand on mine. Im sure
it will, dear.
I roll my eyes. God, I hope so. Im broke, unemployed,
So am I, she quips. You dont see me complaining.
Yeah, well, youre really ol I bite my tongue. You seem
to have a whole lot of other things going for you.
The old woman gives me one last polite smile before staring
forward at the front of the bus.
I silently scold myself as I open my mothers diary again.
August 18th, 1991. Its my wedding day!
She was my age when she wrote that, almost to the day.
Young and so full of life and love. My parents had only known
each other a week a week! but thats all it took to know
they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together and they
did, until
I let my thoughts taper off.
Whitefish, Montana. Lovers Trail at the edge of the lake. My
mother practically drew a map right to it. I look out the window
again and watch as the trees pass us by and civilization drifts
even farther into the background. That clean, mountain air seeps
in through the window beside me. I stretch upward to take a
huge whiff of it, relishing in the perfect, woodland smell.
My parents experienced their happy ending out here. For the
first time in my life, things feel like theyre falling into place.
Full circle is just around the corner. Life as I know it will never be
the same after this.
I hug the diary against my chest. Somehow, it still smells like
her. Years of being stuffed in a storage box never killed the
essence of her on every single page.
Im going to make you proud, Mom. Im
A loud bang echoes from the back of the bus. My spine
stiffens as we jolt to the side of the road amid the cautious gasps
of the other passengers.
The bus grinds to a shaking halt and the driver throws open
the door. Probably just a flat, folks. Hang tight.
The others groan. Several of them stand up to stretch their
legs and a few more snatch packs of cigarettes from their bags
and follow the driver out to light one up.
I sigh and stare out the window at the trees until my eyes fall
on a road sign nearby.
Lovers Trail. Next exit. One mile.
I gasp. Lovers Trail! I grab the old womans shoulders and
give them a shake. Lovers Trail!
She gawks at me and I pull my hands away.
Sorry, uh excuse me. I stand and push into the aisle,
reaching up to retrieve my duffel bag from the overhead
Ow! the woman hisses at me.
I hop backward as she yanks her foot out from under mine.
Sorry! Excuse me! Im sorry, I repeat, though I cant stop
Theres no way this flat tire is a coincidence. The universe
wanted me to stop here. It wanted me to see this road sign at
exactly this moment in time. My heart pounds against my ribs as
I rush down the aisle; an epic metronome counting down to the
best days of my life.
Hey, lady! the driver cries out as I step off the bus. Where
are you going?
I beam at him. This is my stop!
This is the middle of nowhere. It wont take long to fix
the flat
I fill my lungs with the pleasant, forest air. Something tells
me Ill be all right.
He waves a passive hand and says nothing more as I strap my
bag over my shoulders and walk away.
Lovers Trail. One mile.
One foot in front of the other, I hike down the highway.
Nature tickles all of my senses. I understand now why city folk
are so high-strung. You just cant take this kind of deep breath
in the middle of a concrete jungle like Spokane.
I follow the highway and take the first exit toward Lovers
Trail. The street instantly becomes narrower and I have to hug
the tree line to keep from getting run over by the rare passing car
but its totally worth the mud on my sneakers.
A campground soon comes into focus. Signs point toward
cabin and boat rentals. Rusted tables and dry fire pits lie
scattered around. My smile widens the farther I walk. Twenty-
five years ago, my parents probably strolled across this same
gravel, hand-in-hand, staring deeply into each others eyes
I head straight for the shack across the lot but I pause as I see
a paper sign haphazardly taped to the window out front.


I bite my lip. Its autumn, but surely people camp and hike
just as much now as they do over the warm months, right?
I cup my hands to the filthy windows and peek inside. Theres
no sign of life anywhere. A thick layer of dust coats every
surface. This place has been shut down for a long time.
Still, I give the door a quick knock. Hello? I call out, tapping
a little louder.
I try the handle but its locked. No answer either.
Where is everybody?
I turn around and scan the campsite until I find another sign
shaped like an arrow pointed straight for Lovers Trail. With my
smile back on, I walk from the gravel to the grass, taking wide
strides toward the woods.
When I get there, I freeze in place.
A thick fence blocks the path into the woods, along with a
metal sign bolted in front of it.



My chest sinks.
Theyre gutting the campsite to put in a housing
Oh, no.
My heart breaks. No, no. They cant! This place is a part of
me; a piece of my history I didnt know about until now. They
cant mow it down. Not yet. Not ever.
I grit my teeth and step forward, reaching up to get a firm grip
on the fence before pulling myself up. I cant say physical
activity is my strongest asset but the adrenaline pumping
through me makes me forget about that.
I slip off the fence and tumble the rest of the way down. My
duffel breaks my fall but any pain I feel washes away the second I
realize Im lying on Lovers Trail.
Here we go
I stand up, brush the dirt off my pants, and start walking.

J ackman Springs, I say, pacing in front of my desk.

Imagine, if you will, brand new, state-of-the-art homes
featuring the views of yesteryear and the technological
advancements of tomorrow. You wake up every morning and
gaze out your solar-paneled windows at your own woodland
Bobby sits on the sofa by the wall with a clipboard balanced
on his knee. No, he says, marking through the speech with a
red pen. Drop the if you will part. Its too clich. Go straight
into brand new.
All right I clear my throat. Imagine brand new, state-
of-the-art I stop. Are you sure? I kind of liked that pause.
No, drop it, he says, running a hand through his short,
black hair to wake himself up. Less is more. Also, it makes you
sound kinda douche-y.
Well, we dont want douche-y.
Yeah, douche-y is generally frowned upon.
I nod and stare out my office window at the dark blue
mountains on the horizon. Brand new, state-of-the-art homes
featuring the views of yesterday
Yesteryear and the technological advancements of
tomorrow I let my voice fall but I continue muttering the first
line to myself until Bobby stands up.
You all right? He caresses his bare chin. Your beard isnt
as shapely as it usually is.
I scratch at it. Im fine. Just worn out, I guess.
He perks up. Want to stop and try again tomorrow?
Yeah, I answer. Any calls from Patterson about the zoning
budget yet?
Not since you asked me twenty minutes ago, no.
Let me know as soon as
As soon as he gets back to us. He smirks. You know
I will.
I wince. Im doing that thing again, arent I?
He waves a hand. Yeah, but dont worry about it. We break
ground on Tuesday. Youre stressed out. Speaking of which
His face curls with excitement. Its Wednesday night. Ladies
night. Come grab a drink with me. Let off some steam. Itll be
good for you. He gestures to my flannel shirt. And youre
already dressed to impress. The girls around here really dig the
classic lumberjack look.
Then, why dont you ever wear it?
Because I cant grow the beard. He gently smacks baby-
smooth cheek. The mystique is lost without the beard.
I shake my head and sit down in my desk chair. Well, no,
thanks. I don
I dont have time, we say in unison.
Bobby laughs as I glare at him. Come on, man. You do have
time. Just put the building regulations down and step away from
the desk.
I dont have time, I repeat.
Leo, Im your assistant, he says. I know your schedule
better than you do. Also, Im ninety-nine percent sure those
calluses on your hands come from handling wood and not the
fun kind.
I just need to make it through Mondays meeting with the
board, I say. Sit them down, present a more polished pitch,
and get them to smile and nod one more time to formally
approve the project. Once thats over, Ill look into more fun
ways of handling my wood but, until then
He nods. Budgets and regulations.
Budgets and regulations.
Also, your dad will probably disown your ass if you screw up
your first solo multi-million dollar project this close to
Yeah I pause as that sinks in. Thanks a lot for that
Its what an assistant is for. He glances at his watch. Well,
its almost seven. Do you mind if I go out and grab a drink? Im
still young and very nubile.
I grin. Knock yourself out, Bob.
He hands me the clipboard. Thank you.
The phone rings at his desk in the lobby and he spins around
to answer it.
L Jack Industries; Lumber and Real Estate. Is the CEO in?
He peeks over at me and I shake my head. No, he just stepped
out, but He pauses. Hold, please. He presses the phone to
his chest. Uh, Leo. Its the police department.
I glance up. The police department?
What do they want?
A young woman was caught trespassing on the Whitefish
Lake property. They want to know if youd like to press charges.
No I run my fingers through my hair. No. I dont have
time for that. Just tell them to get her out and send her
Bobby lifts the phone to his ear. No, maam. That wont be
necessary. Thank you for calling. All right. Have a good
He hangs up and grabs his coat off the back of his chair.
I try to focus on my speech again but curiosity pokes at me.
Did they say what she was doing there? I ask.
They did not. He shrugs. Figure shes just a hiker who
strayed too far in. No harm done.
I nod. Right.
Want me to call back and find out?
No, I answer. Ill see you tomorrow.
Goodnight. Oh! He sticks his head back in. Dont forget
that you have to meet the contractor on site first thing
First thing tomorrow. Contractor. Ill be there. And dont
forget to let me know as soon as
Patterson calls, he interrupts with a smile. I know.
I give him a quick thumbs up and he waves as he takes off
toward the elevator down the hall. As soon I hear the doors slide
closed, I lean back in my chair and stare at the wall.
Imagine I begin again, if you will
I frown to myself.
Okay, yeah. It sounds douche-y.

I turn my truck onto the mountain road and shift into a lower
gear to climb the steep incline. Whitefish, Montana fades off
behind me, quickly replaced by trees and nature. Just the way I
like it.
I roll down my window to let the cool, forest air seep into the
truck. I fill my lungs with it and flick on my brights as the road
starts to bump and weave in the darkness.
A few miles of this and Ill be home.
My cabin comes into view, along with my golden retriever
lying on the porch waiting for me. She stands up with
excitement but doesnt race off the porch until the truck is
parked and I step one foot out. Ive trained her well.
Hey, Pearl, I say, scratching behind her ear as she hops up
to greet me. I know, Im late. Im sorry. You hungry? She
barks. Yeah. Me, too. Come on.
I unlock the door and she bolts inside between my legs,
instantly running into the kitchen and planting herself by
her bowl.
My stomach growls as I move through the living room to the
fireplace. If I dont start a fire now, Ill regret it once I sit down
with my dinner.
Pearl barks again from the doorway between me and the
Hang on, I tell her as I stack a few logs. Youre gonna want
to curl up here with a full belly, arent you?
She pouts silently but waits as I build an orange flame.
All right I say, sliding my coat off and tossing it onto the
rack. What do we have?
Pearl wags her tail and follows me to the fridge. It pounds
behind my knees, nearly knocking me off-balance as I scan the
shelves for grub.
Oh, I know, I chuckle at her. You want me to heat up that
leftover steak, dont you?
Her snout nudges me and she lets out a whine.
And you want me to split it with you, dont you?
She kicks up and scratches at my knees.
Okay, okay I grab the foil-wrapped meat, along with a
potato to toss in the microwave. Steak, it is.
While the steak heats on the stove, I walk over to the kitchen
table. A hand-carved chessboard sits at the center with several
finished pieces standing on top. I palm a block of basswood and
place it in my jeans, along with my pocket knife. Once Im
through with dinner, Ill try and get started whittling the queen
though Im still not entirely sure how I want her to look yet.
Pearl watches as I cook, pausing periodically to lap the drool
off her lips. I flip the steak over, getting it nice and warm before
chopping it up and tossing bits of it into her bowl. She devours it
immediately and by the time I sit down in the living room with
my own portion, shes finished and ready for her evening nap by
the fireplace.
I smile at her as she curls up and rests her head against
my foot.
Good girl, I tell her, taking a bite from my warm, buttery

L Jack Industries.
Lumber and Real estate.
Established in 1890, just a few months after Montana became
a state, by Leopold Jackman. The company has been owned and
operated by the billionaire family ever since
I pause and reach up to unravel the towel turban on my head,
letting my freshly-washed blonde hair fall down my shoulders.
Bland motel soap and shampoo is better than the stench of
Flathead County jail and I never in a million years thought Id
have to say that.
My eyes wander away from my laptop as I comb the tangles
out with my fingers. I suppose it could have been worse. The
owner could have pressed charges and Id be looking at a
permanent black mark on my otherwise spotless criminal
record. But, then again, if Im going to become a hardened
criminal, it might as well be because of a cause I believe in, right?
Everything is falling into place out here. Life finds a way to
make things happen. Events and circumstances brought me out
here to save Lovers Trail before it gets destroyed in favor of
corporate greed.
The park ranger who picked me up told me to take my dispute
to the loggers and thats exactly what I intend to do.
L Jack Industries.
I scroll down the webpage again to find an old photograph of a
long-bearded man in a thick flannel shirt with an ax slumped
over his shoulder. Leopold Jackman, the caption reads. L. Jack.
Thats cute, I guess.
Every firstborn male since then has been given an L name
Lucas. Levi. Laurence. and theyve all reigned as CEO until
they retired and their sons took over. Must be swell knowing you
always have a job to fall back on. Nepotisms a bitch.
I click the contact page and a photo of an office building loads
onto the page. Its tall way taller than every other building
surrounding it and I instantly recognize it from my trek back
here in a state troopers car.
The building is here in Whitefish, Montana. The current CEO
is Leonard Jackman and his office is on the fifth floor.
I smile and grab the pack of beef jerky I bought from the gas
station down the street.
This is perfect.
Tomorrow, Ill walk right into his office and appeal to his
face. Ill put my foot down and Ill refuse to leave until the man
talks to me. Once he does, hell listen. I know he will. I wont
give him a choice.
I look at my mothers diary sitting beside me on the bed. If
theres anything thatll melt the heart of an old business man,
its my mothers beautiful words. Everyone Ive told this story to
would agree.
I pinch the jerky between my teeth and take a victory bite.
The dull, almost stale, flavor of dried meat and various spices
spreads along my tongue, instantly flicking on my gag reflex.
I recoil and spit it back out.
My phone rings on the bed beneath my knee. I take a quick
glance at it and hesitate. Its my grandmother. Shes called three
times already today but I wasnt exactly able to pick up in
handcuffs. Not that I would have anyway
I bite my lip, feeling each ring pick at me until I finally give in
and answer it.
Hey, Nana
She sighs with relief. Well, its about time. Where ya been,
Ive been keeping busy, I answer quickly, sliding off the bed
to wander over to the windows. The mountain town chill radiates
off the windows as I peek through and I remember why the
curtains are so thick to begin with. Sorry I didnt answer before.
Im outside of cell reception over here
Well, it was either that or you were lying dead at the bottom
of a gulch somewhere. Luckily, Im an optimist.
I smile and step away from the cold window before my wet
hair begins to frost over. Yeah. Me, too.
Thats good to hear. She pauses. Does that mean youre
holding up all right?
Im I sit back down on the bed, okay.
Hows the trip so far? Have you found what youre looking
for out there?
I glance at the laptop screen again.
Not yet, Nana, I answer, picking a stray piece of jerky from
my teeth. But I will.
Thats the spirit.
Leonard Jackman. Owner and CEO.
Its time to show you whos boss.

Then, my dad walked over to the nearest tree and he carved

their names into it because if they were never going forget that
moment I pause for effect, then that damned forest
wouldnt either.
The assistant, Bobby, stares at me from across his desk,
leaning pensively against the heel of his hand. Wow he
sighs. That is beautiful.
I nod and clench the diary to my chest. Thats why I need to
talk to Mr. Jackman and convince him to stop this project before
a piece of me a piece of the world gets uprooted and tossed
And as soon as he gets in, Ill make sure that you do, Miss
Smith, I say. Hazel Smith.
Hazel. He points at me. Right. Named after the field
where your parents yeah...
Thats correct.
Well, take a seat and Ill do my best to fit you in as soon as
he gets back from the site. He gestures to the chairs against the
wall behind me.
The site?
Yeah He hesitates. Hes at the lake right now with the
contractor going over final arrangements for well, you know.
He mimics a steering wheel and makes a vroom sound,
followed quickly by the snapping and falling of trees.
Oh, I say. Well, thank you.
I turn around and sit down in the nearest chair. As I cross my
legs, I catch him casually checking me out over the desk, his eyes
sliding down my skirt to my ankles but I dont have the energy to
be annoyed with that right now. My heart is pounding so hard,
Im genuinely nervous about the state of my ribs. My foot
bounces up and down and continues bobbing for fifteen
minutes then thirty
An hour passes and no Leonard Jackman.
My chest aches. Im pretty sure Im starting to get
palpitations from this stress. I lay two fingers against my neck to
check my pulse, counting silently to myself as I glance up at the
clock. Four hundred beats per minute. No, wait. That cant be
I jolt and glance up to find Bobby standing over me with two
coffee mugs. What?
I said, would you like some coffee?
Oh I slide up taller. Yes. Yes, I would. Thank you.
He hands me the mug and walks back to his desk.
I take a drink and my tongue instantly screams.
Alphh I mutter, spitting it back into the mug.
He glances up at me and squints.
Touu hhot I slur, chuckling softly.
He gives a kind smile and turns back to his computer while
my tongue continues steaming in my mouth. I purse my lips and
inhale quick breaths to coat my tongue with air to cool the burn.
Where the hell is this guy?
The elevator doors open and a man steps out with his
head down.
My breath catches. Hes young and handsome strangely
handsome. Ive never been much interested in men with beards
but this guy certainly knows how to style one. His brown hair is
slick back with just a single strand breaking away to hang down
over his eyes. His black flannel shirt is wrinkled but only
slightly with a little dirt around the edges from some manual
labor. The sleeves are rolled up to his forearms and I follow the
vein from his elbow down to his wrist.
My thighs scream in pain. I snap out of my trance as I realize I
spilled half of my coffee down my legs.
The man halts in front of Bobbys desk and stares at me with
the bluest eyes Ive ever seen.
Oh, boy.
Hey, Bobby says to him. Youve got three messages: two
from your mom, the other from Patterson and before you
scold me for not telling you he called, check your phone because
I texted you twice.
I use the sleeves of my jacket to sop up the piping hot liquid
burning my knees.
And, lastly, you have a visitor in the lobby who would like to
speak with you.
I look up to find them both glaring at me but I pause as I make
eye contact with the handsome, bearded man again.
Oh, my god.
This is him?
I didnt expect billionaire CEO Leonard Jackman to be so
I uncross my legs and shoot up from my chair but I nearly
tumble to my knees as I realize my crossed foot fell asleep. I
shake it, casually trying to wake it up before hobbling closer.
Hi, Mithter Jathman I pause, feeling a burning lump
growing on my tongue. Mist-er Jack-man, I say again,
enunciating every syllable to keep the lisp in check. Im Hathel
Leonard studies at me, completely speechless, as his eyes fall
to my twitching foot and my coffee-stained skirt.
Bobby he finally turns away, check the local news. Find
out if the psych ward is missing somebody.
Bobby nods with a disbelieving stare. Will do.
Oh, no, no, no. I limp over to him and he takes just as many
steps away. Im noth crathy. I juth burned mah tong and mah
foot ith athleep.
Leonard glares at the desk again.
Bobby shrugs. She was normal an hour ago, man.
Well, her meds must have worn off.
I laugh to break the tension but stop when I realize thats
probably what a crazy person would do. I take a deep breath and
wet my tingling tongue.
Im sorry, I say slowly. Can we sthart again?
Leonard spins toward his office. Im not here, he tells
Bobby as he opens the door.
Oh, wait please. I chase after him, finally getting feeling
back in my ankle. Mr. Jackman, please, I justh need a minute to
thalk about
He slams the door on my face.
My guts churn. This was my only shot at this and I freakin
blew it.
Bobby stands up. Why dont you take a seat again? he
suggests, keeping an arms distance from me. Ill talk to him.
Tthunk I clear my throat. Thank you.
He pauses, silently gesturing with his eyes for me to back
away from the door. I do so, taking swift steps as he opens the
office door and closes it again behind him.
Ah, crap.

B obby follows me into the office and I throw up my hands.

Who the hell is that?!
Im sorry, he says, closing the door. She was totally cool
before. I swear.
What does she want?
She wants He shifts on his toes. She wants to talk to you
about canceling the Jackman Springs project.
I blink. Were breaking ground on Tuesday.
Yeah, I told her that.
And she wants me to cancel the project?
Thats what she said.
And why are you bothering me with this? I ask. Call
security and boot her ass out of here!
Bobby scratches the back of his head. See the thing is,
Leo shes got a really good pitch.
I step closer and lay a hand on his shoulder. And youve got a
really good job, I say, giving him a quick pat. Which one is
more important to you?
He doesnt hesitate. My job.
Atta boy. I walk over to my desk and fall into my chair.
Now, what did my mother want?
She wants to know if youre bringing a girl home for
Christmas this year.
I roll my eyes. Thats over three months away.
He shrugs. Theyre booking rooms now.
Okay, just if she calls back, tell her yes, but if I dont have
a plus-one by then you can be my date.
But He lays a hand over his heart. Leo, isnt this a bit
I chuckle. Go do some work and get that woman out of
here. The last thing we need is someone tossing yet another
wrench into this project.
You got it Bobby nods and leaves the office, slowly
closing the door behind him.
I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, eager to get a few
minutes of peace before diving into the notes for Mondays
board meeting. Theres still so much to figure out. I havent
heard back from the zoning commission but Bobby did mention
a message from Patterson. Maybe thatll clear some of those
questions up and then I can nail down
My office door flies open and that woman rushes inside. I sit
up as she slams the door and locks it, trapping a shouting Bobby
Mr. Jackman, she holds up a leather-bound book, I need a
minute of your time.
Whoa! I slide my chair backward but it quickly runs into
the wall. What the hell
My name is Hathel She sighs with frustration. Hazel.
My name is Hazel and Im here to appeal to you to please cancel
the housing development and keep Lovers Trail intact.
My mouth sags in stunned disbelief. I look her up and down,
following the splotch of spilled coffee from her lap down to the
torn stocking around her ankle. A lock of blonde hair has
attached itself to her lip. She tries to swipe it away but it refuses
to leave. Her wide chest heaves up and down, stretching the
buttons on her white blouse. Big, green eyes. High cheekbones
on a girl-next-door kind of face
No! I say, snapping out of it. Get the hell out of here.
Leonard She steps away from the pounding on the door
and holds her hands in prayer. I truly believe that once you hear
me out, youll want to save this forest as much as I do.
I highly doubt that. Get out.
No, she says, standing tall.
Get out.
Not until you
Get out.
She huffs. God, youre annoying.
My jaw drops. Me?!
The door breaks open again and two of my security officers
barrel inside. They split off and each grab one of Hazels arms.
No, no, no, she says. Please, Leonard. Please.
They easily lift her over a foot off the floor and carry her out
into the lobby. I follow slowly and watch from my busted
doorway as they board the elevator and the doors close on her
pink, panicked face.
Holy shit, Bobby mutters from his desk. Well, that was
I stand still for several long moments, watching the empty
lobby in shock.
Who the hell was that girl?

I step into the parking garage and reach into my pocket for my
keys. Its mostly deserted, save the few cars owned by those even
more obsessed with their jobs than I am. Wind echoes down the
long aisles, shifting dead leaves around, and the hairs on the
back of my neck stand tall.
I pause and glance around, my thoughts instantly returning to
that girl from before. Wild and crazy eyes. Stained clothes.
Plump, kissable lips.
Man, I really do need to get laid.
I shake the thoughts away and continue toward my truck on
the second level. More prickles dance down my back, spreading
along my spine like spiders, so I pick up my pace. Every little
sound magnifies, each one yanking me in different directions
until I finally reach my door.
The keys slip from my hands and clash against the pavement.
Dammit, I whisper to myself as I bend down.
Hello, Leonard.
Ahh! I shoot up and fall backward against my truck,
recoiling from her shadow.
My life flashes in front of my eyes. I look to her hands,
searching for a weapon but all she has is that book clenched in
her little fingers. Shes still wearing that stained skirt. Her
cheeks are rosy from the autumn chill in the air. They poke out
from the hood of her coat and I cant help but think how
adorable she looks.
She holds up her hands and points at herself. Hi, its me. Its
just me. Hazel Smith. How are ya?
I blink. What the hell are you still doing here?
Waiting for you. Believe me, I know what youre thinking;
that I must be some crazy lunatic but I can assure you thats not
the case.
Are you sure?
Hazel chuckles. Pretty sure. Im just a highly-motivated girl
begging and pleading for you to have a five-minute conversation
with me about this whole Jackman Springs thing
No, I interrupt. Im not canceling the project.
Leonard, please
She pauses. Leo?
Stop calling me Leonard. No one calls me that.
Okay, well, Leo she holds out the book, if you
could just
No. I open my truck.
Please. Please. Please
I climb up and slam the door behind me. She quickly walks off
and I breathe a sigh of relief, thinking that Ive finally gotten
through to her as I turn the ignition on.
I shift the truck into reverse and tap the gas to crawl
backward but I quickly slam on the brake as her form fills my
rearview mirror.
Im not moving until you talk to me! she shouts, her voice
echoing throughout the garage.
I grit my teeth and roll down my window as my blood pounds
with rage. Get out of the way!
She twitches as I rev the engine but she doesnt budge. I lift
off the brake to jut backward enough to scare her but all she does
is clench her eyes shut in terror.
I groan with frustration and roll the truck back a little farther,
inching closer to her until my bumper touches her stained knee.
She opens her eyes and gasps. Hey!
Move! I shout out the window.
Are you trying to kill me?!
Her jaw drops. Youre psychotic!
Me?! I shift into park before hopping out of the truck. Im
psychotic? Youre the one waiting around in a parking garage for
nine hours. Dont you have a life or a job or group therapy
sessions to get back to?
No, she answers.
I pause. Oh.
She takes a deep breath, making her chest rise and my gaze
instantly falls to it out of instinct. I believe that Lovers Trail is
worth more to this community as it is now.
I look up. This community? Do you even live here?
She flexes her jaw. No, but
Where are you from?
Washington? I gawk at her. You came all the way out here
from Washington to lecture me about whats best for my
Her eyes shift in their sockets. No, I just
Go home, I tell her. Just go home.
I spin around to walk back to my truck but she steps forward.
You know, you could at least apologize for hitting me with
your truck.
My anger spikes. First, you stood in front of it. That was your
fault. And I nudged you, I didnt hit you. Second, I dont
apologize. I never apologize. Especially when Ive done nothing
wrong and Ive done nothing wrong here. Youre the one who
should apologize for wasting my time.
She shakes her head. Do you even listen to yourself when
you speak? Or are you one of those rich guys that cant hear the
douchebag in their voice over the sound of people kissing their
asses all day long?
I take a step back, searching my tongue for a reply but
instead, I sit flabbergasted. Whoa.
She winces. Sorry, was that hurtful? Ive had a rough few
days. First, I find out about this stupid housing development.
Then, I get arrested for trespassing
I blink. That was you?
Her eyes fall in shame. No.
Okay, look I stare her down. I admire your spunk but
Im not going to tell you again, Heather.
My name is Hazel, she corrects.
Get out of the way or Ill call security and have them drag
you out of here by your earlobes. Again.
Hazel chews on her bottom lip. After several moments, she
slides back and out of the way. Fine, she says.
Thank you.
I climb into my truck. As soon as I close the door, I turn to
look for her again but shes gone. I check again, glancing at every
mirror and through every window to find her but shes nowhere
in sight. A closing door echoes through the empty parking
garage. She must have really left.
Thank you, I whisper again.
I back my truck up, eyes wide open for her adorable, crazy
face, but shes nowhere to be seen from here to the street exit.
I breathe a sigh of relief and speed off toward the edge
of town.
Soon, I reach the mountain road and turn off. A light gray fog
billows in from the forest. Like always, I roll down my window to
get a whiff of natures perfect scent. A wave of relaxation washes
over me and I shift into first gear with a genuine smile on
my face.
I glance at the rearview mirror to see a pair of headlights
tailing my truck up the mountain road. At first, I think nothing
of it. Im not the only person who lives up here but the yellow
paint job brings me pause. Its a taxicab.
It continues to follow me along the winding road, taking each
turn I do with just as much speed. I try to ignore it. I try to think
of any other reason for it to be here other than what would
amount to my worst nightmare but my smile fades completely as
it follows me down my own damned driveway.
Oh, hell no, I mutter as I step down from my truck.
The back door of the cab opens and Hazel steps out.
No, no, I say, pointing at her. This isnt happening.
She steps closer. You know, all of this would be over if youd
just let me talk for five minutes.
It wont matter. Get back in the cab and go home!
I move toward my porch. Pearl sits on the top step with wide,
protective eyes, growling slightly at the invaders on her grass
and I dont blame her. I pat her head to calm her and glance back
at Hazel to make sure shes leaving.
She spins around and pokes her head into the open window to
speak to the taxi driver. A few seconds later, she reaches into the
backseat, grabs her duffel bag, and slaps twice on the roof.
The driver takes off at full speed down the road and
disappears into the thick fog.
Whoa, whoa I take a step down off the porch. What
is this?
She stands there and drops her bag by her feet.
I frown. What are you doing?
Im engaging in a silent protest, she says, straightening her
back to get as much height out of her petite stature as possible.
I pause. Youre what now?
Im not leaving this spot until you agree to have a serious
discussion with me about saving Lovers Trail.
Oh, no, youre not! I growl. Go home.
She digs her shoes a little deeper into the dirt.
I grit my teeth. Im not changing my mind.
I think you will.
And I think you are trespassing on my land. Again.
Have me arrested, then.
You think I wont?
No, because I am an optimist. She sticks her nose up a little
higher and I snort. I believe in the good in people and I believe
in you, Leonard Jackman.
Jesus Christ... I turn around rush into my house. Pearl
follows me in and I slam the door behind us.
I immediately double back to the window, watching and
waiting to see if she caves but she doesnt. She just stands there
with locked knees and closed fists, staring forward at my front
door through the blowing fog.
Youve gotta be freakin kidding me.
I throw the door open and step back out onto the porch.
What about food? I ask her. Eh? Were out in the middle of
nowhere. There are no cell phone towers out here. No restaurant
delivers to this area. What are you going to do about food?
She hesitates. I
You didnt think about that, did you? You didnt prepare for
hours possibly days of silent protest. Did you?
I am confident that you wont let me starve to death,
Stop calling me Leonard.
No... She smirks. Leonard.
My eye twitches but I throw a smirk right back at her. I dont
suppose you have toilet paper in that bag, do you?
Hazel blinks to hide the horror on her face. Im not leaving!
Yes, you are!
No, Im not!
I stomp with frustration and spin around to go back inside. I
do not have time for this shit!
Leo, name one thing in this world that you actually care
about! she shouts after me.
Ill name two, I say from my doorway. Peace and quiet.
I slam the door and close the blinds. My pulse pounds in my
chest, pumping rage and adrenaline through me, but I quell the
temptation to argue with her any further.
She can rot out there for all I care but this protest will never
go that far anyway. Shell give up and go home in a few hours.
Her Spokane, Washington, city-girl nature will eat at her soon
enough. Shes not dressed for camping and shes not hardened
enough for any sort of real protest.
Pearl swipes at my thigh and whines with inquisition. I reach
down and scratch her head while I slowly peek through the
blinds at my front lawn one last time.
Hazel Smith.
What a brat.

L eonard Jackman.
What an asshole.
I just want five minutes to tell my story but he wont let me
get three words out before shutting me down. Well, if peace and
quiet are what he wants, then peace and quiet are what hes
going to get.
Im not moving from this spot until he agrees to talk to me. I
owe it to my parents to at least try and preserve this one small
piece of their history. Its not like Lovers Trail is hurting
anybody. What the hell vendetta does this guy have over a few
miles of trees by the lake?
A chill runs down my spine as my body temperature falls a
little more. I kneel in the dark to search my bag for my
The door opens and Leo steps outside with a steaming mug in
his hands. You know he says, taking a sip, if youre really
going to stand out here for my amusement, you might as well
throw on some boots or a shorter skirt.
I grit my teeth and kick off my shoes before stepping into my
sweats. Hopping on one foot, I yank them up beneath my skirt,
nearly slipping on the moist grass as warm blood rushes to
my face.
Leo smirks with amusement. Youre never going to last out
here, he says. Its fifty degrees right now but thats going to
drop to twenty in the next few hours.
Is that concern I hear? I ask. Do you care about my well-
No, he says. I just dont want you dying on my lawn and
coming back to haunt and annoy me for the rest of my life.
I pause. You believe in ghosts?
Holly, if theres the slightest chance of that happening, I
want to do everything in my power to prevent it.
My name is Hazel.
Whatever. What do you want? he asks, enunciating his
words. Money? I have money. I can give you money.
I dont want your money, I say, zipping up my coat. I want
Lovers Trail.
I will write you a blank check.
I dont want it.
His head falls and he mutters quietly to himself as he turns
back around and walks inside again.
As the door slams, I throw my hood over my head and smile.
Hes trying to buy me. That means my protest is working.
Im wearing him down. All I have to do is hold out until
morning. His warning about the weather is a bit concerning but
with my sweats, thick socks, and this coat, I should at least
survive until dawn.
Assuming a bear doesnt get me first.
Oh, dammit. Why did I have to think that?
I twitch in the direction of a cracking twig and stare into the
darkness with wide-open eyes.
The porch light flicks off. I look to the windows to catch Leo
smirking at me through the curtains before they fall back down
I exhale and lower myself to sit on top of my duffel bag.
I can do this.
Never give up.
Fuck, its cold.
And I have to pee.
My stomach growls.
No. I can do this.
I hope.

Something touches my face. Its soft and warm.

And wet.
My eyes fly open to see a large animal lapping at my nose.
Ah! I jerk awake and roll away from it in a haze. My neck
stiffens, scolding me with a crick for sleeping on it wrong and I
wince with pain.
For a second, I forget where I am. I feel dirtier than Ive ever
felt before in my life. Theres mud on my clothes and my hair
itches like bugs are setting up shop on my head.
Oh, yeah. Im on Leonard Jackmans lawn. Im still hungry
and my bladder is about ready to explode but I survived the
night, so thats something
I look up and his dog is staring at me.
What? I ask it. What do you want?
It questions me with a head tilt.
The cabin door opens and Leo steps out in jeans and a tucked-
in red flannel shirt. He whistles loudly and the dog rushes
toward him and retreats into the house before he closes
the door.
His gaze falls on me and he sighs. Oh, he says. Youre
still here.
Uh-huh, I say, rubbing my neck.
He twists the doorknob twice to make sure its really locked
before stepping off the porch toward his truck.
I stand off the ground and my back pops. Ugh
I see you slept well, he says with a smirk as he passes me.
I look him up and down, noting the flannel and jeans... along
with the smooth skin above and below his beard. I catch a whiff
of his aftershave and a warm shiver tingles me down to my toes.
I shake it off. Is that what you always wear to work? I ask.
He pauses and spins slowly toward me. Whats wrong
with it?
I snort. Its a little casual, isnt it?
I own the building, he says. Ill wear whatever the hell
I want.
Okay... I chuckle.
Wasnt this supposed to be a silent protest?
I mime a key against my lips and turn the lock twice, making
him seethe a little more before stepping up into his truck.
He revs the engine and glares out the window at me. I stand
still, refusing to blink as I stare back at him from the grass. After
several moments, the window rolls down and he pokes his
head out.
Youre not going to vandalize my house, are you?
I shrug, keeping silent. The thought honestly never crossed
my mind. Im not a damn criminal but this might be more fun if
he thinks I am.
I let a smile crawl across my face and he shifts with unease.
You better be gone by the time I get back, he says over the
rumbling engine. Or Im calling the cops.
I cross my arms.
I mean it, he adds. Last night was a noble effort but Im
not going to put up with it again. You need to be gone. Tonight.
Still, I say nothing.
Finally, he grunts with annoyance and turns his attention to
driving out of here. I keep my eye on the truck until it rolls down
the driveway and disappears from sight.
Man, I have to pee.
I rush off the lawn into the woods, hoping to find a secure
area to relieve myself. Oh, god, I gotta use leaves, dont I? Not
unless I seriously want to ruin one of my tank tops.
I carry on through the woods until I lose sight of the driveway.
If he suddenly comes back, I certainly dont want to be caught in
a squatting position. Waking up on his lawn covered in dirt was
embarrassing enough and, of course, he looked nice and perfect
with his well-kept beard, trim and styled hair, and come-fuck-
me blue eyes.
What a prick.
After a little fidgeting, I figure out a good position to do my
business without spattering on my feet. I bend over to scoop up a
few soft leaves, grimacing as the harsh reality bleeds into my
Something growls behind me and I freeze mid-stream.
Oh, no I whimper.
Im going to die out here.
Im about to die in rich boys backyard, eaten alive by
whatever the hell forest monster is sneaking up on me. If Im
lucky, itll rip me apart before I ever feel a thing and the only
evidence left behind will be shards of my blood-splattered coat
and not my mangled body covered in my own piss.
I take a deep breath and find the courage to peek behind me
with one eye.
Leos dog stares at me from the surrounding brush. Its golden
tail starts wagging as we make eye contact and I flinch with the
sound of its loud bark.
Oh, hey good doggy?
It growls at me again.
Okay, maybe not-so-good doggy. I glance around for
spying eyes. Thankfully, its still just me and Cujo out here. So,
if you dont attack me, I have some really horrible beef jerky in
my pack with your name on it. Okay?
The growling ceases but it keeps staring at me.
I turn away to finish up, moving quickly in the hopes that the
dog doesnt suddenly leap at me.
Wait the dog.
I saw Leo shut the dog up inside the house, which means
A doggy door.
If its large enough, I should be able to squeeze inside and
break into a mans house and commit a felony.
Im already in too deep over my head here. A silent protest.
What the hell was I even thinking? Leos put up with me out of
amusement only but he wont forever. He probably will call the
police on me and that deputy made it pretty clear that I was
supposed to get out of his town. My cute stature and adorable
face will only do me so many favors around here.
I head back toward the house, all the while hearing the soft
thump of paws following close behind me.
This whole thing may be insane but I cant back down. If I do,
then Lovers Trail disappears overnight and I wont be able to
forgive myself if I dont do everything in my power to keep that
from happening even if I have to handcuff myself to a
damn tree.
Okay, maybe I wont do that. Once is enough when it comes to
squatting out in the middle of the woods.
No, Ill just have to come up with some other way of getting
Leonard Jackmans attention.
I sit down on the porch steps to go through my pack. The dog
leaps up and plants itself between myself and the door with
squinting eyes. Guess I wouldnt be able to squeeze through a
doggy door anyway with this guard dog standing by.
I pause with a smirk. If I cant get on the mans side, maybe I
can win over his best friend instead.
I snap my fingers at him. Come here, boy

I step off the elevator and march past Bobbys desk.

Hey, Leo, I
His voice trails off as I flash by and throw my office door
open. It slams against the wall and instantly bumps back to my
shoulder. I push it away.
This damned woman. Who the hell does she think she is? I
honestly never expected her to last through the night. Have I
underestimated her? No, theres no way shell be there when I
get home. Girls like her need leg warmers and Starbucks to
survive. This is just a whim. Shell get bored long before I do.
I plop down into my chair and lean over to rest my head
against the desk but I move too quickly and end up smacking it
down instead.
Ow I say to myself.
That was her fault, too.
I peek up as Bobbys face slowly inches around the door
frame. What? I ask.
You, uh ya okay?
Im fine. I sit back and rub my eyes. That irrigation report
come in yet?
He nods and points at me. Its on your desk, man.
I look down, suddenly noticing the file sitting in front of me
where I bonked my head. Oh.
You sure youre okay? He steps inside and closes the door
behind us. Im no expert, but if I had to give an honest opinion,
Id say you look a teensy bit stressed. More so than usual,
I mean.
Im fine.
He slides his hands into his pockets and waits, standing still
in front of my desk until I heave an angry sigh.
Shes on my lawn.
Bobby blinks. Huh?
That girl from yesterday, I say. Hannah. Shes on
my lawn.
He takes a seat in the chair beside him. Hazel?
I point a finger. Yeah, that one.
Why is she on your lawn?
Shes engaging in a silent protest. I flick the top button
open on my shirt to take a deeper breath. She followed me
home last night after practically attacking me in the parking
garage. Says she wont leave until I have a serious discussion
with her about saving Lovers Trail.
His mouth sags. Whoa. Thats a little
Crazy. I know. I didnt get any sleep last night. Every time I
closed my eyes, I could feel her watching me through my
bedroom window.
I twitch my limbs to shake the phantom crawlers off my skin.
So Bobby leans back and crosses his arms, what youre
telling me is that theres a stunningly gorgeous, blonde-haired,
city girl sitting outside your house right now, waiting for you to
come home, willing to do whatever it takes to change your
mind and youre here with me talking about irrigation
budgets? This is why God invented sick days.
I glare at him. Are you suggesting that I go home and take
advantage of the mentally unstable woman living on my lawn?
Well, no, not when you put it like that
She needs help, Bob.
The professional kind.
Or he says, she just needs someone to listen to her and
comfort her. You know, give her a shoulder to cry on
He throws up his hands. Okay, okay
I pick up the report in front of me but instantly drop it back
down. And shes not stunningly gorgeous.
He scoffs. Really?
Shes cute, I say. At the most.
He lets it slide. Have you tried talking to her about it instead
of just saying no?
Why bother? I ask. This is happening. Its too late to even
consider canceling it and I dont have time to sit through yet
another bullshit sob story. I heard enough of that from the city
Exactly, he says, but you talked through it with the
council and now, theyre all on your side. Talk to her. Use logic
and rational thinking to get through to her. If anyone can
convince her to back down, its you.
I pause to think. I dont know if thatll work. She seems
really emotionally invested in this. You cant reason with the
Leo, Ive never seen you not be able to talk your way out of
anything. Its your most admirable trait.
That and your womb broom. He tugs on his chin and I
laugh. Just sit her down, lay out the logical facts, maybe
apologize to her
I furrow my brow at him.
Or not.
Look, Bobby, I sigh. I get it but I dont think itll work on
this one. If shes still lingering around when I get home, Ill just
call the police and be done with it.
Its up to you, he says, standing up, but I also know that
you wont be able to sleep again tonight if shes out there hating
on you.
Thats not true. I dont even know her. What do I care if she
hates me?
Leo He tilts his head. Remember when my sister
stopped by for my birthday last year?
Yeah, Melanie.
And remember how she told me she thought you were a
little obsessive and you spent the next three days calling her and
trying to convince her you werent?
I swallow. That was a completely different situation.
He chuckles. My point is that you care what people think
about you. A lot. Last I checked, Hazel Smith was people.
Crazy people, I murmur.
Still people.
I pick up the report to change the subject. Any other
Nope. Youre clear.
Good. Leave me alone.
Bobby laughs to himself on his way out. Oh, theres a big
storm rolling in for tonight, he says, pausing in the doorway.
You might want to leave a little earlier today to run by the store
and pick up supplies in case you get flooded-in up there for the
I nod. Good idea. Thanks.
Bread, milk, a bottle of wine... He smirks. Scented
I furrow my brow and lean back in my chair. So, that week in
June when you were out with pneumonia?
He clears his throat. Twins. They were Swedish.
Youre forgiven. Dont do it again.
I make no promises.
He disappears into the lobby and closes the door behind him.
I turn to the irrigation report, scanning the text for relevant
information to add to my presentation to the board.
I am not obsessive.
Driven, yes. Dedicated, sure. But obsessive? No way.
I like doing a good job. I like being thorough. Crossing Ts and
dotting Is are what separates the men from the boys in my line
of work. Hell, in all lines of work. Details make all the difference
in the world and I sure as hell wont apologize for it.
That does not make me obsessive.
I press the call button on my phone. Hey, Bobby, whats
Mandy up to nowadays?
Dude, let it go.
I grit my teeth and hang up.

And thats why Jackman Springs is not only a smart investment

for this community; its a sure-fire win for this company thats
guaranteed to make a profit within the first year.
I recite the speech from memory on my drive home from the
store, softly munching on an apple as I take the mountain road
upward. The sky looks a little dimmer than usual. Storm clouds
fill the landscape, promising a rough night ahead but Ive got
more than enough supplies to last through the weekend wine
and candles excluded.
Im almost tempted to go ahead and call the cops now. When
that storm hits, itll be impossible for them to make it up the
mountain to retrieve Hazel but, judging on how black this sky is,
shes probably already hightailed it out of here herself. If shes
smart, anyway. Not quite sold on that yet.
The drizzle begins as I reach the driveway and thunder
rumbles the distant sky. One look toward my house and my
stomach churns.
Hazel Smith sits on my porch steps next to my goddamn dog.
I park my truck and step out, scooping up the half-dozen
grocery bags with one hand.
Hazel stares at me across the lawn and her lips curl into a
shit-eating grin. Welcome home, dear, Hazel says, gently
petting Pearls head. How was work?
I take another bite from my apple, leaving little left but the
core and her eyes twitch at it. Oh, yeah. Thats right. Shes
probably starving.
I chew with my mouth open as I walk over her to unlock my
door. I push it open, instinctively sliding to the side to let the
dog run in first but she doesnt appear.
Pearl sits still next to Hazel, quietly panting and licking
her hand.
Hazel smiles. I wasnt sure what your dogs name was so I
renamed him Waldo.
I flex my jaw. Her name is Pearl.
Oh. Hazel looks my dog and scratches beneath her chin. I
like Waldo better.
Pearl, get inside, I say. The dog doesnt move. Pearl get
Go on in, Waldo.
The dog rises and rushes through the doorway, nearly
knocking me off-balance as she fires between my knees. I glare
at her wagging tail as she skips across the living room to curl up
by the fireplace.
Oh, hell no.
I lean over Hazels smug expression. Do not mess with a
mans dog.
I bring the apple to my mouth and take the last bite, revealing
the hungry hatred on her face.
She sticks her tongue out at me like a spoiled child.
Here I drop the apple core and she catches it by reflex.
You can have this.
Ew! she gasps, nearly dropping it, but the sudden growl
echoing from the dark chambers of her stomach keeps her
fingers clenched.
I wait a moment but she wont eat it in front of me. Shell
wait until Im gone before chowing down on whats left of it but I
dont really blame her. Shes stronger-willed than she looks.
Way stronger.
I definitely underestimated her.
Lightning flashes in the sky and I smile.
Storms coming, I tell her. Good luck staying warm.
To my surprise, Hazel brings the apple to her mouth and
takes a bite. See? she says, chewing. I told you that you
wouldnt let me starve.
I frown and stomp through the front door.
Youre a good person, Leonard Jackman!
No, Im not. I slam it closed behind me.
You wont let me freeze to death!
Oh, yes, I will, I mutter to myself as I throw the grocery
bags on the kitchen counter.
Pearl barks and I look down to see her waiting anxiously by
her food bowl at my feet.
Oh, no, I say, shaking my head. Bad dogs dont get food.
She tilts her head in confusion.
You fraternized with the enemy, Pearl and that is, in fact,
your real name.
I keep out some fresh bread and deli meat to make a sandwich
with while I put the rest of the groceries away. Pearl watches me
with hopeful eyes and every glance at her warms my heart a little
more. Of course, I wont punish her for much longer. Shes just a
dog and doesnt know any better but that Waldo trick was way
too far.
Its on now, Hazel Smith.

The storm rages outside. Wind and rain scratch along my roof
while I throw an extra log on the fire to keep it bright. The lights
flicker. I tap my pocket to make sure I still have my lighter in
case the power goes out.
Any other night and Id be content. Nothing relaxes me more
than a decent storm but I cant seem to sit still for two seconds
tonight not with that shrew lounging on my porch.
I lower down onto my chair to try and relax by the fire but
Pearl plants herself at my feet and stares at me.
What? I ask her.
She lets out a soft whine and her head jerks toward the
front door.
What? I ask again.
She moans louder.
I glance over my shoulder toward the porch. No. Go
lay down.
Pearl doesnt budge. She wags her tail, her snout once again
pointing right at my unwanted pest.
Oh, come on, I snap. Dont tell me youre on her side.
She raises a paw and scratches my knee.
I lean closer until were eye-to-eye. No.
Finally, the dog walks off but she sits down by the front door
with her eyes still locked on me.
I stand up in annoyance and follow her across the living room.
Pearl, come on. Get away from the
I pause and peek through the curtains to see Hazel wrapped
up on the porch in that paper-thin jacket of hers. Her entire
shape isnt visible but I can clearly make out the white wisps of
her breath in the cold and her quivering ankles sticking out the
Pearl swipes at my knee again and stares up with wide,
begging eyes.
Ah, dammit.

G et in here.
I flinch and crane my neck to look up at the open
door. What? I ask.
Leo stands in the doorway with one foot out. I dont want to
have to explain to the cops why theres a dead girl on my porch
in the morning. Get in here. Now.
Warm air from inside touches my skin and I jump to my feet.
But he points a stiff finger at me, if you mention one
word about Lovers Trail, I will toss you right back out on your
ass. Got it?
I nod and throw up a scouts honor with my shaking fingers.
Yes, sir, I say, desperately trying to keep my teeth from
He sneers at me but says nothing as he slides to the side in
the open doorway.
I move around him into the house, feeling the quick rush of
heat on my skin growing stronger as I beeline for the fireplace
across the living room.
Try not to track anything in... he says.
I give him a nod and check my shoes as I walk but nothing is
going to stop me from getting within arms reach of that flame.
I settle on a rug by the fire and hover my open palms over it,
sighing with happiness and I dont lower them again until the
heat becomes unbearable on my fingertips.
The dog joins me at the fireplace, panting and smiling. I reach
out to stroke her long hair.
Thanks, buddy, I whisper, giving her head a quick pet.
She steps up onto my knee to lick my face, nearly toppling me
over and I laugh at the enthusiasm.
Pearl, come on. Give her a break.
I look over my shoulder. Leo stands across the room with his
back against the front door.
Its okay, I say, my lips tingling. I can finally feel them
again. Thats a good sign.
I slide my jacket off, trying not to let too many drops of rain
splatter everywhere as Pearl laps it up off the wooden floor.
Leo walks over and offers an open hand. Ill take that.
I give him my jacket and he hangs it on a hook by the door.
Thank you.
I turn my attention back to the flame, hoping the blood
rushing through my cheeks is from the heat and not
something else.
Im inside. Now what?
Get him to talk to me.
Hes already warned me not to bring up the project or else Ill
have to suffer through the night outside. Do I really think hell
kick me out? Probably not. Especially not on a night like this but
I can at least keep things pleasant.
I glance around the living room, noting the strong, wooden
furniture and rustic furnishings. Nice place.
Leo sits in a nearby armchair. Thanks.
Looks much smaller on the outside, I say, scanning the tall
ceilings. Not gonna lie, I kind of expected you to have one of
those old stoves or a butterchurn and a gun rack over the door or
He shrugs. It was like that when I found it. More or less.
Oh, yeah?
Yeah, I gutted it out, put in some newer stuff. Added
electricity, indoor plumbing, and whatnot.
Cool. I nod.
His eyes fall to his lap. I must look hideous. And Im pretty
sure that strange smell is me. Theres no way Im going to make
him put his guard down unless theres a good reason for him to.
So, plumbing, eh? I ask.
His eyes squint with confusion. Yeah, plumbing.
I know youre probably done helping me and the last thing I
should expect right now is a favor but... do you think I could
borrow your shower for five minutes?
He raises a hand and points his thumb at the hallway behind
him. First door on the left.
Thank you, I breathe, pushing off the floor.
There are extra towels in the closet and a clean robe on the
back of the door.
Thank you. Thank you.
I rush through the room, feeling his eyes on me the whole
time until I disappear into the hall. The first door sits ajar and I
bolt through it to get out of his eye-line.
I close it and flick on the light. Oh, wow...
When he says he gutted the place, he really gutted it. For a
second, I think Ive been transported to some swanky hotel.
Theres a walk-in shower in one corner and a porcelain tub in
the other. Even the toilet looks downright majestic and Oh,
wow. Is that a bidet?
I ignore the lavish amenities and look at myself in the mirror
for the first time since yesterday morning. Oh, god. Definitely
hideous. I run my fingers through my hair to comb out the
tangles, feeling the dirt and grease nestled between the strands
and I cringe. All of this will be worth it if I can make him have
just one serious conversation about Lovers Trail.
I pull open the small closet by the sink to find several clean,
stacked towels inside, just like he said there would be. My fingers
sink into them; thick and soft. Even the robe is amazing. For a
guy that lives out in the middle of nowhere, he certainly enjoys
his luxury. I wonder what else he has in this place.
I pop open the medicine cabinet above the sink and my jaw
Its mostly just aspirin, caffeine pills, daily vitamins, and
oh, yeah a box of magnum-sized condoms. An open box.
Curiosity takes over. I listen with both ears for movement
outside as I reach for the box, eager to see just how big a
magnum is.
I roll a finger around the ring within the golden foil. Wow.
Either hes a gifted man or hes completely full of himself.
Probably the latter.
I move to set them back on the shelf but I pause to count
them first. Its a twelve-pack and only one has been used. He
must not get a lot of company around here, meaning he might
have one thing on his mind right now and I was stupid enough to
just walk in here all by myself in the middle of a storm with no
phone and no way off this freakin mountain.
Real smart, Hazel.
But he wouldnt try anything, right? He hates me, right? Im
safe here... right?
Ah, crap.
I really didnt think this one through.
I eye the doorknob to search for a lock but it doesnt have one.
Double crap.
I stare at the condoms in my hand as my interest piques. On
second thought, maybe it wouldnt be so bad
Ugh. Get real, Hazel.
Hed never go for a girl like me.
I shove the condoms back in and close the cabinet tight.

T he shower bursts on behind the bathroom door and I exhale

the breath Ive been holding since the moment Hazel walked
in here. Suddenly, I cant recall the last time I had a woman in
here. Last summer, maybe? When you go so long without guests,
general tidiness goes out the window. Dishes stack up,
magazines dont get thrown out nearly as often as they
should, and
I pause. Why the hell do I care?
Hazel Smith isnt a woman. Shes a bug. An insect. An
annoying pest that doesnt deserve another moment of my time.
It doesnt matter how green her eyes are or how nice she smells
before the whole sleeping outside my house happened, of
course or how my body heat spikes when I catch her staring
back at me.
Pearl lies on the floor in front of me, all snuggled up by the
fireplace. And you I scold her with a pointed finger from my
chair. Stop making her feel welcome here.
She raises her head and pants happily.
I mean it You lick her hand one more time and youre
outside tonight.
Pearl rises and walks over. She lays her head on my knee and
peers up at me.
My heart melts. Damn dog, I say, scratching behind
her ear.
I look across the room, my nose drawn to the familiar scent of
my soap as it seeps beneath the bathroom door. Blood pumps
through my veins, awakening every nerve. What the hell is it
about a woman who smells like my own soap that turns me on so
much? I should have just let her sit out in the mud.
I focus on the fireplace but my eyes quickly fall to her bag
lying beneath it.
My gaze flicks to the bathroom door and back again. I could
probably take a peek inside to see what Hazel has before she gets
out of the shower.
I lean back. No, thats wrong. Whatever she has isnt really
my business.
Although, if she has a weapon, I should know about it. I dont
want to fall asleep later only to have her stab me while Im
unconscious, right?
I slide off my chair and kneel by the bag, instantly drawing a
deep growl from Pearl beside me.
Um excuse me?
She backs down but her head tilts slightly out of judgment.
I ignore her and yank the bag open to take a good look inside.
No obvious weapons in sight, so thats good. A few rolled-up
shirts and skirts and pants. Nothing designed for prolonged
exposure to the elements, so I was definitely right about her
being unprepared. A dead cell phone. An empty water bottle.
That leather-bound book shes always carrying around.
I pick up the book and flip it open. Each page is full from
cover-to-cover with handwritten words and sketches.
A diary?
I stand up with it and pace around. The penmanship is
obviously female; lots of swoops and loops. Not too sloppy but
still hard to read at first. My eyes adjust to it quickly and I read
the first few lines I can make out.
Ive never met a man like him before. Its been two days and I
can already see the next twenty years of my life with him. Am I
crazy? This feels insane. Ive never believed in fate or love, to
tell you the truth but theres something about him that
makes me question my entire life until this point. Every step Ive
taken has led me into his arms. Carter Smith.
Maybe I am crazy. My heart is broken and full at the same
I skip ahead with rolling eyes, flipping through the pages to
get the general gist. So, she meets a guy, falls in love with him,
and they get hitched within days? This is either complete fiction
or this girl is about to find some hilarious skeletons in this
dudes closet.
He made love to me then, the way a husband should. His lips
caressed every piece of me. My only regret is that I didnt do
more for him but I honestly couldnt stop shaking. He said he
didnt mind
I bet he did.
and that wed have the rest of our lives to love each other.
This was just one night amongst thousands.
They honeymooned here in Whitefish. On Lovers Trail itself.
This girl suddenly makes a whole lot more sense.
What are you doing?
I look up and there she is, standing in the doorway wearing
nothing but my bathrobe. Wet, blonde hair tumbles over her
shoulders, clinging to her chin and neck and I catch another
whiff of my soap that makes my mouth water.
Her shaking eyes fall to the diary in my hands, flashing red
with anger and I throw on a smirk.
Carter is so gentle and kind to me, I often wonder if he was
sent down from Heaven just for me, I read aloud from the book.
Jesus Christ, do women actually think like this?
She beelines for me. Give that back!
I hold the book over her tiny stature. Ive never loved before
and Ill never love again for as long as I live
Stop it! she cries, reaching up to take it but I easily slap her
hands away.
Where is this guy anyway? I ask. If hes so charming and
perfect, why are you wasting your time here with me?
She snatches the book from my grasp. Its not mine. This
was my mothers. The man shes talking about is my father.
Didnt you read the dates?
I shrug. I skimmed them.
She takes a step back and bends over to shove the diary back
into her bag. When she rises, she does so with fury on her little
face. Why are you going through my stuff?
Just making sure you dont have a machete or a firearm of
some kind.
Do I look like the kind of girl who carries around a
No, but Ive been wrong before.
She frowns. How much did you read?
I cross my arms. Enough.
Enough to think twice about the project?
Its awfully cold and wet outside for you to be mentioning
that, I say.
She stands a little taller. My parents fell in love with this
place. My mother said she felt she had no purpose in this life
until she set foot here and I truly believe that Lovers Trail can do
that for me. For everybody.
Wow thats I place my hands over my heart and feign a
sigh, so lame.
My father carved their names into a tree and
Yeah, I read that part. Carter plus Olivia, I mock.
Its a beautiful story, she argues. Everyone thinks so,
including your front desk guy.
Its sentimental bullshit and you know it, Helen.
This isnt personal. Its business.
I refuse to see it that way, she says. Thats just what
people like you say to make yourselves feel better about doing
shitty things.
Okay I hold my hands together in front of me. Logic and
rational thinking, just like Bobby said. There are people just
like you here in Whitefish who told me the same thing. What
about the parks history? What about all the tourists that come
here every year to hike and canoe and all that stuff? But I
listened and I did my research. Do you know how much tourism
has fallen on Lovers Trail since 2000?
She hesitates. No...
Seventy-eight percent.
I pause to study her reaction, hoping the facts will start to
chisel away at her but she stands like solid rock.
I continue on. That trail is a barren wasteland of litter and
dead shrubs that no one cares about anymore. Im taking that
land, tearing it down, and putting something worthwhile in its
place. Were even going to use the lumber from the healthy trees
to build the houses. Nothing is wasted. I acquired the land
legally. I went through all the appropriate channels from
beginning to end and now, the damn city council wants that trail
mowed down more than anybody. This project is happening
whether you like it or not.
I wait for a reaction any reaction but she just stands
Thats fine. Facts like this cant be easy for her to hear. Soon,
theyll sink in and shell come around. Thats all she can do.
Finally, her lips twitch and she shakes with laughter.
I pause. What are you doing? Whats so funny?
She covers her mouth. Im sorry. Its just She chuckles
again and throws on a serious face. I did my research, har har.
Seventy-eight percent. Her arms move like a robot. Im a big,
scary businessman.
I take a step back. Seriously?
Of course you think this thing is carved in stone. Your day
runs on dotted lines. She points at me. Revolutions are built
on hopes and dreams.
I seethe with impatience. I hate to break it to you,
sweetheart, but the entire world runs on dotted lines. No one
gets paid with pixie dust and happy thoughts.
Well, well see about that
Thunder crashes outside and the lights go out around us.
Hazel lets out a piercing shriek before toppling forward and
clinging to me.
Is it a bear? she gasps and buries her face in my shoulder.
I stare down at her, unmoved by the weather but shaken by
the fresh scent of her washed hair. Its just the storm, I say.
The power usually cuts out when it gets this bad.
Oh, she mutters, still clutching my shirt.
Her body heat blends with mine and I feel my pulse quicken
in my chest.
I clear my throat. If you let go of me, I can put out some
Slowly, she releases me and wraps her arms around herself
instead. Okay, cool
The orange fire reflects off her fearful face. I force myself to
turn away from her, along with pushing the sudden urge to
comfort her back down to the depths of hell where it belongs.
Just sit down I tell her. Ill be right back.
She silently lowers herself to sit by the fireplace and Pearl
follows, curling up to rest at her feet.
Mans best friend, my ass.
I glare at her before heading toward the storage closet at the
back of the cabin.
Hopes and dreams. What a crock of shit.
I get her argument. I do. But this isnt a revolution. Its a
damn trail at the edge of a mountain. Shes clinging to her
mothers story as if it were some universal truth, when in fact,
its just anecdotal crap.
I open the closet and reach for the shoebox of candles I keep
inside. Various aromas drift to my nose, among them vanilla and
hazelnut, and I pause to think.
This project is set in stone. Hazel Smith will accept this and
go home but I cant in good conscience throw her out in this
weather. Shes spending the night here on my turf. She may
even have to stay through the weekend if the flooding is bad
I have until Monday morning to convince her to drop this
crusade. Shes a hopeless romantic. Her type is easily-swayed by
charm and charisma and I can be full of both when I want to be.
This will be easy.

I know what to do.

Leos a rich, pretty-boy and if theres one thing men like
him fawn over its a helpless damsel.
Getting inside his cabin was simple enough. Convincing him
to cancel the project wont be but Im already chipping away at
him. He can throw all the facts and percentages he wants at me
but, in the end, theres only one organ hell answer to and it
certainly isnt his brain.
Leo returns with a box of candles and sets them out in the
four corners of the room, pausing to light each one before
moving onto the next.
The dog licks my hand and I smile. Your dog is pretty cool, I
say, giving her head another pat.
Yeah, Leo nods by the end table next to his chair. She
usually doesnt care for new people but she seems to like you for
some reason.
I gave her beef jerky.
He chuckles as he flicks his lighter by the next candle.
Thatd do it, I guess.
The wick ignites, illuminating the center of the room and Leo
lays the box on the floor by his feet. My gaze slides down his
body in the dim light as he stands back up, taking in his tight
jeans and rolled up sleeves. Jeez. I never realized how much I like
a pair of thick, strong arms until I met this guy
Leo turns to me and I flinch away, hoping it wasnt too
obvious how hard I was staring at him.
He sighs and takes a knee in front of me. Look, Hazel I
raise a brow at the correct mention of my name. Lets start
over, all right? You could be here a while and the last thing I
want is to be stuck out here with a whole lot of tension and sharp
looks. Theres no reason why we cant be civil about this.
Okay. I nod at his shining, blue eyes. Thatd be great,
You hungry?
A little, yeah. I rub my stomach over the thick bathrobe. I
mean, not that the apple core didnt fill me up or nothing.
He smiles and picks up the nearest candle. Come on.
I stand and the dog rises with me to follow him into the
kitchen. She rushes past our feet and I see her already hovering
over her bowl as we enter the room.
Guess Im not the only one I say, moving slowly to keep
from bumping into anything as I try and navigate the dark room.
My toe taps a chair leg and I bite my tongue instead of wincing.
Leo shakes his head. She does that every time I walk in
here, he says. But shes already had her treats tonight and she
doesnt get more this late. She knows that. Isnt that right,
The dog lets out a soft whine.
Hey Leo leans over and gently bops her nose. No.
Pearl doesnt move from her spot and continues to stare up
at him.
I chuckle and take a seat at the wooden table for two. Shes
pretty good with the puppy eyes.
Yeah, and Im pretty bad at falling for it. He reaches into a
box above the fridge and grabs a dog treat from it. Here, you
mangy cur.
Pearl snatches the bone from his fingers and takes off with it
back into the living room.
How long have you had her? I ask.
Since she was a puppy. He opens the fridge to quickly grab
a few packages of deli meat and cheese before shutting it back
up. Oddly enough, she wandered up onto my porch during a
storm like this one. I brought her in, gave her some food, let her
out the next morning to go back to wherever she came from, but
she just kind of stuck around.
No one in town claimed her?
Nope, he says, grabbing a loaf of bread from the pantry.
Put up signs for weeks. Called every vet and animal shelter for
fifty miles to see if anyone was missing her but no one spoke up,
so I kept her.
Well, that was awfully kind of you, Leonard Jackman.
He fires a playful glare at me. Dont get any ideas. Im a
cold-hearted jackass. Turkey or ham?
Cheddar or swiss?
No, thanks.
Leo looks down to focus on my sandwich and I take the
moment to let the blush rush in and fade out again from my
cheeks. Hes looking at me differently now; ever since the power
went out. His voice is softer and kinder. Hes making me a damn
sandwich, for Christs sake.
A few more tugs in the right direction and Ill have him eating
out of my palm by morning.
I turn to the kitchen table in front of me and notice a wooden
chessboard sitting at its center. The pieces are arranged at either
end, standing within little black and white boxes but they arent
ordinary pawns and royal figures.
I pick up the tallest piece and draw it closer to get a better
look at it in the distant candlelight.
Small details come into view. Hes holding an ax by his side. A
swishy beard covers his face. A flannel-patterned shirt.
A lumberjack.
Be careful with that.
I look up to see Leo lingering over my shoulder. He lays a
paper towel-wrapped sandwich down on the table and takes the
seat across from me, his eyes locked on the figure in my hands.
Is it fragile? I ask, pressing into the firm wood.
No, it just took a really long time to get the beard right.
I pause. You made this?
From wood?
He nods. Yeah.
Like with a knife and stuff?
Carved it myself from a basswood block, yes. His stare
lingers on my fingers. Try not to dig your nails into it
I loosen my grip and roll it over in my hand to take in the
details one more time. Wow
Thats quite some impressive wood you got there. I look up
as his lips curl. Well, I mean
I know what you mean.
I set the piece back down on the board and focus on my
growling stomach instead. My cheeks burn and I pray he cant
see them in the shadowed corner as I take a few bites. The bread
is soft and fresh. The inside has just the right ratio of meat to
Damn, he makes a good sandwich.
I count the pieces on the board. Some are missing, I note.
Yeah, its a work-in-progress, he says. I havent had
much time to whittle lately. Hoping to have it done by
Is it a gift?
No, just for fun.
I crack a smile. You have fun?
His brow furrows. Yes, occasionally. Why?
You dont seem the type, is all.
And what type do I seem?
The kind thats married to his work without a whole lot of
time for Well, for wood.
He laughs softly. You might be right.
I tap the empty square beside the king in front of me.
Wheres the queen?
I havent started her yet.
Whats she going to look like?
Leo makes eye contact with me across the table. Im
not sure.
I blink but I cant quite bring myself to look away. Oh.
His blue eyes shine at me for a little bit longer before he leans
back and gestures to the board. Do you play?
No, water polo, he quips.
No, I answer with a laugh. I dont play chess.
Its pretty easy to learn.
I raise a brow. You want to teach me how to play chess?
He gestures around. Unless you have something else to do. I
mean, theres no power. No TV
You have no books?
Not unless you like Tom Clancy novels and business
I wince. Yeah, no.
He leans forward. I suppose I could crack open your moms
diary again. Theres sure to be a dirty tidbit I didnt get to that
ought to hold me over until morning.
I lick my lips clean. Fine. We can play chess.
He glances at the last pieces of my sandwich. Want
anything else?
No, Im good. Thank you. Well I look at my robe. I
should put on some clothes.
His eyes fall to my chest but they quickly rise back up. Right,
A little naked, yeah. In your kitchen which is probably
kind of rude, now that I think about it.
No, its okay, he says, holding up his hands. Its been a
while since Ive had a He presses his lips together. Never
mind. Ill just go in the other room and set up a board and
you can
Get dressed.
Leo slides off his chair and bolts toward the living room.
I get an idea and bite my lip. Wait He pauses between the
rooms. You wouldnt happen to have a shirt I could borrow?
His expressions sits blank for a few moments. Yeah. He
clears his throat. I might have something.
Thank you.
Leo leaves and I head back into the living room to grab some
clean tights from my bag. He returns from the end of the house
with a red flannel shirt and holds it out to me.
I chuckle as I take it. You certainly have a style, dont you?
Its clean and comfortable, he says. Youre more than
welcome to sit around shirtless. I wouldnt mind.
Uh My nose wrinkles up. No.
He smirks as I snatch a candle to take with me and I feel his
gaze lingering on my back as I close the bathroom door
behind me.
Men love it when women wear their clothes. Thats a fact. I
slide the robe off and throw the shirt around my naked
shoulders. My nose instantly twitches with the pleasant scent of
his cologne as I button it up. I pause and sink my nose into the
collar, inhaling deep as a smile stretches my lips. Its a large fit
but, as promised, clean and comfortable.
I slide into my tights and check myself out in the mirror. One
look at this and Ill have him where I want him to be. I flick the
top buttons open to reveal a little skin before stepping back out
into the dark living room.
Leo has arranged a few more candles by the fireplace and
placed an empty chessboard onto the carpet in front of it next to
a small box of black and white plastic pieces. He glances up at
me and freezes, his eyes wandering down to my toes and back.
Got him.

S he walks in and I pause, making sure to gawk at her for a

while before turning away. The more she thinks Im
attracted to her, the easier itll be to win her over. Thats a fact.
Although, I dont have to pretend too much. She is nice to
look at and the way my shirt hangs off her little form is actually
quite adorable.
So, I say, lowering down to sit by the fireplace, what do
you know already about chess?
Hazel wanders over and sits on the other side. If its
anything like checkers not a lot.
I chuckle and pull the box of pieces a little closer. Well, kind
of. Its played on the same board but the pieces move according
to their own limitations.
Okay, she murmurs.
Pawns can only move forward but can move diagonally if
theyre capturing another piece, I say. Bishops move
diagonally only and knights move in little L-shapes.
And youve lost me.
The main goal is to take out the king. If a king falls, the
game is over.
She picks up a plastic queen from the box. And what about
the queen? Why cant she take over?
Because she cant.
Why not?
Because its not in the rules.
Then, what can she do?
She can do whatever she wants.
She exhales hard. But then why cant she take over the
kingdom if the king dies?
I grit my teeth. The queen can move however she wants.
Forward, back, diagonally. She protects the king, just like all the
other pieces.
Why doesnt the king protect his queen?
Because she wouldnt stop asking stupid questions.
Wow she shakes her head, the kings a jerk.
You know what? Never mind. I snatch the queen from her
hand. Im sure I have some checker pieces around here
Hazel laughs. Leo, Im kidding. I used to play competitively.
I know what the pieces do.
I pause. Really?
Yeah, really.
Yes, me. She raises her hand. Spokane High School
champion; three years. Her brow furrows. It would have been
four but then that bitch Constance Welsh stole it from me
senior year
I stare harder. You?
She takes the queen back from me. Just set up the board.
I do as Im told, smiling softly as we trade turns reaching into
the box and grabbing our plastic pieces; her white, me black. She
lines up her pawns, placing them in their squares and shifting
them until they sit perfectly in the center. Id poke fun at it, but
honestly, I do the same damn thing. Always have.
Hazel goes first, moving one pawn forward into the next row
and instantly makes eye contact with me afterward.
I pause for a moment, wondering if Ive somehow fallen
asleep at my desk. Any second now, Ill wake up covered in drool
with Bobby staring down at me with that smirk of his. Thats far
more likely than this annoying shrew turning out to be a slightly
less annoying chess champion.
What? she asks.
I clear my throat and take my turn, hopping my knight over
the row of pawns. Nothing.
The game continues on. We volley back and forth so fast, I
quickly lose track of where I am and where shes going. Shes
clearly three moves ahead of me right now. I throw my focus at
the board, hoping to catch up to her but she steals my knight
right from under me before I even see it coming.
Youre rusty, she says.
I knock out one of her bishops. So are you.
I live with my grandmother. Shes more the dominoes type
and its hard to find people to play with otherwise.
I nod. I tried playing online before but its not the same.
Oh, I know, she says. You really need that face-to-face
interaction to make it worthwhile. Theres nothing like watching
the dread in someones eyes when you sneak attack their king.
We sit silently, quickly trading turns but I lose even more
competitive focus every time I look at her. That flannel shirt dips
down her shoulder, revealing the edge of her collarbone. My eyes
follow the shadows along her skin, down into the depths of her
cleavage and I imagine ripping it open and tasting her.
I bite my inner cheek, pushing the thought away but she
makes eye contact with me and I fall right back down again.
Your move, she says.
I blink to the board. Right, yeah
I take in the state of the game. Shes somehow managed to
come within two moves of checking my king.
Where did you learn to play? she asks me.
Oh, chess is a Jackman family past time, I answer,
hesitating a second before moving my other knight to distract
her pawns. My dad always takes it pretty seriously.
I suppose thats where that competitive spirit comes from.
She takes the bait and captures my knight, leaving her queen
wide open in the process.
I flutter with excitement on the inside. What makes you
think I have one? She raises a brow and I shake my head.
Lovers Trail isnt about competition. Thats business.
Its all business just a fancy form of competition?
No. Competition implies a winner and a loser. If you do
business correctly, everybody wins a little.
Except the trees.
I scoff. Youre not going to go Ferngully on me, are you?
She blinks. You watched Ferngully?
I have a sister, I say quickly.
Her smile deepens. Does she play?
A little but chess was mostly a mans game in my house
growing up.
She rolls her eyes. Yeah, I ran into that attitude a lot. Some
people just cant handle the idea of women using their brains.
It certainly gives me the willies, I joke, taking out her
queen with my rook and lining up an attack on her king.
Hazels face twists with amusement. She extends her wrist to
make her move, all the while staring at me. Checkmate,
she says.
My grin fades and I look to the board as she taps my king over
with her knight.
Dammit I whisper.
Maybe if you spent more time with your eyes on the board
instead of my chest you would have seen that coming.
I shrug. Wouldnt have been nearly as fun.
She reaches into the boxes for her pieces. So, you really do
have some fun.
My job is a lot of paper pushing and board meetings. My
hobbies keep me from going insane.
You dont like the job?
No, I do. Its just not what I want to dedicate all my time to.
She nods. Hobbies like wood and chess.
Wood and chess.
Is there anything else that takes up your time?
I catch the hidden inflection in her tone. You mean
someone else?
I might.
Yes, I answer. There is someone who takes up quite a lot
of my time.
She hides the disappointment well. Where is she?
I purse my lips and blow a sharp whistle across the room.
Pearls head pops up off the floor by the door and I point at her.
Shes over there.
Hazel laughs. Well, thats one high-maintenance broad you
got there.
She definitely can be. Pearl shuffles over and lays beside
me. But shes worth keeping around for the late-night
I give her a few pats on the head and neck as she settles onto
the rug and Hazel offers us a warm smile.
And you? I ask, holding her stare. Is there someone
waiting for you back in Spokane? Except for grandma, I mean.
She shakes her head once. No. Not anymore.
Her face falls to the board again. Well, I dont know if youve
noticed but Im not that much fun to be around.
The last ten minutes havent been too bad, I say. In my
Her shoulders bounce. Guess Im one of those small doses
kind of people.
You know I smile, Im not going to argue with that.
Im sorry, Leo. She chuckles. When I get passionate about
something, its hard to let it go.
I lean forward a little, hoping to draw out more feelings of
regret. I know what you mean.
I really didnt want to She cups her bright pink cheeks.
You know, chase you into your office. God, you must have
thought I was so insane.
I laugh with her as I line up my pawns. No, then I just
thought you were peculiar. The insane thought didnt cross my
mind until you waited all day for me in the parking garage.
She points a finger. Actually, I didnt wait all day. I left to get
a burger at that place across the street and came back later.
Yeah, that one.
Good choice, I nod.
It was good.
I go there at least twice a week.
I can see why. She pauses and watches silently until I line
up the rest of my pieces. So are you going to apologize
to me?
I stare at her, pausing to see if she explains herself but she
just sits there with expectant eyes. For what?
She leans back. For being incredibly rude to my face in your
office, maybe?
I wasnt rude to you.
You looked at me once and then blew me off.
I was busy, I argue.
And you hit me with your truck.
I gawk at her. I did not hit you with my truck!
You also left me outside on that lawn all night long. I could
have been eaten by a bear or mauled by a mountain lion!
Yeah, I wish.
Her jaw drops. Youre not even going to fake an apology?
No, because Im not sorry, I say. Im never sorry. I never
apologize for anything.
That is quite possibly the most douche-y thing Ive ever
Even douchier than some people just dont like the idea of
women using their brains?
She narrows her eyes and stands up. Yes, actually. Even
more so. Because my statement is true. Yours, on the other
hand, is the mark of a stubborn, rich boy who never had to work
for anything between feedings from a silver spoon.
I follow her to my feet. And yours is the pathetic whining of
a weak, idealistic girl just waiting for that nice guy to come
along, sweep her off her feet, and give her everything shes
always dreamed of. Reality check, sweetheart. Prince Charming
doesnt exist.
Oh, please. She laughs at me. Like you know what it takes
to sweep a girl off her feet. Especially not with that beard.
I grunt with frustration. I could just k
My voice falls. All I can hear is the blood pounding in my ears.
Heat from the fireplace tingles my skin, spreading warmth
through every aching inch of me, igniting my most primal
You could just what? she asks. Kick me? Kill me? Good
luck with that.
She turns to walk away but I grab her by the elbow and pull
her back to me. Fear flashes in her eyes but they instantly close
the second our lips touch. I kiss her as passion fills me and
desire drives us both closer together.
A quiet moan escapes her throat. Her hands rise to my waist
as mine wrap slowly around her back. My nose twitches with the
fresh scent of her and my mouth waters as the taste of her lips
overwhelms my brain.
This damned woman. Ive never met a more frustrating girl in
all my life but I cant stop breathing her in. I cant stop my hands
from exploring her little body. My cock grows harder in my
jeans, begging to be released and have its way with her. One
more snarky word from her mouth and I surely will, if only for
the sake of shutting her up.
I guide her down onto the rug by the fire, knocking the chess
pieces out of the way, and she lies back with that same wide-
eyed expression on her face. I hesitate, wondering if Ive gone
too far but she leans up to kiss me back, parting her lips and
hooking her fingers into my belt loops to pull me down with her.
Ow she gasps.
I push up on my arms. What? Did I hurt you?
No, not you She raises her hips to reach beneath her ass.
I just went to second base with a rook, is all. Her hand slides
out with the plastic piece and tosses it to the side with the
I lower back down and laugh as her thighs embrace my hips.
My cock tents my jeans; the ache of it sending shockwaves of
discomfort throughout my groin. That warm promise of her slit
isnt making my balls any less blue but I dont want to do
something I might regret.
Hazel rolls her hips, grinding against me and I stiffen as
pleasure rocks my entire core. She looks back at me with fire
reflecting her green eyes and I know she feels it, too. Her breath
quickens as she kisses me again with another slow and painful
grind. She angles her hips upward, putting the pressure on my
hidden cock and she moans as it touches her just right.
I drop my kiss to her neck, taking in her perfect scent and
sweet taste. She arches her back off the rug and mewls in my
arms, pressing her tits against me and I bite down with greed.
Her body flinches but she claws her fingers up my back and runs
them through my hair as I kiss a little farther down.
I grip the flannel shirt and pull it open, tearing out several
buttons and she gasps as I expose more of her delicate skin.
Heaving breasts fill my vision. I take one nipple between my
teeth and hold back the desire to rip her apart. She moans as I
etch a tender line in her skin before descending even more along
her taut navel.
The urge to devour her overwhelms me. My tongue taps the
roof of my mouth, full of expectation and thirst. I want her pussy
so badly, I can practically taste it already. I want to divide and
conquer those perfect thighs and I want to hear her moan as she
comes for me. One little word and Ill do it. One head nod and
shell be mine to take.
I take hold of the elastic band of her tights with a closed fist
and glance up into her open eyes.
Hazel quivers beneath me and it feels like an eternity passes
before she wets her lips and nods.
Sure, she sighs.

S ure?
Could I sound any less enthusiastic?!
I mean I let out a nervous chuckle. Yeah. Go ahead. Keep
on doing what youre doing
Leo stares at me from my stomach. Hazel
I gulp. Yeah?
Maybe you shouldnt talk.
I give him a thumbs up. Right, yeah.
He yanks at my tights with both hands, sliding them down to
my ankles as if my nervous stupidity never happened. He tosses
them aside and gazes down at my exposed body like a ravenous
To be honest, Ive never felt sexier. Theres something about
the fires heat bleeding onto my skin and the way the torn shirt
covers just enough of me. Im literally throbbing for this man. I
want him to take me and do whatever the hell he wants because
holy shit Im lying on a rug in front of a burning fireplace in a
cabin out in the middle of nowhere with a ruggedly handsome
stranger. Im pretty sure Ive had this fantasy since before I
knew what a fantasy was.
Leo sits back on his knees, his eyes locked on my body as he
unbuttons his shirt. He untucks it and slides it off, revealing a
layer of dark chest hair along his pecs. Its shaped to a point on
his abs and a line falls all the way down to connect with his trail.
I lick my lips, my tongue salivating for his body. I find myself
reaching for his belt myself because if the contents of his
medicine cabinet are any indication
He takes my hand before I touch him and lays it above my
head, pinning me to the fluffy rug. He kisses me again, his beard
caressing my chin. I spread my thighs and his bulge rubs against
my clit. I bite my lip, whimpering softly and he travels
downward with a smile on his face.
I feel the intake of his breath as he smells my clean skin and I
say a short prayer of gratitude for having taken that shower. He
kisses my thighs, drawing a line from my knees to my slit,
teasing me with every soft peck of his lips. I dig my nails into the
rug with surging anticipation in my veins. He parts his lips and
tastes me, pushing closer to my throbbing core.
Finally, his tongue taps on my lips. I feel his warm saliva
mixing with my wetness and I lose all track of my calm. My hips
lurch upward. My mouth sags open. Leo lays his strong hands on
my waist to hold me down and pulls me closer, churning my
insides and I gasp with greed. His grip tightens on me. Even if I
wanted to free myself, I wouldnt be able to budge from his
mighty hands.
Leo grunts with closed eyes, lapping and sucking at my folds.
His intensity rises every moment until hes drinking me with
wicked thirst, devouring and owning me until I turn numb. I lie
still with twitching limbs, climbing steadily toward climax and I
cant say a word as moans fall from my lips. He penetrates me
with his tongue, reaching deep inside. I run my fingers through
his hair and squeeze, urging him to make me come. Make me
Make me his.
He focuses on my clit, drawing endless circles around it and it
takes me over. I come hard; harder than I ever have and he
knows it. He enjoys the look on my face, peeking up at me with
sly eyes as he laps the sweetness spilling onto his tongue.
My sensitive bud screams for a rest and I begrudgingly inch
away from him. Stop, stop I breathe, laughing softly.
Leo pulls back, his lips and beard speckled with moisture. His
hands stay on me, making sure I dont leave his side as he yanks
his belt free with one hand. His other scratches up my body to
land on my breasts. I sigh, feeling the desire in me coming back
for more of him.
He unzips his jeans and they sag slightly on his waist,
exposing the tight skin of his Adonis belt. I catch sight of his
bulge in the flickering orange firelight. Thick and hard as a rock.
I gulp again.
He reaches into his briefs and strokes himself. Are you on
the pill? he asks.
No I shake my head and point to the hallway. But there
are some condoms in the bathroom. His brow crooks upward
and I slink a little deeper into the rug. Yeah, I snooped. Im
Leo pauses. You snooped through my bathroom?
I point a finger. Hey, you read my diary.
It was your mothers, he argues.
But you thought it was mine.
Fair enough. He pushes off the floor and rushes toward into
the hallway.
I fall back against the rug and exhale until my lungs lurch in
my chest.
Oh, god. This is really happening.
Hes going to fuck me. Im about to get fucked by a billionaire
lumberjack and Ive never been more turned-on in my life. But
dont I hate this guy? Isnt he the jerk-off thats literally ripping
out a piece of my life by the roots?
I wave my hands around to stop them from buzzing. My toes
are still curling into the rug beneath me. My sex screams at me
to just shut the hell up and let this happen but theres still a
tickle of doubt deep inside of me.
I rest my hands on my face, feeling the fever heat bleeding
from my skin with closed eyes.
Hes not as much of a jerk-off as I thought he was. There was
a moment there a span of five wonderful minutes when it
was just the two of us and a chessboard. It was great and genuine
and fun until we just had to open our mouths and ruin it.
I have to keep the upper hand. I can still talk him into saving
Lovers Trail. If I can just burrow beneath his skin a little bit
more, Ill get through to him.
I feel him return to the rug beside me. I sit up and pause as a
long, warm tongue laps against my hands. I drop them to find
myself face-to-face with his dog.
Oh, hi there, I say, holding her back as she gets too close.
Pearl Leo snips at her as he walks back in. Get back.
Oh, my
Hes naked. Buck naked with rugged muscles and a stiff
Yep. Magnum-sized, it is.
I look away from it and force a chuckle as Leo hooks a finger
into the dogs collar to guide her away from me.
She must be bored, I joke as she wanders to the other side
of the room to lie down.
Leo drops to his knees and leans over me again. Shes just
He kisses me hard and fast. Within seconds, its as if we were
never interrupted at all. We ease back into it, caressing each
other and aligning our bodies. I look down to his stiff cock, now
wrapped in a condom, and my eyes grow a little wider.
What? he asks.
Nothing, I squeak.
Dont worry, he says, his lips grazing mine. Youll take it.
Im not leaving this spot until you come on it.
Oh. A shiver fires up my spine. Okay, then
Leo reaches down and adjusts my knees, tilting my hips until
his cock presses against my tight entrance. Wetness drips along
my slit, begging for him to penetrate me and I bite my lip to keep
the moans at bay. He guides the head between my folds, inching
deeper inside. I shake beneath him; the mere anticipation
driving me toward climax again.
Then, he pauses. Hazel
Open your eyes.
I force them open and he smiles down at me, flashing those
perfect, white teeth.
He slides in an inch, stretching me out and my eyes flutter
closed again.
No, he says. Keep them open.
I do as he tells me and he rewards me with another inch of his
girth. It presses in, perfectly angled to hit the right spots and my
body quivers with pleasure.
Leo leans forward and towers over me as he grinds me gently
with his hips. This is my favorite part.
What is? I moan.
That first thrust inside, he says, kissing me once.
Especially when its as tight and wet as you are.
His warm breath spreads heat across my cheek. My brow
breaks out in a cool sweat, ignited by the sheer thrill of his deep
He thrusts forward until he cant anymore, filling me
completely and I moan into his mouth. Laughter trembles his
throat. He pushes up on his arms and fucks me slowly, gazing
down at my breasts as they bounce up and down. I look between
us and watch as his thick cock disappears inside of me
repeatedly, each stroke sending pleasure ripples throughout my
entire body.
I surrender to it, spreading my legs a little wider and raising
my hips to take in more of him. His grip slides to my waist,
holding me in place as he pounds me even harder into the soft
rug. I mewl over the delicious, aching pain, riding the wave of
him until Im ready to come but he halts his thrust before I can.
Leo takes hold of me and pulls me up with little effort. I feel
utterly weightless in his arms as he embraces me against him
and guides my legs around his waist. He balances me on his cock,
thrusting upward and I dig my nails into his skin. I press my
open mouth against his shoulder and scream as I break into
splendid pieces in his arms.
He crushes his lips on mine, forcing his tongue inside and I
cant help but suck on his. I bounce on him, fucking him back. I
give into every wild, animal instinct I have, thinking only of the
pleasure radiating throughout my entire body while he groans in
my ear.
One last thrust and I climax again. Every muscle bends and
twists to his will, throbbing in ecstasy until I can barely breathe
and Leo watches me with delight in his eyes.
He gently lowers us down to the rug, letting his rigid cock slip
out of me as we go. I close my eyes, feeling his lips travel from
my cheeks to my collarbone. He cups my breasts again and
kneads them softly in his big hands while he nibbles my skin.
I try to rest but I cant. Not with his lips on my body and his
firmness still throbbing hard for me. I open my eyes and push up
onto my elbows to watch the shadows dance along his taut body.
Leo licks from my navel to my neck before locking lips with
me again. The kiss lingers as he draws my bottom lip between
his teeth and gives it a light suck as he pulls away.
Turn around, he growls, staring into my wide-open eyes.
Before I can move, his hands are on me. He flips me over and
props my knees beneath me, bending me however he wants.
I dont fight it. I straighten my arms to hold me upright while
he plants himself behind me. His hard cock rests between my
thighs, rubbing against me. I close my eyes to focus as that
feeling bursts through my loins. He grips my waist and pulls me
closer until my rear rests against his lap.
I hold my breath. I grip the rug. I look to the fire beside us as
Leos calloused hands dig into my shirt and he slides back inside
of me. My pussy clenches tightly around him and he groans with
an urgent need as he starts fucking me harder.
My entire body yields. I forget to breathe or think or feel
anything but the radiating pleasure tingling every nerve. Just
when I think he cant go any longer, his stamina pushes him a
little more and we moan even louder.
My arms give out and I lower myself to rest on the rug. Leo
doesnt stop. He adjusts and lies against me, his cock still
grinding inside as he rails me against the floor. I feel his warm
breath on my back. He brushes a hand through my hair to push it
aside and leaves kisses along my neck, sending ripples of
pleasure down my spine. He reaches beneath me to cup my
breast and draws me against him to send his cock in a little
deeper. I sigh in devious contentment, feeling climax take hold
of me again as I twitch and moan in his strong arms.
I feel used, yet so completely desired. No man has ever
treated me with this much lust before; like Im the only woman
in a thousand miles but part of me doesnt care. Nothing else
matters in this moment except the pleasure on our tongues and
the burning fire between us. I dont care how Ill feel in the
morning. I dont care about the guilt or the regret. I just want to
satisfy him the way he satisfies me.
Leo moans in my ear and slows his thrust. His entire body
tenses as he comes and slowly pumps until hes well-spent. He
lays a hand on my cheek and draws my face back to kiss me. I
part my lips to taste his tongue and he does the same until hes
forced to stop and breathe.
He falls to his back and wraps me up in the crook of his arm. I
lay my head on his shoulder and settle there, unable think more
than a few seconds in time.
Thunder claps again and I flinch at the sudden booming
sound above our heads.
Leo opens his eyes and grins at me. You okay?
Yeah, I answer, turning my pink cheeks away.
He pulls his arm a little tighter around me and I clasp
his hand.
The storm continues outside and the fire crackles beside us,
losing brightness with each passing minute. I close my eyes,
listening to the noises as they blend together and overwhelm the
pulse pounding in my ears. Safe and warm, I drift off and the last
thing I feel is Leos lips pursing against my forehead.

I wake up from a chill.

I reach for my blanket with my eyes closed, wanting to
cover up and block the cold. The last thing I want to do is get up
to go throw another log on the fire and
My hand touches skin. And not mine.
I force my eyes open and lift my head to take a look around as
memories from last night come rushing back with perfect
She lies on her stomach next to me with her head resting on
one arm. My flannel shirt hangs off her shoulder and her ass is
half-exposed in the dark. The fire is out. She must be as cold as
I am...
I stand up and reach for the blanket on my chair, pausing to
turn the lamp off.
The power must have come back on. How long have we been
out? I glance at the clock. Its nearly seven in the morning. I have
no idea what time I passed out at. Ten? Eleven?
I return to Hazel and drape the blanket over her. She stirs in
her sleep and rolls onto her back, cocooning into the blanket. I
freeze in place until she settles back to sleep. Good. Im not
nearly ready for her to wake up and start talking just yet.
So, that was unexpected...
I actually had sex with her. I slept with the woman silently
protesting my livelihood from my front porch. It was like a
switch I couldnt turn off. Something primal snapped and took
over the second our lips touched and I couldnt stop until it was
all over. At least we were smart about it. I cant imagine how
much shit Id be in if I knocked this one up.
Speaking of which...
I grab my jeans and move quietly to my bathroom, carefully
sliding the sticky condom off my dick as I go. The morning sun
bleeds through the curtains above the bath and I squint to block
out the bright rays.
Christ, I look like hell.
I look down from the mirror and twist the faucet on. After a
long dunk in the cool water, I dry off, clean up, and slip my jeans
back on.
I linger here, avoiding my reflection.
What the fuck was I thinking?
I wish I could blame this one on alcohol but I havent been
wasted enough to do something this unimaginably stupid since
college. And Bobby was right. Its been way too long since
anyone but me has handled my wood. Of course a pretty girl
throwing herself at me would fuck me up.
Sure, I wanted to get on her good side, but I didnt mean for it
to go this far. Some flirting here, a quick caress of her cheek
there, and shed back off but she never did. We just kept
inching closer and talking and talking and chess? Really? The
first girl I meet who actually got game and its this one?!
Screw you, universe.
The phone rings and I bolt from the bathroom to the kitchen
to answer it before it wakes Hazel up.
I grab it off the wall, keeping my voice low. Hello?
Good morning!
The one and only, he says. Listen, Im just calling to let
you know that theres a typo on page two of your speech. It
should be a smart in the third paragraph. Not an smart.
I pause, glancing at the clock on the microwave. You called
me at seven in the morning on a Saturday to tell me that?
Yeah. I know how much of a perfectionist you can be. I
wanted to make sure you knew. Anyway, how are things? Did you
get rained-in?
I rub the bridge of my nose in annoyance. Yeah, I think so.
And what about your little house guest?
I lower my hand. So, thats why you really called.
Is she still there? I hear his smile through the phone.
No, I say. I had her picked up before the storm hit.
Theres a long, quiet pause. You banged her, didnt you?
No, I say quickly, I
Yes, you did! I can hear it in your voice. You cut off a little
slice of city girl pie. Admit it.
I deflate. Bye, Bobby.
Wait, Leo
I hang up, slamming the receiver down a bit too hard and I
cringe. I poke my head out into the living room, hoping the noise
didnt disturb Hazel but shes sitting up with open, tired eyes.
Ah, shit.
I step back into the kitchen to avoid detection, instinct
pushing me toward the back door. I cant leave her out there. Im
going to have to talk to her eventually. That, or I can spin around
and bolt out this door before she ever knows Im
I look up to see her standing in the kitchen doorway, still
wearing nothing but that ripped, flannel shirt. Her hair is wavy
and tangled, draped carelessly over her right shoulder. Her eyes
drift downward to my bare chest but quickly rise again and stay
there. She holds the shirt closed with her hands and hugs her
arms protectively around her.
Hey, I say back.
Who was that? she asks, eying the phone.
My assistant. He was just checking in.
On a Saturday morning?
I run a tight ship. I clear my throat, quickly running out of
things to say and she doesnt dare crack the silence either.
Finally, she gives a light smile. So, this is really fucking
I laugh, happy to feel a little break in the tension. Yes, it is.
How about... she taps her toes on the floor, we both agree
not to talk about it until we are both dressed and highly-
That sounds amazing.
She chuckles. Okay, then.
I gesture to the counter. Ill put on some coffee.
And I will go fix this in the bathroom... She tugs on her
tattered hair and walks backward out of the kitchen.
Once shes gone, I let out the breath I was holding and turn to
focus on the coffeemaker.
Dressed and highly-caffeinated. I can deal with that. I can
delay that for a while
No, I shouldnt delay that. I should cut the crap and get her
out of here as fast as possible. Keeping her around is dangerous.
I shouldnt be showing the slightest bit of hesitation. Her
idealistic fantasies have no place here and I shouldnt be
entertaining them like this. Shell be back any moment,
completely dressed and willing to have this conversation so I
better get ready for it.
No, Hazel Smith.
The project is on. The trail is as good as gone.
Get over it and go home.
Last night doesnt change anything.
I repeat the words over and over in my head and stare at the
coffeepot as it slowly fills with fresh brew.
Last night doesnt change anything.
I pour coffee into two large mugs and set them down on the
kitchen table as Hazel walks back in. I expected her to have
changed but shes still wearing nothing but my red flannel. I sit
down in a chair and silently will my blood to stop rushing to my
Hazel slides into the chair across from me. Thank you, she
says as she wraps her hands around the mug. She brings it to her
lips and blows a bit of cool air on it before taking a quick sip.
Wheres the dog? she asks, glancing around.
Uhh... I raise a brow. I havent seen her yet. She likes to
sit on the porch in the morning, though. Shes probably
doing that.
Pearl likes to do her own thing, eh?
Pretty much, I nod. She comes to me for food and then
she goes out and comes back when shes hungry again...
She chuckles into her mug. Sounds like shes cheating
on you.
My jaw drops. What a bitch.
Im sure he means nothing to her.
I hope not. I sip my coffee. She didnt bother you last
night, did she?
No, she answers. I mean, I dont think so. I was... well, I
was out. Havent slept that hard in a long time.
I smile at her red face. Me neither.
Her green eyes lock on mine for a split second before she
turns away again.
Last night doesnt change anything.
I clear my throat. So, youre okay? I used to camp a lot so
sleeping on the floor doesnt bother me...
Oh, no. Im fine. It was fine. She looks at my beard. Well,
Im pretty sure my thighs have rug burn but Ill live.
I laugh and scratch my chin. My tongue twitches,
remembering her sweet taste but I gulp the saliva down. If you
need more sleep, feel free to use the bed or the couch. Its still
early but Im usually up at this hour.
I bite my cheek.
Did I really just offer her my bed?
Im pretty wide awake now, she says. Its hard for me to
get back to sleep once Im up.
Same here, I say with relief.
And you probably want me out of your hair as soon as
I nod. The roads usually stay flooded for a day or so after a
storm like that
What the hell am I doing?
I should be booting her out of here. I shouldnt be
encouraging her to stay here.
Do not invite her to stay.
Youre welcome to stick around until then, if you want,
I say.
She smiles and my knees twitch. Thanks.
But last night totally doesnt change anything.
We both take large gulps of coffee, trying to avoid the eyes but
we end up staring at each other anyway.
Hazel nods at my wooden chessboard at the other end of the
table. So, youre not too bad. If Im stuck here, we might as well
get in another game.
I nod. Sure. Next time I wont go so easy on you.
She scoffs. Yeah, okay.
Uh-huh. Sure.
Hey, last night doesnt change anything.
She tilts her head. What do you mean?
Uhh I hesitate, thinking fast. I just mean that
Shit, I have no idea what thats supposed to mean.
Hazel abandons her mug. You mean that I shouldnt expect
you to let me win just because we had sex last night?
I raise a finger to an invisible jury. Let the record show that
you said the s-word first.
Thats fine. She sits back and smiles. If you dont want to
admit that you came onto me because you crashed and burned on
the board, thats all right with me.
I furrow a brow, following her logic to an unsatisfying place.
I did what?
You got beat by a girl, she says. You had to prove your
alpha manliness by dominating me in other ways.
No, I got that, I say, leaning forward. Rewind to the part
where I came onto you.
She blinks. You came onto me.
Uhhh, no. You were practically begging me for it.
I was not!
I add as much pitch to my voice as I can. Is there anyone else
that takes up your time? I mock.
I never would have asked if you werent eye-banging my
cleavage the whole night!
You easily could have buttoned-up, I point out. And, as we
both know, you found my condoms before you put on my shirt,
meaning you popped those buttons free on purpose to entice me.
Didnt ya?
Hazels mouth sags and her voice sputters while she searches
for a retort.
I grin. Oh, what? Whats that? I lean forward and cup my
ear. Is that the sweet silence Ive longed so much for?
She rolls her eyes back into her skull as she slides off the
chair. Forget it. Im just gonna go find some pants.
Wait I snatch her arm and yank her closer to me. Im
only teasing, Haze.
Our eyes lock. She inhales a deep breath and I feel her body
quiver against my hand. Or my hands tremble with the touch of
her smooth skin. Im not sure which but I dont exactly care,
I crush my lips on hers, satisfying a little of my thirst for her
but she recoils from me.
Leo, wait... She exhales hard. Shouldnt we talk about this
whole thing?
My groin clenches in desperation. Technically, we havent
met the agreed-upon criteria yet. Her brow furrows. We
agreed not to talk about it until we were both dressed and
I gesture downward. Well, Im showing a fair bit of skin and
you are still very naked under that shirt, so... we dont have to
talk about it yet.
So, her arms slip around my neck, what youre saying is
that we never have to talk about it as long as one of us or both
stay naked?
I nod once. Thats exactly what Im saying.
We kiss again, pulling our bodies closer until it feels like well
fuse together.

H azel moans softly against my lips, driving even more of my

blood below the belt as I guide her back against the kitchen
I fish my hands inside her shirt, sliding my fingers around her
naked back. Her skin is so soft and smooth it sends me into a
blissful rage. She lays a hand on the side of my neck as the other
slides down my abs and I tense up as her fingers ease into the
zipper of my jeans.
Im already hard by the time her little fingers wrap around me
and squeeze. I want so badly to be inside of her again but I cant
without rushing to the bathroom again for a condom.
I pause our kiss and look down at her little mouth.
She presses her lips together, reading my mind, but I see just
as much lust in her eyes. I step back and she lowers down onto
her knees in front of me. She takes my jeans with her and her
eyes grow as wide as last night as she stares at my hard cock. I
lay a hand on the back of her neck, squeezing softly but I dont
force her. I wait on the edge as she licks her lips and opens her
Her warm breath caresses my tip and I tense as her tongue
connects with me. I flex my jaw and lay my other hand on the
counter to hold myself up. Light lappings between gentle sucks
drive me even harder in her mouth and it takes all my willpower
not to take her face.
Hazel concentrates on the tip, sucking me a little harder and I
groan with pleasure at her concaved cheeks. She stares up at me
with those devilish eyes. I push her bangs away to see them
more clearly. She moans around my cock, sending a flurry of
vibrations through my loins. I bite my lip, breathing harder as
she bobs her head. I nudge the back of her throat but she
continues without a reflex. I put more weight on the counter,
losing strength in my knees. Her tongue, her cheeks. Those
bright pink lips. I want nothing more than to mark them as
mine. Her shirt is open, revealing the inner line of her breasts
and I fight the urge to come all over them, too.
I roll a fist, taking hold of her hair. My throbbing cock shakes,
my balls tightening with need. I hold her head and release,
coming inside that wonderful mouth and she gives me another
moan as I cover her tongue.
Again, she looks up at me with those green eyes. I feel her
swallow as she slides my cock from her mouth and takes a deep
breath. She licks her raw lips and stands up, leaning against the
counter as I did to hold herself up on shaking knees.
We stare at each other. If her thoughts are anything like
mine, theyre as blank as a sheet of fresh paper. We should talk
now. I think to say it out loud but the words dont come out.
I lay a hand on her cheek and she leans into it slightly. She
shivers as I run my thumb along her bottom lip and her eyes
flutter closed. Her mouth parts and she tastes my fingertip,
gently licking from the first knuckle up.
Maybe she has an oral fixation. Doesnt bother me one bit.
Especially if it keeps us from talking for just a little bit longer.
I lower my hand and kiss her, pulling her body against mine
as I lift her up. She gasps and wraps her legs around my waist. I
carry her from the kitchen to the hallway, kissing whatever part
of her skin my mouth can reach while her moist cunt drips on
my abs.
I kick open the door to my bedroom and carry her to the bed.
She falls onto the mattress and her shirt opens wide, revealing
everything from her face to her toes and I grit my teeth. Blood
surges through my veins, traveling through my cock again and
white light fills my vision. I need her again. Right now. I need to
feel that pulsing pussy around me. I need to hear her moans and
taste her sweetness on my tongue.
I throw her knees over my shoulders and bury my face
between her thighs. Hazels fingers run through my hair,
scratching at my scalp and I nibble her mound to give her the
same delicious pain. She throws her head back and sighs,
flinching slightly, but she pulls me closer to her slit with
begging eyes.
I slip my tongue between her folds to caress her clit and she
writhes in my hands. I feel her bud as it throbs with lust but I
leave it alone and tease her wet lips instead. She gasps as I slip
my tongue inside and her hips rock slightly to fuck my face. It
drives me crazy and I keep still to let her use me for her pleasure.
She sighs my name once and my hard dick presses into the
bedspread but I wont stop just yet. I want her to come for me
first. Then Ill fuck her until she turns numb and screams
for me.
I lay a finger against her slit and she bites her lip. Her back
arches. Her thighs twitch. Shes barely able to hold herself
together. One smooth stroke of my finger and shell come
instantly. I kiss her thighs and gently tap along the outer lips,
letting the tease last longer.
She whimpers above me but I ignore it, refusing to give in
until shes begging for it. Her nails dig into my scalp, sending
shocks down my back and I let my tongue swipe her clit. She
moans through clenched teeth. Her hips grind on me and I smile
with greed.
I push my finger inside and her jaw drops. Her pussy tightens
around my knuckles and her body instantly submits to me. She
comes harder than she did last night, bucking and mewling and I
take great pleasure in making it last by suckling on her engorged
clit until she cant take it anymore.
I rise to my knees and stick my finger in my mouth to lick it
clean. Spread your legs, I say, stepping off the bed, and
dont move.
Hazel obeys and spreads them wide, revealing her glistening
folds to me. I force myself to retreat to the bathroom instead of
taking her bareback like I want to.
I pull the medicine cabinet open and grab the condoms,
palming the entire box to take back with me. I stare at myself in
the mirror and exhale hard, feeling really fucking good about
myself when I see her shape pass by behind me.
She doesnt answer. I follow into the living room and I hear a
soft clanging coming from the kitchen.
Hey My voice lingers away as I see her bent over at the
refrigerator. Her shirt inches up her back, revealing the bottom
half of her naked ass. I told you to not to move, I say.
Hazel grabs an apple from inside and stands up to look at me.
So? Youre not my boss.
I point behind me. Get back in there.
She takes a bite of the apple. No.
Her lips curl as she chews. Youre a bully, you know that?
Im not a bully.
Sure, you are. Nothing but a great, big bully. I saw the way
you were talking to your assistant the other day and here you are
now, barking orders at me.
I step forward, my hard-on standing firm in front of me. Im
a boss, I argue. Its in the job title. I boss.
Big ole bossy bully.
My eye twitches. Do you ever stop talking?
Not if I have something to say.
Hazel, if you open your mouth again, Im gonna stick
something in it.
She murmurs from the edge of her lips. Bossy bully.
Okay, thats it
Hazel yelps with laughter as I grip her waist and toss her over
my shoulder. I spin around and march back to the bedroom with
a strong grip on her.
Put me down! she shouts.
I reach the bed, but before I drop her, I slap her rear with a
firm, open palm.
She gasps. What the hell was that?
I throw her down on her back and she bounces on the
mattress. Spread your legs, I repeat as I tear a condom open,
and dont move.
You know, if youre gonna boss me around, I might as well
get a paycheck.
I squint. Hazel...
Or some stock options.
She smirks. How about health insurance?
I snatch the apple from her hand and lean over her.
Shut up.
She opens her mouth again and I push the apple between her
teeth. Her stares at me in playful shock but says nothing as she
obeys and spreads her legs.
Good girl. I kneel on the bed with my cock in hand, ready to
ease it between her folds and take her again.
Thrr doch iuru srrin autus.
I pause with an inch inside of her. What?
Hazel turns her head and spits the apple out. The dog is
staring at us, she says, pointing to the foot of the bed.
I turn and see Pearls snout peeking over. Pearl... go
lay down.
She doesnt move. Her curious, beady eyes flick between us.
Waldo, shoo, Hazel says, waving her hand.
The dog instantly rushes off and she laughs beneath me.
I twist back around and stare down at her puffed cheeks. Oh,
youre dead.
I thrust inside of her and her laughter fades into a delicate
moan. Uh-oh, she grins. The boss is maaaad
I pound harder, railing into her. Finally, her head falls back as
I fuck her into silent submission. I take my time on her,
adjusting the thrust to hit her just right and she rewards me with
continuous, triumphant moans. Her body trembles in my hands
and she bites her lip so hard I think she might draw blood.
I relish the look on her pretty face as orgasm courses through
her again but this is far from over. I can bring her down so easily,
theres no way I wont be able to talk her out of this stupid
protest of hers. Another night with me and shell probably offer
to help tear down those trees. Shes all mine.
I come again and Hazel smiles, her sly eyes still shining at me
as I groan for her.
For a second, I pause with doubt. She looks as victorious as I
feel but that could just be the blissful satisfaction that comes
with riding my dick. Ive seen it before, but it looks different on
her. Almost devious...
What? I whisper.
She shrugs and pulls me down for a kiss.

I ts Sunday morning.
Usually, I get up early with my grandmother. We make
brunch together or, if were not in the mood, we head down to
the nearest diner to eat there. We chat with the local neighbors
and pick up some groceries for the week on the way home.
Its a nice, quiet routine; one that rarely includes me bent
over a billionaire lumberjacks oak dresser with his hand gently
clenching my throat.
Leo breathes heavily in my ear, thrusting his cock in and out
of me as he reaches around to rub my clit. I let my head fall back
against his shoulder, feeling utterly powerless yet sinfully
willing. He digs his teeth into my earlobe, fueling a red fire in
me. I try to speak but he puts a little more pressure on my neck.
Not enough to hurt me. Just enough to make sure I know
whos boss.
His beard rubs my cheeks and neck. I turn toward it, enjoying
the soft texture and opening my mouth for his tongue. The
dresser shakes beneath us, loudly tapping the wall but I can
barely hear it over the blood pounding in my ears.
Leo I moan.
He flicks my clit faster, overwhelming every nerve ending
until sweet release takes me again. My body turns to jelly in his
arms but he pulls me closer in a wild, intense embrace.
You feel so fucking good, he growls in my ear.
He slows his grind, shifting to longer, deeper strokes. New
pleasures twinge his face. His breath quickens against the sweat
on my skin. He lets out one last animalistic groan and I feel his
cock throbbing inside of me.
Leo lets go of me, leaving me to prop myself up on the
wobbling dresser. He steps back, pulling out of me as he catches
his breath.
He glances around the bedroom with a furrowed brow. What
were we doing again?
Well I take a moment and point at the bed, we woke up,
I said I was hungry, so we rolled out of bed to go get breakfast
but we stopped here instead.
I knock twice on the dresser.
Right, he nods, his memory returning. You still hungry?
Slightly hungrier, actually.
Yeah. Me, too. Do you like toast?
I stand the rest of the way up and adjust my flannel shirt so it
covers the important bits. Do I like toast?
Are there people out there who dont like toast?
He pauses to think while rolling off his condom. You know,
theres a period of time after an intense orgasm when a man
cannot be held responsible for what he says Stupid questions
Yes. I chuckle. I like toast.
He steps into his jeans and pulls them up. Then, lets go get
some toast.
I follow him into the hallway. Assuming we even make it
there, I joke. We seem to have an issue getting from point A to
point B without stopping to detour through points S-E-X.
He pauses in the kitchen doorway. Are you complaining?
Thats what I thought
He drifts in and plants a slow, warm kiss on my cheek. I
instantly find myself leaning back against the wall as his mouth
falls to my neck and his hands crawl down to my thighs.
Toast, I say.
He steps back. Right. Toast. Warm, crispy bread. Coffee?
Yes, please.
We enter the kitchen and I walk in the opposite direction to
sit down at the table while he cuts across to the refrigerator.
A mountain chill touches my bare skin. I wrap my arms
around me, fighting the shiver as it starts up my toes. Was it this
cold all night? I guess constant genital-on-genital contact keeps
the internal furnace running
Leo flicks on the coffeemaker and slides four slices of bread
into a toaster. Hang on He walks into the living room and
returns a few moments later with an ax in his hand.
I flinch. What are you doing?
Youre freezing, he notes. And Im out of firewood.
Dont you have heating and air conditioning? I ask.
He pauses by the back door to slip on a pair of boots. I do but
I dont like to use it. Too expensive.
I chuckle. Arent you a billionaire?
His lips curl. People with money arent allowed to be frugal?
What if I told you that being frugal was why billionaires have so
much money?
I answer with a head tilt, nodding slowly as the logic sinks in.
Ill be back in a few minutes. He gestures at the toaster.
Want to butter the toast when it pops up?
I can do that. I nod.
He steps outside, quickly closing the door behind him to block
out the cold. I slide off the stool and walk over to the door to
watch him through the window. More chills touch my skin, so I
wrap the flannel shirt a little tighter around me.
Yes, Im still naked. No, Leo and I havent bothered to talk
about anything other than that fact yet. But we should. I should
march over to my duffel bag right now and put on a pair of pants
and a bra. I should tell Leonard Jackman, right now, that he owes
me a serious, adult conversation on why its so damn important
to build his new houses on Lovers freakin Trail.
An ax slams down outside and I peek out across the lawn. Leo
stands at the far edge of the property near the tree line beside a
stump. He grabs large logs off a pile and chops them in half one-
by-one, creating smaller pieces that should be easier to lug
I look down his body, from those thick arms to the washboard
abs to his tight jeans and that rugged beard thats honestly
growing on me. He was a stubborn, pompous ass when I met
him, but now hes funny, charming, and amazing in bed
And my enemy. Cant forget about that.
But Im not going to start complaining just yet. No, sir.
The toaster pops but I take another long look outside before
heading over to fix the toast. I pause in front of it, quickly realize
that I know where nothing is. Leo already got the butter out but I
need a knife and a plate
I twist around but stop in my tracks. Pearl sits at my feet, her
tongue hanging out of her mouth as she softly pants.
Hey I say, leaning down to pat her head. How are you?
Her eyes shift from me to the toast and back again.
Oh, youre hungry! I point at the bread. Right
I grab a slice and tear off a corner. Pearl stands on all fours
with a smile but I hold up my hand.
Wait I lean over. Stay down.
She obeys, her tail wagging hard with impatience.
Wait for it
I lay the chunk of toast on the tip of her nose. She shifts
impatiently, making it difficult to find a balance. I release the
bread but it instantly rolls off her nose onto the floor. She lunges
for it and snatches it up before running off toward the living
room again.
I stand up and shrug. Good enough.
I search the cabinets for a plate and find a knife in the drawer
by the fridge. As I get started, Leo returns, throwing open the
back door with a stack of logs in one arm and his ax in the other.
He kicks off his boots and we make eye contact for a moment.
We pause, our eyes slowly taking each other in. I feel a
strange pang in my chest; natural and pleasant, but still strange.
For a second, I think he feels it, too, but he says nothing.
Well... I break the silence, thats some impressive wood
you got there.
He cracks up and walks toward the living room. Why,
thank you.
I bite my inner cheek and turn back to finish up the toast,
trying desperately to shake off the blush overwhelming my face.
The coffeepot fills, adding that pleasant, caffeinated scent to
the mountain air and my mouth waters. I pour coffee into two
large mugs and take the plate with me to the living room and
while Leo leans over the fireplace. My eyes once again admire
the stunning lines down his back, trailing all the way to that
impressive rear end.
How often do you workout? I think out loud.
I dont, he says, stepping away from the growing flame.
Im just naturally like this.
I sink my teeth into some toast. Bullshit.
He chuckles and wipes his hands on his jeans. About three
times a week since I was thirteen.
I nod with approval. Now, thats dedication.
I was kind of a chubby kid, he admits as he plops onto the
sofa beside me and grabs a piece of toast for himself. My
mother told me Id outgrow it but my father told me to hit the
gym or Id never amount to anything.
My jaw drops. He said that to a thirteen-year-old kid?
Thats my dad. He smiles at me and takes a large gulp of
coffee. But Ive never known a dad that wasnt a hard-ass in
some way.
Mine wasnt.
No, he was... I pause, flashing on his face, sweet and kind
and only ever wanted what was best for me and my mom. We
traveled a lot while I was growing up. He thought it was
important that I appreciated what the world had to offer instead
of just money and technology.
He nods along, chewing softly. I had to memorize the
corporate tax code before I was allowed to get my drivers
Wow. I chuckle into my mug. At least you were fiscally
I was, indeed. Could have been worse, I suppose. His eyes
fall to my mouth and he bites his lip. Does this topic violate our
no talking while naked policy?
It might I nod. I think I may be starting to see you as a
person now and thats just
He winces. Awful.
I think you might be onto something with that, he says, his
voice low. I mean, I dont usually go down on women who sleep
on my doorstep and I sure as hell dont do it thrice.
I smile wider as my heart pounds. You dont?
Wow, we live really different lives, then.
He tilts his head and laughs. Not sure what to make of
that one.
I pinch my eyes closed. Dear god, make me stop talking.
Ill get right on it.
Leo kisses me on the lips, slowly sliding a cool hand up to rest
on my cheek. His touch heats my skin. I long to feel even more of
him again; to press my body against his, but I scold myself for
prolonging the inevitable.
Leo I whisper, setting my mug down, we should
He pulls me closer. His kiss grows firmer as he easily guides
me onto his lap. I straddle him as the flannel shirt falls from my
shoulders, exposing my breasts and Leo cups them with both
Every kiss hikes my body heat. Every breath chills me to the
bone. Everything I do pulls us closer together and tears me apart
inside. This man drives me crazy; in every definition of the word.
I want to stop and find some common ground but the lustful
thrill of him brings me pause.
He kisses my neck as his hands fall from my breasts to my
waist. This body he whispers. I want it.
I quiver with the sound of his voice drifting through my ears. I
want to tell him to take me and do as he pleases but my lips turn
numb. We kiss harder and faster, tongues dancing in the
firelight, and I cant manage more than a few moans from the
back of my throat.
I cup his face, running my fingers along his trim beard, and
he reaches down to unzip his jeans.
Haze, he says, our lips touching, ride my cock.
I cant say no. I cant stop moving and trembling and I dont
even realize what Im doing as I climb on top of him and he takes
a new condom from his pocket to roll onto his shaft.
Leo has taken over me and I let it happen. Warm pleasures
seep into every pore, washing out the darkness and grief. He
penetrates me, thrusting upward. I round my hips, taking him as
deep as hell go. His fingers dig into my skin, holding me in place
as I moan in his ear.
I bite my lip, shaking as he says my name. We grind closer,
touching and rubbing each other. I feel his biceps flex around me
and his abs clench. My thighs twitch as he presses a circling
thumb on my clit. His entire body reacts to me and mine does
the same to his. We sync into a steady rhythm, bucking and
humping until the pleasure tears me down.
I come for him and he smiles, feeling it all on the inside. His
lips never leave my skin. They fall from my cheeks to my breasts.
He nibbles on my neck and slides his tongue along my
collarbone. I lean back, filling my lungs and letting the air cool
the sweat on my brow.
Leo wraps his arms around me and stands up, holding onto
me as he turns around and lays me on the couch. I slide
backward over the arm, still breathing hard and twitching from
orgasm. He spreads my legs and eases his cock back inside,
bucking his hips to fuck me repeatedly.
I hold onto his arms to keep from rolling off the side,
clenching tightly and he groans with pleasure.
My thoughts dissolve away, leaving me a hollow shell of sin
and urges. I tighten around him on the inside, never wanting to
let him go. His beard tickles my chest. He pinches my nipple in
his teeth and I scream with pain but that only makes him fuck
me harder. The couch shifts beneath us, making me dizzy but
the sturdy wood holds together.
Leo pulls out and I lift my head to watch what hes doing. A
touch of horror washes over me as he slides the condom off
his cock.
What are you?
Shh. He leans over and kisses me while he strokes himself.
Dont move.
I keep my eyes open, floored with curiosity.
I want you. He grunts quietly, edging with climax. Say
youre mine.
My tongue betrays me. Im yours.
He lays his left hand on the back of my head and takes hold of
my hair. Hazel... he whispers, bringing a moan to my lips, I
want this body in my bed all night. Every night. I want to tie you
up and make you come over and over again.
I bite my lip. If I dont, I just might agree to it. I twitch
beneath his touch, watching as he pumps his cock above me,
waiting for him to finish and cover me with every drop of him.
Will you do as I please? he whispers. His lips graze my
cheek. Do as I ask and my bed is yours.
I stare into his eyes, wondering which Leonard Jackman Im
talking to. Is this the funny, sexy man Ive had a fling with the
past few days? Or the businessman who wants nothing more
than for me to get the hell out of his life?
I say nothing. I kiss him instead. I cant help myself. As
different as we are on the outside, I cant resist the man on the
The kiss pushes him over the edge and his cum fires across
my chest. I look away at first but the warm thrill of it turns me
on in ways I didnt expect. No man has ever done that to me
before but I sure as hell want Leo to do it again.
He kisses me, hard and fast with a gentle groan still lingering
on his tongue.
I fill my lungs but before I can speak, Leo snatches me off the
I gasp and wrap my legs around his waist for support as he
carries me somewhere else. His lips lock on mine. His eyes close.
He doesnt even look up, navigating from memory from the
couch to the bathroom.
He sets me down in the shower and I toss the flannel shirt to
the floor before he spins the water on. I stand beneath the
gushing water, letting it wash his semen clean as he kicks his
jeans off outside.
I feel him behind me. He brushes the hair off my shoulder
and plants his lips on my neck. My eyes flutter closed as his arms
crawl around my waist. He holds me against his body as he
nibbles and kisses from my shoulder to my ear and back. Sweat
breaks on my brow. I can hardly breathe. My core still aches for a
release, throbbing wildly with the beating in my chest.
Leo guides my head back and kisses me, plunging his tongue
between my lips. Water pours over our faces, nearly drowning
us, but neither of us seems to care at all.
He moves me back and pins me against the wall. Without a
word, he drops a hand between my thighs. I twitch as his
fingertips crawl upward toward my slit, inching slowly and
purposefully into my folds.
I grip his waist, wanting him to come closer to me, but he
stays in place and lets his hand roam inside. He penetrates me
with two thick fingers and I sigh with delight in the cloud of
steam and body heat.
His rub is slow and firm. He watches my expression, changing
his speed and angle with the growing pleasure on my face. The
heel of his hand grinds against my clit and soon my moans echo
loudly throughout the bathroom.
Leo leans in to whisper in my ear. Youre mine now, Haze...
I quiver on his churning fingers. Come for me...
My nails dig into his sides but he doesnt show pain. He keeps
massaging me, beckoning the orgasm in me to surface and
theres nothing I can do but tilt my head back and scream
his name.
His lips curl as my wetness tightens and climax makes my
knees weak. I manage to hold myself up in his arms and he
chuckles in my ear, still kneading the depths of me.
Thats not good enough, Hazel, he says. Again.
I flex every muscle. Curl every toe. Everything twists and
turns inside but he wont let me go.
Leo... I cry.
He crushes his mouth on mine, sucking my bottom lip
between his teeth and biting down hard. I whimper as another
wave of surging warmth takes over me. I come again, feeling a
gushing squirt between my thighs and Leo laughs to himself
Thats right... he whispers over my moans. Just
like that...
I feel like a stranger in my own body, trapped behind
sensations so utterly foreign but simply irresistible.
He slides his dripping hand out and embraces me with soft,
careful kisses. I find the strength to stand on my own again and I
kiss him back. We turn in silence to let the water wash off the
sweat and body fluids, still gazing into each others eyes as if this
would be the way itll always be.
But I know better. Theres a limit to all of this. Were fighting
time or time is fighting us; either way, its an inevitable war with
very real consequences.
I step out of the shower and grab the nearest towel to wrap up
in while he turns the water off. My pulse resumes its normal
rhythm as I pace down the hall to find my duffel bag in the
bedroom. I pick through it to find a clear pair of underwear and
a bra.
I slip them on as I hear Leo follow me into the room.
Hey... He eyes me from the doorway with a towel draped
around his waist. What are you doing?
I pull up a skirt. Its time.
No... He steps forward. Its not time. Its still very much
not time.
Leo... I grab a sweater.
Its time.
He watches as I pull it over my head. Fine, he says. Ill get
I walk off into the living room and sit down on the couch to
wait for him. My pulse quickens, but not in the way it has since
the moment he kissed me. A sudden, nervous chill plagues me,
cutting down to the bone.
This is what I wanted, right? I got under his skin. Hes willing
to sit down and talk to me. When he comes in here, I have a very
real chance at saving Lovers Trail.
Leo returns with his head down. Along with his jeans, he
wears a black tank top and yet another flannel shirt, this one as
blue as his eyes.
Fully-clothed and caffeinated. Its what we agreed on.
He sits down at the other end of the couch and stares at me.
Go ahead.
I press my lips together, instantly slamming into an
invisible wall.
Ah, crap.

I take a deep, slow breath. Okay, well

Leo leans forward to grab his coffee mug, barely taking his
eyes off me as he takes a slow sip.
I fold my hands in my lap. Leo, I want you to do me a favor.
His eyes twinkle. Again?
No, um My lips twitch. I want you to reconsider the
Lovers Trail project for me.
He doesnt even flinch. No.
He stands and walks across the room to the kitchen with his
mug. I watch in awe, struggling hard to keep calm but my feet
fidget on the floor.
What do you mean, no?
Leo places the mug in the sink. No is pretty self-explanatory
in this context, isnt it?
You dont even have to cancel it, I argue. Just move it
somewhere else.
No, he says again.
My anger spikes. What about this weekend? I ask.
What about it?
Isnt there just a small part of you that sees some value in
what I have to say?
He sighs. Hazel, its not personal. I told you that before.
So, thats it? You wont even take my suggestions into
account? Everything that happened in the last two days was for
He tilts his head. What exactly are you getting at?
I... My cheeks burn. I did things with you that I never
would have done with anyone else.
Okay... He crosses his arms. What youre saying is that
you put out and now I owe you something.
No... I heave a sigh, but I think it, at least, warrants
another conversation.
Youre wrong. There will be no conversation. Months of
public petitions and lawyers couldnt stop this project. What
makes you think a few nights of halfway decent sex was going to
change anything?
Halfway decent? I parrot back. I let you do anything you
He smirks. Please, if that were true, you wouldnt be walking
right now.
I gasp as he passes around me into the living room. You are
such a jerk!
Im a jerk?
Then, what does that make you? He continues into the
bedroom and grabs my duffel bag off the bed. I was honest with
you from the very beginning. You just admitted to using sex to
get what you wanted.
I stutter. Nuh-uh!
Ya-huh. He nods. This whole thing says more about your
character than it does about mine. Hop off that moral high
horse, sweetheart. Youre as corrupt as I am.
I cant believe you. Dont you care about anything?
What did you expect, Hazel? He pushes the bag into my
arms. The project is on. The trail is gone. Get over it and
go home.
Leo holds his stare, his eye twitching in anger. I have tried
very hard to get through to you on this. Ive tried logic, Ive tried
emotion, Ive tried everything
Except the obvious!
And whats that?
I stutter again. You could delay the project
He shakes his head. Dammit, Haze
Just delay it for a little while until you can find somewhere
else to
Do you have any idea how expensive that would be? How
much it would cost to delay this project any longer?
Is money all that matters to you?
This isnt just about money, he says, his voice rising. This
is about reputation. Theres a whole lot more hinging on this
than bank accounts.
I scoff. Your company has been around for like a hundred
and twenty years, Leo. Delaying one stupid project isnt gonna
make that much of a difference.
He stands a little taller. This one stupid project has been my
life, every single day, for the last two years and Im not about to
let some fling take that away from me.
My lip trembles. You really are a jerk, you know that?
And you have overstayed your welcome. He leans forward
and points to the door. Get off my property or Ill have you
arrested. For real.
I clench my bag, feeling an angry heat beneath my skin. This
isnt over, I say.
He takes wide strides around me and pulls the door open.
Yes, it is.
I step out onto the porch, spinning around to face him. Ill
be back.
No, you wont.
Leo slams the front door and I hear the lock turn.

I wake up from a chill.

I reach for her with my eyes closed, wanting to make sure
she isnt as cold as I am, but my hand touches nothing. Just an
empty bed. I open my eyes and lift my head to look around my
Oh, right. Hazels gone.
I kicked her out yesterday.
Why the hell am I reaching for her now?
I kick the blanket off and set my feet on the floor, yawning
the tired out of me as I stand up to get ready for work. I
remember that my board meeting is this morning and I forget all
about anything else.
I stand in the shower, quietly humming my speech to myself.
The smell of my soap fills my nose, floating around me in a cloud
and her face flashes in my head.
Why do I even care?
I dry off and search the back of my closet for my black suit
and tie. Normally, I wouldnt bother looking my best but I cant
take any chances here. One last formality and were off to the
Bye bye, Lovers Trail.
Hello, Jackman Springs.
Pearl is sitting by her bowl when I enter the kitchen for some
coffee. I pause to give her a scoop of food first to keep her from
scratching at my black slacks. It works and she sticks her snout
in the bowl, leaving me to fix my coffee in peace.
I glance at the clock every other moment, counting down the
minutes until my meeting.
Jackman Springs, I say again as I fill my mug to the brim.
Imagine brand new, state-of-the-art homes featuring the
views of yesteryear... I take a sip of warm brew, feeling it tickle
all the way to my toes before continuing on.
I set my empty mug in the sink and Pearl rushes forward to
block the living room.
Whoa, girl. Watch the pants, please.
She stares up at me with sagging, pouty lips.
What? I put out your food already and your water is full.
What do you want?
Her tail wags back and forth. I smile and kneel to scratch
behind her ears but her nose stays fixed on the front door. She
lets out a whine and bolts for it.
Pearl... I follow her through the living room but pause
before I reach the door. Is someone out there?
She pants with excitement but I sigh with annoyance.
I dont have time for this.
Dammit, Hazel...
I throw open the door and step out onto the porch, ready to
tear that woman a new one. I told her to leave. I told her not to
come back. I told her Id have her arrested if she even set foot
here again but its not like she took my threats to heart before or
But theres no one here. The lawn is empty. Sounds of nature
pass me by and nothing out of the ordinary stands out.
I shake off the disappointment and step back inside.
Shes not here, girl, I tell Pearl. She pouts at me and I sigh.
She left. Shes gone. No more Hazel. Dont tell me you actually
miss her. I sure as hell dont.
She brushes against my leg as if to call my bluff.
I ignore it. Im going to work, buddy. Be good.
I grab my keys and lock the door behind me. Part of me stays
on alert, wondering if Hazel is going to leap out of the bushes at
any moment. She could be in my truck right now, just waiting for
me to climb inside so she can beat me over the head with her
mothers diary.
And now Ive freaked myself out. Nice going, Leo
I pause by my truck and peek inside the windows to make sure
its empty before hopping inside.
The mountain roads are clear but still wet, so I take it slowly. I
left early to give myself plenty of time to rehearse the speech
again before I make it to the office.
And thats why Jackman Springs is not only a smart
investment for this community
I arrive with several minutes to spare and ride the elevator to
the fifth floor, taking a few slow and deep breaths before I reach
the top.
The doors open on my lobby and Bobby immediately jumps
out of his chair.
Hey, Leo
I step off and throw up a hand. Whatever it is, it can wait. Is
the board in?
Yes, but
Are they in good spirits? I ask without stopping.
I dont know. I guess, but, Leo
How do I look? I continue toward the board room. I hate
these suits...
He sighs beside me. You look dashing as all hell.
Good. I reach for the door handle. Hold my calls until the
meeting is over. No exceptions.
Leo, shes in there.
Whos in there?
She arrived with your dad.
I freeze in place and lower my voice. My dad is here?
He shakes his head. Thats the one that freaks you out? I
would have guessed Hazel.
My throat tightens. Hazel?
I point at the door. Hazel is in there?
With my dad?
Along with the rest of the board, he says. They seemed
awfully chummy from the moment they stepped off the elevator
and Ive heard nothing but chuckles from in there since they
got here.
I blink. How is that possible?
You tell me, man.
Why didnt you call me?
I did. Seriously, wheres your phone?
The door flies open and my old man stands there with a grin
popping out of his silver-speckled beard. Oh, Leonard. There
you are. I thought I heard your voice.
Dad I stand up taller. What are you doing here?
You didnt think Id miss your first board approval, did
you? He throws an arm over my shoulders. Come on, lets get
started. We have a lot to cover and youve just got to meet this
girl I ran into downstairs.
He pulls me in before I can say anything else but I end up
choking on my tongue the moment I see Hazel sitting at the
table amongst the half-dozen other faces.
Oh, hell no.
Her lips curl into a wicked smile. Perfectly-styled, blonde hair
hangs down over her shoulders. Devious, green eyes rest on my
face. Dressed to impress in a red blouse and a tight skirt.
This little bit
Leonard, my dad says, pulling me closer to her, this is
She stands up as we draw closer and extends her hand toward
mine. Hello, Leonard.
I dont bother shaking it. Hazel
My dad slaps my shoulder. Good. Now, lets skip ahead to
the awkward part. Leonard, Hazel has a few concerns about the
Whitefish Lake property that I think we all should hear.
I stare her down as her red lips curl upward. Is that right?
And how did you two meet?
I almost hit the poor thing in the parking garage this
morning, he continues, flashing her a smile. We got to talking
and I was well, intrigued and I thought
Dad, I interrupt, Im well-aware of Hazels concerns and I
Unfortunately, youre not the only vote in this room, son.
He points at my chair. Take a seat and well let the lady give her
pitch to the board and then go from there.
My guts twist. Dad
Hazel steps forward to brush a hand along my shoulder. Oh,
come on, Leonard. I twitch as she says my full name. Her
perfume tingles my nose, enraging and warming me at the same
time. Thisll only take a minute. I promise.
Dad sits down in Hazels chair. One more voice in the
argument wont hurt, right? he asks the room.
Several heads nod in agreement.
We dont mind at all.
Let the girl speak up.
Whats the harm in that?
The noise blends together in my head, quickly overwhelmed
by the sudden ringing in my ears.
Oh, Christ. This is really happening.
My feet move on their own and I plummet onto the head chair
beside my father. I stare up at Hazels grinning face as she
reaches for her mothers diary sitting on the table between us.
Years of planning. Months of long days and sleepless nights.
Of zoning regulations and budgets and city council meetings. All
wasted because of one bullshit page in a damned diary.
Hazel shifts to the other end of the table, smiling politely and
quivering with stage fright but she pulls herself together. First,
Id like to thank you for listening to me today. Not many people
would be willing to do that and I appreciate it. She gives me a
passive glance and I try not to imagine throwing her out the
window. Twenty-five years ago...
She starts her story but I cant hear it over that intense
ringing in my ears. Ive heard it all before, anyway. Mommy and
daddy meet and get married. They hike along the mountain trail
and get lost. They make love in a field of hazel shrubs and blah
blah blah
I glance around the table at the board of directors. Each one of
them is utterly enthralled. Half of them are almost in tears.
Literal tears. Ive known most of these men and women since I
was ten years old and the only emotion Ive ever seen from them
is passive ambiguity.
And Hazel. That damn Hazel Smith. Shes selling it with that
quivering voice and little dimply face. I cant believe I slept with
this woman. What the hell was I even thinking? She may have
been cute and attractive before but now shes as repulsive
as ever.
She presses her lips together, choking down her emotions.
Then, my father... she pauses, he walked over to the nearest
tree and he carved their names into it
I roll my eyes and stare at the table until shes done.
Did I just hear someone sniffle?
My father stands from his chair and walks over to Hazel. He
lays a hand on her shoulder and smiles. Thank you very much,
Ms. Smith.
The rest of the board nod for her, smiling sweetly and she
grins back.
Thank you, she says.
I pop out of my chair, ready and eager to get started on my
speech but my father talks over me.
Well, lets take a break, shall we? he asks the room.
The board stands up and I gasp to myself beneath the sound
of moving chairs.
Hold on, I say, my voice cracking. I still have to give my
They ignore me and pass on by, filing into a short line to exit
into the hallway to chat.
I look at Hazel again, rage boiling beneath the surface as she
just stands there with that smug smirk on her face. She waits
with me until most of them are out into the hallway before
making her way to my end of the table. My eyes glide along her
curve and I bite my tongue to force them up to her shining face.
She pauses beside me and leans forward, exposing a little
naughty cleavage just for me as she licks her lips.
Checkmate, wood boy, she whispers.
I grit my teeth. Wood boy?
She smirks and walks away, following the rest of them
outside. Bobby pokes his head in after her, his eyes wide and
inquisitive, but I cant say a word.
I sit in stunned, lonely silence until the ringing in my ears
finally stops.
Wood boy? I repeat.

M y knees wobble beneath me as I step outside into the

hallway. I lay one hand on the wall to hold myself up and
the other on my chest so I can feel the pounding of my heart
against my ribs.
Oh, my god.
I cant believe I did that.
More than anything, I cant believe it might actually work.
With the exception of Leo and his snarling face, I had the
complete, undivided attention of the entire board. They were
fascinated by my story and my argument that theres something
special about Lovers Trail something that cant easily be
replaced. I may have just saved my familys legacy from the
chopping block. Literally.
A strong hand wraps around my elbow. I turn as Leo tugs me
closer to growl in my ear.
I need to talk to you.
He pulls me with him down the hall. I struggle to keep up
with his lengthy strides, wobbling on my heels as he throws
open the door to his office and shoves me inside.
Hey I snap. What the hell are you doing?
Leo closes the door behind us. What the hell am I doing?
What about you?
I adjust my skirt. You wouldnt listen to me so I decided to go
over your head.
Who said you could do that?
Uhh nobody. I chuckle. Thats why its called going over
your head. I had something to say, you wouldnt listen, so I did
what I had to do to be heard.
His face twists with rage. Do you have any idea the harm this
could do to my career? How important this meeting was to this
Do you have any idea how important that trail is to me? No,
you dont. Because you wouldnt listen to me. Im getting really
tired of repeating myself here I look down at his clothes,
and whats with the suit? Whatever happened to I own the
building, har har. Ill wear what I want, hur hur.
His brow furrows. Okay, first of all I dont sound like that.
And second, thousands of hours have gone into preparation for
this meeting. Do you have any idea what youve done?
Wow Thats I feign a gasp and lay my hands over my
heart, so lame.
And my father? he asks. How did you even know hed
be here?
I didnt. I thought he was a board member until he
introduced himself. Laurence Jackman. L Jack. Such a handy
tradition. I smirk. After that, it was all batting eyelashes and
dropping chess phrases. Not all that different from getting your
attention, as a matter of fact
He frowns. I hate you more right now than Ive hated
anything before in my life.
Good, Leonard, I say, bringing a twitch to his eye. I want
you to, Leonard. Because then, youll have the slightest inkling
as to how I feel about you, Leonard. You are arrogant and rude
and your beard looks stupid.
His jaw drops. Your parents named you after an ugly,
worthless shrub and I cant wait to pluck every last one of them
off that trail.
I gasp. Go to hell!
He kisses me. Or I kiss him. I cant tell which happens first
but as his arm slides behind my back and my knees turn to jelly,
our tongues engage in seemingly endless battle. He bites down
hard on my lip and I moan into his mouth. His beard scratches at
me, trimmed and soft, and I silently mewl over it.
Leo pushes us against his desk and his hand trails up my
thigh. He scratches my skin as he lifts my skirt. I feel his
erection sinking into me, triggering my slit to grow wet
with need.
The door swings open.
Hey Bobby pokes his head in and we pull apart so fast I
slip off the desk and fall to the floor. I dont mean to interrupt
this adorable little lovers quarrel you two are having but the
board is leaving.
Leo throws up his hands at my wincing face. And now the
board is leaving. The board He snaps back to Bobby. The
board is leaving?!
Halfway to the elevator as we speak.
Leo casts another annoyed glance at me before rushing
toward the door.
Bobby stops him and whistles downward. Lumberjack, ho,
he whispers, gesturing toward his groin.
Leo pauses and adjusts his erection to make it less noticeable
before bolting from the office.
I slowly pull myself off the floor, my face burning as Bobby
flashes a knowing smile.
Hi, Hazel, he says.
You okay?
I adjust my skirt back down again. Yep.
He nods once and spins around to follow Leo across the office
while I turn an extra bright shade of pink. I take a few breaths
before following him out into the hallway.
Wait a second Leo chases them down as they board the
elevator. I havent given my presentation yet.
No need, Leonard, his father says, pausing near the back of
the line. Theyve all read over your new notes and its
unanimous. Always was. The project will continue tomorrow, as
My knees wobble again but not from nervous excitement this
time. I lay a hand on the desk to keep the crushing weight from
bringing me down.
Mr. Jackman eyes my face and gives me that smile one that
now seems blatantly forced. Young lady, your argument was
very lovely but we cant cancel a multi-million dollar project on
sentiment. Our hands are tied.
My heart sinks even deeper.
Leo exhales hard. Thank you he says, shaking their
hands. Thank you. Thank you!
My eyes start to burn. All of this; every thought and moment
since I discovered my mothers diary has been for nothing. I was
supposed to come to Lovers Trail and find my purpose in this
life but now I cant and I never will.
I failed.

J ust like that, I breathe easier.

I stand still, feeling the air easily fading in and out of my
lungs, and watch as the board members enter the elevator.
Its over. The vote was unanimous. Every thought and
moment since I first pitched the project two years ago have
finally paid off. We break ground tomorrow and theres nothing
standing in the way of that anymore.
My dad slaps my shoulder. Christ, son. You look like
someone sucker-punched you!
No, I just, uh I blink out of my trance. Feels good.
He shifts in front of me. Look, Leonard, the board will
always have your back. No matter what. Thirty years sitting at
the head of the table and not once did they pull a fast one on me
the day before breaking ground. But just remember one thing
He leans forward and points a stiff finger at me. Its not over
until the ink is dry. Stand up for your projects. The work comes
first. Got it?
I give a quick nod. Yeah, I got it.
My father extends his hand to me. Youre doing some great
work here, son. Im proud of you.
I feel his strong handshake as it whips my wrist. Its the first
time hes ever said hes proud of me. Warmth spreads
throughout my chest, bringing me to attention. Ive wanted to
hear him say that since I was a kid and now that he finally has, I
cant stop smiling.
Thanks, Dad.
He lets go and walks onto the open elevator. And now that
you have some free time call your mother, please. She wont
stop bugging me about the holidays.
I will.
The elevator doors slide closed on him. I stand still for several
silent moments, letting it all sink in a little deeper before
throwing up my hands.
I spin around, still grinning with glee, and walk across the
lobby to the front desk toward Hazel and Bobby.
See? I gloat. I told you it was sentimental bullshit.
She instantly averts her eyes to the floor and I pause, focusing
on her trembling face. Bobby slinks backward, easing into his
chair and pretends not to watch.
What are you doing? I ask her. Are you crying?
She tries to walk around me. No.
Yes, you are.
No, Im not!
I slide out in front of her. Why are you crying? She keeps
her head down and I flex my jaw in frustration. Haze, its just a
bunch of trees!
To you! she snaps. Its just a bunch of trees to you. To me,
it was where I came from but you wouldnt understand that
because you dont care about anything.
Thats not true.
Really? Because since the moment I met you, its been all
about your business or your family or you this and you that. You
never listened to anything I said to you and its pretty clear that
you only tolerated me for one reason and you can be damn sure
Im never letting you touch me ever again.
I reach for her hand but she takes off toward the elevator.
Hold on a minute I follow close behind her. And what
about you? You havent exactly been selfless, either. You never
cared about what the people of this town wanted. It was just your
parents and your familys history. If saving this trail was so
goddamn important, then why arent they here protesting for
it, eh?
She halts and spins around. Because they died two
weeks ago!
I take a step back as the first tear spills over. They did?
Hazel quickly wipes her eye with a shaking palm. Yeah,
they Her lip quivers. They just wandered into the wrong
place at the wrong time in downtown Spokane and
I pause, feeling a sharp pang in my chest. Why didnt you
say something before?
Would it have mattered?
I hesitate. No, but
Thats what I thought. Bye, Leo. She continues down
the hall.
Oh, come on, Hazel. I pick up my pace to cut her off. What
do you want me to do?
Her voice strengthens. Stop the project.
I cant do that.
Cant or wont?
I grit my teeth. Wont.
Then, I guess were done here. She pushes past me. Im
going home now. Congratulations, Leo.
Haze, wait I deflate. Hazel!
She slams her fist against the call button as shes forced to
wait for the elevator to come back up.
I approach her with a flexed jaw, feeling the words building on
my tongue. Wait a second
What? she asks, just barely tilting her head in my direction.
Just say it, you asshole.
Two words and I can fix this. Well, maybe not fix it, but I can
at least not seem like a total, soulless prick.
The doors slide open and she pauses, staring up at me with
those little, green eyes but I still cant say it.
Have a safe trip, I say instead.
Hazel shifts with disappointment and steps onto the elevator.
She looks at her feet but I can clearly see the tears rolling down
her cheeks as the doors slide closed on her downturn face.

I should be happier.
I should be out having a drink and celebrating with Bobby but
I cant bring myself to do it. I cant shake off this feeling of guilt.
Hazel left town hours ago. She should be back home in Spokane
by now. Its over. Its all over.
I should be happier but I feel like shit.
I stare harder into my fireplace, watching as the flame dances
and the wood burns. Pearl lays at my feet like she usually does
but instead of going to sleep, she stares up at me with
expectant eyes.
What? I ask her. You still hungry?
She stands up and lays her head on my knee, flashing a look
of sympathy at me. I smile and scratch behind her ear.
Im fine, I tell her. Ecstatic, even. Dont you worry
about me.
Her tail wags behind her.
I dont miss her. You miss her. I couldnt care less. I won,
thats all that matters. Tomorrow, that trail is gone. Best
day ever.
Pearl doesnt blink.
I have no reason to feel guilty. I was just doing my job. I
know that. She knows that. Why should I care what she thinks or
how she feels or... what shes doing right now... I squint at the
crackling flame. How was I supposed to know her parents died,
eh? If that was so important then she should have said it earlier.
Not my fault. I didnt do anything wrong.
I look down at Pearl again, her face unconvinced.
Im not the bad guy, Pearl. Im just... the guy who ignored
her feelings and slept with her, a lot and kind of hit her with
my car a little. But Im not a bad guy! Right?
She barks once.
I sigh, feeling a wave of epiphany. You know what? Youre
right. Youre absolutely right. I should do something. I
should... I grit my teeth. You know what? Fuck that. I did
nothing wrong! I shouldnt be sorry. Shes the one who should
be sorry for what she put me through. Two whole years of work
and now I cant even sit back and enjoy it? To hell with this!
I rush toward the door and step into my boots as I throw my
coat on.
Hazel freakin Smith of Spokane, Washington...
I reach above the door and grab my ax off the wall.

I m not sure how long Ive been staring up at my ceiling. I got

home late last night. My grandmother had already gone to
sleep but I didnt mind. The last thing I wanted to do was talk
about my trip.
Her feet shuffle down the hallway outside my door. I lift my
head and watch as her slow-moving shadow drifts along the
floorboards. I hold my breath and lie still, hoping she doesnt
notice my keys sitting on the kitchen table.
A few minutes later, her shadow comes back. Hazel?
I exhale. Yeah?
The doorknob twists and she pushes it open. Oh,
youre home!
Yeah, I got in last night. Didnt want to wake you.
Did you have fun?
I shrug my shoulders. A little.
Well, get up, she says, waving her arms. Come tell me all
about it and Ill fix us some coffee.
Theres no sense in delaying the inevitable now. I throw my
feet on the floor and stretch as she walks back toward the
Obviously, I wont be telling her everything. Shell get the
sanitized version. The happy version, more like. Ill make
something up about how beautiful the trail still is and how it all
looks exactly how Mom described it. I wont mention Leo and I
sure as hell wont say a word about how much time I spent in his
bed. My grandma and I are close but not that close.
I stop to get dressed and take a brush to my hair. Before I even
set it back down, theres a loud pounding on the front door. I
step out into the hallway and glance over at my grandmother.
Jeepers, she mutters from the table. What in Heavens
name is that?
Ill get it.
I turn around and head for the living room, quickly scanning
the windows to check the street outside.
I stop in my tracks and my jaw drops. Leo?
My feet stayed glued to the floor, hesitating to wander any
closer until another pounding rocks the hinges.
I jolt forward to pull the door open and hes standing there on
my porch. I scan him from head to toe. Dried mud covers his
boots and jeans. A thick layer of sweat smears his face with a
little bit of grime caked along his brow. His flannel shirt hangs
open, revealing a white undershirt thats just as wrinkled and
I look behind him, my eyes falling to the tree trunk sitting on
the porch. My breath catches as I see the heart carved into the
side of it, drawn around two names.
Carter + Olivia.
My parents honeymoon tree.
A lump grows in my throat. Leo, what are you doing here?
He heaves a frustrated breath. I hiked up and down Lovers
Trail all night long to find this stupid tree.
I look from him to the stump as shock settles in. You did?
Nine miles with nothing but a flashlight and my ax, hoping
to find this thing before the loggers got to it in the morning. I
chopped it down by myself and dragged the stump all the
way back home. I cleaned it, sanded it, threw it in my truck, and
then I drove all the way out here. Do you have any idea how
many Smiths there are in this freakin city?
I wince. No...
A lot, he says. Ive knocked on seventeen doors, outrun
six rabid dogs, and onechihuahua... just to find you.
My pulse quickens. Why?
He squints.Why?
Because... His face goes soft with hesitation. Because Im
My mouth falls open while I blink with confusion. Leonard
Jackman doesnt apologize. Hes not sorry for anything, and
yet here he is.
Oh I say, barely finding my voice.
So there. He takes a step back. I said that and gave you
this thing, so bye.
Leo spins around and stomps toward his truck in the
driveway, leaving me gutted and breathless.
I look to the stump as warm tears fill my eyes, just begging to
fall down my cheeks but I choke them down.
I rush off the porch and cut across the grass as he backs his
truck out. Caution tells me not to go any farther but I step off the
curb and plant myself ahead of his bumper in the street.
Leo slams on the brakes and rolls his window down. Get out
of the way! he shouts, sticking his head out.
His eyes clenched closed. Hazel
Im not moving until you talk to me.
The truck lurches, making my heart leap as he shifts into park
and throws the door open.
What? he asks, hopping out and walking toward me. What
do you want now?
I stare up into his blue eyes, possibly the only soft feature on
his stiff face. Thank you, I say.
Leo pauses as a little warmth relaxes the lines on his eyes.
Youre welcome.
I cant believe you actually did that.
He shrugs with his hands in his pockets. It was nothing.
No, I really appreciate it. I bite my lip. Youre not as much
of a cold-hearted jackass as you claim to be.
Maybe not. He nods, turning slightly. I should get
My chest aches, tugging hard in his direction. You were
right, I mutter.
He stops and his lips twitch. Say that again.
You were right, I repeat, tasting bile. I did use sex to try
and get what I wanted out of you and Im sorry. That was wrong.
It wasnt fair.
Leo shifts back over. Its okay. I did the same thing.
You did?
Yeah, I thought I could seduce you out of your whole
Wow... I look him up and down. You really are cocky.
It comes with the beard, he jokes. Obviously, it didnt
work. It just... made me really like you. A lot.
I smile. It made me really like you, too.
Well, the beard has charmed me a little
Two days in Whitefish and youre already rolling like a
I shrug. Its that Montana mountain magic, I guess.
He grins. I really am sorry, Hazel. You have to understand
that I grew up in a world where people were either obstacles or
stepping stones. You gotta give me a break here.
And I will.
His eyes flick up. You will?
Well, I grew up in a world of compassion and second
chances, so...
He exhales with relief. Sounds nice.
I think youd like it.
I think Id like any world with you in it.
You can kiss me now. I chuckle. You dont have to keep
He steps closer. Oh, how the tables have turned.
I tilt my head up and he leans in, eyes slowly closing until our
lips touch. He wraps his arms around me and lifts me up. I
dangle an inch off the ground, locked happily in his arms as we
kiss again.
Oh, dont mind me, dear, my grandmother shouts from the
porch. Im just minding my own business over here...
Leo releases our kiss and his eyes flick over at her. So, thats
your grandma?
Yep. I nod.
Got it.
He sets me down and I turn to wave at her.
Ill be right inside, Nana... Just give me a minute...
Well, you be sure to let me know if another handsome man
wanders onto the porch. I got dibs.
My cheeks flair up while Leo holds in a laugh. Okay.
Will do...
She wanders inside and closes the door, but I catch her little
eyes peeking through the blinds.
A ringing sound echoes from Leos pocket. He reaches into
his jeans and pulls out his phone, instantly wincing as he reads
the display.
Whos that? I ask.
Its Bobby, he answers. Im supposed to be in Whitefish
right now overseeing the loggers.
I step back. Then, you should go, right?
The phone goes silent and Leo moves to drop it back into his
pocket but it starts ringing again before it slips from his hand.
He sighs with amusement. Hang on He brings it to his
ear. Hey, Bobby. No, I wont be coming in today. Im going to
have to use a sick day. Yeah, a sick day. Because Im sick.
Yes, really.
I cover my mouth to keep my chuckle quiet.
Okay, Leo continues. Ill see you tomorr Actually, you
know what, Im really coming down with something here. Make
that Thursday, just in case. Ill do that. Thanks. Later, Bob.
I let my laugh free as he hangs up. Did he buy it?
Oh, yeah, he nods. He even recommended some tea to
help with my fever.
What kind of tea?
I smile. Such a helpful assistant you have there.
He knows his shit. Ill give him that.
Well I gesture toward the house, would you like to come
in and have breakfast? Im sure my grandmother would love to
know why I was making out with the weird guy banging on our
door so early in the morning.
He chuckles and takes my hand. I would love to.
We take a few steps toward the porch but then he slows down
and gives my hand a tug.
What do we tell her exactly? he asks.
Uhh... I pause to think. On second thought, maybe we
should go out for breakfast.
He plants a kiss on my knuckles. Or we can just tell the
truth. Itd be a nice change of pace for us.
I raise a brow. You want to tell my ninety-year-old
grandmother that I spent a night on your lawn and then we had
sex for two days?
We played chess, too, he jokes. I laugh, shaking my head.
Okay, how about this? Well say that we met on Lovers Trail.
Its not too far from the truth, right?
We dont have to say a word about you getting arrested or
how you stalked me
I didnt stalk you.
You waited for me to leave work and then followed me
home, he argues. Somewhere in there is the legal definition of
stalking. I guarantee it.
Hmm I squint. Maybe we should ask your companys
lawyers what the legal definition of hitting someone with your
car is.
He sighs. Know any nice diners around here?
I can think of one or two I nod.
Good. Ill wait in the truck.
He kisses my cheek and lets go of my hand. I take great
pleasure in watching him walk away, my eyes dropping to his
rear and I bite my lip to keep my smile from taking over.
I spin around to the door. Its slightly ajar with my
grandmothers face poking out.
Nana I scold, stepping up onto the porch. What are you
She slips my jacket through the crack. Dont get cold,
I take it from her and smile. I wont be gone long.
Oh, no She flashes a wink and slowly starts closing the
door. You take your time.
I blush. Nana
The door latches closed. I turn around to leave but the tree
trunk catches my eye.
Carter + Olivia.
I kneel to get a closer look. Its strange how one small
disturbance of nature can last so long but my father was right in
the end. The forest never did forget the time they spent together
on Lovers Trail.
I hesitate to even touch it but when I do, its warm and
strong. I run my fingertips along the letters, replaying my
mothers diary in my head as I do. They met and the rest is
I wipe the tear off my cheek before I look across the lawn at
Leo sitting in his truck, waiting for me. My heart beats a little
faster, tumbling toward a whole new world. Suddenly, I see my
future ahead of me. A simple life with a loving and
challenging, to put it politely man and his dog.
Am I crazy? Is it too soon to think like this? All of this sounds
so utterly insane but my thoughts have never seemed so clear
and focused before.
My mother went through the same thing, had the same
thoughts, the same everything but she took the risk. Maybe I
should, too. She said she never truly knew who she was until she
walked down Lovers Trail. I fought to experience the same but,
then again, I spent so much time trying to save it that maybe I
didnt even realize that it already led me toward everything Ive
always wanted.
Thanks, Mom and Dad. I miss you, I say, kissing my palm
and touches their names again.
Here we go
I stand up, slip my jacket on, and start walking.

I ve been forcing this smile for so long tonight I cant feel my

face but the night isnt over yet.
I cling to Leos arm as we walk across the golden hotel lobby
between his parents and his sister, Claudia. Colorful strings of
lights hang down from everywhere, making the entire room
shine but the nervous pit growing in my stomach barely lets me
enjoy the holiday cheer. Its a nice place, like nothing Ive ever
seen before in my life. I feel strange and under-dressed
though I probably look delightful standing next to Leo and his
bright red flannel.
His mother leans in and kisses Leo on the cheek. Thanks for
dinner, sweetie. It was lovely.
It was my treat, Mom, he says.
She looks at me and smiles. And it was a pleasure to finally
meet you, Hazel.
The pleasure was all mine, Mrs. Jackman, I say, fighting the
urge to curtsy. I never curtsied before in my entire life and yet,
tonight, I cant seem to shake it off.
Theyre just so fancy.
I was Mrs. Jackman before dinner, she says, nudging my
shoulder. Now, you can call me Gale.
Ill try and reprogram my brain for that. I laugh.
His dad puffs out his chest. And you can call me Cupid!
Leo squints. Yeah. Okay, Dad.
I introduced you, didnt I?
You really didnt.
His father shrugs his wide shoulders. Well, thats how Im
choosing to remember it.
Gale playfully slaps his arm. Laurence, leave them alone.
All right, all right He reaches into his pocket to retrieve a
cigar. Leonard, you wanna share a Christmas Eve cigar with
your old man?
Ill share one with you tomorrow, he says. Its a little late
Suit yourself. He gestures at Claudia. How bout you?
Claudias nose curls upward. No, thank you. I prefer not to
smell like an old hobo.
Laurence balances the cigar in his teeth. Such ungrateful
He walks off toward the patio exit across the lobby alone.
Gale shakes her head. Well, Im heading to bed. She takes a
step toward the open elevator. Dont stay up too late or Santa
wont come.
Goodnight, Mom, Leo and Claudia say.
I flash a quick wave as she boards the car and the doors close.
Claudia exhales and runs her hands through her brown pixie
cut hair. I need a drink, she says. You two wanna hang out at
the bar? Im buying.
Leo scoffs. Since when do you buy?
She pinches a credit card between two fingers and holds it up.
Since I swiped your card off the table at the restaurant. Leo
juts forward and snatches it from her hand. Hey
Not cool, Claud.
She rolls her eyes. Fine, you can buy. Ill pick up the tab
next year.
You said that last year.
I did?
Leo casts a subtle glance at me and searches my eyes for my
silent, screaming answer. Well pass, Claudia, he says.
Maybe tomorrow.
Fair enough. She looks at me. Nice to meet you, Hazel.
Thanks, I nod. You, too.
Youre way better than that girl he brought last year, she
says, gripping her clutch beneath her arm. And the year before
that and the year before that
Claudia strides away toward the hotel bar and I glance over at
Leos puckered face. He slaps the elevator call button, avoiding
my eyes while I stare at him.
Finally, he forces a laugh. She was just kidding.
Uh-huh. I nod.
The elevator arrives and we step on. I maintain my posture
and smiling face, fearing a sudden appearance by any one
of them.
The doors slide closed and Leo smiles at me.
And exhale.
I force the air from my lungs. O kay
He chuckles. You did great. Relax.
I just had dinner with your parents. And your sister.
And you did great.
I lay a cautious hand on my stomach. Did they like me? I
ask, breathing through nausea.
They loved you.
How do you know? Did they say something to you? What did
they say?
They didnt have to. I could tell.
Did I talk too much?
Well, his head tilts, you usually do, but
I cup my face. Oh, god. What did I say?
Leo turns to me and lays his hands on my shoulders. Haze
I try my best, inhaling a deep and slow breath until my body
starts to reject it. O kay.
He smiles wider. I could tell. They liked you.
But did I
You didnt say anything stupid, he says over me.
Are you sure?
Yes. You were pleasant and wonderful the entire time. I
promise. Leo kisses my forehead and I exhale again, clinging to
his forearms to hold myself up. So, relax. Its just you and me
now in a quiet room to ourselves.
I furrow my brow. But how do you know they liked me?
My mother told you to call her Gale, he argues. She never
does that. Dad is taking credit for you and Claudia he pauses,
eh, shell get drunk with anybody but the joke about the girls
had some truth to it.
The elevator stops and the doors open but Im not ready to
abandon Leos safe, blue eyes just yet. Okay, but
Hazel He guides my face forward and my jaw drops.
Leo I turn to get a better look. When you said wed have
a room to ourselves, I didnt think you meant an entire floor.
He takes my hand and pulls me with him into the suite.
Youre gonna have to get used to that. He chuckles. The
Jackman family tends to go very large especially on
I can see that
My eyes scan the room, taking in the new, pristine
surroundings. White leather couches and chairs. A kitchenette in
the corner with stainless steel appliances. Our luggage has
already been brought up and sits near the door to the left.
Leo walks to the refrigerator while I stand still, far too scared
to touch anything. He pulls out a bottle of wine and shakes his
head at me. Thats not relaxing, Hazel.
Sorry, Im just wow. I step closer to the wall of windows
to take in the city skyline as snow tumbles from the clouds.
This is amazing.
I thought youd been to Seattle before.
Oh, I have. I nod. Just not this high up.
He laughs and returns with two glasses of wine. Well, go on.
Take a look around. Enjoy it.
My eyes wander toward his playful stare. Whatd you do?
I didnt do anything... he says, drinking from his own
Just take a look around, Hazel.
I sigh and gulp down a swig of wine. Fine.
He follows me around the room, staying a half-step behind
me as I drift toward the corner door. I stop in front of it and lean
against the wall.
And whats in here? I ask.
The bedroom, I believe.
Oh, yeah?
And what exactly am I about to see in there?
He shrugs. I dunno...
I stand still, playfully delaying with him, but I succumb to my
own excited anticipations.
Okay, fine I push open the door.
Candles sit about the room, flickering softly from every
corner. Rose petals lie scattered along the carpet and on the
bedspread, just waiting for us and I smile.
Oh, I see.
Leo takes my hand again and brings it to his lips. What else
were you expecting?
I dont know.
We step inside and he closes the door behind him. I move
over to sit on the bed and see a small box sitting in the center.
For a second, my heart stops and I pretend like I didnt see it but
the look on my face gives the entire thing away.
Its not what you think, Hazel, he says.
I twinge with disappointment. Its not?
I doubt it, anyway. He takes my wineglass and sets it on a
nearby table with his. Open it.
I pick up the box. Its sleek, black, and no larger than my
palm. I give it a quick shake and an object rattles around inside.
Just open the damn thing. He chuckles and sits down on
the bed beside me.
I pause, letting the moment linger for one more torturous
second before opening the box.
Theres a small figure inside, sitting atop a piece of white felt.
I pick it up, feeling the carved wood with my fingertips.
A chess piece.
I look closer at the finer details. Its a girl with long hair and a
short skirt. She has a duffel bag by her feet and a book in her
Wait... My jaw drops. Its me!
Leo chuckles. Yeah, I finished the set last night while you
were sleeping.
My heart throbs as I stare up at him in the dim, flickering
light. You made me the queen?
Of course, I did.
I stare at the figure in my hand, feeling the warm tears
swelling in my eyes. This is awesome, Leo... Thank you.
Theres more.
I pause. Oh, yeah! Theres two, right? I wanna see the
other one
No... He gestures to my hand. In the box.
I touch the felt and I pause as my finger grazes something
hard hidden beneath it.
I pull it away to find a silver key stashed inside. What?
Leo reaches in and picks it up. Its a house key.
I stare at him. Youre giving me a key to your cabin?
No... He shakes his head. This key is to a new house. Itll
have two floors, a finished basement, three bedrooms, three and
a half baths
Hold on. I turn to face him. What are you talking about?
He takes my hand and places the key in my palm. The first
house in Jackman Springs, formerly Lovers Trail. I want you to
have it.
My mouth sags open. Leo
The inside is more or less a blank canvas right now, so if
theres anything you want, we can customize it
Panic crushes my chest. I cant afford something like this!
You dont have to. Its already paid for.
I stutter my words, failing to piece this whole thing together
in my head. What the hell am I supposed to do with three
Whatever you want.
The key shimmers in my hand. You bought me a house?
Well he smiles, no pressure or anything, but I kind of
like to think that I bought us a house.
My heart skips a beat. Oh.
Leo takes my hand. Hazel
No, no I stand up and he releases me. Im just gonna
need a minute here.
Theres more.
I freeze. Theres more?! I turn the box over in my hand and
shake it but nothing comes out. What is it, a pony? Did you buy
me a pony, too?!
Leo rises and entwines our hands again. He kisses my
forehead, looks into my eyes, and smiles wide. I love you.
My breath catches. Oh, my
Yeah. He nods.
I will my knees to stop shaking. Thats new
words. Okay
He gazes down at me, those blue eyes as calm as ever and
everything just makes sense.
You dont have to say it back, he says, squeezing my
fingers. I just
I love you, too, I say without hesitation.
No, let me finish. He clears his throat. When I first met
you, I
I love you, too.
Hazel, seriously. If I dont get this out
I lov
Leo presses a finger against my lips. I love you, Hazel, he
says over me. When I first met you, I had no idea that was even
possible. Now, I cant imagine what my life would look like
without you in it. He lowers his hand and I stay quiet. Its been
rough for both of us. Rocky start aside, living four hours away
from you is torture and I want to change that by bringing you
back to Whitefish with me. He takes a breath. Youre my
queen, Haze. And what kind of king would I be if I didnt protect
my queen?
I laugh, fighting back tears. Well, if were talking chess
terms here, technically, Im supposed to protect you.
He smiles and kisses my cheek. Trust me, you do.
I press my lips together, feeling a hot flash rushing along my
skin while I wait for him to go on.
Im done now, he says.
Oh! We chuckle and I push a tear away before it falls.
Then I love you, too.
Well My eyes drift back to the key in my hand. Does the
master bedroom have an en suite?
His lips twitch. Yes.
With a jacuzzi tub?
If you want it to.
I jolt with glee. Oh, that is such a good answer.
Get used to it.
I will.
Leo leans in, drawing our lips closer together. Before they
touch, he springs forward and picks me up off the floor, rocking
my insides as he throws me over his shoulder.
Leo! I shout with laughter and drop the key and chess piece
to the floor. Put me down!
He walks us toward the bed and sets me down on it. I bounce
on the mattress and lie back as he kisses me again. His hand
cups my cheek, caressing me softly as our lips blend together
and his beard tickles my chin.
Sorry if this was too sudden he whispers.
I shake my head. It wasnt. Of course, now my Christmas
gifts to you seems really lame by comparison.
Dont worry about it. He raises his head. Whatd you
get me?
I kiss him back. And ruin the surprise?
Go ahead. I dont mind.
Okay. I sit up on my elbow. A new pocket knife.
Nice. He smiles.
A beard comb. I pause as he laughs. But its pretty cool
looking. Its shaped like a hatchet.
I mime it against my chin and he nods.
That is pretty cool, he says.
Anything else?
A few other small things I bite my lip. And, I guess
you can do whatever you want tonight.
His eyebrow peaks. Oh, really?
Yeah. In fact, I remember you saying something once about
how if you did, then I wouldnt be able to walk afterward.
Sounded promising.
You remember that?
How could I forget?
We inch closer into another kiss, each one growing firmer and
deeper as our hands roam our bodies.
Leo entwines his fingers with mine. That feels like so long
ago now.
Its only been a few months.
I know, but our lips graze, when Im with you time
stands still. Work melts away. No one else matters. I never want
that feeling to end.
Neither do I. I sigh as he rests his hand just above my
knee. Leo
Something Ive always wondered
What? he asks again, kissing my neck.
If that storm hadnt have come up the mountain, I say,
would you have let me in?
Leo pauses and smiles. No.
No? I lean back. But what about the bears and the
mountain lions?
He shrugs. Pearl would have barked to warn me if a wild
animal was on the lawn.
I blink. Before or after I was eaten to death?
After, probably
Wow, okay. I try to roll away. On second thought, maybe
we shouldnt tonight
He tugs me back in and crushes my lips, kissing me hard and
fast while I melt in his arms. How about you spread your legs
and dont move.
I grin. Now were talking.
And no talking.
I place an invisible key against my lips and turn the lock
Leo regards me with a twisted grin, reaching one hand around
to the back of my neck. You are so beautiful...
He slides the zipper of my dress downward, planting a few
kisses on my shoulder as the neckline loosens.
I shudder with warmth from my head to my toes. I get lost in
the feeling, closing my eyes as Leo continues whispering in
my ear.
Your hair, your face, your smile... He kisses me as he guides
the dress down my breasts. I cant get enough of your body.
I prop up as he leans back and pulls my dress to my ankles. As
he lets it fall to the floor, he stops to look at me on the bed in
front of him. His deep, blue eyes wander down my hips and legs,
climb up my belly and breasts, until he eases back in to kiss me.
I spread my legs for him and he slides between my thighs. I
feel his erection against my hip while his lips take me over and
over again. My mouth waters, wanting to taste him so badly. I
take hold of his belt but he stops me.
Without a word, he guides my arms over my head. He pins
them with one strong hand while the other tugs at his belt.
Dont move, he says, staring into my wide eyes.
What are you doing? I ask, throbbing softly.
He pulls his belt through the loops. What I want.
I lie still and smile, feeling safe beneath him as his firm
hands tie my wrists together with his belt.
Getting kinky now... I chuckle.
Leo towers over me on his thick arms. Well... Im the boss,
Hazel. Dont forget that.
He leans in for a kiss but I shake with a fit of giggles. His jaw
flexes and he stares at me. What? he asks. Why are you
Im sorry. Its just... I say, biting my cheek. Im the boss
har har.
He squints. Tonight... I am.
I crack up. Stop. Youre killing me!
Hazel He lays a hand over my mouth.
My breath pushes against his palm. What? I ask, my voice
Leo pauses in thought. Stay here.
He hops off the bed and wanders into the next room, leaving
me in my underwear with my hands tied. I shake away the giggle
fit and sit up to listen as he moves through the suite.
Leo? I ask after several silent moments alone.
He comes back with a white eye mask in his hand, flipping it
around his fingers with a smug smile on his face. This should
help, he says.
I chuckle. Are you going to gag me, too?
He untucks his flannel shirt and flicks the buttons free one-
by-one. No, he whispers, dropping it to the floor as he leans
over me. I want to hear it when you scream my name.
I smile as he lays the mask over my eyes. My vision goes dark
and my ears twitch with every new sound in the room. Leo kicks
off his shoes. He unzips his pants. The mattress dips with his
weight and my skin quivers as he hooks my knees and pulls me
closer. His hands glide up my body, starting at my ankles and
traveling up my legs and abdomen. They swipe my armpits but
his firm kiss keeps me from laughing.
I feel him. All of him. Every brush of his hand on me feels
twice as good. His groans echo in my ears. His body heat mixes
with mine. My core is charged and ready, pleasantly throbbing
and practically begging for him. He moves down to align our
bodies and wraps my knees around his waist.
Leo kisses me. I love you, he says again.
Happiness bursts in me. Three little words and I melt
completely. Three months together and I can already see the
next thirty years of my life. Ive never been surer of
anything else.
I love you, too, I say, feeling tears building against
the mask.
We kiss once more, firm and true, as Leo guides himself
inside of me. He doesnt stop until hes as deep as his cock can
go. I hold my breath, feeling every stiff inch of him taking me
over. Love and desire push us closer together as passion drives
his thrust.
Leo puts his hands on me, constantly touching and feeling my
body. He fucks harder, pounding me into the mattress as I moan
for him. I lie back and enjoy every sensation coursing through
me. He grips my hair and bites my skin. Im his and he knows it.
My body, my mind. His name builds on my tongue but my voice
is trapped behind my clenched throat. I feel silly in this mask
and sexy in his arms at the same time. Growing pleasure has me
writhing beneath his body. I twist and ache for release, feeling
my thighs turn numb and my toes curl.
Leo I moan, tensions building fast.
He crushes his lips on mine, absorbing his name as he sucks
on my tongue. Say it again, he groans.
I chuckle, feeling my body breaking in two. Leo!
He grinds a little deeper, sending me over the edge. My
muscles twist and my ears ring but I hear his deep laugh as I
come for him. He pauses to watch, leaving sweet kisses on my
neck until my pulse settles and I can breathe again.
Leo slides the mask off my head and smiles. My queen he
whispers, his breath warm against my cheek.
He reaches over my head and pulls my arms forward, quickly
sliding the belt free and drawing me up to straddle his lap. He
sits back and embraces me, softly kissing my neck as I wrap my
arms around him.
I ease his cock back inside and he groans in my ear. Somehow,
I hold myself up on him, grinding my hips even though I can
barely feel my legs. He lays his hands on my waist to support me
while he nibbles at my breasts.
I cup his face and kiss him again, enjoying the soft tickle of
his beard on my lips. What else do you want? I ask playfully.
His grip tightens on my waist. You just keep doing exactly
what youre doing right now
I buck my hips faster on his cock. This?
He groans and buries his face between my breasts, clinging to
me and breathing hard as I lick his sweat off my lips.
I tighten my inner muscles around him the way he likes it.
This man. My king. Theres so much more I want to do for him
but I cant stop shaking. This is just one night amongst
thousands well spend together.
Leo holds his breath and I feel that warm burst between us. I
halt the grind, letting his cock slide out and his seed drips along
my thighs. Weve come so far since that first night in the cabin,
yet we have so far to go. I trust him more everyday and I know he
feels the same.
He lies back, taking me with him and we settle our heads
against the thick pillows. After several slow, calming breaths,
Leo rolls over and wraps his arm around me in a quiet embrace.
Safe and warm as always, I drift off and the last thing I feel is
Leos lips pursing against my forehead.

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Hazel Smith & Leonard Jackman

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Discover more romantic comedy in my small town romance, Old Habits. Continue
reading to enjoy the first five chapters on me.


Small town. Big mistakes.

Everyones business.

Four years ago, Jovie Ross disappeared.

She was my high school sweetheart. My first love. My first

I wanted it all with her. Marriage. A family.
Then, one day, she was gone.

She wanted more than a simple life in Clover, Kansas.

Unanswered questions have left me wondering what could
have been.

Now, shes back, but shes not the same rebellious troublemaker
she used to be.
Shes all grown up and even more beautiful than I remember.
But shes still my Jovie. It doesnt take long before she
remembers that, too.

The town doesnt believe shes changed.

They want her gone and they wont stop until they run her out of
Kansas for good.
Theyll have to get through me first.
I wanted it all with her. This is our second chance to get it right.
But the questions of the past need answers and Ill do whatever
it takes to get them.
For better or worse.
for all those
weve lost

well meet you

in paradise

C lover, Kansas.
The Forgotten Paradise.
I pass the sign on the highway and think to perform a full U-
turn to go back where I came from. I dont, though. Id just be
delaying the inevitable if I did and I honestly dont think I could
stomach going through with this twice. Its hard enough already.
I didnt want to come back home. I promised myself I never
would but here I am.
My car jolts and the forward inertia pulls backward. Smoke
begins to seep out of the hood and I groan loudly. Good travel
instincts take over. I look into every mirror to make sure Im not
in danger of colliding with any other cars in the pitch darkness
but the road is completely deserted. Not surprised. Im pretty
sure the last person to leave Clover was me.
I pull onto the shoulder as the car continues to slow down and
I start to wonder if Ill make it out of the lane in time before it
stalls out completely.
I reach down, carelessly searching for the lever by my foot to
pop the hood before getting out. A biting chill clings to my bare
legs. Come back to Kansas in a skirt. In January. Good thinking,
I round the car and throw open the hood, stepping back
quickly to avoid the puff of smoke before it burns my eyes.
Well, shit.
I glance around the highway and spot the gas station about a
quarter mile down the road. For a second, I pause, feeling my
stomach churn and I think to once again haul ass out of town.
Not that I could anymore, of course. My damn car is busted. I
dont own a phone, either. Guess Im jaywalking into the night.
I slink back in the drivers seat, embracing the warmth while
it lasts as I fish my wallet out and lock the doors behind me.
The attendant glances up at me from behind the counter as I
step inside. Hes a young kid, just barely out of his teens if I were
to guess, meaning he probably doesnt know who I am. My face,
anyway. He might know my name if hes a local but I wont
risk it.
His back straightens with each step I make toward the
counter and he twitches awkwardly as if Im about rob his ass.
May I use your phone? I ask.
He blinks out of it and fumbles beneath the counter for the
landline phone hidden under it. Oh, yeah. Sure. Here.
Thank you.
I open my wallet to find the card I used to keep with
emergency numbers listed on it. Havent seen it or needed it in
years, so it might have crumbled to pieces by now.
Its there, crushed beneath an empty chewing gum wrapper
and a business card for a bar in Seattle I once temporarily
called home.
Highway patrol I mutter, picking up the phone and
dialing the faded number on the card.
I hold the phone to my ear, listening to the dull ringing and
glancing up at the kid again. Hes backed off and pretends to
read the latest gossip magazine at the other end of the counter.
Kansas Highway Patrol, a man answers.
Yeah, hi. Im in need of a tow truck. My car stalled on me.
Whats your location?
Im heading east on 70, I say, clearing my throat. About
five miles outside of Clover near the gas station.
Clover, eh? he asks, amused.
Yeah, unfortunately.
Make and model of your vehicle?
Uhh I chuckle. Its a 2002, powder blue POS.
He laughs for a moment before turning serious. Are you
traveling alone?
Yeah, but Im safe.
Good. Hang tight, maam. Well send someone out to
get you.
Thank you.
I hang up and slide the phone back over. Thanks again, I
tell the kid.
He nods at me and watches as I turn around to walk back out
into the cold.
I rush down the highway, counting the moments until I can
get back in my car again. I could have stayed inside but Id rather
risk getting slammed by a speeding truck than stay in that gas
station. No offense to the kid, of course. I just have a few
memories there Id rather not relive if I dont have to.
I climb into my car and lay my head against the steering
wheel to rest my eyes. Every few minutes, I peek up to check for
incoming cars but the street is vacant and black, save my own
headlights illuminating the few feet in front of me.
Finally, a tow truck rolls up beside me and comes to a stop in
front of my car. The logo on the side reads Marvs Auto Repair.
The best Clover can offer. I could never tell whether or not that
was sarcasm.
I step outside and roll my hands into fists in my pockets,
preparing myself just in case this guy is any kind of creep.
The door opens and the driver pops out onto the ground. He
looks up at me like Im a side-dish but the smug smirk instantly
falls as he recognizes me.
I squint at him in the dark, making out my cousins familiar
face. Tucker?
Oh, my God! Jovie! I flinch as he throws his arms around
me and squeezes, nearly lifting me several inches off the ground.
What is this? Where the hell have you been? Are you okay?
I laugh softly and pat his back. I guess it was only a matter of
time before the awkward reunions started. Id hoped to put it off
for longer than this, but shit happens, I suppose.
Im all right, I answer the last question.
He leans back and sets me down but keeps a solid grip on my
shoulders. Its been a long time.
I nod. I know.
Are you back in town like... back back?
Uh... I glance around. Not sure yet. Just kind of back for
now, I guess.
Does anyone else know youre here?
No. I havent told anybody. I was just going to surprise my
dad when my stupid car broke down.
So, nobody knows youre here?
I shake my head. Nobody knows.
Like... he steps back, nobody?
Nobody, I confirm. And I would really appreciate it if
nobody found out yet.
He throws up his hands in surrender. Hey, I read you loud
and clear, cuz. Nobody knows and nobody shall know. Its our
little secret.
I wonder how long thatll last. Thank you, Tucker.
He gestures to the car behind me and knocks twice on the
open hood. So, what happens to be the problem here,
little lady?
No idea, I say, stepping to the side. Just kind of went ka-
He leans over, withdrawing a flashlight from his pocket and
clicks it on as he scans the inside. Hmm
No idea. He shrugs and releases the hood down. Well, Ill
go ahead and get you cinched up.
I stand back and watch as he attaches the hook to my front
bumper. So, youre a mechanic now? I ask.
And they stiff you with the night shift?
Whos getting stiffed? he asks. I love the night shift. I
volunteer for it. Its quiet and chill. Mostly just get truckers but
every once in a while, I get the call for a beautiful lady stranded
out in the middle of nowhere and sometimes shes very grateful
for my help if you know what I mean.
I nod. I think I cracked your code, Tucker.
Of course, I dont expect that tonight, obviously, he says,
gesturing at me. In fact, the last thing I expected to find on this
road tonight was you, cuz.
Same. I wrap my jacket a little tighter around me to block
out the cold breeze.
Tucker slides the car into neutral and nods to his truck. Hop
in. Ill give you a ride to Uncle Hanks.
I climb inside and sit still, silently taking in the view. Tucker
turns off the highway and we navigate a tight, empty road for a
few miles before passing the welcome sign into Clover, Kansas.
Main Street is dark and empty, as it always was after ten.
Local businesses must still close their doors just before eight
oclock, leaving very little if anything to do.
Not much has changed since I left, though Im not sure why I
would expect it to. Tucker glances over at me every so often, no
doubt plagued with burning questions but I cant exactly
blame him.
He slows to a stop on Ninth Street. This is as far as I can go
in this beast, he says. Unless I wanna wake the neighborhood
beeping backward to try and get out again.
Its okay, I say, grabbing my backpack. I can walk it.
Want me to go with you?
No, Ill be all right. Its Clover, ya know?
He chuckles. Yeah, I know. Well, its really nice to see you,
You, too. I step outside, instantly shivering the second my
feet touch the ground. Ill stop by the car shop in the morning
to fill out paperwork or whatever you guys need.
Uh He shifts forward in his seat. You know, dont
bother. Ill fill it out for you and call you with updates.
No, I can do it, Tuck.
Well he works there now.
Oh. I pause. He does? Really?
Yeah, for about two years now.
I bite my lip. Okay, then yeah, you can fill out the forms
and stuff for me. Thatd be great. Thanks.
He gives a short wave. Say hi to Uncle Hank for me.
I will.
I close the door and turn to stare down my old street as the
tow truck rides off with my car hanging behind it.
An eerie calmness washes over me. I suppose if were talking
traditional definitions, this is my home. I grew up on this street,
walked down it every day for twelve years to go to school, but I
feel very little connection to it otherwise.
I start walking down the block, wrapping my jacket a little
tighter around me and cursing whoever it was that invented the
skirt in the first place. Ive almost forgotten how chilly it is here
in January. Theres still even a little bit of holiday snow stacked
up along the curbs.
And here it is. The house I grew up in. Just me and my dad, for
the most part. One story. Two bedrooms. A whole lot of repairs
that never quite happened.
I walk up to the door. Its late and who knows if my father is
even awake but its not like I have anywhere else to go.
I tap on the door, knocking softly. A few seconds later, a light
flicks on in the living room and my chest tightens.
The door swings open and my father gawks at me with a beer
can in his hand. Gravity has done hell to the bags under his eyes
and theres more silver than brown in his mustache but
otherwise, hes the same as he ever was. Tobacco stench
Hey, Hank, I say, forcing a smile.
He looks me up and down. Jovie.
I nod. Yep.
More wrinkles crease his brow for several long, cold
moments. Finally, he turns around without saying anything else
and walks off, leaving the door wide open.
I step inside and close it behind me as my dad topples into his
armchair across the living room.
The same as it ever was, indeed. The carpet is still that awful
shade of dark peach, held over from the eighties, at least.
Scratched furniture with layers of dust and the same damn couch
thats been sitting there since I was a kid.
The television blares loudly from the corner with one of those
procedural crime shows. I step lightly to the couch and sit down
on the edge, tapping my tongue against my teeth.
What do you want?
I flinch with the sudden growl of his voice. I just wanted to
ask if I could stay here for a while.
How long?
Im not sure, I say. He glares at me from the corner of his
eyes. Not long. Just need to save up some money and Ill be out
of your hair again.
His gray eyes flick back to the television. Rent is three-
hundred a month, he says, taking a swig of his beer. Or
seventy-five a week, whichever works best for you, and youll
chip in for utilities.
I dig my thumbnail into my hand. All right, I say. Ill go
into town tomorrow and see about finding a job but I probably
wont get paid for a few weeks. I might need an extension on the
first month.
You know where the spare key is, he murmurs.
I stand up. Thanks Dad.
He gives a passive nod. Real nice to see you, he says, his
tongue hitting every word like an ice pick.
Overall, its a far warmer welcome than I expected, so I cant
I walk out of the living room and enter the hallway, my eyes
instantly pausing on the picture frames hung on the wall. Baby
pictures of me, mostly. A visual timeline from birth to age three
and then nothing after that. My dad wasnt really interested in
keeping up with it, I guess. It must have been Moms thing.
I push open the door to my room and flick on the light. Not a
damn thing has changed in here either, save the layer of dust on
everything from years of forgotten neglect. Travel books and
posters of landmarks across the country. Places I always
dreamed about. Anywhere but here.
I sit down on the edge of the bed and glance around, silently
reminding myself that it was all my idea to come back.
Home sweet home, I whisper to myself.

Y ou ever have that dream where youre walking down the

street and everyone is staring at you?
They start to laugh as you pass by, subtly at first, but it gets
faster and louder until you finally look down and realize that
youre naked.
Yeah, its kind of like that.
Except Im not asleep and Ive checked three times already to
make sure I put on pants before I left Hanks house.
No, theyre just staring at me because thats what people do
when your name is Jovie Ross.
It starts on my street with Mrs. Clark, the pastors wife. Her
dog barks at me from the porch as I walk by her house. She steps
outside, takes one look at me, and bolts right back in, dragging
her dog by the collar as she goes.
I should see this for the omen it is but I keep on walking like
an idiot, quickly happening by several other neighbors who more
or less do the exact same thing. Some just stare. Slightly fewer
wave. One literally clutches the pearls around her neck.
Its nice to be remembered, I suppose.
I hit the town square and walk down Main Street until I reach
Trins Toy Store on the corner, sandwiched between the
bookstore and a coffee shop that wasnt there when I left.
Theres a HELP WANTED sign displayed in the window. My lips
curl at the small victory. At least I know hes hiring.
But is he willing to hire me again?
Only one way to find out.
I pull open the door and the entry bell rings above my head.
Welcome! I hear from the check-out counter to the right.
I catch sight of Mr. Trin himself standing behind it. He
doesnt look up from the small stack of paperwork in front of
him, displaying his shiny, bald head to the world.
I snatch the HELP WANTED sign from the window and walk
straight toward him, taking wide, purposeful strides until I can
lay the sign down in his eye-line.
He peeks up at me over the rims of his glasses and his brow
Absolutely not, he says.
Hi, Mr. Trin. I deepen my smile. Its good to see you!
I would like to talk to you about a jo
I tilt my head. Please?
The position is for serious applicants only, Jovie.
I am a serious applicant, Mr. Trin.
Serious applicants include those with perfect work
histories, he argues. Not girls who stop showing up without
I know, I say, leaning forward. I was going through
something at the time and Im really sorry but thats all
over now
You left me in a lurch.
I hold my hands in prayer between us. I did and I felt really
badly about that.
It took forever to find a decent smock girl again, he
continues. Then, she left to go have some schmucks babies in
Well, I feign a laugh, I can assure you that I wont be doing
that anytime soon. Or ever. Most likely never. I dont even know
anyone from Topeka.
Im from Topeka.
I inhale a sharp breath and let out an awkward chuckle.
Okay, I dont think Mrs. Trin would like me cracking a joke
about having your babies, so Im just gonna let that one slide
His head shakes. Im sorry, Jovie, but I already have
interviews scheduled for today.
Cancel them. He glares at me as he steps around the
counter with his papers in hand. I worked here for over three
years. You barely have to even train me. Think of the time save,
Mr. Trin. I know how much you value time save.
He wanders across the shop toward the office in the back.
The other girls have good resumes, he says, raising the papers
above his head.
I follow one step behind him. Yeah? Well, will the other girls
arrange the dinosaur figures alphabetically by species?
No, theyll arrange them by size and color the way theyre
supposed to.
Oh... I pass with him through the doorway. Thats not
very educational.
Hey, hey He points over my shoulder at the Employees
Only sign glued to the door.
I step back but stay in the frame. You know, I hung this
sign, I say, rapping my knuckle against it.
I know. Trin collapses into his desk chair. It fell off
Come on, Mr. Trin. I sigh. Im falling on my sword here.
He wavers, flexing his jawline and squinting at me. I
dont know
Please, I beg. You can start me at minimum wage. I dont
care. My availability is wide open. Days, weekends, holidays. You
name it, Ill be here. I can start today right now, if you need it.
Just please.
Trin rubs his shiny head. Fine, he spits. Seven twenty-
five an hour. Ten to close every day with an hour lunch.
I raise a brow. Seven twenty-five? Is that really what
minimum wage is now?
He glares. Is that a problem?
No, sir, I say quickly. Not at all.
We can talk about raising that if you last six months,
he adds.
I fill my lungs with relief. Thank you. Thats perfect. Really.
Thank you.
He points over my shoulder. Grab a smock from the back. I
assume you remember where they are?
I do. I spin in a half circle but double back slowly. So, now
that Im hired can we discuss a possible fifty dollar advance on
my first paycheck?
His stern face twitches.
I surrender my hands and back out of the office. Youre
right. Never mind. No problem. Sorry I asked.
I poke my head back in. Yeah, boss?
Trin stands up and reaches into his back pocket for his wallet.
You can start tomorrow morning, he says, fishing it open. I
want you here at ten sharp. There are a few things that have
changed since you left so well need to go over those.
I nod, trying not to stare at his hands. Ill be here.
He grabs a folder off the desk, paper-clips a fifty dollar bill to
the W-2 form inside, and offers it to me. Fill these out before
you come in.
I take it from him, once again feeling warm relief fill my
chest. Thank you, Mr. Trin, I say.
He pats my shoulder as he passes back onto the shop floor.
Welcome home, kid.
My smile deepens. Id forgotten that he used to call me that.
Its strange how it all comes back. Not just the physical details of
a life once lived but the emotions that came with it. I really do
feel like shit for leaving Mr. Trin in a bind the way I did. He was
one of two people in this town who pretended to give a crap
about me, after all.
The second person? Well
That story is much longer.
And it hurts twice as much.

Y oure all set, Mrs. Clark, I say, setting her keys on the
counter between us.
She grabs them with an old, wrinkled hand and grins at me.
Thank you, William. Have I mentioned that youre my favorite
grease monkey?
Only every time you come in here.
Oh, good! Because you are.
I smile. Thank you. Remember what I told you about riding
your brakes, all right?
She leans in. Remind me again...
Oh, thats right! Ill try and remember that, dear. She turns
to leave but pauses with her hand on the counter. William,
youre still single, right?
Uhh... yes, I answer slowly.
Her eyes twinkle. Have you met my granddaughter, Lillian? I
think youd like her...
I shake my head but try to maintain my polite smile. Im
sure I would, Mrs. Clark, but Im not really looking to date
anyone right now...
Well, you let me know the second that changes. Ill set
you up!
Okay. I chuckle awkwardly. Have a nice day!
She pushes the door open and slowly walks out, taking her
time while my smile tests my face muscles.
Once shes gone, I let it fall. Okay, what is going on here?
Tucker glances up from his paperwork at the other end of the
counter. What do you mean?
That is the third woman today to say something like that
to me.
Youre complaining?
Im concerned.
Why? he asks. Youre a handsome, eligible bachelor with
pretty eyes and a tight tushie. Take the compliment.
I stare at him until he finally looks up. Make that four
Ha, ha, ha, he mutters. Youre probably just
imagining it.
The entry bell rings and I smile at the one woman in town
who will never hit on me. Hey, Sara.
My sister walks over and lays her keys on the counter. Its
doing that thing again.
Youre going to have to be more specific.
I dont know... She sighs. Its making that rattling sound
between the back tires and I just dont have time to deal with
this kind of crap right now.
I sense her frustration. All right, well check it out.
Everything else okay?
Her eyes flick toward Tucker and she lowers her voice. Yeah,
just stressed out a little.
Charlies coming home soon, though, right?
No, they extended his deployment. Again.
She pushes her short, brown hair back from her face. Yeah.
Wow. Im sorry, Sara.
Its okay... She flicks her car keys. Its just he usually
dealt with this stuff and I feel completely over my head
right now.
Its okay. I lay my hand over hers. Ill handle this. Were a
bit backed up today, so it might take a while.
Thats fine. I have some shopping to do for Andys birthday
this weekend and an eye appointment that Ive rescheduled
twice already, so just call when you figure it out, okay?
I will.
Oh youre still available to take him Saturday morning
before the party, right?
I nod. Of course. Drop him off whenever and let me know if
theres anything else I can do to help out.
She throws on a smile. Actually, Will, now that you mention
it, what are you doing after the party?
No plans. Why?
You remember my friend, Cindy Sumner, right?
I pause. No.
Oh, come on. Yes, you do. We went to high school with her.
She was a year behind me a year ahead of you. Blonde hair.
Gorgeous eyes.
I squint. I remember a Bryan Sumner.
Yes! She points. Cindy is his sister.
Tucker laughs. Didnt you beat the shit out of him
junior year?
Sara rolls her eyes. No, he didnt.
Oh, yes, I did, I confirm.
Her mouth sags. You did?
Because he was a dick.
Anyway She clears her throat. Cindys been asking
about you and I thought that maybe you could get together for
coffee or something after the party
No, thanks, I say, grabbing her keys off the counter.
Why not? she pouts.
Im not interested.
I jingle her keys. Ill call you when we figure out the rattling
noise, okay, Sara?
She exhales, giving up. Okay, fine. Ill ask you again later.
I wont be interested later, either
You might be!
Nope. Bye, Sara.
I wait until she steps outside. Okay, you saw that, right? I
twist toward Tucker. Tell me you saw that.
I saw that, he says, nodding slowly. Since when does she
try and set you up with her friends?
He snaps his fingers. You know what it is?
What? I ask. Please, dear God, tell me what the hell
this is.
Its almost February.
So Valentines Day. He points outside. The party
committee just started putting up pink hearts and red ribbons all
over the place out there.
I glance out the windows and notice the ribbons attached to
the parking meters on the street surrounding the town square.
You think thats it? I ask, frowning.
Yeah. He nods. Looks to me like the single ladies are
trying to lock you down for the annual dance.
I think it over. Maybe... I turn toward the garage and
Tucker blocks my way.
Whoa, where you going? he asks.
I hold up Saras keys. Im bringing her car around.
He snatches them from me. Ill do that. Youre on desk duty.
Just sit down and bask in this glorious attention youre
I stare into his twitching eyes. Tucker, whats really
going on?
I dont know what youre talking about.
He spins around and bolts through the door into the garage.
The entrance chimes and Coach Rogers walks up to the
counter. Hello, William! he says.
I reluctantly head back to the counter. Hey, Coach.
The wife says the vans ready.
It is. I nod, turning to snatch his keys off the rack on
the wall.
His eyes narrow as I set them down. Youre looking a bit on
the downside lately. Something troubling you?
I pause. The last thing Im in the mood for right now is Coach
Rogers weird person questions. Im fine. I find his invoice in a
stack nearby. Looks like its seventy-five even today.
He scratches his bearded face instead of whipping out his
wallet. William, if I may offer a little unsolicited advice
Actually, Coach, were a little backed up here
Ill make it quick. I look at you and Im reminded of a quote
by the great Albert Einstein.
Ah, jeez.
Life is like riding a bicycle, he says. To keep your balance,
you must keep moving!
I nod. Thats nice.
He reaches over the counter and pats my shoulder. Keep
moving forward, son. Dont let the past hold you back. I foresee
great things in your future.
We can only hope. So, about your bill
A wife, he adds. A few kids. Who knows? Valentines Day
is just around the corner and there are plenty of young women
around Clover
My eye twitches. Would you excuse me for a minute?
I shove the garage door open, stepping down into the smell of
rubber and the sound of shrieking power tools. Three cars sit in a
line at various stages of repair but my eyes instantly fall on one
in particular. Its old and blue and
No. It cant be.
I walk across the garage, my mind flashing with memories
with every step I take toward.
Tucker juts out in front of me. Whoa, hey! Will what, uh
whatcha doing back here?
Move, I say, stepping around him.
The closer I get, the more Im sure.
Tucker stays on me. I know what youre thinking but its
not, he says.
Oh, yeah? Then, whose car is it?
He stutters. Its Julies car.
I raise a brow. Julies?
Yeah. Julies.
Julie who?
Julie, uh... he twitches, Moss.
Julie Moss? I repeat.
Yeah. Julie
I grab Tucker by the collar. You mean Jovie Ross?
No, uh-uh. I didnt say Jovie Ross.
Tucker... I pull him closer. Is Jovie back?
No Jovie? He snorts. Hell, no. She hightailed it out of
here years ago. She aint ever coming
He recoils. Yeah. Shes back. Jovies back.
My guts twist. How long has she been back?
I dunno. A day or two... I squint at him. Okay, four. Four
days. Shes staying with her dad.
I dont know. He holds up his hands in surrender. Really,
truly. I dont know. All I know is that shes back, shes at Uncle
Hanks, she got her old job back at the toy store, and that really
is her car right there. We had to special order a part for it
because its old as shit. But thats it. Thats all I know.
I relax my grip. He slips free and takes a wide step back out of
my reach.
Holy shit.
Jovie Ross actually came home.
I walk over to the car as another wave of cold memories
threatens to knock me over. Jovies little, blue car. One of the
back windows is cracked and held together with duct tape and
the antenna is nearly bent off but this is it. Id recognize that
backseat anywhere.
Tucker straightens his shirt and hovers over my shoulder.
But even if she is back who cares, right? he asks. Youre
over her... right?
I blink. Yeah.
See? No worries He pats my shoulder with caution.
Yeah, no worries. I shift a step backward. Im going to
Its ten-thirty in the morning. Will ah, crap
I leave the garage, ignoring his voice. Every instinct in me
tells me to drop this but I cant. My feet lead me through the
town square, past the post office and the diner and coffee shop.
All the way to Trins Toys.
I halt in my tracks with my hand on the door. I stare through
the glass, feeling my heart plummet from my chest to six feet
under the damn earth.
She really did come home.
Jovie Ross stands behind the old cash register with her back
toward me but theres no way it cant be her.
Her dark brown hair hangs several inches beneath her
shoulders, jutting off in thick, wavy strands. She never wore it so
long before. Jovie was a pixie-cut kind of girl; the type who
would cut it herself on a whim in her bathroom at 3 AM.
A red smock is wrapped around her slim waist. Long, strong
legs poke out the bottom to hold her up. Her neck twists to the
side as Mr. Trin calls out to her from the storeroom and those
cheekbones stick out a little more.
I let go of the door and move to the side to watch her
discretely through the windows.
Damn, you walk fast
I see Tuckers annoyed and out of breath reflection over my
Its Jovie, I say, unable to take my eyes off her.
Yes, it is, he says, wiping the sweat from his brow.
It sinks in deeper. Jovies back.
He nods. Im sorry, man. She asked me not to tell anyone.
Pretty sure the emphasis was on you.
Jovie turns in our direction and I spin away from the window
to avoid her eyes.
Youve talked to her? I ask him.
Got a call for a tow off the highway a few nights ago and
there she was.
Did she seem okay? I mean, how was she?
Shes He shrugs. She was Jovie. Same old, sad Jovie. I
gave her a lift to her dads and that was it. We didnt talk much.
She was sad?
I assume so if she was coming back here, he says,
scratching the back of his head. And she always was a little,
ya know?
I peek back through the window. Yeah, I know.
Jovie emerges from the stockroom with a stack of new action
figures in her arms, nearly running into a rambunctious young
boy as she rounds the corner. She hops back without dropping
them and lets him pass with an instant smile on her
apologetic face.
My knees always turned to jelly over that smile before. Now is
no different.
The kid continues on and Jovie pauses to watch him go. Her
smile slowly fades and she returns to her task of restocking the
line of figures along the bottom shelf in the corner.
A hand waves in front of my face and Tucker snaps his
Earth to Will!
I blink out of it and glare at him. What?
Dont do that.
Dont do what?
Stare at my cousin like that.
I scoff. Since when do you care what I do to your cousin?
He stands a little taller. You make a fair point but really, if
she finds out I told you, Im a dead man. You know what happens
to men who cross Jovie Ross.
My gaze falls on her again and I get an eye-full of her tight
rear as she bends over to adjust a row of dolls. Yeah, I know
Tucker slaps my shoulder. Dude
I glare at him again and he takes a step back. Its fine, Tuck.
I wont tell her you told me. Nausea wrecks my stomach. Not
sure I can even bring myself to talk to her at all, to be honest
Well, good. He nods. Its been like five years anyway. You
cant have much to say to her in the first place.
Four years, I correct him. Four years next month.
And there are a lot of things Id like to say to Jovie Ross if I
could, actually.
Tucker tugs at my arm. Come on. We should get back
to work.
I dig my heels in for another moment as Jovie wanders back
behind the counter. She smiles again at the woman with her son
and rings up a little toy dinosaur, her fingers soaring across the
register. Its almost like she never left at all but the black hole in
the pit of my stomach reminds me otherwise.
Shes been home four days and she didnt bother to even tell
me. She went out of her way to hide it, too.
Fine. Thats fine. If she doesnt want to explain herself to me,
then thats fine. I dont need to know why shes back or what
shes doing now or why she took off in the first place.
Nope. Dont need to know.
Im fine with it.
This is totally fine.

J osie?!
I close my eyes and exhale. Its Jovie.
The woman rushes over to the counter and screws up
her face. Are you sure?
I recognize her from high school but I honestly cant tell you
what her name is. Pretty sure.
I could have sworn your name was Josie
Nope. I point to my red name tag. Its Jovie.
She chews on the corner of her pink mouth. Huh
Its okay. I dont remember your name, either.
She throws her head back and laughs while her mane of wild,
blonde hair tumbles about her face. Its Natalie! Natalie Jones.
Well She flashes the ring on her finger. Thats Wright
nowadays. Dickie and I have been married five years, but you
know that, you were there.
I raise a brow. I was?
The ceremony was in the town square, silly! Everyone was
Oh, right. Of course, I say, still not remembering a damn
thing about this lady. It was a beautiful day.
I know, right? She stares at the giant rock on her finger and
sighs lovingly to herself. Anyway, so what are you up to?
I glance around the store. Pretty much this.
Are you married?
Any kids? I have two.
Nope. No kids.
Then Her brow furrows. What do you do?
I actually have some restocking to do, I say, tapping a stack
of figures beside me on the counter. Can I help you find
something or are you good?
Oh, Im good! She holds up a stack of fliers. I just came in
to see if it would be okay to hang one or two of these in your
window here?
What is it? I ask.
Natalie lays them down. The party planning committee is
looking for a little fresh blood just in time to start putting
together the Valentines Day dance next month. All the info is at
the bottom.
I nod on the outside but on the inside, Im screaming. Ill
have to check with Mr. Trin but it should be okay.
Perfect. She grins. Anyway, I think Ill browse a little
before heading to the next door down. You go do what you do,
Josvie. Jovie.
Bye, Natalie.
She walks off, taking her bright and happy aura with her.
Shes not the first person to wander into the toy store since I got
here and ask questions. She probably wont be the last, either. In
Clover, your business is everyones business. Always has been.
I glance at the fliers once before shoving them onto a pile
beneath the register.
I stick to the back shelves, taking my time getting the spacing
just right between the action figures. One doesnt merely toss
the toys onto the shelf. You must face everything the right way,
too. No wonder Mr. Tran hired me back so fast. Whoever the old
smock girl was, she did a horrible job.
I hear the entry bell toward the front and let out an
immediate Hello! like a Pavlovian dog. Two tiny feet patter
down the front aisles, bolting straight for the soldier toys and
fighter jet models. I cringe. I just straightened those
I stand up and turn around to head back to the counter but
nearly crash into someone as I round the corner.
Sorry! Excuse me
Careful, Jove.
I hop backward, feeling all the color drain from my face. My
eyes stay locked on the floor between us. Its impossible for that
voice to belong to anyone else but Im not sure if that makes me
more excited or terrified.
Ive imagined what this moment would be like so many times.
I knew that if I came home, itd happen eventually. Id be lying if
I said a part of me wasnt looking forward to it but I still wanted
to delay it for as long as possible. The news of my arrival would
get back to him sooner or later. This town isnt that big.
I finally look up as excitement wins out.
Will, I say.
He towers over me by over half a foot, just like he always did.
Will Myers. One look in his eyes knocks the wind out of me. So
much has changed but hes still the exact same. His jeans dont
have patches sewn into them. His brown hair isnt greased back
and overgrown. His shirt isnt telling me to go fuck myself.
My bad boy grew up.
But his smirk is still there.
Hi, Jovie, he says.
What, uh What are you doing here?
I was just about to ask you the exact same thing.
I chuckle at the floor. Yeah, I bet.
Stopped in to do a little shopping, actually, he says.
For who?
Will points over my shoulder and I turn around to see a little
boy playing with the toy soldiers in the far corner.
One look at him and my chest aches. I guess it doesnt get
more grown up than this
Wow, I say, turning back. Youve been awfully busy.
Hes not mine, he says. Hes my nephew.
Oh I look at the boy again and heave a secret sigh of
relief. Sarahad a kid?
She did, yeah.
Whats she up to now?
Shes in nursing school, he answers. Her schedule gets
pretty hectic on Wednesdays, so I take the kid.
I nod along with his voice. And today is Wednesday...
His dad, Charlie, isnt around much. I try to help her out
when I can.
I tilt my head in judgment. Deadbeat?
Army, he says. Hes deployed at the moment. Wont be
back until summer.
I pause. Well... now I feel like a jerk.
Dont. You have every right to assume. He chuckles as his
gaze deepens. So, youre back in Clover.
I take a step back. Im staying with my dad for a little while
until I figure some things out.
Yeah, I heard.
From who?
I scoff. Seriously?
Dont get mad, he says. I practically beat it out of him
when I saw your car at the shop. It wasnt his fault.
Ah, right. At the shop, I repeat, smiling. I heard you had
a job.
He nods. I have a job.
An actual, real job.
I went to school and got certified and everything.
I squint. Hmm...
Well I look him up and down. Youre wearing clean
clothing, youre trustworthy enough to be left alone with living
children, and youre stably employed.
He leans in an inch. I pay taxes, too.
Wow. I feign a gasp and he laughs. Youre like a genuine,
responsible adult now.
It certainly took some practice, he quips.
Is there anything about you that hasnt changed?
He lowers his voice to a whisper. I still have the Bolt.
My jaw drops. No way.
Yes way.
I loved the Bolt.
I know you did.
I take comfort in this knowledge.
I still have your helmet, too, he says. And I still know
where you live, so I can swing by the next time I take a midnight
ride, if you want.
My smile widens. Smooth.
Well, I think youll find a few other things about me that
havent changed.
Will and I should not be talking to each other this way. I take
a deep breath to try and cool my cheeks but it doesnt stop me
from talking.
Sure. I nod. If you find yourself riding through the old
neighborhood you can swing by. Id like that.
Good, he says, his eyes locked on mine.
Uncle Will.
We tear our gazes away and turn to the tiny boy standing
beside us, tugging lightly on Wills sleeve.
Hey, Andy. Will greets him and rubs a hand through his
shaggy, black hair. Whats up?
Can we get this one? he asks, holding up a play set larger
than his head.
No, buddy, Will tells him. If I buy you another one of these
this close to your birthday, your mom will kill me.
Please! He throws on a vicious pout; one so powerful it
even weakens my resolve.
Oh, come on, Uncle Will I tease him with a grin. Just
this once.
He glares playfully at me and sighs. Fine he takes the set
from Andy, but we have to keep it at my place, all right? Well
put it together next week.
Okay! Andy bounces with excitement and runs off toward
the toy soldiers again.
Will shifts the box beneath his arm. Thanks a lot.
I flick the plastic name tag on my smock. Just doing my
job, sir.
Well, we should get going, he says. The kid can get a little
moody if he doesnt eat on schedule.
He and I have that in common.
Will laughs again. You havent changed at all.
So, I hear I shrug and gesture toward the front. Ill ring
you guys up.
Dont trip on anything. Dont trip on anything. Dont
I swerve around a candy display just off the aisle, keeping my
head down low to try and breathe through the fire burning my
We reach the counter and Will passes the box over to me.
Every time I glance up, I catch him staring at my face instead of
my hands or chest or anything else.
Thirty twenty-five, I say, prompting him to pull out his
debit card.
It really is nice to see you again, Jove, he says, slowly
handing it to me.
I bite my lip as I swipe. You know, youre the first person to
say that to me I actually believe.
Wills smile lingers on his mouth for several seconds. He
barely blinks. He just stands there, slowly inhaling and exhaling,
as my hand hovers next to his with his card clenched between
my fingertips.
What are you doing tonight? he asks.
Im here until seven, I answer without thinking.
Sara usually picks him up around then. He pauses. Do you
want to grab a drink with me? Not a date, obviously, just to
catch up.
Uhh My thoughts turn to mush in my head, leaving me to
run on pure instinct alone. Yeah. Sure.
Ill pick you up at eight.
I nod, crushed beneath the weight on my shoulders.
Sounds good.
Uncle Will, come on.
He snaps out of it as Andy yanks on his arm. Right we
should get going.
I force my eyes downward as I hand over his card and his
thumb grazes mine. Would you like a bag? I force out.
No, thanks. We can carry it, I think. Will picks up the box
and Andy instantly holds out his little arms. Dont drop it, all
I wont!
You sure?
I watch them with a smile, feeling it burrow into my face
while something far deeper and colder takes hold of my gut.
Andy sprints off toward the doors but Will stays back for a
moment more with me.
Ill see you tonight, Jovie Ross.
A shiver tingles my spine. Yeah. Ill see you tonight.
The right edge of his mouth curls into that familiar smirk and
my knees jolt beneath the counter.
Will walks off to catch up with Andy as the kid bolts outside. I
wait until hes completely out of sight and the entry bell fades
off before deflating every molecule of air from my lungs.
Holy shit
I collapse forward to rest my head on my arms and take a few
rough breaths.
That went better than I expected.
Way better.
Worst case scenario I imagined something being thrown at
someones head. Some shouting or cursing. I cant say I expected
a kind and gentle interaction, complete with an adorable child
and Will practically undressing me with his eyes.
Oh, crap. Did I say he could pick me up on his motorcycle for a
midnight ride? I definitely said that part, right?
I raise my head, feeling that smile return to my lips.
Will Myers.
At least hes not mad at me.

J ovie Ross.
At least shes not still mad at me.
I think.
Its been four years. Surely, if she was still harboring some
major hostility, it would have shown through at some point
during our conversation. Jovie was pleasant the entire time. It
was light and fluffy Jovie with her little, curling smile and her
adorable laugh and that new long, wavy hair. Sure, I may have
caught her off-guard, and yeah, she was working so she probably
had her customer service switch flicked on, but I know Jovie
better than I know myself.
Or knew, I suppose
A knock strikes my front door, bringing me out of my trance.
Andy hops up off the floor, casually kicking over his toy trucks
on the way to answer it.
Careful, buddy, I say, leaning down to pick them up.
Andy stands on his tippy-toes, trying to reach the door lock
but his finger barely swipes it.
Hang on I laugh.
Its Mom!
I know its your mom.
I twist the lock and open the door on Saras smiling face.
Andy rushes at her and she bends over to wrap her arms
around him.
Hey, sweetie! she greets him, squeezing tight. Did you and
Uncle Will have fun today?
Yeah! He let me watch shark attack videos!
Sara gawks at my wincing face. He did, did he?
I force a chuckle. I also taught him the value of secrets and
loyalty amongst friends but I guess that lesson is a two-parter.
Andy hops on the balls of his feet. And we got burgers and
ice cream and he took me to the toy store!
Her cheeks fade into a dark pink to match her scrubs. Hey,
Andy, why dont you pack up your stuff while I talk to my brother
for a second, okay?
Okay, Mommy.
She nudges him and he takes off to grab his backpack.
Kitchen, she whispers at me. Now.
I groan as she stomps through my living room and down
the hall.
You know, I say, entering the kitchen behind her, you
morph a little bit more into Mom every single time you do that.
Oh, shut up, she says, shaking it off. Why did you go to
the toy store?
Calm down. I didnt get him anything. We were just
I dont care about that. Why did you go into the toy store?
I raise a confused brow. Because I had to entertain your kid
for an afternoon.
Her eyes narrow. And?
And hes too young for a strip club.
Sara crosses her arms, standing a little taller every second
until I finally cave.
Jovie was there, I say.
She exhales. Dammit.
Sara, its fine.
No, its not fine, Will. This isnt fine. Who told you she
was back?
I pause. Did you know she was back?
Wha I throw up my hands. Why was I the last to
know this?
Because Jovie destroyed your life and no one in this town
wants to see that happen again. Thats why.
She did not, I chuckle. Dont be so dramatic. Wait a
second I furrow my brow. Is this why you tried to set me up
with your friend? And why women have been coming into the
shop all week throwing themselves at me? Because you all
wanted to distract me from Jovie?
She hesitates. Well
My mouth sags. So, thats one mystery solved.
Will, we watched you pick up the pieces of your shattered
heart for months after Jovie took off
I guess you didnt hear the part about not being dramatic, I
Im serious. We just want you to be happy.
Im not happy? Who says Im not happy?
You live here alone in a house meant for a family, she says,
gesturing around my kitchen. Youve barely gone out on a date
in years.
Thats not true. I date all the time.
Name the last time you went on a second date, she
I think quickly but I cant come up with a single name.
So, what? I ask. I worked hard and paid for this house
because I liked it. Whats wrong with that? And what business is
it of yours who or when I date?
Sara presses her lips together. Okay, Will I want you to be
honest with me. As your sister and your friend, just answer this
I sigh. What?
Have you spent the last four years waiting for Jovie to
come back?
No, I havent, I answer, shaking my head at the floor.
She takes a step closer. You didnt ask her out, did you?
I hesitate. Well
Ugh Her face screws up in disgust. God, Will...
Were just meeting up for drinks. As friends. Thats all, I
say. Its not a date. And hell, arent you the least bit curious
why she came back?
No, Im not. And you shouldnt be either.
Well, I am.
She blinks her wide, begging eyes. Will, please, do not go out
with her.
Were just catching up, Sara. No ones exchanging vows.
Exactly. Youre not and you never will.
I flex my jaw. Im sorry. Was that an order?
Its a fact. She shakes her head. Jovie Ross is going to
string you along just like last time. And then, just like last time,
youre going to get too attached to her and then shes
I laugh over her. What the hell are you talking about? I
dumped her, remember?
And while she rode off into the sunset, you lived here like a
damn shut-in. You didnt get out of bed for weeks after she ran
off because she never called your bluff.
A pang grips my chest but I power through it. Well, shes
back now, I say. If you ride into the sunset long enough, you
end up right back where you started, right?
She breathes a sad sigh. Thats not how that works, Will. She
doesnt belong here. Sooner or later, Jovies going to pack up and
leave again and when she does
Sara, stop. I hold up a hand. Like I said, were just
catching up. I know you always hated her but its been four
years. Cut her some slack.
Andy walks in with his backpack and hugs Saras knees,
forcing the two of us to lower our voices.
Well she combs her fingers through his hair, I hope
youre right. But I wont be the least bit surprised to have to say I
told you so again. She pokes Andys chin. Honey, come on. Say
goodbye to Uncle Will.
Andy smiles at me. Bye, Uncle Will.
See you later, buddy, I say, messing up his hair.
Sara guides him through the house to the front door, all the
while fixing his shaggy mane back down where it belongs as they
step outside.
I linger in the doorway and wave at Andy as he twists around
to give me another floppy goodbye in return. Sara gets him into
his seat and glances over her shoulder at me, flashing a hard,
disappointing stare in my direction.
I guess I cant really blame her. I can deny it all I want to her
face but Saras right when she says I was pretty fucked up for a
few months after Jovie left.
But shes back now.
I close the door and eye the coat closet in the corner beside
me, feeling a sudden rush of excitement spike in my blood.
My lips curl to one side. I open the closet and reach up onto
the top shelf until I touch something smooth and round.
The helmet carries a thin layer of dust, distorting the
lightning blue color, but its nothing a quick wipe down with a
cloth wont fix.
I turn it over in my hands, admiring its weight as memories of
Jovie riding shotgun come rushing back to me.
All those late-night rides through the town square, revving
the Bolt as loudly as possible to try and piss off anyone we could.
And especially the quiet nights together when wed pull
off the highway and fool around until some state trooper rode in
and told us crazy kids to go home.
And even better the nights when the trooper never
showed up at all and Jovie made a man out of me.
Christ, Jove.
Where the hell have you been?
I set the helmet down and grab my leather jacket off the back
of the door.

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Tabatha Kiss lives in Chicago, Illinois. You can probably catch her huddled up in a
hoodie, reading a good romance beneath a tree in Jackson Park with her trusty husky
by her side. She enjoys roller derby, sushi, and is always searching for her forever
bad boy.

In the meantime, she writes.

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