I thought I’d never get back to sleep on that uncomfortable floor, especially after my humiliating failed attempt to borrow Jake’s truck, but I guess I was more tired than I thought—almost dying in a blizzard takes a lot out of you. I sit up cross-legged on the floor, my neck creaking loudly as I turn it from side to side.
Chase is still passed out on the couch. Maybe I’m imagining it, but he looks like he has a little more color in his cheeks, and his breaths aren’t as ragged. He looks more like he’s sleeping than hanging onto life by a thread. Maybe he really is going to be okay. Maybe Jake knew what he was talking about.
As I struggle to my feet, I hear the hinges of a door creaking open. I lift my eyes and see a large, unfamiliar man with short dark hair and several days’ growth of a beard pad into the room in slippers, blue jeans, and a white undershirt. He drops down into a rickety wooden chair at the small table in the kitchen and rubs his face with the balls of his hands. Just as I’m about to ask this stranger who he is and what he’s doing here, I see the eyepatch.
Oh my God, he cut off his hair!
That unkempt mane from last night is gone. So is most of the beard, but not entirely—he left enough that nobody would call him clean-shaven. I wonder if he even owns a razor—I bet he did the whole thing with scissors. Except why? Why would he do that?
“You cut your hair,” I say numbly.
“Good morning to you too.” Jake lifts his left eye. Now that all the hair is gone and I can actually see his face, I realize with a jolt that he’s rather handsome. At least, in a rugged sort of way that contrasts sharply with Chase’s classically handsome features. Especially with the eyepatch. “I got sick of the two of you looking at me like I was about to murder you and toss you into a wood chipper. I didn’t realize how much I’d let things go till I saw the look on your face.”
It’s true—he’s far less frightening with all the hair gone. Also, now that I can see his bare arms and the outline of his chest in that undershirt, I’m incredibly impressed. I assumed he had good muscles based on how easily he lifted Chase, but wow. I mean, wow.
Stop staring, Natalie. It’s rude. Also, your boyfriend is ten feet away.
Well, ex-boyfriend. But still.
“Well, you didn’t have to do it on my account,” I say, trying to avert my eyes from those distractingly large muscles.
He shrugs. “I was tired of the Grizzly Adams look.”
“You mean Chewbacca.”
He laughs thinly. “Yeah, that too.” He glances over at Chase, sleeping on the couch. “So Abercrombie and Fitch over there is looking better.”
I hesitantly approach the table to join him. Up close, I can see that his haircut was a bit of a hack job. He did better than I might have on my own scalp with a pair of scissors, but he definitely doesn’t look like he’s fresh out of Rolando’s (Chase’s favorite salon).
“Maybe we could go to the hospital after breakfast,” I say.
Jake squints out the window. “It’s still snowing. We’ll see how bad it is. Maybe later today.”
He’s right—there’s still a fair amount of snow coming down. Will it ever stop? My stomach sinks at the thought of it, but I push my fears away. At least we’ve got plenty of food here, a fireplace, and (thank God) a working toilet.
“Or else I could get you to your destination,” he says. “Where were you going last night anyway?”
“We were going to a cabin that belongs to a friend of Chase,” I say. “A… you know, a nice cabin.”
His good eye bores into me. “You mean, unlike this one?”
“Um. I didn’t mean that…”
He shrugs. “So where is this ‘nice’ cabin?”
I recite the address of the cabin. His blue eye widens at my words.
“What?” I say. “Do you know it?”
“No,” he says.
“Then how come you looked at me that way?”
“I didn’t look at you any particular way.”
I don’t know what this guy isn’t telling me, and I’m not sure how to get it out of him. He’s not very talkative, to say the least. If he were anyone else—especially a woman—we would have probably exchanged life stories by now. We’ve certainly been through enough in the last twelve hours.
“Let me make some breakfast,” he grunts.
“Okay,” I say hesitantly. “What are you making?”
“I was thinking roasted squirrel,” he says. “Unless you’d like porcupine. Porcupine’s good, as long as you get all the quills out.”
This time I see the smile playing on his lips—I know his game now. “You’re joking,” I say.
“I’m going to make sausage and eggs,” he says. “Although for the record, squirrel isn’t bad.”
To be honest, I’m a little curious to try squirrel—if he had it, I’d eat it. As a chef, trying new foods is one of the things I’m not scared to do. You couldn’t get Chase to eat squirrel if you put a gun to his head, but I’d definitely sample it. Anything except for durian fruit, of course. There’s just something distasteful about putting something that smells like sewage in your mouth.
In spite of not having electricity, Jake seems to have a working refrigerator. I have no clue how it operates—I assume he powers it using gas. It’s dark inside the fridge, but it appears to be cold. The no phone and no electricity thing really shook me, but I guess he’s got the most important stuff. He even had a shower in his bathroom, although considering there’s no hot water, I wasn’t about to try it out. Jake’s hair is damp though, which makes me think that shower gets some use.
“Did you shower this morning?” I ask him as he ignites the stove.
“But there’s no hot water.”
“There sure isn’t.”
Fine. He takes cold showers. Considering there are no women within at least ten miles of here besides me, that might come in handy for him.
After a few minutes of cooking, Jake slides a plate of sausage and scrambled eggs across the table toward me, along with a glass of water. Many chefs say cooking eggs is how they test a potential hire in a restaurant. Eggs may seem simple to cook, but they’re not. The trick to cooking perfect scrambled eggs is to go “low and slow.” There’s no better way to ruin eggs than to turn the heat up high like Jake did. The eggs on my plate are about fifty percent brown, which is not what you want to see in your scrambled eggs.
Also, I noticed he dumped on the salt after they finished cooking—another no-no. When eggs cook and coagulate, the proteins in the yolks pull tighter and tighter together as they get hotter. When they get too tight, they begin to squeeze liquid out from the curds, resulting in weepy eggs. If you add salt first, it keeps the proteins from bonding too tightly, which gives you more tender eggs and less weeping.
Also, he added way too much salt. But that’s not specific to egg cooking. If we’re still stuck here by lunchtime, I’m definitely commandeering the kitchen. But I don’t expect we will be.
I put a bite of egg in my mouth, nearly choking on the abundance of salt. I feel like I swallowed a mouthful of the ocean. Except for the fact that the eggs are also really, really dry. I gulp down some water, then contemplate the scorched sausages. As someone who loves and appreciates food with every fiber of my being, this plate is offensive to me. But I can’t say that to a man who opened up his home and refrigerator to me.
Jake raises the eyebrow of his good eye at me. “What’s wrong, Princess?”
I grit my teeth. “My name is Natalie, you know.”
I put down my fork and glare at him. “So how come you keep calling me ‘Princess’?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. It feels right.” He grins at me. “Also, it bugs you.”
“Nice. Real nice.”
“I never said I was nice.” He digs into his own eggs with gusto. He must have taste buds of steel. “Why do you think I live out here in the middle of nowhere, isolated from all other human life?”
Jake’s left hand rests on the table as he eats. My eyes are drawn to it, studying the abbreviated digits—all but the thumb has pieces missing. There are scars at the tips of each finger, so light that I can barely make them out. Whatever happened to him happened a long time ago.
He notices me staring at his hand and yanks it off the table. He gives me a look that makes my cheeks burn, and I make myself busy trying to force down the salty eggs and burned sausages.
I manage to ingest about half the plate of food before I give up. Jake cleans his own plate, then takes my dish and his to the sink. He turns on the cold water, and even though I can’t feel it, I wince.
“I could wash the dishes, you know,” I say.
He just shrugs.
I know what he must think of me after going through my bags, and I’m determined to prove him wrong. This isn’t like the sleeping bag—I’ve washed my fair share of dishes in the course of my life. I mean, I’m a cook. I’m not excited about washing dishes in ice-cold water, but I’ll do it.
“I really don’t mind,” I add.
“It’s already done,” he says as he pulls the plates out of the stream of water and drops them in the drying rack. “But your offer to help has been noted.”
Well, gee, thanks.
While he’s drying off his hands, I walk over to the window and peer outside. I want to check out the damage.
My God, there’s a lot of snow.
The landscape is like a white blanket, stretching as far as I can see in every direction. I know there are trees but I can barely see them. And the worst part is that it’s still snowing. How could it still be snowing? How could there be any snow left in the sky?
“I’m going to go look out the door,” I say to him. “I want to see how bad it is.”
Jake doesn’t say anything, but after a pause, he follows me to the front door. I pull it open and…
I’ve never seen so much snow in my entire life. It’s overwhelming. Even though I was able to get into Jake’s truck last night, it’s now got a huge snowdrift behind it and it’s half-buried, although part of me wonders if it had looked like that last night and I hadn’t noticed because it was so dark and I was so tired. In any case, I don’t see how we’re getting out of here before lunchtime. I don’t see how we’re getting out of here before spring.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I whip my head around to stare at Jake. He isn’t being sarcasatic. He’s got his arms folded across his chest, and he’s staring at the landscape before us. But unlike me, he doesn’t look frustrated or angry (or cold—even though he’s wearing a freaking undershirt). He’s got a far-off look in his blue left eye and a small smile playing on his lips.
“There’s so much snow,” I say.
“But…” There’s a growing sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “When it gets like this, what do you do? How do you get out?”
He shrugs. “I stock up on everything I need if the radio says a blizzard is coming. I’m good for at least a month. Everything should be melted by then. And if not, I can wait it out.
I grit my teeth. How could he be so calm about being snowed in miles away from any sort of civilization? He almost looks happy about it!
“But what if you need something?” I sputter.
“That’s why I stock up.”
“But…” My hands squeeze into fists. “What if I need something?”
The smile on his lips widens. “Then grab a shovel, Princess.”
I’m starting to hate this guy.
He goes back into the cabin and I follow at his heels. I don’t understand how he could possibly not care about being completely snowed in. I mean, at least he should want to get the two of us out of his hair. It can’t be fun to have two strangers invading his Fortress of Solitude.
Unless he has other plans for us.
But no. I don’t think so. Jake seems like a decent human being. I’d like to think I’m a good judge of character, and even though his appearance initially frightened me, now that I’ve spent more time in his company, I don’t believe he’d do us any harm. He might be a jerk, but I don’t think he’s dangerous.
But really, it’s hard to know for sure. After all, this is a man who might not have had sex in years. But after seeing those muscles in his chest, it’s clear to me that if he’s celibate, it’s entirely by choice. If he wanted a woman, he’d have no problem getting one.
“Listen,” I say to him. “Isn’t there anyone else nearby who might be able to help us? Someone who has a phone?”
“There must be though!”
God, he’s maddening. I fold my hands across my chest. “Well, maybe you could take us to the cabin we were trying to get to in the first place? Isn’t it nearby?”
He hesitates. I know the cabin must be near here, because we were almost there, according to the map. And he was close enough to the Ferrari that he heard me honking for help. So I bet we’re really close. It might even be walkable—at least for somebody with decent boots.
“I don’t think the truck can make it there,” he finally says.
I let out an exasperated breath. “What if I dig out the truck and clear a path? How about then?”
He throws back his head and laughs. Loudly. “You are going to dig out my truck?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“You ever shovel snow before, Princess?”
A muscle twitches in my jaw. “No…”
“So you know how snowflakes are all light and fluffy when they fall on your pretty blond hair?” He grins at me. “Well, when you put all those snowflakes together, they’re really damn heavy.”
“I can do it.”
“Says the girl who didn’t even bring a pair of gloves.”
Well, he’s got me there. But I’ve never been afraid of a little hard work. I built my catering company with my own bare hands. I could have taken a loan from my parents, but I refused their money. I borrowed from the bank and solicited investments until I had enough to get us off the ground. I started small, fueled by my love of food, but as it turned out I inherited not just the Rochester Chin, but also the Rochester business acumen and drive to succeed. I built an incredibly successful catering company from scratch, and you don’t do that by sitting in front of the television, eating bonbons.
“Anyway,” he says before I can protest further, “I’m not even entirely sure where it is. I’m not going to risk it.”
Except I saw the look on his face when I told him the address of the cabin. He’s lying through his teeth. I don’t know why he’s reluctant to take us to that cabin. There’s clearly something he’s not telling me.
But before I can probe further, Chase starts groaning on the sofa. He’s waking up, although he still looks really out of it. But he’s alive.
“If you want to heat up some soup for him,” Jake says, “there are cans in the closet next to the sink. He probably should eat something.” He jerks his head at the door of the room where he slept last night. “I’ll be in the other room.”
While Chase is stirring on the couch, I go over to the pantry closet to check out the soups. When I throw it open, I’m impressed by how well-stocked he is. There are three walls lined with dry cereals and snacks, jars of sauces, peanut butter, canned meats—cans upon cans upon cans. Despite the fact that I only work with fresh ingredients, something about this closet stirs up my creativity. If you can make food taste good that came out of a can, you are truly a skilled chef.
I select a can of chicken noodle soup and go over to the stove to heat it up to lukewarm. The kitchen is small and well-organized, so I’m able to find the spoons and bowl without much effort. I carry it over to the sofa, where Chase is trying to sit up.
“Hey,” I say.
He rubs his eyes, which are bloodshot. His usually perfect hair is disheveled in a way I’ve never seen, even when he’s rolling out of bed in the morning. And even though he’s not as white as he was last night, his complexion is decidedly waxy. “Hey,” he mumbles.
I sit down next to him. The sofa is lumpy and nearly as uncomfortable as the floor. “How are you feeling?”
“Like shit.” Chase’s voice sounds like sandpaper. “What happened?”
“You had hypothermia.” I put my hand on his knee. “You almost died. This guy… he lives here and… he saved us. Both of us.”
As I say the words, the enormity of what Jake did for us hits me. He saved us. I would probably have frozen to death by now if he hadn’t come along. He risked his own life, driving around in a blizzard, to find the two of us and bring us to safety. No matter how much of a jerk he is to me, I can’t ever forget that. He saved my life. I am only sitting here right now, breathing air, because he rescued me.
“Christ…” Chase rubs his eyes again. There are dark purple circles under his eyes. “I feel like a truck hit me. Like I can barely move.”
“Try to drink some soup.”
I hold the bowl for him and he manages to take about ten spoonfuls with a shaky hand until the effort wears him out. I leave the soup on the coffee table for him and let him lie down again. He must really be worn out, because he falls asleep on that lumpy couch in one minute flat.
While Chase sleeps and Jake is in the other room doing God knows what, I read one of my paperbacks, taking advantage of the natural light from the windows. It’s a serial killer thriller that was a big bestseller, and Drew lent it to me, saying it was his favorite book of the year. My brother and I have similar taste in books, so if he likes something, I’ll usually like it too. I hope it holds true for this book, because I need something to take my mind off my situation here.
I have my Kindle as well, but I’m only going to use that when the sun is down, since I want to conserve the battery. I’m worried if we’re here several days with no internet and no television (although possibly a radio somewhere) that I’ll quickly have nothing to do.
I notice a bookcase in the corner of the room, stuffed with hardcover and paperback books. Jake never struck me as the type to sit down with a book—when I first laid eyes on him, I would have believed it if someone told me he was illiterate. But admittedly, I could have been judging him unfairly. When you’re all alone in a cabin in the woods, a solitary activity like reading would be advantageous.
I put down my own paperback and wander over to the bookcase. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to see there. Maybe some Tom Clancy thrillers or books about fishing or hunting. What surprises me is that there are two full shelves stuffed with textbooks about criminology and criminal justice. And these are clearly books that have been read many times—I pick one off the shelf and find the pages worn and dog-eared.
“You ready for some lunch?”
I nearly jump out of my skin at the sound of Jake’s voice. He’s standing behind me, dressed in his blue jeans and a sweatshirt rolled up at the sleeves to reveal his well-muscled forearms. The text in my hand falls to the floor, and I rush to pick it up. Jake makes no comment on the fact that I was browsing his bookshelf.
“Interested in criminal law, are you?” I say brightly.
He shrugs. “I guess so.”
I raise an eyebrow. “You’ve got a lot of books about it.”
“And you’ve… read them all. Right?”
He shrugs again. “Lots of time to read out here.”
“Do you have a favorite? Like, anything you recommend?”
God, he is so frustrating! Chase can’t shut up when someone asks him about playing golf or that new nightclub on the North End or any of his interests—he loves the sound of his own voice and it’s often difficult to get a word in edgewise. I always found it exhausting, but it turns out the opposite isn’t so great either. Getting any information whatsoever out of this guy is impossible.
“So what do you want for lunch?” Jake asks me.
I shudder, thinking of that awful breakfast he cooked us. “Actually,” I say, “I was thinking maybe I could make you some lunch. Pay you back for saving our lives and all.”
“Good to know your life is worth one meal.” But Jake is smiling. “All right then, Princess. You want to make lunch, knock yourself out.”
I head back to the pantry closet, and spend a good ten minutes sifting through the contents. Even though these are all second-rate ingredients, the sheer abundance of it is inspiring to me. I finally retrieve a box of dry spaghetti, a can of tomatoes, olive oil, and a jar of olives. I miraculously discover a cupboard that contains some spices, including garlic powder, oregano, and red pepper flakes. I haven’t used garlic powder in ages because it doesn’t compare to the real thing. I’d even take a jar of diced garlic over that stuff, but I don’t have much of a choice. And of course, there’s the salt and pepper on the counter.
Jake watches me silently as I put the water up to boil while throwing the contents of the tomato jar into a pan. I season it liberally, since it’s clear he likes salty food, and then start it simmering.
Twenty minutes later, I’m serving up two steaming plates of pasta with tomato sauce. Jake sits down across from me, regarding the food warily, but then he twirls some spaghetti around his fork and stuffs it in his mouth. I haven’t taken a bite of mine yet, but I’ve been tasting the whole time, and I think it’s pretty damn good for a meal made out of a box and cans, if I do say so myself. But who knows what Jake will think. He’ll probably say it needs more salt and has to be more burned.
But then his face lights up, which instantly transforms him from surly woodsman to… well, let’s just say he’s not at all unattractive and he’s got a great smile and my boyfriend is ten feet away, albeit semi-conscious.
“Jesus,” he says. “This is really damn good.”
I smile. “Thank you.”
“No, I mean, really good.”
“Glad you like it.”
He takes another bite, more eagerly this time. I wonder when the last time he’s had a decent meal was. Jake isn’t exactly a guy who won’t eat at a restaurant that doesn’t have at least one Michelin star. (Not naming names, but Chase, I’m looking at you.)
“When is the last time you ate something you didn’t make yourself?” I ask.
He grins crookedly. “It’s been… a while. Years since I’ve been to a restaurant. And it wasn’t as good as this.”
“Are you some kind of cook or something?”
I laugh. “I am some kind of cook, yes.”
“At a restaurant?”
I shake my head. “I own my own catering company.”
“Huh.” He starts to wipe tomato sauce from his mouth with the back of his hand, but then gets up to grab a paper towel from the counter. It’s sweet that he’s trying to have manners on my account. “I wouldn’t have thought that.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I don’t know.”
He’s looking at me out of his good eye, an unfamiliar expression on his face. If I didn’t know better, I’d have called it respect.
“And how about Abercrombie over there?” Jake jerks his head at Chase, still sound asleep on the sofa. “What does he do? He a cook too?”
“No.” I laugh again. “Chase… um, he sort of works for his father’s company.”
I twirl some pasta around my own fork. “He works there, but it’s not clear he actually does anything.”
God, I hope Chase is asleep and not hearing this conversation.
“What company is that?” he asks.
“Hollister and Co.,” I say. “They’re kind of a big deal in Boston.”
“I’ve heard of them.” He leans back in his seat for a moment, his fingers playing with the handle of his fork. “His father owns the company then?”
He nods. “And how long have you two been dating?”
I never got around to telling him Chase and I broke up just before he got lost in the snow. For some reason, I decide not to share that information now. “About a year.”
His eye drops to my left hand. “You’re not engaged though?”
I don’t know why he’s asking all these questions, especially since he won’t answer a damn thing I ask him about himself. Why does he care how long Chase and I are dating or who Chase’s father is. Unless…
Well, unless he thinks he could get some money off of us. That’s possible. I mean, he rescued me out of a brand new red Ferrari. He has to realize we’re both pretty loaded.
When I look around this place, it doesn’t seem like Jake is someone who’s very hung up on money. At all. Then again, I don’t know his personal issues. Maybe he’s in debt. Maybe he owes money to the mob. Who knows?
Jake seems to notice the questions are bothering me, so he quiets down. It’s also a necessity with the way he’s shoveling spaghetti into his mouth. When he finishes everything on his plate, he looks at me expectantly. “There isn’t any more, is there?”
“That’s the highest compliment to the chef.” I get up from my seat to grab what’s left in the frying pan. “Asking for seconds.”
“I just don’t get to eat like this too often.” His ears turn slightly pink, which is oddly endearing. “You’re a really good cook. And I’m… not.”
“Well, I could give you a few pointers before we go.”
“Really?” His face lights up for a moment, then he clears his throat and looks away. “Uh, yeah, that would be good.” He hesitates. “Thanks, Natalie.”
He called me Natalie instead of Princess. I’m embarrassed to admit how happy that makes me.
As I watch him finish the remainder of the pasta, I decide there’s no way he’s trying to extort money from me and Chase. Not a chance. This is a guy who’s happy having nothing. At best, maybe he’s hoping for a reward so he can buy himself a brand new hoe or a few more cans for his pantry.
He runs a hand absently through his newly shorn hair. It looked okay when I first saw it, but now I can tell how bad a hack job it was. Granted, nobody else is going to see him but me, but I still feel like he deserves a better haircut than that. And it’s not like there’s a local Supercuts he can pop over to.
“I have a question for you,” I say. “Don’t be offended.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Okay…”
“Have you ever cut hair before?”
He blinks a few times, then bursts out laughing. He rubs at his scalp. “I butchered it, didn’t I?”
“Well,” I say thoughtfully, “you did a good job with your beard, for the most part. But yes, you butchered the top of your head.”
“I figured being a guy with a bad haircut is better than being a scary forest monster.”
“Only slightly.” I cock my head to the side. “I could fix it for you. If you’d like.”
“Oh yeah? You also got a haircutting business?”
“No. But I’m pretty sure I could do better than that.”
A smile twitches at his lips. “Okay, sure. Why not?”
To be continued...