After a good half hour of this, my nose and fingers feel frozen, my socks are drenched, and my hat fell off and is lying somewhere in the snow. I form one last ball, which I hurl at Jake with all my might. It hits him square in the face. Naturally, I was aiming for his shoulder.
“Jesus, you’re out for blood.” He wipes snow off his cheekbones. His eyepatch goes slightly off-center for a moment, but he quickly fixes it.
“You’re soaked, you know,” I say. “And you’ve got snow all over your coat.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.” I step toward him, even though I risk getting hit with another snowball at close range. I brush some snow off his coat. “What do you call this?”
I laugh and shake my head. “You know what? This was really fun.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, blinking as if surprised. “It actually was.”
I’m close enough that I have to look up to see his face now. He looks down at me, blinking ice crystals from the eyelashes of his good eye. His beard casts a shadow over the lower half of his face.
God, why does he have to be so freaking sexy?
“We should probably go back inside,” he says, breaking the spell. “It’s starting to get dark. And you’re soaked.”
He’s right. My hair is dripping ice water. I follow him back into the cabin, and I’m starting to shiver. I would give anything for a hot shower. I don’t know how he does it out here. I think the lack of hot water is worse than the lack of electricity.
Jake rifles through the linen closet and pulls out a towel for me. It occurs to me he must do his own wash without the benefit of a washing machine or even hot water. That must be quite a task. I’ll bet he doesn’t get bored out here.
I wrap the towel around my hair and my shoulders, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. “How about soup for dinner?”
He nods. His hair is damp from the snow, and again, the effect is really sexy. I need to stop thinking this way. I’ve got a boyfriend, and even if I didn’t, Jake is a random guy in a cabin who I’m never going to see again. I’m not a one-night stand kind of girl. “Yeah, I got plenty of soup.”
I check out the pantry and he’s right—he’s stocked with two shelves packed to the brim with soup. Chicken noodle, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie, beef and vegetables, tomato, onion… he must have soup at least once a day. I can’t even imagine having canned soup as one-third of my meals. The salt content alone would probably give me a stroke.
“You know,” I say, “we could make it a little tastier with a few tweaks…”
His face lights up. I’ve been cooking a long time for a lot of different people, and I have to say, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone so excited by my cooking. I guess I shouldn’t be too flattered, considering he’s been eating food from cans for the past few years. Still, it’s nice to be appreciated. Chase would rather have takeout than my cooking.
I grab a bunch of cans from the pantry, including stewed tomatoes, green beans, beef stock, and refried beans. Jake watches me carefully, as if memorizing every step for later.
“Can I help?” he asks. “I can do anything that doesn’t involve too much… um, dexterity.”
I look down at his fingers when he says that. He ducks his head down as he stretches out what remains of the fingers of his left hand.
“You seem to be able to manage okay with most things,” I comment.
He nods. “I’ve taught myself to compensate. But it definitely makes things harder. And I realize it’s not… you know, nice to look at.”
“I don’t mind,” I murmur. “It’s just a few fingers, right?”
I want to ask him what happened to him. How did a guy so comfortable with the outdoors end up with a case of frostbite? And what about his noticeable limp? Also, you don’t lose an eye to frostbite. Something really bad happened to him, but I have a feeling it would be easier to get him to cook a gourmet meal than to get the story out of him.
“So the trick to making perfect soup is you have to be patient,” I tell him. “You want to simmer it a long time and keep tasting. And make sure you season properly.”
“Right.” Jake grabs the salt shaker and I flinch. I yank it out of his hands. “What? You said to season it!”
“Stuff that comes out of a can is really salty already,” I say. “You are not allowed to use this without my permission. Got it?”
“All right, all right!” He grins at me. “Are you always this bossy when you’re cooking?”
“Yes.” I may as well be honest—I take great pride in my food, so I want to make sure everything comes out perfect. “But it’ll be worth it. I promise.”
I give Jake the task of stirring the soup intermittently, while I chop up some bacon I find in the fridge. I love food, but if I absolutely had to pick a favorite food, it would be bacon. I subscribe to the theory that everything is better with bacon. If I wrote a cookbook, that would be the title: Better With Bacon.
“Doesn’t it smell insanely good?” I say as I lean over the pot of soup, allowing the aroma to waft into my nostrils. Jake gives me a funny look, and my cheeks grow warm. “Sorry. I just love food. Probably too much.”
“No, that’s…” Jake gives me a crooked grin. “I respect that. I really do.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet…”
“No, I really mean it. My mom… she loves to cook too.” Jake gives the pot a stir, a distant look in his eyes. “Bake, actually. She has this chocolate cupcake recipe that’s better than anything you could get in a bakery. I told her she should go into business for herself, but… well, she’s not like you.”
I look up from the bacon pieces in front of me. “What does that mean?”
“I mean, she didn’t want to take a risk on something she loved.” He dips a spoon into the simmering broth and blows on it. “She spent her life as a receptionist, and… well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t her passion. I always thought she should have gone for it with the baking. I mean, her table always sold out first at the school bake sales.”
I smile to myself, thinking of a school-aged Jake at a bake sale, touting his mom’s cupcakes. “Are you an only child?”
“Yeah.” He takes a sip from the spoon. “They wanted more kids, but they couldn’t have any. So it was just me.”
“They must miss you a lot then.”
His dark eyebrows bunch together. “Yeah, but—”
“I mean, you said you don’t talk to anyone in the outside world. You don’t even have a phone, right?”
He places the soup spoon down on the counter and the clang it makes reverberates throughout the room. “So? What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” I say quickly. I don’t want to get him riled up, and maybe this is all none of my business. Okay, it’s definitely none of my business. “I was just making conversation.”
Jake glares at me for a good thirty seconds before he goes back to tending the soup. The soup probably doesn’t need quite this much attention, but I like having him next to me. And it’s warm by the stove—he’s just as wet and cold as I am.
We do our tasks in silence for the next fifteen minutes or so. I get the bacon in a frying pan, and Jake steps aside to let me work. He watches the bacon sizzle in the pan.
“I miss my parents a lot,” he says out of nowhere.
I look up at him. There’s a sad look on his face. “Do you ever see them?”
He closes his good eye. “It’s complicated, Natalie. But… they know I love them. They understand. So…”
He reaches out with his good hand to stir the soup. I wish I knew what brought him out here. I’d give anything to know. Why would a person leave their family and friends and live out in the wilderness?
The only thing I can think of is that he’s running from something. And there’s no chance he’d tell me what it is.
“By the way.” He glances up at me. “You can have my bedroom if you want tonight. Like you saw, it’s just a twin mattress on the floor—not particularly comfortable—but you can have it. I’ll take the sleeping bag.”
I’m oddly touched. I don’t want to take his bedroom, but at the same time, I’m still achy from sleeping on the floor last night.
“Okay,” I say. “I appreciate that.”
“No problem,” he says, and he goes back to stirring the soup.
After dinner, the hours stretch in front of me. I can’t believe Jake lives here all on his own with no company, no electricity, and no television, for God’s sake! I’ve been reading my book with my itty bitty booklight, but I’m aching to do something else. Anything else. I know going out to a bar is off the table, but there must be something to do around here.
I’ve got games on my phone, but I don’t want to play them because they’ll drain the battery, and there’s no way to recharge. If I ever get reception again, I don’t want my phone to be dead.
I lay down my book on the kitchen table and wander through the living room, which is now lit only by the embers of the fireplace. I stand over Chase, who woke up briefly after dinner to have more soup, then went right back to sleep. He’s waking up intermittently, so I guess he must be okay. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to die, but I’m still worried he might need hospital attention. What if he needs… fluids? Or antibiotics. Or… insulin?
I don’t know. But I’m not a doctor and neither is Jake.
I stride across the living room to Jake’s room. The door is ajar this time, which I take as a more welcoming sign than earlier today. I peer into the room, where he’s lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. There’s an unreadable expression on his face, and for a moment, I feel like I shouldn’t have interrupted him. But then he rolls his head in my direction. “What’s up?”
I push the door the rest of the way open and stand awkwardly in the doorway. “I’m just… I’m worried about Chase.”
He looks unimpressed. “He’s waking up. What’s the problem?”
“He’s not himself.”
“Yeah? Seems like that might be an improvement.”
I roll my eyes, even though… well, he’s sort of right.
“Look,” Jake says as he sits up in bed, “if he’s still so out of it by tomorrow, I’ll try to get him to a hospital. Okay?”
“Okay,” I mumble. It’s not like I have much choice in the matter. I linger at his door, reluctant to go back to my book.
He frowns. “Anything else?”
“No.” I glance back at the living room, then back at him. “I just… it’s sort of…”
He raises his eyebrows.
“It’s a little… you know…”
“It’s boring,” I manage. “It’s just a little boring here. That’s all.”
His mouth falls open. “You’re bored?”
My cheeks burn. I wish I hadn’t said that. I want to take back my words, but I can’t—they’re already out there. He saved my life yesterday, and now I’m whining that I’m bored. I can see any respect I earned with my gourmet cooking flying out the window. “Well, you don’t have television.”
Lame, Natalie. So lame.
At first, I’m certain he’s going to snap at me. But he doesn’t, which says a lot about how grateful he is for my cooking and how much we bonded over that snowman. Instead, he laughs. I have a feeling it’s not a sound he makes very often out here, which is a shame, because he has a nice laugh. I love the way his eyes crinkle.
“I have a deck of cards,” he says.
Cards. I’ve played hundreds of games of Spider Solitaire on the computer, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve played with a physical deck of cards, rather than on a computer. But this sounds like fun.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s play.”
Jake hops off his bed and rifles around his drawer until he finds the pack of playing cards. The binoculars I saw earlier have vanished. I’m still not sure what to make of those, but I’m not going to ask. I’m just going to assume he’s an avid birdwatcher. In the middle of winter. In a blizzard.
“What do you usually play?” I ask Jake as we settle down at his rickety dining table. I’ve already gotten a splinter from this damned table.
“Usually?” He pulls a rusty lighter from his pocket to light the large candle in the middle of the table. “Solitaire.”
“Oh.” Stupid question.
“What do you want to play?” he asks me.
I think for a moment. “How about gin rummy?’
Jake stares at me with his good eye. “Gin rummy?”
What’s so wrong with gin rummy? “It’s a really fun game.”
“Yeah, if you’re eighty.” He snorts. “Why don’t we grab some tiles while we’re at it and play a game of Mahjong?”
I know he’s being sarcastic, but my grandmother taught me how to play Mahjong when I was a kid and it was pretty fun. But I’m assuming he doesn’t actually have the tiles, in spite of his comment.
“Fine,” I say. “What do you like to play when you have company?”
He doesn’t hesitate. “Poker.”
I lean back in my seat. “Okay, fine. Let’s play poker.”
A smile plays on his lips. “You know how to play?”
“Of course I do.”
Drew taught me how to play poker when we were teenagers. I didn’t play it very often, but I know the rules. I could get through a game without humiliating myself. Probably.
Jake looks at me appraisingly. “All right then. We’ll play Five Card Stud.”
“Don’t we need something to bet with?”
He nods thoughtfully. “Yeah, I got a bunch of coins.”
He leaves the room, then returns lugging a big jar of coins. In spite of the fact that he made fun of me for liking an old lady game, he collects coins the same way my grandma does. We sort them on the table, distributing an even number between the two of us. I’m getting a little excited now—this is much more fun than my boring book.
Jake takes the cards out of the deck, but he’s having a lot of trouble shuffling them, which isn’t surprising, given what his fingers look like. He tries to do a bridge, but it’s clearly a lost cause. Then he tries to just shuffle them between his palms, but he drops about half of them in the process.
“You want me to do that?” I ask.
“Uh…” He looks down at the cards scattered on the table, then at his fingers. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
I gather the cards. “What do you usually do when you play solitaire?”
He jerks his head in the direction of the bedroom. “I got a card shuffler. But I thought…”
He lowers his eyes, and he doesn’t complete his thought.
I shuffle the cards, distributing them between the two of us—five cards apiece. Jake separates the cards and slides each one just to the edge of the table to pick them up. He fumbles a little with them, but he manages to get them into his hand. I look at his single eye, trying to read his expression, but it’s completely blank.
Then I look down at my own cards. Ooh, pair of aces!
Jake is destroying me at Five Card Stud. My little pile of change has been completely decimated, and he allowed me a “loan” from the coin jar so we could keep playing, but I quickly lost that too. I’m now on my second loan, which is dwindling with every hand. Remind me never to gamble in Vegas.
“How are you doing this?” I grumble, as he claims yet another pile of coins from the center of the table.
He shrugs and smiles. “Lucky, I guess.”
“Bullshit.” Jake may have gotten good cards, but there have been plenty of hands where I never even saw his cards. I assume he must be lying some percentage of the time, but I’ve never been in a position to call him on it. Whenever I get really good cards, he folds almost immediately. And every time I’ve got bad cards, he seems to sense that too. It’s so frustrating—I can get anything past him. “What’s your secret?”
“Secret?” He laughs. “No secret. I’ve just played a lot, so I’m good at it.”
“That can’t be all.”
His good eye meets mine. “I’m also good at reading people.”
“A skill that I’m sure comes in handy, living in the middle of nowhere.” I shuffle the cards, reluctant to let my ass get handed to me yet again. “So you can read me?”
He leans back in his seat, considering my question. “Yes. Usually.”
“In what way?”
He hesitates even longer before answering this one. Finally, he says, “You’ve got a tell.”
He nods, the shadows flickering across his face in the light of the single candle.
I stop shuffling and narrow my eyes at him. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” he says, “there’s something you do that tips me off that you’re lying.”
There is? “You noticed that while we were playing?”
“Actually,” he says, “I noticed it before we even started playing.”
What does that mean? “So what’s my tell?”
I let out a huff. “You’re seriously not going to tell me?”
He grins at me. “Then how will I know when you’re lying?”
I glare at him across the table. “You’re really irritating sometimes. You know that?”
He shrugs again.
“Fine.” I slam the deck of cards down on the table—a reaction that seems to only amuse him. “Don’t tell me.”
I want to try to forget about it, but it’s impossible. Is there really something I do that tips people off that I’m lying? If there is, that seems like it could be a major liability for me. I don’t want people to know whenever I’m lying! If nothing else, it will make it impossible to plan surprise birthday parties.
Does my eyelid twitch? Do I blink? Wink? Cough? Sneeze?
Oh my God, what is it?
“Gah!” I want to smack him. “Come on. Just tell me. What do I do?”
He laughs. “Okay, calm down, Natalie. I’ll tell you what it is.”
He traces a line on the table with his thumbnail. “You play with the earring on your right ear.”
My right hand instantly goes to the gold stud in my ear. “Oh…”
“So… there you go. That’s your tell. The earring.”
All right. That’s an easy one. I can definitely control that. “Thanks for telling me.”
I study Jake’s rugged features in the candlelight, at his blue eye staring directly at me. I may not be any sort of expert gambler (to say the least), but I would bet the farm he doesn’t have a tell. I have a feeling he doesn’t allow other people to know anything about himself that he doesn’t want them to know. I also believe him when he says he’s extremely good at reading people.
My hand goes back to my earring. Do I really play with it every time I’m lying?
He nods at the deck of cards on the table. “So now that you’ve lost your shirt in poker, how about a little gin rummy?”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “You know how to play?”
“Sure I do.”
“You said it was a game for old people.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to play.” He leans forward and I get a jolt of electricity down my spine. Why does he have to be so damn sexy? It’s insane how drawn I am to him. I can’t remember ever feeling this way about a man before—even handcredible Chase at the height of our relationship. “What’s wrong? You scared of my gin rummy skills?”
“No way!” I scoop up the deck of cards. “Prepare to have your ass handed to you, mister.”
“We’ll see about that.”
I deal out the cards, all the while watching his face. It makes me uncomfortable to realize he might know me better than I know myself.
To be continued...