I don’t quite manage to kick Jake’s ass in gin rummy, but then again, he doesn’t kick mine either. But we do have a ton of fun playing. It’s a game I’m more comfortable with, so I can relax a little, and we joke around like we did when we were building that snowman. I wouldn’t have thought it that first night he caught me trying to steal his truck, but Jake has a really good sense of humor. He’s a lot of fun to talk to. We crack open a couple of beers he’s got in his fridge and it’s really nice.
“Here’s a question for you,” I say as I shuffle the deck in preparation for our twenty-somethingth game of gin rummy—I lost track. “Before Chase and I came along, when’s the last time you interacted with another human being?”
He smiles at me. “And we’re not counting the voices on the radio?”
“Do they talk back to you?”
“Only if I’ve had too much to drink.”
I laugh and nearly swat him in the shoulder, but stop myself at the last minute. Chase is literally in the room with us. I shouldn’t be flirting with another guy—not this soon. It’s fine to chat to pass the time, but that’s it.
“It hasn’t been that long,” he says. “I bought groceries just last week because the storm was coming, and I had to pick them up myself. Amazon Fresh doesn’t exactly deliver out here.”
“So are you and the grocery store owner good buddies?”
He hesitates. “Not really. I think all I said to him was, ‘Keep the change.’”
“So who else have you interacted with?”
He considers this for a minute as he takes a swig of beer. “I picked up a hitchhiker last month.”
“A hitchhiker?” My eyes widen. “Aren’t you scared to do that?”
“Scared?” Jake snorts. “Look at me, Natalie. I’m the guy in the scary camping stories. If anyone should be scared, it’s the hitchhiker.”
I laugh even though I disagree. Yes, I was absolutely terrified of him when he first appeared in front of the Porsche during that blizzard. But now that he’s shaved his grizzly beard and trimmed his hair, he isn’t scary anymore. Intimidating, maybe. But not man-scraping-through-roof-of-car-with-hook sort of scary. Any sighted woman with half a brain would think he was handsome.
“So where did he want to go?” I ask.
“The hospital,” he says. “Apparently, he was camping with his buddies and they were drinking pretty heavily and they got into a fight and his so-called friends somehow…”
I raise an eyebrow. “What?”
“They set fire to his junk. And then they took off on him.”
I clasp my hand over my mouth. “No…”
“Oh yes. I saw his scorched crotch.”
“But… how would you even…?”
“I have no idea.” He shakes his head and winces. “I have a feeling it had something to do with his beer-soaked clothing. In any case, he managed to put the fire out before he got severe burns, but he still was pretty uncomfortable and wanted to get treated.”
“Wow.” I can’t keep from giggling, even though I obviously feel bad for the guy who got his genitals set on fire. It’s funny because he’s okay. “So aside from the grocery store guy, that’s the only person you’ve seen in the last month?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He smiles crookedly. “Why so curious, Natalie?”
I avoid his gaze as I sip my beer. “I don’t know. I just can’t imagine living out in the middle of nowhere and not talking to anyone ever.”
“I like it. It’s peaceful.”
“But everyone gets lonely sometimes.”
I study his face. He might not have a tell like I do, but I’m not sure if I believe him. Especially after his admission about how much he misses his parents. “What about horny?”
It’s amusing the way Jake rubs the back of his neck whenever he’s embarrassed. He looks down at his own beer. “Uh, yeah. I guess… that happens.” He nods his head at the deck of cards. “Are you going to deal or what?”
It’s obvious he’d love to change the subject, but I’m not letting him off the hook that easily after all he’s put me through. “So what do you do?”
“When?” he asks as I flick cards in his direction.
“When you’re horny!”
“Uh…” He scratches at his head. “There’s a tavern about twenty miles down the road…”
“Tavern or brothel?”
He shoots me a look. “Tavern. On Saturday nights, they have ladies’ night, and there are a lot of… um, drunk women. So every five or six months, when I can’t stand it anymore, I take a trip there.”
I finish dealing the cards, but it’s a little hard to focus on gin rummy right now. This story is far more interesting. “You only hit on drunk women?”
He fingers his own cards but doesn’t try to pick them up. “It’s easier that way. I mean, I’m just looking for one night. Nothing more.”
Why not? The question is on the tip of my tongue, and I know he’s expecting me to ask. I can tell by the way his shoulders have tensed up. But I won’t ask. I know if he answers at all, his answer will be bullshit. So there’s no point.
“When you go to the tavern,” I say instead, “do you shave?”
His shoulders sag, and he smiles. “Not usually. But I shower.”
I laugh as I organize the cards in my hand. “So women still sleep with you even if you look like a guy who murders hitchhikers?”
“They sure do.”
I believe it. Even before Jake lost the beard, when I was terrified of him, there was still something achingly sexy about him. It might not be every girl’s thing, but I bet a lot of random drunk women in a bar would really go for the big, sexy woodsman with an eyepatch look. I bet he doesn’t have any trouble whatsoever.
“Hey,” he says, “how about you and Abercrombie over there?”
I wince. I glance over at Chase, who is sleeping soundly on the sofa. I’m still worried about him, and if he’s not more alert tomorrow, I’m going to have to press Jake to get him to a hospital. But right now, I’m grateful for his altered consciousness. I wouldn’t want him to hear us talking. “What about him?”
“Come on,” he laughs. “That guy can’t possibly be good in bed. I don’t believe it.”
I put down my cards and fold my arms across my chest. “Why not?”
“Well, is he?”
“He’s…” Was Chase a good lover? I close my eyes, remembering our last encounter at his house before we went on this trip. I did have an orgasm, but I admittedly had to give it to myself. But the sex was… well, it was fine. It was really pleasant. It wasn’t rough or uncomfortable. He didn’t try to get into any hole I didn’t want him in. “He’s fine.”
“That good, huh?”
I glare at Jake. I liked it better when we were talking about his love life. “He’s excellent. Fantastic. He rocks my world.”
He shrugs and drains the rest of his beer. “Okay, whatever you say.”
“What?” I snap at him. “You think you’d be better?”
He looks startled by my question. He puts his empty beer bottle down on the table, the remains of his fingers slipping on the condensation on the container. But he doesn’t lower his good eye. He stares right at me and says, “Yes. I would be better. Damn straight I’d be better.” He lowers his voice a notch. “I know how to please a woman, Natalie.”
And now we’re both staring at one another. My heart is thudding in my chest so hard, I feel like Jake must for sure be able to hear it in the silence of this cabin. I get this tingling in my groin and all I can think is that I wish he’d show me how much better he is than my ex-boyfriend. I want it so bad, it hurts. Gin rummy is fun, but… well, there’s no comparison, is there?
I don’t think I’ve wanted a man this much in my entire life. It’s insane how bad I want him. God, I want him.
But then, from over on the sofa, Chase lets out a loud moan. I’d nearly forgotten he was in the room with us, and the sound of it nearly makes me jump out of my skin.
Whatever I was thinking cannot happen. Not here, not now, that’s for sure.
I reach for my cards, breaking my eyes away from his. I clear my throat loudly. “Are we going to play or what?”
Jake wasn’t kidding about his bed not being comfortable. It’s probably better than the floor or the sofa, but not by much. I don’t know how he sleeps here every night. I suppose he’s used to it.
While I lie on his mattress, tossing and turning to get comfortable, my thoughts keep straying to Chase. He’s still passed out on the sofa. I eventually coaxed him into eating some of the leftover soup, but then he went right back to sleep. I hope he’s okay. I’m going to hold Jake to his promise to get him to the hospital if he isn’t more alert tomorrow. If getting to the hospital is possible.
I’m also concerned about getting home. Very concerned. It’s Saturday now, soon to be Sunday, and nobody has a clue we’re not where we’re supposed to be. It’s unsettling to think that if Jake hadn’t come along, I’d probably be lying dead in Chase’s Porsche. And he’d definitely be frozen to death in the snow. He’s be a human popsicle right now.
I don’t know who Chase told about this trip, but Drew knows exactly where we are. When he doesn’t get his usual ten-thousand text messages from me on Monday, he’ll certainly know something went wrong. I would hope so, at least.
I flop around on the mattress, trying desperately to get comfortable. I started out on my back, flipped to my right side, then my left, and now I’m on my stomach with my cheek pressed against Jake’s flimsy pillow. It’s colder in here than in the living room by at least ten degrees. I’ve got three blankets on top of me, but it doesn’t feel like enough. If I were having this much trouble sleeping at home, I’d be popping an Ambien right now. Unfortunately, I failed to bring my bottle, which feels like a very big oversight right now.
Maybe I’ll get a glass of water.
I tiptoe out into the living room, trying not to wake Chase or Jake. The fire is nearly out and the living room is really, really dark. I do my best to pick my way through the room, but all of a sudden, I trip on a giant lump and barely catch myself before I go sprawling.
“Natalie?” The giant lump was apparently Jake, sleeping on the floor. Under the dim light coming from the windows, I see him rubbing his eyes. “What are you doing?”
“I… I couldn’t sleep.”
He yawns and sits up in the sleeping bag. “So you figured you’d wake me up too?”
“No.” I try to glare at him, but I can’t entirely make out his face. “I was just getting some water.”
He adjusts the eyepatch on his face—he was sleeping with it on, and I wonder if that was for my benefit. Is he really that worried about me seeing what’s under it? I can’t even imagine.
My eyes are adjusting to the dim light in the room, and the moonlight is providing some extra visibility, especially in the kitchen. Jake gets to his feet and stumbles in the direction of the kitchen counter, where he uses a box of matches to light another of his many candles. It’s not perfect light, but it’s the best we’re going to get right now.
In his bare feet, Jake is limping much more than he did with his boots on. Once again, I wonder what happened to him to make him limp that way. When he puts weight on his right leg, he flinches.
Before he notices, I avert my gaze. The last thing I want is for him to catch me staring.
“So what was it you wanted?” he asks me.
He snorts. “That’s not going to help you sleep.”
“You don’t have Ambien, do you?” I ask hopefully.
He laughs out loud at that. “Ambien,” he muses.
“What? It’s the number one prescribed sleep medication!”
Jake reaches up into a cabinet too high for me to touch even on my tiptoes. He pulls out a bottle of copper liquid. I squint into the darkness and see the words “Jack Daniels” written on the label. He sets two shot glasses on the kitchen counter and fills each of them nearly to the brim.
“Um,” I say. “Do you have any wine?”
“Wine?” His lips twitch in a ghost of a smile. “No. No wine.”
Jake lifts the shot glass and throws it back quickly. I don’t know much about whiskey, despite the fact that Drew is never without alcohol. Drew likes to drink, but not Jack Daniels—he prefers the good stuff. Even the beer he drinks is this Ambassador Reserve that comes out of a bottle that costs about a hundred bucks. I always made fun of Drew and his fancy beers.
Apparently, Jake isn’t that picky.
I lift the glass to my nose. I’m not a big drinker myself and I don’t think I’ve had anything besides wine since college. This stuff smells strong. Like I could throw it on my wall and some of the paint might come off.
“For Christ’s sake, Natalie,” Jake says. “Just drink it. It’s whiskey. You’re looking at me like I’m making you drink moonshine I brewed in my bathtub.”
He’s right. If I can’t handle one shot of whiskey, there’s something wrong with me. I count to three in my head, then throw it back the same way he did. And wow, that stuff burns. I start coughing violently, but when I stop, I’ve got this nice warm feeling coursing through my extremities and my chest.
“Best cure for insomnia,” Jake says.
“Actually,” I say, “my doctor told me that alcohol may make you fall asleep faster, but it’s a more fitful sleep with an earlier awakening.”
He stares at me. I probably should just stop talking.
“Since you woke me up,” he says, “I’d like to show you something you might appreciate.”
“Oh yeah?” In the past, if I were with a guy in a dark cabin in the middle of the night, this would be a prelude to him whipping out his dick. But I don’t think that’s what Jake is planning. “What is it?”
“Put on your hat and coat.”
I do as he says. Once we’re all bundled up, he grabs my hand with his good right hand to guide me toward the door. His palm is so warm and rough against mine—so different from Chase’s baby soft hands. A tingle goes through me, and it’s a little hard to swallow all of a sudden.
Jake pulls me through the front door, and we stand out on his small porch. It’s cold out, but the whiskey coursing through my veins makes it less cold. I expect him to let go of my hand, but he doesn’t. “You’re from Boston, right?” he says.
“So when you look up, I bet you don’t see anything like this, do you?”
I lift my head to the sky. I’ve certainly seen stars before, but I’m not sure it’s been anything like this. The sky is so clear, I can see every single pinpoint of light perfectly. It’s really spectacular. It’s beautiful. It’s handcredible.
Jake’s still holding my hand as we stare into the night sky. I’m afraid to move because I don’t want him to let go. I don’t want him to think I don’t like this, because I do. So much.
I clear my throat. “Do you know any of the constellations?”
“What? You think some dumb woodsman is well versed in astronomy?”
“Is that what you are?” I arch an eyebrow at him. “A dumb woodsman?”
He shrugs, still looking up at the sky. “What do you think?”
“I think…” I think he’s incredibly intelligent. I think he’s out here because he’s hiding from something or someone. I think he’d love to go back home, wherever that is, but he can’t. “I think that up there is Orion’s belt.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, it kind of looks like a belt.”
“Isn’t it just basically three stars in a row?”
“I don’t know. I’m just a dumb caterer.”
He laughs and gives my hand a squeeze. I don’t think I could imagine a more perfect moment—being stranded out here with this sexy guy, slightly tipsy on Jack Daniels, under the stars, holding his hand. I’m surprised he’s still holding onto me, considering Chase is about ten feet away from us, albeit sound asleep. And he doesn’t know Chase and I are broken up, although I feel the sudden urge to tell him everything. He’s staring into my eyes and my heart is thudding in my chest.
“Natalie…,” he says.
My breath catches in my throat. “Yes?”
He picks up my hand, looking down at the delicate skin covering my knuckles. My sleeve slips down and there’s a glint of silver from my Tag Heuer watch that I put on before bed, because it was driving me crazy not to know what time it was. Jake notices the watch and any trace of a smile vanishes from his face as his eyebrows bunch together.
“I’ve got a question,” he says.
My heart speeds up. “Yes?”
He releases my hand. “You and Abercrombie in there. How did you meet?”
Well, nothing kills romance faster than talking about another man. Clearly, I misread this situation. Except why was he holding my hand? It wasn’t the watch that upset him, was it? That seems unfair if it was. I didn’t even buy the watch. It was a gift from my parents for my birthday, and I don’t even know how much it cost. Although I did see a similar watch priced at about five thou.
“At a dinner,” I mumble. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” His good eye is pinned on my face. “Hollister and Co. is a big company. He must be loaded. Just wondering if you two run in the same circles.”
I take a step back on the porch. “Are you asking me if I’m rich?”
He cocks his head to the side. “Well, yes. I guess I am.”
“What’s the difference? “
“No difference. Just making late night conversation.”
“Do you care if I’m rich?”
He snorts. “I’m feeling like the answer to my question is yes.”
I lower my eyes, refusing to look at him or the spectacular night sky. “We’re well off.”
“What’s your last name?”
“Simple question. What’s your last name?” He raises his eyebrows. “Or is it some kind of big secret?”
“Rochester,” I mumble.
His breath catches in his throat. “You mean like Rochester Intel?”
He lets out a low whistle. “Wow, I’m standing out on my porch with Rochester Intel. Ho-lee shit.”
“Stop…” I struggle to come up with what I want to say. “Stop acting like I’m a bad person because I have money.”
“I don’t think I’m doing that.”
“I just think…” He looks back up at all those beautiful stars in the sky. “It’s easy to get up the guts to start your own catering business when you’ve got billions of dollars backing you up.”
“I raised every penny myself.”
“Yeah, but your name is Natalie Rochester.”
My cheeks burn. “So?”
“So nothing,” he sighs. He shoves his hands into his coat pockets. “It’s just interesting, that’s all.”
“Just making conversation, huh?”
“Exactly.” He eyes the front door. “I’m going back inside. You staying out or coming in?”
He’s right—it’s beautiful out here and it’s something I never get to see in the city. I want to enjoy it for a little while longer, even if he doesn’t want to enjoy it with me.
I eventually fall into a deep sleep, courtesy of the fresh air and also probably the Jack Daniels. In any case, when I wake up, my watch reads nine o’clock. I throw on some clothes and stumble into the living room.
When I get out there, Jake is already awake and fully dressed. And to my utter surprise, he’s sifting through Chase’s luggage. I’m not sure if he doesn’t realize I’m standing here or if he simply doesn’t care. He picks something up that I realize is Chase’s Android phone and jabs at it with his thumb.
“Excuse me,” I say loudly.
Jake looks up. If he’s surprised to see me standing there, he doesn’t show it. “Good morning.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
He turns the phone over in his hand. “Trying to see if there’s any signal.”
“Really? Because it looked like you were snooping.”
He shrugs. “Believe whatever you want.”
He absolutely doesn’t care that I caught him searching Chase’s bag, and I can’t entirely blame him. So what if I caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to do? This is his home and he probably weighs twice what I do and can bench press four of me. He has no reason to be scared of me.
And clearly, he doesn’t respect me for who my parents are.
“Do you want some breakfast?” I ask him. I figure if I want to get on his good side, my best bet is food.
“I already ate.”
Wow, he passed up one of my meals. He must really be shaken by finding out who I am.
In a way, it’s refreshing though. The sad truth is that when I tell most men how much money I have, their eyes light up. Actually, most of them know it before we even get to the point of my having to break it to them. Jake might be the only man I’ve ever met who seemed to like me less after finding out about my parents’ vast fortune.
I wonder what he was searching for in Chase’s bag. If it was the phone, I’m sure he’s disappointed unless he’s an expert at cracking smartphone passwords, which I assume he’s not. Although nothing would surprise me at this point.
Jake is in the kitchen, washing some dishes. I go over to him, but his shoulders tense as I come within a few feet of him.
“I could wash the dishes,” I say. It’s a peace offering.
“I can handle it.”
“I don’t mind.”
He doesn’t look up from the suds in the sink. “Don’t you have servants to do that for you at home, Princess?”
My face grows warm. “You know,” I say. “That’s really unfair.”
“But it’s true.”
“It’s not true. I don’t have any servants. I promise you.” Well, there’s Maria, who cleans my apartment on Tuesdays. But I’m allowed to have a weekly cleaning woman, aren’t I? Is that so horrible?
He rinses the soap off one of the bowls from our meal last night. The soup came out really good. He loved it—or so he said. “Just admit it. I don’t care if you have servants.”
“Obviously, you do care.”
“I really don’t.”
He places the bowl in the drying rack. “I was just wondering…”
I raise my eyebrows at him.
“…how you could have billions of dollars, yet not even one pair of gloves.” He looks up at me with his good eye. “Just curious about that one.”
I give up. If he’s going to be an asshole, I refuse to deal with him. “I’m going to go read.”
I stomp over to my own bag to find my books. It’s only as I’m sifting through my clothes to find them that it occurs to me:
If Jake went through Chase’s bag, he almost certainly went through mine too.
To be continued....