Chase hesitates. The keys are in his hand, inches from the ignition.
“Don’t even think about it,” Jake says in a low growl. “I am a very, very good shot. I have no problem with killing you, but I wouldn’t have to. All I’d have to do is shoot out a tire, lock my door, and you’d be dead by morning.” He gives me a meaningful look. “Both of you.”
We both get out of the car. I keep my hands in the air, but Jake doesn’t seem like he could care less what I do. His good eye is trained on Chase.
“Drop the keys on the seat of the car,” Jake instructs him. “Slowly. Then put your hands back up.”
Chase does what he’s told. He drops the keys on the seat then raises his hands back up in the air.
“I saved your life,” Jake hisses at him. “And this is how you repay me?”
Chase’s hands are still in the air and he starts to lower them.
“No,” Jake snaps. “Hands up till I say so. Got it?”
“Look, Jake.” Chase manages a crooked version of his winning smile. “I know you’re not really going to shoot me. I come from an incredibly wealthy family and you can’t just… I mean, you would be in a world of trouble if you did something like that. You know that, don’t you?”
Jake snorts and doesn’t lower the rifle. “Is this how you’re convincing me not to kill you? Because you’re not doing a very good job.”
In spite of the cold, beads of sweat accumulate on Chase’s forehead. I think he realizes Jake isn’t messing around. “You’re right,” he says quickly. “You saved my life and… and really, you should be entitled to a reward. As soon as we get home, I’m going to make sure you get a huge reward. You name it, it’s yours.”
Jake shakes his head and cocks the rifle, which makes a loud snap. “You’ve got to do a little better than that.”
Chase’s eyes widen in desperation. He looks like he’s about to piss his pants. “I… I don’t know what you want. But… please. Please don’t do this. I’ll give you anything. Anything.”
Jake narrows his eyes at Chase. The rifle is pointed straight at my ex-boyfriend’s chest. I don’t know much about guns, but I suspect if he got shot at such close range right in the chest, that would be the end. But Jake doesn’t pull the trigger. He lowers the rifle slowly.
“Get back in the house,” he says.
Chase doesn’t have to be told twice. He scurries into the house, leaving me alone in the cold with Jake—the guy with the rifle. Jake looks at me and rolls his good eye. “Is that boyfriend of yours for real?”
“He’s not my boyfriend, remember?”
I look down at my own hands, which are trembling. “You wouldn’t have really shot him, would you?”
He shakes his head. “The rifle isn’t even loaded. I just thought he could use a scare.”
Not even loaded? Wow, I better not share that little tidbit with Chase.
“You scared the shit out of me, you know,” I say.
“Well, you did try to commit grand theft auto,” he points out. “Twice.”
I give him a look.
His face softens. “I’m sorry I scared you. But I’m telling you, that guy deserved it. More than you know even.”
With those words, he goes back into the cabin. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s very clear he’s been keeping something from me. I wonder if he’ll ever tell me what it is.
Chase is subdued the next morning. This quiet version of my boyfriend is unfamiliar to me and not entirely unwelcome. He’s clearly really shaken by what happened last night. I know Chase’s father took him to shooting ranges when he was a kid, so it’s not like he was shocked by the sight of the gun, but I doubt he’s ever had one pointed at his chest. Even though it turned out the rifle wasn’t loaded.
Eventually, he says he’s “going out” and starts pulling on his coat. It’s nearly the first thing he’s said to me since we woke up this morning.
“Where are you going?” I ask him.
“Anywhere to get away from that lunatic with the gun,” he says as he runs a hand through his greasy hair. I can tell how much it bothers him to have not showered in two days.
I glance in the direction of Jake’s bedroom. The door is still closed and he’s yet to emerge. “He wasn’t really going to shoot you.”
“Yeah? You could have fooled me.”
“Don’t be silly. He was just making a point.”
Chase’s hazel eyes bore into me. “So… what? You’re taking his side now?”
My cheeks burn. “I’m not taking anyone’s side.”
“Well, you’ve known me for a year, even if we’re not dating anymore,” he says, “so it would be nice if you took my side. Especially since he did threaten me with a gun.”
I don’t point out that he’d been trying to steal Jake’s car when that happened. He might misconstrue that as me not taking his side.
Chase gives me another look, then storms out of the cabin in his wholly inadequate shoes. I mean, Everlane leather loafers are nice shoes and all—they probably cost him four figures. But they’re definitely not waterproof.
Jake emerges from the bedroom almost immediately after Chase slams the door closed. He’s wearing a white undershirt and jeans, and the sight of the muscles in his arms and outlined under his shirt makes my knees weak. Why does he have to be so damn built? It’s hardly fair.
“What happened to Abercrombie?” he asks. “He take off?”
I arch an eyebrow at him. “Were you waiting for him to leave?”
He shrugs. “I figured after last night, it was better to avoid a confrontation. But on the other hand, I’m hungry.” He glances at the stove. “How about some eggs? Whaddaya say?”
“Are you cooking?”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.”
I like the sound of that. I walk over to the fridge and check inside. He’s still got a whole carton of eggs in there. As for things we can eat with the eggs, what he has the most of is bacon. He’s got a whole lot of bacon.
“Bacon and eggs?” I say.
I go over to the pantry to look for things we could add to an omelet. I find a jar of roasted whole red peppers that looks respectable. “You up for chopping some peppers?”
Jake glances down at his hands. “Uh… sure.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have asked him. I don’t have a sense of what’s possible for him with his missing digits. Even with a few missing fingers, I’d probably still be able to handle a kitchen knife, but he’s no chef. “You don’t have to.”
“No, it’s fine. As long as you’re not expecting perfect knife cuts.”
With that reassurance, I give him the red peppers and put him to work. He doesn’t have a cutting board, so I just have him slice the peppers on a plate. He’s fumbling a little with the knife, but his right hand is mostly intact, so he’s not doing too badly. Maybe once the snow clears up, we could go over to the grocery store and see if they have a cutting board there. And a decent knife that doesn’t have bits of rust on it. He could also use a better frying pan while we’re at it.
Wait—why am I thinking about that? Once the snow clears up, I’m supposed to be out of here! I’m not going to the store to buy kitchen supplies. I’m going back to a place where I’ve already got a fully stocked kitchen, a cell signal, and oh yeah, electricity. I can’t wait.
I just have to keep telling myself that.
I look up and see Jake squeezing his left hand into a fist. The plate he’s been chopping peppers on has an awful lot of red on it all of a sudden. Well, the peppers are red, but still. There’s more red than there rightfully should be.
“Did you cut yourself?” I ask him.
“Just a nick,” he says, although there’s crimson leaking out of his fist. This is not a nick. “I’m fine.”
“Can I see?”
“You think I don’t cut myself sometimes? I told you—it’s fine.”
I eventually convince him to let me pry his fingers open, and that’s when I see what looks like a pretty deep cut on the nub of his left index finger. I’ve seen a lot of slices from knives on myself and my employees, and this is one that would warrant a trip to the ER. He rinses it off in the sink, which only emphasizes how deep it is. And still bleeding quite a bit.
“This needs stitches,” I say.
He snorts. “Come on. You’re overreacting.
“Well.” He nods at the window, which shows the landscape still blanketed in white. “It’s obvious that’s not going to happen. So it will just have to heal without stitches.”
“The blizzard is over,” I point out. “Maybe we should try to make it to the hospital.”
“Christ, Natalie,” he says. “I’m not going to the hospital for a goddamn papercut.”
He rolls his eyes. “I’ve got a first aid kit. I can patch it up just fine here.”
Before I can protest, he stomps off to the closet and pulls out a plastic case filled with first aid supplies, although he’s dripping blood on the floor as he walks. That cut definitely needs stitches (and given the appearance of his knife, a tetanus shot might not be a terrible idea), but it’s obvious he’s not going anywhere. He sits down on the sofa and fumbles to get the kit open with his right hand, which takes him several tries. And then he has to open the roll of gauze one-handed. He lifts it up and starts gnawing at it with his teeth.
“Let me help you,” I say as I cross the room.
“I’ve got it.”
“Seriously? You don’t got it.”
He stares at me with his good eye. “You want to bandage my bloody hand? Fine. Knock yourself out.
He leans back against the sofa to let me do my thing. In my years as a chef, I’ve dealt with lots of knife injuries. It’s second nature to me. My first task is to find a square of betadine to disinfect the wound and rip it open. I hesitate. “This will sting.”
“Don’t worry about it. The nerve endings at the tips of my fingers are mostly dead.”
But he does flinch slightly when I run the betadine swab over his wound, so maybe the nerves aren’t as dead as he thought. I recognize he’s bleeding a lot and I’m not wearing any gloves, but I’m somehow not worried. Maybe I should be though, since he admitted to me the other night that his entire sex life consists of one-night stands.
When I’ve coated the wound with betadine, I rip open the package of gauze to wrap around his finger. He patiently holds out his hand while I wrap it as tightly as I can manage. Still, blood quickly saturates the gauze.
“You really need stitches,” I say.
“It will be fine.”
“But if you don’t get stitches—”
I sigh. “Okay, but I’m not letting you chop any more peppers.”
A smile touches his lips. “It’s a deal.”
I shake my head at him.
He looks down at his left hand. There’s a large red splotch on the gauze, but at least it doesn’t seem to be expanding. “Thanks for patching me up, Natalie.”
“No problem,” I say.
In spite of his injury, Jake goes out back soon after breakfast to chop some more firewood because we’re going through it very fast. He suggests in an offhand sort of way that I might like to come outside and help, but Chase is giving me funny looks, so I decide to stay behind.
Once Jake is out of the house, Chase starts behaving very strangely. He goes around the cabin, checking all the windows. Then he locks the front and back door.
“I’m pretty sure he’s got a key,” I tell Chase.
“I’m not trying to lock him out,” he says. “Just slow him down.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”
Chase rubs his hands together. I can’t help but think how soft his palms are—so unlike Jake’s. “You can see him out the window in the kitchen. I need you to keep watch, Nat. Okay?”
“Keep watch? What are you talking about?”
He takes a deep breath. “I’m going to go through his bedroom to find that gun.”
I stare at him, my heart pounding. “Are… are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It’s a better idea than letting him threaten us with it. Don’t you think so?”
I want to point out that Jake was actually just threatening him with the gun, not me. And also, the gun wasn’t loaded. But I keep my mouth shut on both counts. It’s best to be practical when it comes to Chase. “I’m sure he keeps it locked up.”
“I’m not so sure.” He glances at the bedroom. “Why would he? Nobody comes here but him.”
He makes a good point.
“Look, we don’t have a lot of time.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “I’m counting on you, Nat. Give me a yell if you see him coming.”
For the record, I am not on board with this at all. But I don’t know what to do. If Jake is telling the truth, the gun is unloaded, so it doesn’t really matter who has it—well, unless he keeps the bullets with the gun. It’s not that I don’t trust Jake, but the fact is that I’ve only known him two days. I’ve known Chase for over a year—I’ve met his parents, his friends, seen where he works. I trust Chase. Between Chase and Jake, I suppose I’d rather Chase had the gun. Although I’d prefer nobody has a gun.
So I sit at the window and watch Jake chopping firewood, which is not a chore at all. I’ve never seen a guy chopping firewood before, and I have a feeling I might never see it again. He’s wearing only a sweater and jeans as he lifts a large log onto a tree stump in the ground. He balances the log vertically on the tree stump, then holds the axe with one hand on either end. In one swift movement, he lifts the axe overhead as his muscles all tighten, and the log splits in two with one powerful swing.
Wow, he is sexy doing that.
Jake lifts his good eye and sees me watching him out the window. I take a step back, certain he’ll read my tell and know I’m watching him because Chase told me to, but instead, his face lights up and he waves at me to come outside. I hesitate for only a split-second before I grab my coat and join him.
“You’re good at that,” I tell him as I pick my way through the snow in my awful boots.
He grins at me. “I thought maybe I could teach you. After all, I owe you for the cooking lessons.”
“I’m not entirely sure how much it will come in handy in Boston.”
“It’s a life skill.”
I doubt knowing how to chop firewood will ever be useful to me, but if it’s an excuse to stay out here and have some one-on-one time with Jake, I’ll take it.
“Grab that log over there,” Jake says, pointing at a stump of wood next to the cabin.
I go over to grab the wood, but before I even make an attempt, it’s clear I’m not going to be able to pick it up. It’s heavy. I don’t know how Jake could possibly think I’m capable of lifting this log. I can barely even get a grip on it, and I feel splinters trying to enter my gloveless fingers.
“Uh,” I say.
“Sorry about that.” He rushes over to help me, and picks up the log without so much as a grunt. I sense he could pick me up and twirl me around over his head if he so desired. “So the first thing about chopping wood is you want to place the log on a tree stump, because if the log is on soft ground, the ground will absorb the force of the impact.”
“Oh,” I mumble, pretending I understood all that.
He adjusts the log on the stump, rotating it in a circle. “You want to make sure the log is completely stable. If it’s not, it could go flying when you chop it.”
Oh God, I’m starting to feel like this is a really bad idea.
“So look at this.” Jake nudges me with his shoulder as he points to the top of the log. He’s wearing leather gloves to cover his fingers. “You want to look for cracks in the log, because those are the best places to aim.”
He picks the axe up from the ground and holds it in his left hand. “You don’t actually swing the axe—you’re really moving it up and down.” He holds it up to show me. “You hold it at the handle with your left hand and cradle it with your right, just below the head. Then you lift it above your head.” He demonstrates the position for me. “You might want to step back now.”
I obey. Quickly.
“It’s not really about strength,” he says as he glances pointedly at my girly arms. “It’s about the correct technique. What you want to do is slide your right hand down until both of your hands are close, gripping the end of the handle. Then bring your hands down and flick your wrists.” He glances at me again. “You want to let gravity do much of the work for you.”
And with those words, he demonstrates. The axe comes down, splitting the log cleanly in half. It looks easy when he does it, but I’m betting it’s not.
“Want to give it a try?” he asks.
I absolutely do not. “Sure.”
He hands over the axe, which is much heavier than I anticipated. Why is everything so heavy out here? He instructs me again on the proper positioning of my hands, then I lift the axe over my head.
He frowns at me. “Your hands are wrong.”
“I put my hands exactly where you told me to.”
“Yeah, but they’re wrong.”
At first, I think he’s going to take the axe back and show me again, but instead, he does something very unexpected. He comes up behind me, his body just barely touching mine, and adjusts my hands on the axe with his.
His body is as warm as it was when we were in the kitchen together. It’s quite cold outside, but not when I’m close to Jake. I find myself leaning against him, absorbing the heat radiating off his chest. He notices and his hands linger on top of mine.
“You’re really warm,” I manage.
“So are you,” he whispers in my ear. Even his breath feels hot against my neck.
Would it really be so wrong to kiss this man? Chase and I are broken up—officially.
But then again, Chase is inside the cabin, searching through Jake’s room as we speak. I don’t know who would be angrier—Chase to find out that I’m out here with Jake’s arms around me, or Jake to find out I let Chase go through his room without telling him, searching for his gun. Somehow, what I’m doing to Jake feels like more of a betrayal, although I’m not sure why.
I need to tell him what Chase is doing. It’s the right thing to do.
“Jake,” I manage.
“Yeah,” he breathes.
If I tell him, he’ll be furious. And this moment will end, which is something I really don’t want. But I’ve got to tell him. I don’t have a choice.
“Listen,” I begin.
Before I can get another word out, we hear a crash coming from inside the house. Jake jumps away from me, a puzzled expression on his face. But then as I turn to look at him, his good eye narrows. “What’s going on in there?”
“Uh,” I say.
Jake yanks the axe out of my hands and pushes past me, heading in the direction of the back door. I race after him as fast as I can go in my impractical boots. I get there just as another crash sounds from the direction of his closed bedroom door. It takes him about half a second to put it together that Chase must be in his room, going through his stuff. His face darkens.
“What the hell?” are his exact words. He flashes me an accusing look. “Is Chase going through my bedroom?”
“Uh,” I say.
He glares at me, and that’s when I notice the axe is still in his right hand. “Did he ask you to keep me busy while he went through my stuff?”
“No.” My cheeks start to burn. “He… well, he just said to keep an eye on you.”
“Jesus Christ.” Jake’s hand tightens around the handle of the axe, and my stomach sinks. “Thanks a lot, Natalie. You two are some houseguests.”
He strides across the room, that scary axe still in his hand. He starts to yank open the door, but before he can get his hand around the doorknob, it swings open on its own accord. And Chase is standing at the doorway. He doesn’t have a rifle in his hands, but he’s got a smile on his face that makes me think maybe he found something better.
To be continued...