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This is my land. My girl. I protect what’s mine.
This mountain is my refuge.
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I might have made a huge mistake.
I glance around me and see nothing but trees. The path beneath my feet isn’t exactly well-marked. A smattering of gray rocks denotes the narrow dirt path, but they look exactly like the smattering of gray rocks I saw on the path like twenty minutes ago.
Am I walking in circles?
The sky above me darkens from a pale gray to a light charcoal shade, indicating that the sun is setting somewhere. I can’t see it because I’m dwarfed by a bunch of stupid trees.
Dumb trees. Dumb me. I shouldn’t have had my chauffer drop me off so far from the resort in Wyoming, but I don’t want to be followed, and my assistant, Helen, assured me that this was the perfect place. That I’d be safe.
Fear washes over me. I’m alone in the woods. It’s getting dark. What if I was followed?
I exhale, and a puff of smoke releases into the air. I force myself to calm down as I pull out my phone and open a Google map of the area I saved before coming up. I zoom in and evaluate the trails. Judging from my drop-off point, I should continue straight from here and then swing a left to get there.
Easy. Everything’s going to be fine.
Boy, do I wish this cell phone had signal. Or battery. My screen goes black, and I groan. “Shit.” I’m out here in the woods, lost.
The crunch of leaves beneath my boots echoes through the woods as I trudge onward. With another step, there’s a loud crack, but it didn’t come from beneath my shoe.
My heart pounds against my sternum, and a bead of sweat traces a cold path down my face. I don’t want to look. What if my worst fears are realized? I’m a petite woman. There’s not much I can do to protect myself out here.
I should have brought pepper spray or bear spray or some kind of protective something or other. Why did I never take a class on self-protection? It never even occurred to me that whatever is out there could be a bear. Am I supposed to get big and loud, or run away and hope for the best?
I can’t remember. I should have watched more survival shows. There’s another crack a little bit closer to me, and I swirl around in a circle, searching. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to call out, to ask who it is. Is that more dangerous than staying silent?
A massive beast crashes through the trees to my right, and I release a piercing scream that reverberates down the mountain and across the lake. I cover my head and sink to the ground and wait to be mauled to death.
After several beats, nothing happens. I find the courage to pry open my eyelids and look up. My whole body is tense with fear.
My gaze lands on a pair of sturdy boots. Somewhere in my fear-rattled mind, it registers that bears don’t wear boots.
Bears don’t wear jeans, either.
My gaze combs up until it rakes over a burly, barrel chest covered in a thick green flannel jacket. Finally, I look past a pair of insanely broad, muscular shoulders until I can finally catch a glimpse of my would-be attacker.
It’s a man with a thick brown beard and stunning hazel eyes. I can’t tell if they are more brown or green in the fading light of day. His hair is thick but close cut, and it matches his beard. He is a beast of a man, but I’ve never seen a more attractive beast in my life, and that’s saying something. I mingle with celebrities on a daily basis.
There’s something raw about this man, animalistic, even. He stares down at me with those piercing eyes, and it occurs to me that I might be in more danger than I would be from an animal. There is no animal more dangerous than man, after all.
“Did I scare you?”
His voice is a deep baritone, but it scratches like it hasn’t been used in a long time. I glance down at myself, huddled in a ball on the ground, then look back up at him. “What gave it away?”
The corner of his lip twitches beneath his beard. Have I amused this mammoth of a man? Why does my heart cheer about that? This man is a stranger, possibly dangerous, but my fear has melted. He reaches a hand down to help me up, and I stare at it.
“I apologize. I’m not used to running into stranded women out here.”
“I’m not used to running into hermits, either, so I suppose we’re even there.”
“What are you doing here? I’ve never seen you before.”
His voice is gruff, and his eyes narrow as he works to puzzle me out. I look at his hand, ignore it, and press my palms into the cold earth as I lift myself to a standing position. Even then, I am dwarfed by this massive person. I wipe my hands together to shake the dirt off.