• authorcmowens

Wilder Sneak Peek



Wild Ones Tip #205


If you’re gonna be dumb, you’d better be tough.



Chapter 1


PIPER


*********


“You have no idea the hell I had to go through just to get out to this cabin. I’ve already faced death three times more than I have in my entire life,” I tell the deer as I throw the rope I found randomly lying outside my late grandmother’s cabin.

The rope lands right beside the struggling deer, who is trying to climb out of the hole in the ice, water splashing as the deer makes pitiful sounds of distress. I whimper when I realize the deer isn’t smart enough to bite down on the rope and let me pull it out.

“I’m only doing this because of Bambi. That damn movie broke my heart, and I’ve been pro-deer ever since,” I say on a whimper as I ease out onto the ice, already slipping and dancing around to keep my balance.

I try to stay away from the softer patches that don’t appear as frozen, as I quickly fashion a noose. I know it’s morbid, but it’s the only rope-tying trick I know that will be of any help. Thank my medieval-obsessed father.

This may be the one time I ever use this knowledge for…anything at all.

It takes a few tries, but I finally manage to loop the deer’s neck, and I pull quickly. After some really panicked struggling, I manage to free the small fawn from the water.

It’s too still, and I hurriedly—but very carefully—slide across the ice on my hands and knees to undo the noose before I accidentally kill it while trying to save the damn thing.

It’s just limp as I make haste freeing its neck, and my breaths fog in front of my face as I bend over to listen for a heartbeat.

Just as my hair touches its stomach, the wild thing leaps up with a battle cry that scares the shit out of me, and I yelp as I crash backwards.

My eyes widen as the deer runs off, just as the ice beneath me cracks with one split-second warning before I’m plunged into icy water.

Everything happens so terrifyingly fast. My life doesn’t even have time to flash before my eyes this time like it has the other three times today.

A bloodcurdling scream is shut off when I’m suddenly sucking painfully cold water into my lungs. My body feels like it’s on fire and freezing at once, as I scramble to push myself back to the surface. Fortunately, I pop up in the same huge hole I’ve made, instead of getting stuck under the ice—a freshly realized fear of mine.

Just as my hands grip the edge of the burning cold ice, something firm grabs my wrist. In the next instant, I’m completely yanked out of the water and dragged over the edge.

My entire body is shaking so hard, and my vision is dimming as something loud chatters. I think it’s my teeth. I’m not really sure what’s going on—everything and nothing and something else too.

I feel myself moving, but I’m too disoriented to take in exactly what’s happening.

“Wake up!” someone shouts near my ear just as a motor revs to life somewhere around us.

I’m asleep? No, that person isn’t talking to me. Who’s talking? Is someone talking?

“What’d Dr. Harvey say that one time about icicle people?”

“What?!” someone else snaps.

“How do we warm her up?” I hear the other one asking.

Two male voices are talking around me, but their words are muffled and my eyelids are too heavy to see anything. I’m not sure how this day went to hell so quickly. No good deed goes unpunished.

I feel like I’m moving, but I’m freezing too hardcore to care about anything else. Everything burns. Everything hurts. I’m almost worried my eyelids are frozen shut, because I can’t seem to open my eyes.

“Fucking wake up, you stupid fucking girl!” someone shouts close to my ear again.

Three voices. It’s three voices instead of two. The appropriate fear is absent, since I’m positive I’m about to die anyway.

I open my mouth, trying to form words, unsure what really comes out.

“Did she just say something about Bambi?” someone asks.

I feel jostled when we come to an abrupt stop, and my eyelids crack open just barely, seeing blurry, tall men as someone presumably carries me.

“He said to strip her out of her wet clothes and that skin-to-skin heat would be helpful.”

“Not it,” two guys say real damn fast, but I’m still stuck on the skin-to-skin thing.

“You can’t strip naked and spoon with her, you morons,” a girl’s voice cuts in, and I shudder—either because I’m still literally freezing to death…or because I’m traumatized and terrified.

“You do it. You’re a girl. She won’t freak out so bad,” the guy carrying me says as we’re suddenly inside a warm house of some sort, but everything is still too blurry to make out.

I blink for a few seconds too long, and when I come too, a man’s face is hovering over mine as he barks at me to wake the hell up.

My fingers touch a beard—at least I think it’s a beard—when I try to swat him away, but my hand falls to my side, too weak to really do much.

A girl’s face pokes in right beside him, her eyes wide and her hair blonde.

“I took off your clothes,” she tells me very loudly, annunciating each word like I’m an idiot.

Then…panic hits, and I glance around, seeing a lit fireplace beside me. Where the hell am I?

“Her lips are blue. Maybe someone does need to strip down.”

“You do it,” the guy snaps at her.

“You do it,” she argues. “You’re like a furnace—you two can be fire and ice or something else lame like that. And I don’t like to get cold.”

He curses and stands, and I panic even more as he starts stripping. Sure, he has a nice body, but that’s really not the point right now. I don’t want his nice body so close.

Who the hell are these people and where am I?

I think I’m in a cabin. A cabin with a lot of antlers sticking out of plaques, guns hanging on walls, and animals stuffed. The unknown guy is stripping down as he and—I think—his sister argue about who puts off more body heat.

My gaze flicks toward the fireplace that I’m lying in front of…on top of what appears to be a fur rug of some sort. I swallow thickly when I realize there’s also something furry draped over me.

I came to Tomahawk without realizing it’s actually the setting for the Hills with Eyes or whatever that terrifying movie was called, minus the incestuous and radioactive deformities.

At least so far…

“Just so you know, I’m not going to touch you inappropriately. Take my body heat if you want to,” the guy says sourly close to my head, which admittedly puts me at ease…a little.

Weirdly enough.

I start scooting away from him when he climbs under the blanket with me, but when his warm foot brushes mine, it’s like my survival instinct takes over.

I’m suddenly crazy, heat-starved, and single-minded as I lunge and start hugging him, getting tangled around him quickly, because he’s sooooo warm. I think I whimper when the coldness starts to sting, my body trying to regain more heat.

He curses and tenses all over, but puts his arms around me. “It’s like hugging a fucking popsicle,” he gripes. “I better not get stuck to anything like I did that flag pole like that one time,” he adds.

“Just don’t stick your tongue out, and you’ll be good,” the girl assures him. “That sounded way dirtier than I meant for it to, and I’m kind of grossed out now. If I’m being honest,” she adds.

I don’t even care about anything but stealing every ounce of warmth he has to offer right now, pressing as tightly as I can against him. It takes me a second to realize he still has on boxers, but I’m completely naked.

My breasts are pressed flat against his chest, and as time passes, I gradually start to warm up. The warmer I get, the more awkward this entire situation becomes. It’s like my brain is thawing and finally appreciating the gravity of this entire surreal encounter.

He keeps my head tucked under his, likely to avoid the awkward eye contact thing.

I say nothing, since I still want more warmth right now. I’ll freak out in a minute.

At least there’s nothing sexual about the way he’s touching me. I think this is clearly just what it looks like—a stranger grudgingly sharing body heat with a stupid girl who tried to save a stupid deer with a noose, when she knows nothing about ice or wildlife or survival in a hostile environment.

Day one in Tomahawk, and I almost died for a fourth time. Guess I know we’re selling that cabin now.

“What the hell is going on?” another woman’s voice snaps.

I peer over the blanket with one eye just enough to see a woman with a wild bun on her head and an axe in her hand. I barely stop myself from fainting, because this is just getting more insane by the second.

I currently hate every horror movie I’ve ever seen that had a wilderness/isolated setting.

“Kai stole her from her home and is forcing her to have his babies,” the blonde girl says from the other side of me, perched by the fireplace as she eats an apple.

I’m pretty sure my teeth just chattered for a whole new terrifying reason.

“Fucking really, Nila?” the guy holding me growls. “Why? Why would you tell her that? Now she’s going to—”

The bun lady is already squealing to cut off his words. “Where’s that damn emergency phone?” she asks, pulling open drawers and shutting them.

I’m being really still and really quiet, praying for this nightmare to end abruptly.

“Ah ha! Found it! I laughed at that Liam kid when he dropped this off, but now I want to kiss him for it,” she goes on as she squints like she’s trying to see the screen.

They don’t usually have phones out here? If my tear ducts weren’t still frozen, I think I’d cry right now.

“Penny, guess who’s getting babies before you,” the woman says into the phone, and I pale.

“You’re not actually having his babies,” the girl beside me says, patting my shoulder, as the guy continues to give me warmth and no babies.

Seriously…where the hell am I?

“Yeah, my Kai clubbed some girl over the head and brought her home,” the other woman, who I presume is their mother or their resident mental patient, says very proudly as she nods vehemently, not glancing at us.

“Doesn’t really matter how he got a girl. It just matters that he’s got one now, and I’m going to have babies before you. So ha!” she adds with way too much excitement.

“Really not having babies,” the guy growls next to my ear as I start to squirm.

“Who are you?” I finally manage to ask on a rasp croak.

“Kai Wilder,” he says as if that needs no further explanation.

“I’m Nila. His sister,” the girl with blonde hair tells me before pointing to the graying blonde on the phone. “That’s our mother. You’ve made her the happiest woman in the world.”

“For fuck’s sake, Nila, fix it,” Kai snaps at her.

“You’re the barbarian who is bringing home frozen corpses to reanimate. You fix it,” she deadpans.

“Oh, she’s adorable. I think. I can only see her forehead from here, so she could be unsightly, I suppose. Hopefully she’s adorable. I want my babies to be prettier than your babies. If you ever get any, that is. Your Lilah is still on birth control,” the mother drones on, glancing in my direction.

“Are you on birth control?” Nila asks me seriously.

“Are you trying to fucking freak her out right now?” Kai growls. “Wait until my balls aren’t so close to her knees.”

I’m not sure if it’s the day from hell, the matter of me still being a bit hypothermic, or if it’s the fact I’ve possibly been abducted by crazed wilderness people for an unsanctioned breeding experiment, but I feel a little dizzy before it all fades to black.


Wild Ones Tip #398


Screamers are the worst. We might have helmets, but we always forget the ear plugs.




Chapter 2


KAI


*******


“How do you know this is where she lives if you don’t even know her name?”

“Name one other reason she’d be on our side of the lake,” I say to the gnat who’s buzzing in my damn ear, also known as my sister.

“You could at least wait until she wakes up before we break into her house and ditch her here after she just fell into a mostly frozen lake and almost died and stuff,” she states like I’m a dick or something.

She finally picks the lock to the front door, pushing it open far enough to let the cabin’s warmth spill out onto the porch.

“This thing has sat empty for at least two years, and the fire has been burning all day. This has to be where she’s staying. I had to get her out of there before Ma chained the damn girl to the radiator and started slathering lotion on her belly to prepare the womb or some shit,” I gripe at Nila, who is enjoying this too much.

“It puts the lotion on,” she says in a harsh voice while rubbing her hands together in dark glee, and then coughs from trying to put too much scratch on the words.

“This is my unimpressed face,” I point out as I carry the thoroughly wrapped girl into the house.

“The closest hospital is forever away, but should we try to get her there?” Nila asks.

“Really? You want to drive her to the hospital, that would take hours to reach, the day after the first big ice? What the hell was she even doing out?” I go on, speaking a little quieter when the unconscious chick makes a small sound in the back of her throat.

“I called Dr. Harvey from Ma’s new phone,” Nila says. “I wrote down the list of instructions he gave us, and things to watch for.”

Please don’t wake up. Please don’t wake up. Please don’t wake up.

I do not want to be here when she wakes up. She looks like a screamer. Her vocal chords were possibly too frozen earlier. I’ll swing by when she’s not so freaked and let her thank me for saving her life and shit.

I’m not really sure what she normally looks like, but I’m guessing colorless with black circles around her eyes isn’t the usual. And now she’s wearing one of my shirts under that blanket, which really shouldn’t be one of the facts popping into my mind at the moment.

Shaking my head, I stand abruptly.

She risked her life to save a fawn that will probably end up getting dead all on its own if it’s lost its mother.

“One of us should stay here,” Nila says, distracted as she devotes her attention to the fireplace, stoking the fire and adding logs.

I silently back toward the door.

“Agreed,” I tell her as I continue easing back, my gaze darting one last look at the thawed popsicle.

“Okay, so paper-rock-scissors?” Nila asks just as I smirk.

“Or calling ‘not it’ works just as well,” I say quickly, before shutting the door and leaping off the porch.

I’m on the snowmobile and cranking it, cutting the wheel and skidding the hauling sled out behind me by the time Nila jerks open the door.

“You—”

I’m not sure what uncreative name she calls me, because I rev the beast and drive like hell toward town to meet up with my brothers, leaving her behind to deal with the screamer.

It takes longer, since I’m towing the big carrying sled, but I finally pull up at the diner, and park next to Hunter’s Yamaha.

I’m blowing heat into my hands, since I never stopped to pull on my gloves, as I head inside, tugging my hat off as I go. I spot the Vincent brothers at our table, and my eyes practically roll around in my skull when they grin at me.

“Heard you clubbed a girl over the head and impregnated her this morning,” Hale says with a straight face as I take the seat next to him.

“Heard your dick left new blisters on your hand,” I fire back.

“Too many Wild Ones,” Mathew shouts from behind the counter, pointing a finger at us.

“Just two families, so we’re still good,” Shade, my younger brother, says from across from me, running a hand over his shaggy fucking hair. Then directs his attention to me. “Nila’s going to be pissed.”

That makes me grin. No matter how old you get, there’s a certain level of pure happiness one takes from making their only sister miserable at every given opportunity.

“We’re going up to Shadow’s Peak today. You coming?” I ask the Vincents instead of saying anything about the popsicle.

The door chimes, and I glance back reflexively. Hale is already whistling under his breath before I even spot the chick who just walked in.

I wonder if she knows how far off the interstate she’s gotten. Given her fancy clothes, thin gloves, and completely impractical high heel boots that she’s shaking snow off of, I’d say she’s real damn lost.

She brushes a lot of errant hair out of her face, and then smooths it all down like it was never wrecked. From messy to polished with a few calculated moves…this girl isn’t from around here. At all.

Even Mathew knows it, because he’s grinning like a bastard as he seats her at the fancy table—the one without any gum stuck to the bottom of it or any rips on the vinyl seats. Hell, the table doesn’t even have dirty words or insight carved into it. Mostly because we’re not allowed to sit there.

The fancy table is only for fancy people.

“I wore a tuxedo in here once. He still wouldn’t let me sit at that table,” Shade states idly.

“We’ll go to Shadow’s Peak later,” Killian Vincent answers, not staring at the fancy chick with the fancy purse or fancy cardigan.

“Speak for yourself. I have a date tonight,” Hale says as he leaps up and struts toward the fancy table.

Mathew narrows his eyes at him, but Hale doesn’t even notice.

We all turn to watch the show, because it shouldn’t last longer than a few seconds.

“When he gets shot down and flames out, I’ll take her out. You dicks can play with yourselves at Shadow’s Peak without me,” Hunter, my other brother, drawls as he leans up on the table, eyes over at the fancy table.

I redirect my attention to the only other guy in the entire restaurant who isn’t checking out the redhead, as she likely wrinkles her nose in disgust at Hale.

Fancy girls and Tomahawk don’t mix.

“I bought a new rifle I want to try out too,” I go on, talking to Killian, annoyed with how stupid these guys are to think a girl like that is actually going to—

Everyone, including myself, turns and looks at the fancy table again when we hear laughter.

I think my eyebrows hurt from being so far up on my head when I see the redhead actually grinning at Hale like she’s interested, her entire body leaning toward his as he…I’m not sure what he’s saying.

But it’s Hale; he never says anything that makes women laugh.

Shaking away from what has to be a sick joke, I call out my order to Mathew, just as the door chimes again.

“Too many Wild Ones!” I hear Mathew snap.

“No. You can’t grow your beard out that long again. I like it the way it is,” I can hear Lilah Vincent saying.

Hell, I could probably hear her from my cabin when she talks that loud.

“This is the first winter I’ve faced in a long damn time without it, and my face misses my long beard,” Benson tells her as he tries to sit at a different table.

Lilah pulls two chairs up to our table and we all fucking shuffle around as Benson sighs and comes to join us against his will.

Mathew looks like he’s going to have a brain aneurism. It’s not like he owns the place, and we always fix what we break, so I have no idea what his problem is.

“You can’t sit there,” Mathew shouts…at the fancy table. Not us.

“Ah, come on. We’re trying to get to know each other better,” I hear Hale groan.

“If Hale gets to sit at the fancy table, I’m going to start coming here daily until I get to sit there,” Lilah is quick to say, and then shakes her head and looks back to Benson, as he grudgingly takes a seat at our table at last.

I just want my damn burger and away from this—

“I’m growing my beard back,” Benson says seriously. “It kept my face and neck a hell of a lot warmer.”

“You have enough beard!” Lilah argues.

“Not even married a year and having marital problems,” Hunter says with a tsking tone.

“Where’s my damn bur—”

Mathew drops my plate in front of me, and a fry spills off when it clangs. Killian snatches his plate from Mathew’s hand before he can drop it.

“So help me, Hale Vincent, if you move one step closer to that table, I will have Vick remove you!” Mathew shouts as he stalks that way.

I barely notice Vick sighing heavily in the corner as he shakes out his paper and continues reading like he’s trying to ignore everyone in here.

He’s a man full of sighs and exasperated breaths.

“Can’t you see I’m working game over here?” Hale argues.

“Game,” I snort before I start eating.

I’m almost finished by the time Hale sits down beside us, and I grin to myself as I take the last bite of my burger.

“How’d your game work out?” Hunter asks on a scoff.

I glance back just in time to see the redhead exiting with a to-go bag in tow.

“Actually, it was damn good. She couldn’t reach her sister to find out about tonight. But I got a date for tomorrow for me and my brother,” Hale says while lifting his glass and flipping us all off.

It grows eerily silent in the diner. Even Vick puts down the paper and stares over incredulously. I arch an eyebrow, examining Hale for deceit. He looks damn serious and damn honest.

“Bullshit,” Vick and Mathew both say in horrified unison.

“Yep,” Hale says as he lifts his own burger and takes a bite. “She found me charming,” he says around the mouthful.

“Now I know he’s full of shit,” Vick says dismissively before returning his attention to the paper.

I’m not sure what the hell goes into the Tomahawk Gazette. It’s…Tomahawk. Not much happens around here that can be reported. Certainly not enough to write a newspaper about.

The ground rattles and everyone lifts the breakable stuff, since there’s a sign in the window reminding us to do it.

As soon as rattling stops, Vick heaves out a breath and glances at our table. “Where’s Nila?” he asks me.

“With a popsicle,” I answer, causing his brow to furrow.

“Human popsicle,” Hunter elaborates.

“Why do I bother?” Vick groans as he drains the last of his coffee and stands.

“She’s not blowing up anything close by. If she was close, she’d be bitching at us for leaving her behind with the popsicle,” I assure him.

“True,” Killian says around his own mouthful.

“Has to be the Nickels. I told them to stop doing that shit so close to town,” Vick growls with his hands on his hips.

“Could be the Malones,” Mathew gripes. “Kylie keeps trying to make her fella wilder than he’s already gotten.”

“So how’d you get a fucking date with a fancy girl?” I ask Hale, getting back on topic as everything rattles again, this time harder.

“Son of a bitch,” Vick snaps as he stalks out.

“This is why we all hate winter!” Mathew gripes, just as a much heavier rattle shakes some of the pictures off the wall. “Take them with you before they tear something up!”

“We’re being perfectly well behaved,” Lilah very reasonably points out.

Then she turns her attention to Benson, while Hale grins like a dick and ignores me.

Fucker.

“And you’re not growing that long beard back, or I’m going to stop primping my vagina like a shiny glass doll,” Lilah adds stoically to Benson.

Hale and Killian both choke on their food, gag, and then guzzle their drinks…in eerily perfect unison.

This, of course, makes me so happy. Especially when Killian shoves his food away and starts cursing.

“You’re bluffing,” Benson says to her as he narrows his eyes.

“For fuck’s sake, don’t talk about this at the dinner table!” Hale snaps.

“I’m not bluffing. If you grow that beard back, you’ll need directional signs down there, because I’ll let it all go to hell,” she promises him.

“I’m going to kill someone if the subject doesn’t change from my sister’s vagina. Now,” Killian says seriously, holding out a butter knife like it’s his weapon of choice.

“How’d you get that date?” I ask Hale again, lips twitching when he’s happy to answer this time.

“Just asked her out. She and her sister are in town while they figure out what to do with their late grandmother’s old cabin, so Killian has a date tomorrow too.”

“No, I don’t,” Killian is fast to answer as he stands.

“Yes, you do,” Hale calls to his back as Killian abruptly leaves, which isn’t uncommon.

“No, I don’t,” he says without hesitation on his way out.

“You hit on a girl who just lost her grandmother?” Lilah asks as she shakes her head. “She’s vulnerable. That’s how you got the date.”

“I’ll take a date for tomorrow,” Hunter immediately tells Hale with a serious face. “The sister should be vulnerable too.”

“Such dicks,” Lilah says with a wrinkled nose.

It’s not a coincidence the popsicle is staying at a cabin an older woman used to own on the same day a fancy chick intentionally comes Tomahawk. I bet that popsicle is normally sort of fancy when she’s not dying.

Tomahawk is too small to have two new girls here on the same day unless they’re sisters.

“Actually, I’m going,” I say to Hale.

“Too late,” Hunter argues, eyes turning to slits as he faces me. “I called dibs.”

“Actually, I called dibs,” Shade adds, holding up one finger. “In my head.”

“Guess there’s only one way to settle this battle of the dicks,” Lilah chimes in, grinning like the fucking devil she is.

“Not in here!” Mathew harps, and then runs to the door. “Vick! Come back! You’re supposed to stay until they’re all gone!”

“Vick already left. Should someone tell him that?” Benson asks on a sigh similar to the sigh Vick uses a lot.

“You up for it, little brother?” I ask Hunter, lips twitching when he fights to keep a badass expression, even though I always win our challenges.

“This is the first time I’ll win.”

“Not in here!” Mathew shouts again.

“How the hell are they going to slide across the ice on their stomachs in here?” Lilah asks, and Hunter groans.

I also stifle a groan. Shit. I hate ice burn.

Mathew sags to a chair like he’s relieved, and we all stand to head out to the ice.

“To the ice!” Lilah shouts as she jumps up onto the top of the table and fist pumps the air.

Her eyes widen when something cracks, and suddenly the table collapses on one side. I narrowly dodge a plate that flies up, and three plates crash through the window beside us, as Lilah collapses to the ground, getting covered by uneaten food.

“Noooo!” Mathew groans as we all kick back our chairs to escape the raining food.

Benson groans while pinching the bridge of his nose. “Why am I not surprised?” he mutters under his breath.

“That was totally unexpected. I swear. I haven’t gained that much married weight,” Lilah states from the ground, knocking food off her as she tries to get to her feet.

She slips three times before succeeding, and starts wiping ketchup off her stomach when she finally gets to her feet and realizes her shirt is pushed up.

“You are looking a little chubbier than usual,” Hale deadpans.

I leave them behind when Lilah starts chasing her idiot brother around the rest of the tables. Mathew starts spraying them with the sink hose and shouting for them to get out.

I have a challenge to win and a popsicle to revisit. It’d probably be creepy to say it’s because I know what she looks like naked. I’ll think of a better reason before my date.


Wild Ones Tip #481


We’re like a Jack-in-the-Box. Don’t wind us up if you don’t want us to pop out and surprise you.


Chapter 3


PIPER


*******



“Are the roads still icy? How can we trust strangers to drive us around on that? I almost died coming up that damn hill yesterday,” I say to the only person I know who actually finds herself a ‘sexy mountain man’ in the mountains.

Unbelievable.

“The snow has covered up most of the ice now. Last night was sketchy getting back, but today seems a little better. Definitely glad we spend the holidays in the mountains now,” Reese says as she finishes contouring her cheeks, moving on to her mascara now.

“Not these mountains. And do you know how dangerous it is to be in a strange place and invite strange men—we know nothing about—out to our secluded cabin in the woods?” I go on, slightly berating her a little because she’s being insane, unreasonable, and inconveniently impulsive.

“A man innocently spooned your frozen body to help save your life, and then left his sister to see after you instead of sticking around to say you owed him something,” she points out. “And I checked the crime rate of this town. It’s laughable. There’s a raccoon on a freaking “Wanted” poster. He’s apparently quite the silver thief.”

She’s a master of keeping a straight face, so I have no idea if she’s full of shit or serious. She has to be full of shit.

I go with argument number two when I can’t decide.

“I fell through ice, was saved by people who may or may not have been debating horrifying things that included my womb, shamelessly snuggled a complete stranger while I was naked just to steal his heat, and woke up to a girl hovering over me and asking me if I was a screamer or not. Then that girl disappeared when I couldn’t form words, because I’m not a screamer—I’m a freezer,” I tell Reese as she finishes up her makeup. “She literally disappeared. Like out the door and vanished by the time I raced out to ask her their names.”

“And?” she asks like it’s no big deal while lining her lips.

“And? And?” I ask incredulously as I sip my hot cocoa, still shivering and not fully rewarmed from the detoured dunk in the lake.

When she just stares in the mirror at me like she needs more than a rhetorical parroting, I shake my head.

“I almost died yesterday, and you really think I want to go back outside after that? On a date with some stranger from this town after what I witnessed yesterday?” I go on.

“You’re being entirely too judgmental. Sounding a little bit like Mom,” she fires off, using the Mom card just to make me do what she wants.

“I sound nothing like Mom. I told you about the breeding argument, right?”

“So one lady was crazy and the girl didn’t want you to scream. They saved your life, delivered you safely home without anything in your womb, and then looked after you until you woke up. They might have been odd, but they were genuinely nice, it seems. So, yes, you sound exactly like Mom.”

I groan when she starts making me second guess myself. “They should have sent you to law school instead of letting you get a generic business degree,” I point out.

“My degree is not generic,” she states dryly. “Quit changing the subject. We’re only here for a few weeks. And these people are carrying around flip phones attached to their belts. For once, I’m not worried about seeing our faces splashed all over social media by whatever twat-chasers are coming to use our brand to spike their following. It’s a little liberating.”

“Now you’re the one distracting me by saying something about flip-phones. Do they still make them?” I ask idly, glancing out the window to see if these supposed dates have miraculously found this hard-to-find cabin.

Hopefully, they won’t find it, and we’ll be able to just sit by the fire and box up more of Gran’s old things.

“This town must be keeping the business alive,” she says as I glance at the time. “I planned on Googling him and checking his social media to prep for our date, but I don’t think the internet knows he exists.”

“Everyone can be Googled,” I answer absently.

“Feel free to try. And I know Hale Vincent is his real name, because the angry diner man kept shouting it and threatening him to stay away from the ‘fancy booth.’ I’m still wracking my brain as to why it’s called that.”

I can’t even with her right now. It’s like she’s not putting forth any real effort to make sense anymore.

Five more minutes before they’re considered late, and then I can ditch this idea of a date, since I have a no-late-dates rule my sister knows all too well. It’s how I get out of ninety percent of my mother’s setups.

“Hale is really sort of odd, but it’s cute how hard he was trying. Yet it wasn’t sleazy. It’s hard to find cute guys who also happen to look as fine as he does these days,” she goes on.

“And his brother?”

“They’re not identical, but the brother is totally hot too. I’m not sure if he’s sweet-cute, though. Hopefully, he is. Fun for the trip, at least. I thought this place was going to be loaded with old people only.”

She’s always confusing when describing people. And condescending as well, though she’s completely oblivious to how some things sound. She honestly has no idea when she’s being a douche.

Then again, I have the exact same issue. It’s hard to deprogram one’s self even after becoming aware that you’ve been raised to be a total douche. Reese and I only recently were jarred into self-awareness, hence the reason we’re finally in our late Gran’s house, spending some time getting to know a woman our family decided wasn’t good enough.

“We’ve never really taken a fun trip and met boys before,” Reese prattles on, drawing me out of my own head.

“We’ve taken fun trips together and didn’t need boys,” I point out, flipping through a magazine.

A hunting magazine…

It’s the only magazine Reese could find in the entire town. Oddly enough, I really like one of these cute pink hunting knives. If I could get wifi or use my phone’s data, I would have already one-clicked it. Until now, I thought dead zones were a thing of the past and horror movies just used that ‘no service’ bit as a cliché plot device.

“We’ve never taken a trip together that wasn’t business related or a family obligation,” she argues.

“Vegas.”

“That was a family obligation trip that turned into a business trip,” she quickly counters. “I spent the entire trip on the phone or at conventions. You spent the entire time in the spa—”

“With Mr. Finebaud’s overly anti-feminist wife, who thinks women have to act and be a certain way or they’re a disgrace. Now I remember how disgraceful she said I was,” I say on a sigh, finally remembering the details of Vegas.

“I still haven’t gambled a day in my life,” Reese adds.

I pause, looking up as my brow furrows.

“We almost went to the beach for an actual vacation that one time,” I lamely tell her in a sad attempt to make us sound less pathetic.

“We’ve almost taken a lot of fun trips, but haven’t. So stop trying to make this an ‘almost’ moment and have fun with me tonight. Our website isn’t far from launching, and after that, all our trips will be just as business related as they’ve always been.”

“At least they’ll be our business trips instead of sucking-up business trips Dad sends us on,” I counter, pointing out the silver lining.

Unable to come up with a single time my sister and I have taken a trip that was specifically for fun, I put the magazine down and put aside my no-late-dates rule, since they’re ten minutes late now.

Maybe I won’t almost die a fifth time. If I’m lucky.

“If we don’t get stood up,” she adds with a small frown, which means she’s actually disappointed, because she won’t smile or frown unless it’s a big emotion, due to the fact she wants to put off wrinkles for as long as possible to avoid needles.

Rancorous laughter draws both our attention to the door, and her smile forms. Two expressions back to back. She’s really excited.

“Be prepared for the best date of your life, pretty girl,” some guy calls through the door before knocking.

Reese actually giggles. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard her giggle before. She clears her throat immediately, and I battle my smile when I see her roll her eyes at herself in the mirror while checking her makeup one last time.

Plastering on my own smile, I watch as she jogs to the door, swings it open, and then…releases a bloodcurdling, hair-raising scream…and I freeze. Again. It’s my go-to reaction when absolutely nothing at all makes sense and terror is sweeping in.

A dead deer is on the front porch, eyes wide and vacant while its little tongue barely hangs out its mouth. And there’s blood. I can’t stand blood.

I stare in horror at the poor, stiff deer that simply makes no sense at all. Reese continues to scream and scream…and scream.

I gape.

Poor Bambi. What monsters would do this? Whose boots are sticking up over the jeans behind that poor deer? I can’t look away from the deer long enough to find out.

“Why the hell are you screaming?” some guy asks incredulously as he steps over the deer and right into our house.

My frozen state thaws immediately, and I fly off the couch and rush to the kitchen to grab a knife, only to run back out with a large wooden spoon. How the actual hell did that happen?

I freeze again when I briefly see the deer, and then jerk my gaze around, searching for the murderous lunatic who has been released into our cabin after killing Bambi.

I finally spot the mystery freak in the living room as he lightly shakes my sister’s shoulders. She continues to scream, her attention remaining fixed to the pitiful deer with so many pretty horns.

“Told you that was a shit idea,” a confusingly familiar voice calls from outside. “Girls like that are always screamers. I’m staying out here until they cut that shit out.”

“Only mine is screaming,” the other guy says, causing me to reassess this situation.

The deer murderers are our dates? Oh my damn. We’re actually going to die. I knew this was a terrible idea.

Reese’s screams finally taper off, and she whirls away from the deer, gagging.

“Got a chucker!” the guy with her says as he rushes her toward the sink.

“Why the hell is there a dead deer on our porch?” I shout at the sociopath, who is weirdly pulling my sister’s hair back as she leans over the sink and fights the urge to vomit.

I’m torn about whether or not it’s sweet, since he’s the reason she’s turning the green color and struggling not to lose the war with her stomach.

“Because we were going to cook you fresh tenderloin for our date and fill your freezer for the rest of your stay,” the guy, who must be Hale, says like it’s obvious, as he soothingly rubs circles on Reese’s back. “That’s why we’re late. It took longer than usual to bag a good one. We didn’t have time to field-dress it, so we just bled it out on the way here by—”

“Please stop talking,” Reese says on a wet gag.

Hale swallows the rest of his words.

“You kill Bambi on the regular?” I ask on a rasp, trembling whisper.

I almost died to save a baby deer, and these guys just slaughtered a big one for our date-night? How is this happening? Did I miss the abrupt turn we took somehow?

“Is she puking or not? I’m not coming in to see that,” the other guy says from somewhere outside as my sister continues to dry heave over the sink.

I guess that’s Hale’s brother—Killian Vincent.

I’m positive it’s historically accurate to state that this is the worst way any date has ever started. I never thought I’d be in a situation where I’m clutching a wooden spoon like a weapon and preparing to throw down with Bambi murderers.

“She’s not puking, so go ahead and start skinning the deer—”

The deer starts moving, and I shriek a little. Just a little. The high-pitched sound may split a glass or two, but it’s still little.

“They’re going to scream, so shut the door so I can move the damn thing,” Killian says from outside.

“What kind of date consists of killing and skinning a deer?” I ask while cringing, and gagging, as Hale rushes over and shuts the door.

I barely take in the fact he’s tall, fit, and has a trimmed beard, because he moves away from the door I’m still staring at.

“We wanted to do the date right,” Hale says a little defensively, and I glance over to see him back at my sister’s side, rubbing a hand over her back as she splashes cool water on her face.

Most of her hard work is washed away from her face with the action. She quickly pours a glass of water, takes a sip, and spits the second sip out. I worry there’s something wrong with the water she’s drinking, based on my limited interactions with the crazy people in this town over the past two days.

Weirdly, the Hale guy seems genuinely worried, and I think his cheeks are flushed with embarrassment.

“Just curious, how often do you date?” I ask, not hearing how terrible it sounds until it’s out of my mouth.

See? I’m a recovering douche. It’s not a simple process.

He bristles, and his cheeks get a bit redder as he ignores the question. Instead, he loudly yells, “How’s the deer coming?”

“Can’t skin the motherfucker in five minutes after dragging it in all that snow, you dick. Give me a second,” Killian calls back.

Now that the intial shock has worn off, I almost feel bad for them, even though they’ve effectively traumatized us both tonight. They were weirdly trying to be sweet, I think.

I’m not entirely sure I know what’s going on at this point. It’s like trying to connect the dots on a body full of chicken pox.

“I’ve never seen a dead animal before,” Reese groans as she shuts off the water and just leans over the sink, her breaths calming.

“It’ll taste better than it looks,” Hale tells her very seriously, like he’s trying to recover from this disaster and put a good spin on it.

I sit down, deciding that as long as I don’t see anything going on, I might as well be entertained. And drunk. I’m going to need to be really damn drunk for this night.

“So I take it we’re staying in tonight?” I ask as I pull out the bottle of vodka from under the couch, which was apparently my Gran’s hiding spot for it.

I’m more of a wine girl. I don’t know how I feel about drinking vodka. Gran was apparently a hard liquor woman.

“Well, it’s winter in Tomahawk. Everything closes when the sun goes down, so we don’t really have much else to do. Especially if just seeing a dead animal freaks you two out that much.” Hale stares at me expectantly, as though I’m the idiot in the room for not knowing that.

“There are worse sights outside?” I ask, my hands shaking a little as I unscrew the lid from the bottle.

“Not really. But you’re supposed to eat on dates. Lilah said so,” he states flatly, only confusing me more.

“Who’s Lilah?” I ask as Reese finally dries off her face and blows a heavy breath into the towel, keeping it over her face for longer than necessary.

“My sister,” Hale answers while rifling through the cabinets, truly intent on cooking the deer, which is apparent when he pulls out a few pans that may or may not be two or three decades old. “I’m one-third of a triplet set, and I’m the oldest,” he adds like it’s important information.

Why the hell didn’t Gran’s letter mention how freaking crazy these people—

My thoughts pause as I glance over to Gran’s bookshelf.

“You said your last name was Vincent? Any chance you have a flag with a tiger on it in your front yard?” I ask curiously.

Reese’s eyes snap over to meet mine immediately.

“That was not Vincent,” she says, eyes darting to the bookshelf and back to me. “That was Vancouer or something.”

“I don’t have a tiger flag,” he answers with a careless shrug, as though that question needs no explanation. “Tigers are lame and overused.”

The door swings open, and my eyes dart to it before widening, as a lump forms in my throat, causing me to forget what we’re even discussing.

The man standing in the doorway is very tall, has short, dark hair that is possibly too short to pull. His beard is neatly trimmed and barely there, and it looks way better on him than I’ve ever seen a beard look. I had no idea beards could actually be so sexy, and I wonder how much I’ve missed out on.

However…he’s slightly terrifying with a few smears of blood on his face and hands, especially since he’s holding a very large, slightly bloody knife.

Normally, this is the part where I’d faint and stuff, but this guy is all too familiar.

In fact, this guy has seen me naked.

I have this guy’s shirt in the dryer.

The shirt he’s wearing now is hugging him just right—not too tight, but tight enough to hint at the hard body under it. Along with the jeans that make me want to see his ass in them…

I’ve wrapped my bare body all over his without realizing just how nice his body is.

And he’s grinning at me like he can see every single inappropriate thought in my head right now. Did I drink the vodka and forget I drank the vodka?

Nope. I didn’t drink it yet. I’m just going insane. There really is something in the water. We’ve showered in radioactivity.

“You look prettier when you’re warm, Popsicle,” he says with a lazy grin, letting his eyes deliberately rake over me the way mine just did him.

I’m definitely freaking warm. I’m not sure if I’m embarrassed, terrified, or simply confused by all the weird reactions he provokes at once with that very memorable, deep, smooth voice I should have immediately placed.

“I’m not sure if you’re complimenting me or not,” I tell him, recovering and clearing my throat, deciding to play this weird date by ear. “But it’s nice to formally meet you, Killian. And thanks for saving my life and stuff.”

Damn, there’s just no way to make this not weird at this point.

He walks across the room, sticking out his blood-tinged hand to shake mine. Swallowing back my bile and making a conscious effort not to be a spoiled brat, I reach out and shake it.

His hand is cold, which makes sense, since it’s ridiculously cold outside, and they keep leaving our door open, which makes it cold inside too.

Forgetting all about my reservations, my mind bounces everywhere as I just stare stupidly into his really dark eyes, wondering something ridiculous and inconsequential, like if they’re considered dark chocolate or not.

“I’m Kai Wilder. Killian doesn’t date,” he says like he’s correcting me and letting me know why he’s here all at once.

The brain freeze seems to thaw more and more, because now I remember his name being Kai.

I blink and pull my hand back, grimacing when I see blood smeared on it. It’d probably seem rude if I ran to the sink to wash my hands the way I desperately want to in this moment.

“I’m Piper Kline,” I say uneasily.

“Dude, wash your hands before shaking hers,” Hale says like he suddenly has some form of etiquette.

My spine relaxes when I realize I get to wash my hands, since Kai is muttering something to the effect of an apology and stalking to the sink like a good barbarian.

Reese still has the towel pressed over her mouth, and I can’t tell if she’s holding in silent laughter or silent sobs. Her eyes have always been impossible to read, but I sort of think she’s laughing. Because she’s evil like that.

She knows how much I hate blood. It’s why I found it hilarious that my parents were surprised I refused to go into medicine like their plan dictated I do.

I hurriedly move to the sink when Kai is finally finished.

“Man...everyone knows you’re supposed to let the chicks go first,” Hale says on an exasperated breath. “She’ll think you go first in the bedroom too, otherwise,” he adds, causing me to choke on air.

I know I hear Reese muffle a snort in that towel of hers she’s cleverly using to hide her face. I’ve spent a great number of years schooling my features so as to never give someone an accidental expression, but tonight I’m failing at a task that is usually fairly simple.

I also know my cheeks are on fire, because the guy isn’t even saying this shit to be rude or crass. He’s damn serious and trying to sound helpful.

My current emotions are a mixed bag: I find it all adorably crude, but also embarrassingly awkward.

“I have some potatoes to go with that deer,” I finally manage to say with a straight face, just as Kai exits.

I don’t want to think about what he’s doing.

“We’ve got sides too. We stopped at the store on the way. Guys are supposed to pay for the date,” Hale informs me with a bit of sternness.

I’m not sure what the protocol is for these sorts of situations, because this is a complete first for me.

“Do the men also do the cooking on the fresh-kill dates?” I ask hopefully.

He gives a firm nod of his head, and I can instantly tell Reese is grinning under that damn towel because her eyes crinkle at the corners ever so slightly. I’m just relieved I at least don’t have to cook Bambi. I can pretend to eat it later and spit it back out into my napkin.

I may go vegan after this trip.

“You have to know how to cook deer before you can ever cook it right,” Kai informs us from the front porch, as though he’s making an effort to be involved in date-night conversation.

What’d I do with that vodka? I have no choice but to risk hard liquor.

Hale puts all the pans he needs on the counter, and then he joins Kai outside, as I search for the missing bottle of vodka. As soon as the door shuts behind him, I whirl around and give my sister my widest eyes possible and throw my hands up in a what-the-fuck motion.

She snorts into the towel, her body definitely shaking with silent laughter, as she slides down to the ground in front of the ancient fridge.

I’m wearing my warmest, tightest thermal leggings under some other really adorable leggings that no self-respecting Kline would ever wear in public. I’ve had them for years as a small act of rebellion, and I finally wear them on a night when—

A very distinct, familiar scent wafts into the cabin when the door blows open, and I give my sister a horrified look as she shuts it back. Her eyes are just as wide, but I swear she’s trying once again to not laugh.

“Are they seriously smoking marijuana out there?” I whisper-yell.

She shrugs a shoulder and wipes the smile off her face. “I think it’s legal here.”

“But who smokes pot on a first date while skinning a deer?”

She quickly shuffles to the side when the door reopens, and Kai walks in, winks at me, and sucks on the blunt—I think it’s called a blunt anyway—that is hanging out of his mouth.

The stench of marijuana immediately fills the cabin as he walks over to the sink to wash his hands again, puffing more of the blunt without ever touching it with his bloody hands.

I don’t even know how to react, and schooling my features is seriously a lost cause for the night. I do make a conscious effort not to focus too much on the blood and give the blunt all my attention.

Even my sister, who is a master of deceiving the eye by never revealing what’s going on in her head, is struggling to keep a straight face. She can pretend to be fascinated by it all, but she’s just as scared as I am on the inside.

I confess, I knew we were sheltered but not to what extreme until tonight.

It takes me a moment to summon up the courage to ask the question I want to know most.

“Are you smoking weed?” I ask Kai to his back, trying to keep all the judgment out of my tone.

He starts drying his hands as he glances over his shoulder, grinning around the blunt. It really shouldn’t be a sexy expression, given the obvious.

I blame the fact I feel some deep sort of gratitude toward him that I find him even remotely charming in this moment. Those stupid little flutters in my stomach are a direct result of his selfless heroics and nothing else.

“Sorry,” he says as he pulls it from his mouth and wipes off the end. “Was I supposed to let you hit it first?”

Reese has to smother a sound, and then she quickly clears her throat, before starting to head outside. She likely remembers what they’re doing to Bambi and immediately turns back around, forced to endure this very awkward moment with me.

“Remember our new life goal,” she manages to say without laughing at me.

I stare blankly at the offering, and Kai holds it patiently.

“What’s that new life goal again?” I ask, not recalling anything about peer pressure being in the mix.

“Stop almost having fun.”

“Almost having fun?” Kai asks, sounding like he’s the one confused by us.

“I feel like I’ve been transported into another time or universe,” I say on a reluctant breath as I take the blunt from his hand. “But when in Rome…”

“This is actually Tomahawk,” Hale says as he walks back in, shivering and shutting the door behind him. “Rome is in Georgia or something,” he adds.

I stop hesitating and take a very long pull off the blunt before coughing like an idiot for five minutes. Reese takes her turn while I try to recover.

It’s the first time I’ve ever smoked pot. It’s definitely not a date I’ll ever forget. And at least I don’t need the vodka now.



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11/4/19

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