But first I went to the table and put down the supplies I’d brought, including a bag of ice. When she saw it, she got up and pulled something over. It looked like a trash can, but when she lifted the lid, it wasn’t. I put the ice in there, feeling how cold it was.
“It’s a solar-powered cooler. Neat, huh?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “You sit out here?” The place was lit up with her campfire and some lanterns, but still. “What do you do if someone comes up here that you don’t want? There are men who search for campers. You know that, right? Like, they actually search out single women camping.” I sat in the chair, but immediately stood again. “This is dangerous.”
She shoved to her feet. “I’ve been camping for years. And I pick places that are off the trail. I’m not stupid.”
Her eyes got big. Her face got red. “Excuse me?”
“I said bullshit. I drove right up to your spot. You can’t hide—” I stopped and peered right at her. “Tell me you’ve never been scared out here by yourself. Tell me you’ve never had a guy poking around that made you uncomfortable.”
She huffed. “Besides you?”
“Tell me that’s never happened, Aspen. In all the years you’ve been this camping expert, you’ve never had an encounter with another camper that scared you?”
She didn’t say a word.
She looked at the ground, and I knew I was right.
Fuck. Fuck! It had happened.
“When?” I demanded.
She rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “It doesn’t even matter. I was smart. I got away, and it’s never happened since.”
But it happened.
It had happened once, and it could happen again.
My teeth ground against each other. “I’m not leaving you out here alone. You camp, I’m with you. Or someone else is with you. Enough of this alone shit.”
Her head snapped up and her mouth fell open. “You—what? You can’t do that!”
I snorted, sitting at the table and finding a cup in the bag. I poured myself a drink. “Watch me. I’ll call for reinforcements if I have to.” I leveled her with a look. “I know people who wouldn’t like hearing about this. Don’t forget.”
She glared at me, collapsing back down. “You can’t do that. You can’t come in here and take all this away from me. You can’t!”
Her chin wobbled.
But no, I had to push past the guilt that was easing in. “Aspen, this isn’t safe. There are big game animals that could hurt you too. I can’t—this isn’t safe. You want to camp, you need to have someone with you.”
“You?” She snorted, but she wasn’t looking at me anymore. Her head was down, and she was ripping a stick apart. Hell. She was shredding it, and then she threw the little pieces on the fire.
“Me or someone else you trust. I can’t leave you out here. The man in me won’t let me.”
“The man in you needs to take several seats down.”
Okay. I grinned. That was funny.
She glanced up, saw my grin, and smiled before she looked back down. “I’ve been camping for years. It’s something I did with my brother.”
I remembered—those movie producers were Nate Monson’s parents.
“You mean Nate?”
She stiffened before looking at me. “You know about my older brother?”
I shrugged. “I just put it together. Zeke’s obsessed with your brother’s best friend, so I hear those names quite a bit.”
The blood drained from her face. “You haven’t said anything to him about me, have you?”
I shook my head. “You want a drink?” I grabbed for some ice in that weird trash can/cooler thing.
She shook her head, then stopped. “Yeah.” She sighed. “You make me need to drink.”
I grinned, handing her mine. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She took the cup, making sure to avoid touching my fingers, and I wiggled my eyebrows, letting her know I was aware of what she’d done. Then I gave her a cocky smirk and she flushed, pulling the drink away.
After I poured myself a second cup, I moved to the chair, but that didn’t seem right. She was on the ground, so I eased down too, sitting close enough that my knee could touch hers if I wanted.
I sipped my drink. “I’ve not said anything to Zeke, but he’s going to ask me. He knows I took off tonight, so he’ll be up in my business, wanting to know where I went, who I was with—all that shit, just to warn you.”
“And you have to tell him?”
I thought a moment. “Zeke can be a douchebag, but he’s been a good friend to me. Doesn’t feel right to totally lie to him.” Alarm moved across her face. “But I won’t say shit about your family. And I could give two shits who your brother is or who he’s friends with.”
“Oh.” Her shoulders sagged. “Thank you.”
I nodded, watching her lips as she took a sip of her drink.
My dick twitched, and I tried to ignore that.
“Good?” I asked.
She smiled and nodded. “Yeah.” She went back to watching the fire. “Nate’s not the brother I used to go camping with.”
I watched her and sipped my drink. I could do this all night long, and it would be a great fucking night. This level of contentment was alien to me, but I wasn’t thinking about that crap. I just listened.
“We had another brother—Owen…” She stopped, looking down.
Her voice grew hoarse. “Owen and I camped together.”
That was it. That was all.
Didn’t need to read between the lines to figure out something had happened to Owen.
“That’s why you go camping?”
She nodded, her tone tight. “I usually ‘feel’ him, if that makes sense.”
I raised my eyebrows. “That frustrates you?”
“Well, this time I’ve not been feeling him. Does it make me crazy that I’m pissed about that?” Her voice took on a distant tone. “Camping’s like air to me. I need it to... I just need it.” Her eyes found mine, hardening. “You can’t take that away from me. I won’t let you.”
I held her gaze, reading a promise there. It hit me that she could disappear. She could easily pack up and take off, and I’d not know where she was until she decided to show up.
That just meant I had to sneak another app on her phone, ’cause if it came to that, she’d delete the other one.
I nodded. “Got it.” Yeah, right. She wasn’t going camping alone, not ever again. Was I an extra asshole for worrying about her? Who were the assholes that knew she did this and let her go? ’Cause they were the real assholes.
But she seemed appeased and nodded, lifting her drink again. “Thank you.” Then she frowned. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
I gave her a crooked grin. “Hiding. Same shit as you.”
I jolted when he said that.
Yeah, I was hiding, I guess. I was hiding from school, from my parents. I was hiding from being alone at the house. But I wasn’t only hiding. Who was this guy to come in and declare that I couldn’t do it anymore? He was the dick I’d heard stories about, that’s who. He wasn’t God. He didn’t get to decide these things about my life. He wasn’t my dad or my brother.
I mean, yeah, we’d kissed, and those were some amazing kisses, but that was it.
Were we even friends?
I had no clue.
All I knew was I was confused.
I’d been doing my own thing and then bam, Blaise DeVroe was in my life in a big way. He was at my campsite. That was about as big as it got for me, and he was here, shoving his weight around.
I missed Owen.
Why wasn’t I feeling my brother? It always happened when I went camping.
He’d abandoned me, and Owen was the one that never abandoned me.
I was nuts. That was the only answer for this. But I wasn’t. I was fine. It was normal to do something you’d enjoyed with a loved one to carry on the tradition, and with the idea that they were still with you, just on the other side. I wasn’t crazy for believing in that stuff. There were enough signs when Owen was around—like his favorite song coming on the radio or hearing his voice say my name.
“What are you thinking about over there, weird girl?” Blaise tossed a piece of bark at me.
I frowned, tossing it on the fire. “Don’t call me that.”
“Okay.” He smirked. “How about Hottie? Hottie with the legs? Legs?”
I tried to glare at him, but I kinda liked the names.
“What?” he mocked, grinning. “Want me to go with Colorado? Colo? Asp? That sounds weird.”
“How about just Aspen?”
“Nah. I’ll go with Colorado. Or I can go with Tree? Birch?” His grin turned wicked, and I could almost imagine the next word to come out of him.
I held up a finger. “If you dare call me a female dog, I will slice your tires when you’re sleeping tonight.”
He paused, holding my gaze, weighing my words.
“Shit,” he muttered. “I think you’d actually do that.”
“Don’t mess with the Birch Lady.”
And he was back to grinning. “Noted. I will forever fear the Colorado Tree Lady.”
I grunted. “Damn right.”
Then he laughed. “Man, you’re a trip.”