Crush the saga

Crush the saga
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LexiWills,United Kingdom,Professional
Published Date:31-07-2017
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Chapter 1 Big Bear Lake, California is located in a lush green valley, surrounded by mountains and the towering pines, sparkling streams, wildlife, and hidden lakes of the San Bernardino National Forest. We‘d just moved into a cute, two-story brick house along the south shore of Big Bear Lake. The beautiful and quaint little home was left to us by my grandmother, when she passed away. She‘d spent her whole life in the house and had loved it. So my parents thought it would be fantastic to dump our city life, to move out to the smog-free middle of nowhere, where we could get lost in the peace and quiet tranquility. With only three roads leading in and out of the valley, it wasn‘t the easiest place to get to. My parents loved the solitude here, because they were both writers. My father wrote mystery thrillers, while Mom penned romance novels. They hated the hustle, bustle and noise of the city and were sure the peaceful wilderness would help them concentrate. ―It‘ll be a fresh start for all of us,‖ my mother assured me, following a bad breakup with my boyfriend, ―a very healthy experience all around.‖ I wasn‘t so sure, though. I didn‘t know easily I‘d be able to adjust to the simple life of a small town, after living in New York City, but once we got there, I loved the place. It was a far cry from my life in the big apple, with honking geese and towering trees replacing the honking taxicabs and towering buildings, but I knew my mother was right; it would be the perfect spot to forget about my depressing love life. I have two brothers and a sister who had already moved out of the house, so now I was virtually an only child. I am lucky to have two wonderful parents, we are a loving and close-knit family, and for that I couldn‘t have been more thankful. It was only June when we moved in, so I had almost the whole summer to get used to California and my new home before school started. I carried in the last heavy box to my cluttered room; everything was a mess. I bit my lip hard as I looked around at all the boxes and bags, knowing there was no way that I‘d get everything unpacked and put in its place in one night. ―Pizza‘s here,‖ my mother called, as she came in and pushed through the maze of boxes, toppling them everywhere. My stomach rumbled, reminding me it was after lunch time. My German Shepard began prancing around and barked, reminding me that he needed to go out. ―Mom,‖ I said, ―Max needs to be walked first.‖ ―Go ahead and take him out then, but don‘t wander off too far,‖ she said, as she brushed her hair behind her ear and smiled. ―Of course not Mom,‖ I said kissing her cheek. She looked into my face and pointed to my eyes. ―What‘s with the dark circles?‖ she asked. ―Uh…I‘m sure it‘s just makeup, or maybe it‘s just because I‘ve been getting absolutely no sleep?‖ ―It‘s your makeup,‖ she said smiling. ―You look like a raccoon.‖ ―See? I‘ll fit right in with the wildlife out here.‖ My mom laughed then said, ―Well, maybe the raccoons can adopt you, they‘re nocturnal too.‖ ―I just can‘t sleep at night,‖ I answered. ―I can‘t help it.‖ ―Is this about the breakup with Sean?‖ she asked, wrapping her arms around me. ―Honey, it‘s been six months. Remember what we talked about? We‘re here for a new beginning, a fresh start.‖ ―I know,‖ I said, wincing because the whole thing still hurt. 10 Sean had dumped me, totally out of the blue. Getting dumped sucks, no matter the reason. I had given him my heart, and he had trampled all over it. The breakup had totally blindsided me, I hadn‘t seen it coming, when he called me and said, ―Taylor, this just isn‘t working for me anymore.‖ I knew it was time for me to move on with my life, with whatever grace and dignity I could muster. We‘d both made mistakes in the relationship, and neither of us were perfect by a long shot. Still, I was determined, I refused to let that relationship define who I was. Just because we didn‘t work out and clearly weren‘t meant for each other, that didn‘t mean things wouldn‘t work out with someone else in the future. My friends tried to help, setting me up on stupid dates that never worked out. I wondered if I‘d ever find the ―spark‖ again with someone else? I decided that, for the time being, I was done with guys. I was going to enjoy my fresh start and focus on my passion for painting. The yard was overrun with weeds and vegetation, but my dad had hired someone to fix it up. When he was finished, it would be the perfect place for me to pursue my art. I quickly threw my curly black hair into a messy ponytail, and slipped my feet into my white tennis shoes. I was wearing a white t-shirt and my favorite pair of skinny jeans, which hugged my curves so tight they felt like a second skin. I‘d washed them so many times that they were faded, super soft, and form-fitting in all the right places. There was a large rip in the right knee, but that only gave them originality. Silver and leather bracelets dangled from each of my wrists, and sterling rings adorned my fingers. I looked into the mirror, wiped the smeared eyeliner from beneath my brown eyes, and headed outside. It really was a beautiful place to live. Our yard was surrounded by towering trees that stretched high into the sky. I listened to birds chirping as the sun shone on my face and a cool breeze ruffled my hair. I loved the woods that were part of my new home. Inhaling the clean air, I smiled. I’m really going to enjoy my fresh start here…and so is Max, I thought as the dog explored the back yard. He was fascinated and intrigued by all the new smells and sounds. Suddenly, Max‘s ears shot back, as if he had noticed an animal in the woods. Peering closer, I glimpsed a white-tailed deer sipping from a puddle. My heart melted as I gazed at that adorable creature nestled among the trees. It seemed totally unaware of us watching it, until a sharp bark from Max scared it almost to death and the poor animal darted off into the vegetation. He wasn‘t used to all the natural wildlife, but I knew he was going to love it there as much as I was, if not more. His barks became fierce, then he suddenly bolted through the trees, deeper into the woods. I guessed he‘d decided to pursue the fleeing deer, and I decided then and there that I‘d have to keep him on a leash. ―Max‖ I yelled. ―Come back‖ He didn‘t listen. I glanced back at the house, wondering if I should get my parents for help? The woods and its inhabitants scared me a little. I stood there a while, debating my next move. Finally, I decided to just go a little ways into the woods, but I did—if only for a brief second—wonder about the odds of running into a bear. I stepped through the vegetation at the edge of the lawn, and took a tentative step, into the woods beyond. I glanced around looking for any sign of Max, but he was nowhere in sight, I called for him a few times, only to get no response. I was beginning to worry, when I heard a bark in the distance. Without a second thought, I took off, sprinting deeper into the forest surrounding our property. Finally, I pushed aside some green vegetation and scanning ahead I could finally see my beloved and ornery pet. 11 ―Max‖ I shouted. ―Come back‖ He gave me the doggie version of the I-see-you-but-I-don‘t-care look, then started sniffing the ground. As I made my way toward him, I was seriously considering obedience classes. My thoughts were interrupted when a thorn grazed my skin. Biting my lip to stave off the pain, I swore I‘d never let that cantankerous canine off his leash again. I stumbled a bit to the left, tripping over a pile of termite-ridden, moss-covered, rotting logs. Stumbling on I broke through more towering ferns, but Max had once again disappeared into the thick vegetation. I couldn‘t see him anywhere, but could still hear him barking. Panting, I spun in a slow circle trying to decide what to do. I was afraid I might get lost if I went in any deeper, but I couldn‘t just desert my best friend. The snap of a twig behind me, followed by the unmistakable crunch of dried leaves, halted me mid step. I strained to listen. Was that...Max? Snap, the sound of another branch breaking echoed through the quiet forest. ―Max?‖ I yelled, scanning through the trees and high grass ahead, ―C‘mere, boy.‖ Silence. With my senses now on full alert, I swept an uneasy gaze through the surrounding trees. I whistled for Max calling out, ―Here, Max C‘mon, boy. Let‘s go home.‖ The sounds of the crickets and chirping birds was my only reply. I jumped, startled, as a sudden flash of tan glinted to my left. I flinched. For a split second, I saw amber-colored eyes in the foliage. Panic stuck. I was sure it was some kind of wild animal. I worried that Max might have been attacked, knowing that one bite to the throat might prove fatal. Fear began to take hold and I grabbed a long, sturdy stick. It wasn‘t much of a weapon, but I‘d be able to poke those yellow eyes out if their owner came after me. A menacing growl broke the silence. My heart thudded against my ribcage, and a shiver swept over my skin. What was I thinking? Running after Max had been a dumb idea. My dad had warned me about black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats. He hadn‘t said anything about tigers, but it was still quite the oh-my situation. I knew that the creature, whatever it was, had also seen me. There was no point in trying to hide. I had to call for Max again, I couldn‘t possibly leave until I knew he was okay. ―Max‖ I yelled, pointing the stick at the eyes peering out from the vegetation, ready to fight with every ounce of strength I had. Finally, Max burst through the thick plants, bounding toward me. I clutched my heart and let out a sigh of relief when I saw that he was unharmed. He immediately took a protective stance in front of me and started growling, snarling and barking at whatever was in those ferns. Given the fight-or-flight choice, I was sure the best course of action was to slowly sneak backward and get the heck outta there. The ferns parted and I gasped. I was suddenly face to face with a mountain lion. It raised its head, unleashing its bloodcurdling signature roar. My heart began to pound in my chest like a high school marching band. What I encountered next was nearly as shocking as the mountain lion. I turned around quickly, only to bump into a guy who looked to be about my age. He wasn‘t just any guy though, he was so scorching hot that if I had wet my finger with my tongue and touched him, his chest would have steamed and sizzled. He instinctively pushed me behind him as if to protect me, then started shouting and throwing sticks at the big cat. I joined in with some noise of my own, and in an instant, the mountain lion fled into the grass. 12 The beautiful stranger eyed me up and down, warmth and empathy radiating from the depths of his gaze. ―Are you okay?‖ His gorgeous, winter-blue eyes hypnotized me, and I was pulled into his hold with one look. My breath had never literally been taken away before, but I was absolutely suffocating under the power of his stare, and my knees began to shake. ―I-I…‖ The butterflies that had landed in my stomach, in fear of the cat, were now turning flirty somersaults. My eyes slid up his towering body, gliding over his features drinking in every detail, from his high cheekbones to the dark stubble shading his sharp jaw. He was definitely tall, dark and handsome. Even if it was quite cliché of me to be so taken by him, I felt like I‘d been struck by lightning. I‘d never been face to face with somebody so beautiful and angelic. He was the kind of guy who I thought only existed in movies, as if a Calvin Klein model had stepped down off of one of those big, delicious billboards for a hike through the woods. ―Are you sure you‘re all right?‖ he asked, after my stutter never turned into a complete answer. He didn‘t fidget or stumble for words like I did, whenever I was standing in front of a gorgeous stranger. Rather, his cool confidence spoke volumes to me, as if he was used to girls throwing themselves at him, which I was just about to do. My breath froze in my throat, and my stomach clenched. I‘d never been so drawn to anyone before, never so instantly, so madly attracted. I couldn‘t stop staring at his messy tangle of dark hair, it had that tousled, just-out-of-bed look, which I loved and found so sexy. From his piercing blue eyes, to his strong chiseled jaw, to his handsome face, he was absolutely godlike. Even dressed in a plain black t-shirt and jeans. I took a deep breath to try to calm down, but it felt as if time had stopped. When our eyes locked, we both seemed to get lost in each other‘s gaze, oblivious to anything else. I was fixated by his piercing stare. There was an explosive chemistry between us which was absolutely undeniable. My ex had told me that sexual attraction and chemistry couldn‘t possibly be planned, it was something that would just happen naturally. I knew, standing there looking at this new guy, that he wasn‘t lying. I had never felt like that with my old boyfriend. I couldn‘t even explain the uncontrollable force that was drawing me to him like a moth to flame. When he looked at me with that sexy smile on his face, I‘d never felt so desirable, so wanted. I had a strong urge to jump into his strong embrace. He was a smoldering hot hunk, and I couldn‘t believe I had his attention. ―Is everything okay?‖ he asked a third time, snapping me back into reality. My mouth dropped, and it took a minute for my brain to function. ―Uh, huh? Oh yeah. I‘m, um…I‘m fine,‖ I babbled, as if that big cat had my tongue. He stepped forward and looked off into the vegetation. ―It‘s gone for now, but you must be careful of predators out here.‖ He warned, meeting my gaze straight on. ―Predators are always on the prowl. They‘ll stalk their prey until an opportunity arrives to pounce and go for the neckwith a fatal bite.‖ ―I know,‖ I said. ―The thought of anything biting me anywhere kind of freaks me out.‖ ―If you are not all right with fangs piercing your skin, you definitely shouldn‘t be out here.‖ ―You‘re right. Let‘s get outta here before the big kitty comes back.‖ Staring deep into my eyes he said, ―It won‘t.‖ Max growled at the handsome stranger and began to bark. I was a bit embarrassed that I didn‘t have my dog under better control. ―Don‘t worry,‖ I told him, patting the furry beast‘s head. ―Max doesn‘t bite.‖ 13 ―Well,‖ he said with a grin. ―Tell him that I do.‖ We both burst-out laughing, his ice-breaker had worked. Nevertheless, even with my soothing tone and gentle touch, Max continued to growl and pace in front of me. ―Max‖ I scolded. ―Knock it off, boy.‖ ―Don‘t blame Max. It‘s not his fault,‖ he said. ―All dogs hate me, it‘s their natural instinct.‖ ―Nah, he‘s just protective and loyal, that‘s all,‖ I said, trying to explain. ―You‘re still a stranger to him, and he is trying to look after me.‖ I was still a little rattled by the mountain lion. That must be why Max is acting this way, I thought. ―We‘d better go, just in case that snarling menace comes back looking for dessert.‖ ―Like I told you, it‘s not coming back,‖ he said sternly, shifting his powerful stance. ―It caught a whiff of my scent. It fears me, just like your dog does.‖ ―You mean it‘s afraid of shouting humans?‖ ―The shouting, yes.‖ I laughed. ―So you‘re telling me that big lion is scared of our little voices?‖ He just stared at me with those dazzling blue eyes for a moment, then totally changing the subject he asked, ―Do you always hike unprepared?‖ ―No. It was an unintended hike,‖ I answered. ―My dog took off and I had to find him.‖ ―At the very least, you should carry pepper spray to ward off bears.‖ ―I don‘t see you sporting a can,‖ I said with a chuckle. ―I don‘t need it,‖ he replied with a smirk. ―I can fight off a black bear with my bare hands.‖ Smiling I said, ―All right, Davy Crockett.‖ He grinned right back at me, nearly melting me where I stood. ―But all joking aside, you shouldn‘t be out here. As I said, these woods are full of hungry predators,‖ he warned again. Shooting him a flirty look I said, ―Well, then it‘s a good thing I‘m safe here with you.‖ I didn‘t know what had come over me, but something had. Where are these wild emotions even coming from? I‘d never been so bold and daring. It wasn‘t like me at all, but I couldn‘t seem to keep the words or the girly giggles from coming out of my mouth. I couldn‘t explain it, but there was some hot, intense, intoxicating connection between us. The attraction was sizzling, but I didn‘t have the guts to ask him out, or even for his phone number. I didn‘t even know if I was his type or not, if he even liked brunettes with frizzy, curly hair and chocolate-brown eyes. For all I knew, he was only into that boob-job and bleached blonde type, and that most definitely wasn‘t me. ―You don‘t know a thing about me,‖ he said. ―What makes you think you‘re safe in my hands?‖ ―Are you saying I should fear you more than that mountain lion?‖ I asked. ―Maybe I should be carrying more than pepper spray, if that‘s the case.‖ ―What I‘m saying is that you need to be careful. Seemingly nice guys cannot always be trusted,‖ he answered, glancing down at a still growling Max. I just smiled and asked, ―Are you a nice guy?‖ His face lit up, and he grinned again. ―I suppose there‘s only one way to find out.‖ I took the bait and engaged him with, ―And, pray tell, how‘s that?‖ Suddenly, his gorgeous grin faded, worry flashing across his features. He began to dart his eyes around from tree to tree, shrub to shrub, and appeared to be listening so intently that I could have sworn his ears perked up like a dog‘s. 14 Max started to bark and snap at the air. I peered into the foliage and thick brush, but I couldn‘t see anything to be afraid of. ―They‘re back,‖ he whispered, then pointing to Max he added, ―Please keep him quiet.‖ They? I thought, worried that he was talking about more than one mountain lion. As he suggested, I patted Max‘s head and tried my best to calm him, but it didn‘t help. Finally, Mr. Mysterious knelt down and petted Max. ―Shh, boy.‖ Much to my surprise, Max immediately quit barking. The handsome stranger then placed his hand on my lower back and briskly led me in the direction of our house. He gently tapped Max‘s head and said, ―Go home.‖ Obediently, Max bolted off. When the house was in view, I glanced over my shoulder to thank my escort. I was shocked to discover that he was gone, vanishing just quickly and mysteriously as he‘d shown up in the first place. I squinted, peering through the dark spaces between the trees, but he was nowhere in sight. It was as if he‘d just vanished into thin air. Who is he? I wondered. Where does he live? Gosh, I’m an idiot. I didn’t even get his name. Shaking my head at my foolishness, I walked to the back door and opened it. ―There you are. What took so long, sweetheart?‖ my mom asked. ―And I know you didn‘t stay in the back yard like I told you to.‖ ―I saw a mountain lion,‖ I said pointing in the direction of where I‘d come from. My dad immediately pulled me into a tight hug, then stepped back and began inspecting me from head to toe. ―Are you okay?‖ he asked, looking concerned. ―I‘m fine, Dad,‖ I sighed. ―Max ran off, and I just—‖ ―You weren‘t supposed to go in the woods,‖ he said firmly. ―What was I supposed to do?‖ I asked. ―I had to find Max.‖ ―You shouldn‘t go out there alone,‖ he answered. ―You could have hollered for me, and I would have gone with you.‖ ―It would‘ve only taken a minute to get me or Dad,‖ Mom added. ―I didn‘t know he was gonna go so deep into the woods, or I would have,‖ I explained. My dad‘s brown gaze narrowed. ―Are you sure it was a mountain lion you saw?‖ ―Positive.‖ I answered. ―I just took off running and—‖ ―Taylor,‖ my father pushed, ―if that was a bobcat or mountain lion, its natural instinct would be to chase you. Never run. Just yell, shout, and make yourself look bigger.‖ ―Yeah, I know, but I panicked, I guess. Still, it didn‘t chase me,‖ I said. ―I don‘t want you going out there alone again,‖ my mom chastised, as if I was five years old. Dad handed me a plate with two slices of pizza on it. ―Well, you‘re safe now,‖ he said, ―so sit down and eat.‖ I tried to calm my breathing. I didn‘t have the guts to tell them I‘d met a man in the woods, or that he had saved me from the mountain lion. My stomach was tangled in knots. ―Thanks Dad, but I‘m not really hungry,‖ I said. ―I think I‘ll just go unpack a few boxes.‖ ―All right. I guess you have had quite a day,‖ Mom chimed in. ―We‘ll save your pizza, and you can just microwave it later if you get hungry.‖ ―Thanks,‖ I said, already heading for my room. On my way upstairs, I couldn‘t help glancing out the window, but I didn‘t see anything unusual. Later that night, as the moon began to shine, the crickets began to chirp, and the wind began to whisper through the treetops, I thought about my mysterious stranger. In my dreams my mind 15 replayed the entire scene over and over again. I woke up the next morning with his beautiful face on my mind. I had to find him, to see him again, if only once more. I wanted to at least have a name to pair with that beautiful face, a face that I knew would linger in my mind for a long, long time. Chapter 2 ―Taylor,‖ my mother called, ―we‘re going to the lake, to fish and take a paddle-boat ride. C‘mon, dear‖ ―Can I stay and unpack?‖ I asked. ―No, we‘re all going,‖ she answered firmly. I blew out a breath. ―But I don‘t want to fish,‖ I whined, far more interested in reveling in the memory of the mysterious hottie from the woods. ―Then you can try to get a tan,‖ she said, sounding determined. ―It‘s supposed to be warm and sunny today.‖ I gazed at the leaning tower of boxes that rivaled the one in Pisa. ―How am I supposed to find my bathing suit in this mess?‖ hoping I might have found an out. ―I‘ve got an extra you can borrow.‖ She chuckled. ―But I must warn you that it has a skirt.‖ ―Mom‖ I laughed and shook my head. She smiled. ―Besides, there‘s someone I want you to meet.‖ My mouth dropped. ―No way,‖ I said. ―Tell me you‘re not trying to set me up, especially not while I‘m wearing a swimsuit that makes me look like a nun.‖ ―Honey, it‘s nothing like that,‖ she assured me. ―I met a friend and she has a daughter your age. I was thinking you two could hang out. She‘s new in town too.‖ ―Oh,‖ I said. ―It‘d be nice to have a friend around here. But let me look for my own bathing suit. I think I might know what box it‘s in, now that I think about it.‖ ―Great,‖ she said with a grin. ―We‘re leaving in a couple hours.‖ ―Okay Mom, I‘ll get my stuff together.‖ Knock When I answered the front door, a guy about my age with short brown hair and piercing green eyes looked at me. He shot me a grin, and I smiled back. He wasn‘t as built as the guy in the forest, but he was definitely a cutie. He was dressed like a jock in a t-shirt, shorts, and Nikes. I couldn‘t fathom why this guy was standing in my doorway. ―Hi,‖ I said. ―Is there something I can help you with?‖ ―Your dad hired me to do some yard work,‖ he answered. I suddenly remembered that my dad had told me about that, but I had no idea the landscaper would be so young and attractive. I‘d expected a short, balding man in a grubby old flannel shirt and clunky boots. ―Oh, okay. Let me get him for you.‖ I called for my dad, and he came to the door. ―This is Fred,‖ Dad said, introducing him. ―He‘s going to give our back yard a makeover.‖ ―It could sure use one,‖ I said, smiling at Fred. ―I can give you a hand if—‖ ―No way,‖ my father interrupted. ―The last time you helped, the yard looked…well, let‘s just say that yard work isn‘t your forte, honey.‖ Just then, my mom opened the door and peeked out. ―Fred, would you like to come to the beach with us?‖ she asked. 16 Not wanting to be rude, my dad just cleared his throat and looked at her in disbelief. He was paying Fred to do a job and didn‘t expect it to be put off. ―We‘ve gotta get this jungle under control, dear,‖ he said, looking a bit harshly at her. ―I think the sooner Fred gets started, the better.‖ ―One more day isn‘t going to hurt anything,‖ my mother said. ―Let him come with us. He can deal with the yard tomorrow.‖ ―Is living in the Amazon one more day really going to hurt anything?‖ I asked. Frowning a little, Dad wrinkled his brow at me, then at Mom. ―Taylor, you go on and finish getting ready for the beach. Fred, please come with me so I can show you what we need done,‖ he said refusing to be dissuaded. Fred‘s green eyes sparkled like emeralds. ―See ya later, Taylor.‖ I waved. ―Bye. It was nice to meet you.‖ I watched intently as my dad talked his ear off with all his big plans for the yard. Fred snuck a look over his shoulder and smiled. I grinned back, then watched my dad escort him to the other side of the house. Once they were out of sight, I went back upstairs to my room to finish packing for the beach. While I stayed on the beach for some sun and fun, Mom and Dad went fishing not too far away. I spread out a colorful towel, applied plenty of Coppertone, slipped on a pair of sunglasses, and then laid down on my back to soak up all the sunshine I could. My gold bikini left little to the imagination, including more cleavage than my dad was a fan of, but I figured he needed to face the fact I was growing up and was not his little girl anymore. It didn‘t really matter anyway, because there were so few people on the beach that one would have thought shark warnings had been posted. I just enjoyed the solitude, warm rays and listening to the birds and gulls soaring overhead. ―Taylor?‖ a girl‘s voice said. I sat up and grinned. ―Yep, that‘s me.‖ A tall blonde in a tie-dyed bathing suit, with a large striped beach bag over her shoulder, standing there smiling. ―Hi, I‘m Julie,‖ she said, holding her hand out for a shake. ―I‘ve been dying to meet you. Mom tells me we‘re the same age, in the same grade. I just moved here last week, and I don‘t know a soul.‖ I shook her hand and smiled. ―That makes two of us.‖ She smiled, then spread out her own beach towel, adjusted her sunglasses, and politely asked, ―If you don‘t mind? I‘m gonna catch some rays too.‖ ―Sounds like a plan,‖ I said, laying back down and turning my head in her direction to talk. ―Where do you live?‖ I asked. ―Not far from you. My parents split, and Mom‘s—‖ ―Divorced?‖ ―You nailed it. Divorce, the future tense of marriage.‖ I had to stifle a laugh, considering that her wounds were probably still fresh, but I appreciated her cynical sense of humor. ―I‘m sorry,‖ I said. ―It‘s fine, and I‘ll be fine too. I always bounce back. It‘s like I have nine lives,‖ she said confidently. ―My dad got remarried and lives in Washington, and Mom got a job as a manager for Sleepy Forest Cottages. Where do your parents work?‖ ―In their pajamas sometimes,‖ I said. ―Huh?‖ 17 ―Heh. They work from home. They‘re authors, so for them, this place is like a writers‘ retreat, the perfect inspiration.‖ ―Oh. Well, that‘s pretty cool.‖ ―I guess. They met at a writing conference and have been inseparable ever since. I guess you could call it love at first write,‖ I said with a smile. She laughed. ―Fairytale perfect, huh?‖ ―Well…sometimes, but speaking of fairy-tales,‖ I said, ―I think I met Prince Charming.‖ She lifted her glasses up and smiled. ―Really? Where? Is he a lifeguard or something?‖ she asked, looking around. ―Not that I know of—at least not in the traditional sense. Yesterday, my dog Max took off into the woods, and when I ran in there to get him, I bumped into this super-hot guy.‖ ―Whoa‖ She lifted a brow. ―A hot forest boy, huh?‖ Just then, another vision of him looking like a Greek god flashed through my head, his black hair wafting in the wind like some majestic stallion‘s mane. I grinned as I imagined how the intimate touch of his lips on mine would feel. ―Hello? Earth to Taylor,‖ said Julie, snapping me out of my trance. ―Oh…sorry. I was just thinking about him. He was just so…hot. ‖ ―Do tell‖ she said with a grin. I lifted my sunglasses off my face and said, ―Smokin‘…really‖ She furrowed a brow. ―As in…sizzling?‖ I grinned. ―Absolutely smoldering.‖ ―What‘s his name?‖ she asked. ―Um…that‘s the thing. I don‘t know.‖ ―What?‖ she gasped. ―You mean to tell me this gorgeous creature was standing right there in front of you, and you didn‘t even find out who he is?‖ ―Well, we talked for a few minutes, and I felt this amazing connection,‖ I answered, trying to explain something I really didn‘t understand myself. ―I guess I was so caught up in the moment that I just didn‘t think to ask.‖ ―You know what that was, don‘t ya?‖ she asked. ―What?‖ ―Chemistry.‖ ―Yeah, I guess.‖ ―So lemme get this straight. You met some hot guy who took your breath away, and you didn‘t even get his name?‖ she asked again. ―Do you even know where he‘s from?‖ ―You mean besides Heaven?‖ I answered with a grin. She laughed. ―Oh my gosh, that‘s soooo corny.‖ I laughed back at her. ―I don‘t know.‖ She shot me a look like I was crazy. ―Why didn‘t you ask?‖ ―Well, there were mountain lions, and—‖ ―Mountain lions, as in plural?‖ she asked. ―Yeah. Why?‖ She lifted a finger. ―That‘s clue number one,‖ she said. ―Mr. Wonderful doesn‘t know much about the wildlife around here. I read up on it. Mountain lions travel alone.‖ ―Hmm. That‘s odd,‖ I answered. ―When we were out there, after we scared one lion away, my dog started acting funny, and he said, ‗They’re back‘.‖ 18 ―Only mothers and kittens live in groups, and I doubt a mama mountain lion would come back with her babies,‖ she said. Then she asked, ―What happened after that?‖ ―He seemed jumpy and rushed me back home, then took off.‖ I replied. ―When I glanced over my shoulder, he was gone.‖ ―Hmm. He does sound mysterious,‖ she said, looking intrigued. ―I‘ll keep out an eye for him. What does he look like?‖ ―He‘s gorgeous,‖ I said. ―Yeah, you already said that. What else?‖ ―Well, he has black hair to his shoulders,‖ I answered smiling even wider, recalling every detail of his features. ―And he‘s got these big, bright blue eyes, almost like he was wearing those colored contacts.‖ ―You mean, like pastel or a piercing shade of bright blue?‖ she asked. ―I don‘t know, exactly,‖ I said. ―When I was a kid, there was this crayon in my box of Crayolas that was called Periwinkle. It was kind of like that, it was the rarest eye color I‘ve ever seen. It was the lightest blue ever, as blue as the sky. I don‘t know who he is, but I‘ve gotta find out.‖ ―So you‘re calling dibs on the hottest guy on town already? Gee, I sure hope he has a brother,‖ she said smiling. ―I‘m not even sure if he lives here,‖ I said. ―What would make you think otherwise?‖ she asked. ―Well, you said yourself that he made a mistake about the mountain lions. It seems like a local would know better,‖ I answered. ―Maybe he was just hiking and is staying at one of the hotels.‖ ―Was he dressed like a hiker? Did he have a backpack and gear and hiking boots?‖ ―No, none of that.‖ ―Hmm. I do love a good mystery. We‘ve gotta find your hunky hottie and see if he‘s got an equally smoldering brother.‖ I laughed, asking, ―And how are we supposed to do that? Stalk the resorts, hotels, and cabins?‖ ―No,‖ she replied. ―I have a better idea. This guy named Jed is throwing a party tonight at his cabin. Lucky for us, I got invited. If this mysterious guy is a local, I‘m sure he‘ll be there.‖ ―And if he doesn‘t show up?‖ ―Then we move on to Plan B.‖ ―Which is?‖ ―Stalking the resorts, hotels, and cabins.‖ ―Man, that‘s gonna suck,‖ I said with a groan. ―Yep,‖ she said, rolling over to get some sun on her back. ―If he‘s a tourist, he‘ll most likely be here for no more than a week or two. But even if he leaves, I‘m sure there are other cute guys around here somewhere.‖ ―I don‘t want another cute guy,‖ I said with a sigh. ―I want him.‖ ―Picky, picky, picky When you show up tonight, make sure you look good. Wear something cute. If he happens to be there and he‘s single, maybe you‘ll snag him, she said. ―At least you can find out his name this time.‖ ―Right,‖ I said, giving my new friend a fist bump. ―I need to meet somebody to forget about my ex,‖ she said. ―Yeah, I know the feeling,‖ I replied. ―I did meet another guy who‘s pretty cute too.‖ 19 ―Wow. What are you, a guy magnet?‖ she asked with a chuckle. ―How‘d you meet that one? And don‘t blame your dog.‖ ―He knocked on my door.‖ ―Hey‖ she laughed, asking, ―How come I don‘t have that kind of luck?‖ ―My dad hired him to do some yard work,‖ I said. ―His name is Fred.‖ ―So introduce me,‖ she replied. ―I will.‖ ―Unless you want him.‖ ―Nah, he‘s a cutie all right, but I‘m all hung up on Mr. Blue Eyes,‖ I answered. ―Fred‘s are jade green, kinda like yours.‖ ―Well, anything to get my mind off my ex,‖ Julie said. ―My love life isn‘t so great either. I was dumped about six months ago. Sean said we didn‘t have the spark he needs.‖ ―Spark? The guy sounds like a jerk. Trust me, you‘re better off with somebody else. You don‘t need a guy who‘d ever say something like that to a girl,‖ she said, adding, ―If he wants a spark, maybe somebody oughtta shove a lighter up his—‖ ―Hey Gross‖ I squealed, cutting her off before she made me visualize something I didn‘t want to see. She laughed, and I couldn‘t help laughing too. ―Anyway,‖ I answered, ―he is a jerk, like you said. He had a girlfriend one day after he dumped me.‖ ―Idiot‖ I sighed, ―Tell me about it.‖ Sitting up and grinning coyly, as if she‘d just thought up to something naughty, she asked, ―So…are you ready to forget about him and have some fun?‖ ―Definitely,‖ I replied, grinning too. ―Good,‖ she said firmly. ―I‘ll pick you up tonight. Mom already told me where you live. Is seven okay?‖ ―I‘ll be ready and waiting.‖ ―Cool. And look, Taylor, if your fiery forest friend isn‘t there, don‘t worry about it. I‘ve got a feeling there won‘t be a shortage of hotties around here—or at least I hope there won‘t.‖ ―I‘ve got a feeling we‘re going to be really good friends,‖ I said smirking, somehow knowing it was the truth. Chapter 3 Julie‘s bright blonde hair hung in long beautiful waves, and her green eyes really popped thanks to the brown eyeshadow she‘d chosen. She was dressed in tight black pants with a black glittery top that sparkled from a mile away. ―You do know we‘re going to a party in the woods, right?‖ I asked. ―Yeah,‖ she answered, ―Why?‖ ―You look red-carpet ready.‖ ―Too much?‖ she questioned. ―Maybe a tad,‖ I said, gesturing with my index finger and thumb. 20 Her eyes twinkled like emeralds. ―When I get the hottest guy in the room, I‘ll be sure to give you my Academy Awards speech.‖ I smiled. ―Love your confidence.‖ ―Get in,‖ she said gesturing to the passenger seat. I pretended like I was talking into a microphone. ―And the Academy Award for best dressed goes to—‖ ―Julie Winters‖ she said with a laugh. When she pulled into the driveway of our destination, my jaw dropped. For some reason, I had pictured a cottage in the woods, but the place was far from that. Instead, it was a huge, fancy cabin with a spacious deck and bay windows all around. ―Are you ready to find Prince Charming?‖ she asked with a huge smile. ―You know it,‖ I answered. She opened her compact and checked her makeup, making sure her smoky eyes were still smoky enough. ―Okay. I think we‘re good to go.‖ Two thin girls with long hair and short skirts walked past us. They were so pretty, that I felt intimidated. I was sure I had no shot with my mysterious guy while those two were in the vicinity. Swallowing hard, I pondered. He had so many girls to choose from, and I felt like a beat-up station wagon in a lot full of Benzes and Ferraris. I had never been low on confidence, but I suddenly felt as if I didn‘t stand a chance with any guy, let alone the one I wanted. ―Taylor,‖ my new friend said, ―is this the first time you‘ve been out in public since your breakup?‖ ―Yeah, basically,‖ I said, slamming the door shut. ―But you know what? He‘s the last person on my mind.‖ ―I guarantee by the time we go home, you‘ll have forgotten all about the scumbag, she assured me. ―He doesn‘t deserve to be missed.‖ ―I don‘t think about him anymore,‖ I lied. She smirked and said, ―Yes you do.‖ ―All right,‖ I said, ―maybe just a little, but we dated for a long time, so it‘s only natural to—‖ She grabbed my arm. ―No sad stories tonight. Let‘s go.‖ Glancing around the yard, I noticed beer bottles strewn everywhere. Clusters of people were sitting around outside, and one couple was making out beside a red sports car. A drunk person stumbled down the steps, and a woman in the shortest skirt and the highest heels I‘d ever seen ran over to him, laughing hysterically, probably more drunk than he was. Somebody whistled as we walked past a group of people, and I heard a man ask, ―Hey, do I know you?‖ ―Jed invited us,‖ Julie said. ―Welcome to the party then,‖ he said. ―Go on in and help yourselves to some appetizers and drinks, ladies.‖ I smiled. ―Thanks.‖ Inside, the music was blaring, and everyone was laughing and dancing. It was hot and sticky, and the crowd was a little older than I thought. I was surprised that none of them looked like high school students. It reminded me of a college frat party, and I immediately wondered why Julie had even been invited? Whether we wanted every one's attention or not, all eyes were on us, staring at us like we were some kind of two-headed unicorn. I swallowed hard, glancing from one open mouth to another. Something was wrong, I could have almost cut the tension with the proverbial knife. I 21 wasn‘t sure why they were looking at us like that, so I assumed they just weren‘t expecting teenagers to show up at their older-crowd get-together. When the chatter and laughter resumed, much to my relief, I nudged Julie. ―We should leave, I said. ―I don‘t feel comfortable here.‖ ―Oh, don‘t be a party-pooper,‖ Julie replied. ―Look at all these hot college guys. Maybe I‘ll even snag one.‖ ―Really, Julie, I think it‘s best we leave,‖ I pleaded. She put her hand on her hip and turned to face me, then actually stomped her foot like a spoiled toddler. ―Seriously?‖ she asked. ―You wanna go back to your boring house? Let‘s just have a drink and chat a little. If you still want to leave then, we will.‖ I looked around uneasily and swallowed hard. ―I already know I want to leave now.‖ ―Well, you didn‘t drive,‖ she said. My lips pressed into grim lines. I didn‘t like being forced into such a situation, and she knew it. ―Oh, all right. If you wanna leave, we‘ll go,‖ she said over the loud music. ―But since we got all dressed up one drink would be nice.‖ She shot me that stupid puppy dog face and stuck her bottom lip out. Just like that, I caved. ―Fine. One drink,‖ I said, ―but then we‘re heading back to your house.‖ She smiled at the compromise. ―I knew you‘d see it my way,‖ she said smugly. I was sure one drink wouldn‘t kill us, but I still couldn‘t wait to get out of there. The stench of smoke wafted past me, and I stepped away from the girl who was blowing at me. I jumped when another girl hurled right beside my feet. I frowned when Julie pulled me away and into the crowd. ―You ladies want a drink?‖ asked a blonde guy in his twenties. Julie grinned saying, ―Sure.‖ When he walked away, her grin grew even wider. ―See?‖ she said. ―We fit right in.‖ ―I guess it‘s better than sitting on the porch and listening to frogs and crickets,‖ I said with a shrug. ―That‘s the spirit‖ She suddenly grabbed my arm. ―Hear that?‖ What? The loud music or the roaring laughter? I thought. ―Hear what?‖ I asked. ―Only my favorite song in the whole wide world‖ She answered, swaying her hips to the beat of the music. The music pounded louder as the blonde guy finally returned with our drinks. ―Thanks,‖ I said. Just as I opened it, he slammed his bottle against mine in some kind of impromptu and uninvited toast, beer splattered my face and started to fizz all over the place. ―Ah‖ I asked, trying to wipe my face. ―What was that for?‖ ―Gotta pay better attention, little girl,‖ he said with a wink and a laugh. I didn‘t see what was so funny, and in a rage I turned to Taylor. ―I‘ve been here less than five minutes, and I‘ve already been soaked with beer, accosted by smoke and almost puked on‖ I nearly shouted. ―Don‘t pay him any mind. He‘s drunk,‖ she said, pulling me further into the crowd. ―Your shirt won‘t take long to dry, and then no one will even notice. C‘mon. Let‘s have some fun.‖ A tall guy with pretty green eyes reached for Julie, she giggled flirtatiously as he twirled her around. ―I see you love to jam,‖ he said, eying her up and down. ―Wanna dance?‖ ―I‘d love to,‖ she said. ―This is my favorite song.‖ 22 ―Mine too,‖ he said. She glanced at me and asked, ―Do you mind?‖ I couldn‘t possibly refuse to let her go because the invitation to dance with a college guy had her looking like she‘d just won the lottery. I didn‘t see the harm in letting her bask in the light for one dance or two. ―Have fun.‖ ―You‘re the best‖ she shouted. After she shimmied off with the green-eyed goon, I glanced around and swallowed hard again when I realized I didn‘t know a soul other than her. Eager to claim my role as an unnoticed, inconspicuous wallflower, I made my way to the corner and waited for the dance to finish. I leaned against the wall sipping my drink. The next song that came on was a slow love song. I suddenly felt even more uncomfortable standing there by myself as couples snuggled close all around me. I decided it would be better if I made my way through the crowd and headed out to the deck for some fresh air. Just as I spun around to leave, a towering figure with brown eyes smiled at me. He looked to be in his early twenties with short cropped hair. ―What‘s a pretty girl like you doing here without a date?‖ he asked. ―Like the old song says,‖ I said with a shy smile, ―girls just wanna have fun.‖ ―Well, dancing is fun. Would you like to?‖ he asked. ―Sure,‖ I said with a shrug, as if I wasn‘t flattered at all. ―I‘m Drake.‖ ―I‘m Taylor.‖ ―It‘s nice to meet you.‖ Dancing through the slow song was a little awkward with a stranger, but I relaxed a little when the music changed to a faster song. ―Do you have any idea how special you are?‖ he asked, as we continued dancing. Flattered, but a little shocked I answered, ―Um, no. I‘m just a regular girl.‖ He looked deeply into my eyes. ―You‘re far from regular.‖ ―I wish,‖ I replied, sure I must be blushing by now and hoping it was too dark for him to notice. ―You‘re the talk of the immortal world,‖ he said. ―And you have a destiny you cannot control.‖ The music was loud and I wasn‘t sure if I heard him right. ―What?‖ ―Just know that you are very special, very unique.‖ I smiled again and said thanks. ―You can give my enemies everything they need, and that‘s why I‘m debating whether or not I should kill you.‖ He said as he pushed a strand of hair from my face. ―But you‘re so captivating that it would be such a waste to hurt you.‖ A woman cut in. ―Drake‘s had way too much to drink. We‘ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons all night,‖ she said. ―He‘s losing touch with reality with all this booze.‖ She tapped him on the back. ―Remember, we need to keep the princess alive.‖ ―Why?‖ he asked. ―So our enemies can destroy us?‖ ―You are cut off,‖ she replied firmly. ―No more beers for you.‖ She shot me a smile as she led him away and said, ―Sorry, sometimes these guys get a little carried away with their fantasy role play.‖ A little puzzled I decided it was time to find Julie, who of course wanted to stay longer, even though I was beyond ready to call it a night. She and I did shots, but all in all, she drank far more 23 than I did. After the drinks loosened me up a little, I did dance with a few other guys and made lots of small talk as the hours ticked by. After a while Julie leaned on my shoulder in a drunken stupor. ―He wants me to go upstairs with him. Should I go?‖ she asked. ―I mean, I‘m totally turned on right now, and—‖ ―You‘re drunk,‖ I said interrupting her and snatching the drink out of her hand. ―Consider yourself cut off and you‘re definitely not going upstairs with him or anybody else on my watch,‖ I finished firmly. ―What?‖ she shrieked, ―Why am I cut off?‖ ―Because you have to drive us home. I can‘t drive a stick.‖ ―You‘re right,‖ she admitted. ―I‘ll start trying to sober up. Besides, the last thing I need is a bad reputation already. I just got here‖ ―Exactly.‖ When she leaned on me with all her weight, I almost stumbled. ―I‘m so glad you‘re here to watch out for me,‖ she said. ―You‘re my new best friend. We girls gotta stick together. And you know what?‖ ―What?‖ I asked. ―Where‘s the guy who promised to bring me coffee? My head feels like there‘s a thunderstorm in it.‖ ―I didn‘t know somebody was getting you coffee.‖ ―Not just somebody,‖ she said, with a dreamy look. ―An angel. The caffeine angel.‖ I almost laughed at her, but I didn‘t feel that would be appropriate. ―You‘re so wasted,‖ I said instead. ―No really,‖ she said, ―a blue-eyed angel offered to bring me a cup-a-jo. Blue eyes like Heaven, where he comes from.‖ Wait…light blue eyes? Maybe….periwinkle eyes? My heart began to thump in excitement that I hoped wouldn‘t be for nothing. In the next second, she turned to a guy and smiled. ―You‘re back…and you really did bring me coffee,‖ she said. ―How sweet. Thank you.‖ When I could muster up the courage to glance up at her hero, I found myself staring right into the eyes of my own, my handsome stranger from the forest. My heart pounded out a symphony all its own, as I stared into his intense, vivid blue eyes. I couldn‘t pull my eyes away from his face, drinking in every detail of his sharply chiseled face. I‘d never seen such a beautiful face before, such a masterpiece of strength, contours and beauty. It was like something off the cover of a romance novel or some dapper leading man in a classic romance movie. This time he was wearing a white shirt, dark blue jeans and a well-worn bomber jacket. I was immediately envious of all that cotton, denim and leather, tightly hugging his gorgeous body. ―Hi. I‘m Jesse,‖ he said, as he smiled and held his hand out to me. ―Taylor,‖ I said, unable to put a whole sentence together. ―Nice to officially meet you. Mind if I get your picture?‖ he asked, holding up a camera. ―Um…sure, okay. But…why?‖ I asked. ―To prove to my friends that angels do exist,‖ he answered. It was a ridiculous line, like some cliché a sleaze-bag idiot would say in a bar, but coming from his lips, it seemed sincere. I couldn‘t help but smile at his blatant flirtations, the heat in my blushing cheeks scorched my skin. With him, it wasn‘t just a pick-up line. He was trying to break the ice, and it worked, again. I was absolutely melting. ―Well, in that case,‖ I said, ―I need to take yours too.‖ 24 ―You‘re more than welcome to try,‖ said some buddy of his, nudging him and nosing into our conversation. ―But he doesn‘t show up on film.‖ ―Stop it‖ said Jesse as he nudged him back. ―You‘re talking crazy.‖ ―Am I?‖ asked the guy before walking off. ―That‘s Tom.‖ said Jesse, as he turned his attention back to me. ―Once he‘s had a few beers, he talks all stupid. So just ignore whatever moronic stuff he comes up with.‖ I laughed again. Another slow song began and Jesse casually took off his jacket and smiled. The fabric of his long-sleeved shirt clung to his broad shoulders and muscular chest, the white cotton making his shoulder-length hair stand out even more. ―Would you like to dance?‖ he asked, offering me his hand like a perfect gentleman. ―I‘d love to,‖ I answered with a grin, taking his hand. He flashed his leading-man smile at me as he wrapped his arms around my waist and I placed my arms on his shoulders. My heart suddenly began beating out a new rhythm of excitement. We stared intently into each other‘s eyes as we danced slowly to the music. I was nervous, but at the same time, I felt comfortable and safe, scared but happy. I‘d never felt such a strange mix of emotions, and I couldn‘t stop smiling. There was a thrilling, rushing, euphoric something going on between us, and for that one timeless moment everything in my life seemed perfect. As we swayed with the beat of the song, he held me close and I rested my head in the crook of his neck. I never would have imagined myself dancing with someone like Jesse, someone so beautiful. I couldn‘t believe he was holding me. I felt I was walking on air. I‘d always laughed at that cliché before, but for the first time, I suddenly knew what it meant. Some of the guys I‘d been chit-chatting with at the party didn‘t seem to be fans of him and I dancing. I could feel the weight of the glares they were shooting at me like daggers in the back. As much as I wanted to be with Jesse, I didn‘t want to cause any trouble, so I thought it was best that we head back to Julie‘s house. I had a nice buzz, wasn‘t trashed like she was. When I glanced through the crowd looking for her, I noticed that she was drinking a second cup of coffee. I hoped that would sober her up enough to drive us home in one piece. ―I hope she‘s okay to drive,‖ I said to Jesse. ―If not, I‘m sure you‘ll get her home safe and sound.‖ ―Do you live around here?‖ I asked. ―Yes, here in Big Bear Lake,‖ he replied. Excitement flooded through me when I discovered he wasn‘t merely a tourist who‘d be taking off soon. I smiled up at him, then glanced down and noticed a bracelet on his arm. It was leather woven with silver beads and decorated with weird symbols. ―I love that,‖ I said, nodding toward it, ―but what do the symbols mean?‖ He shot me the most beautiful grin, a movie star smile. ―You‘ve gotta get to know me better before I can tell you all my deep, dark secrets,‖ he said. He smiled when he said it, but I got the feeling he wasn‘t joking. I gave him my best flirty smile. ―Is that a promise?‖ I asked. ―You have my word…and my word is my bond.‖ I smiled again, then nervously fidgeted with my hands like some silly little middle-schooler. I really had no idea how to keep up a conversation with such a hot guy, and every word was a struggle. ―How old are you?‖ I finally asked, since I couldn‘t think of anything else. ―Seventeen,‖ he answered. ―Really? Me too.‖ 25 ―So is this a new school year for you?‖ ―Yeah,‖ I replied. ―Maybe we‘ll be in some of the same classes.‖ ―Nah, I‘m home-schooled. My mom is a bona-fide control freak, and—‖ He was cut short when Julie yelled, ―Taylor‖ adding, ―I feel sick. I think I‘m gonna pass out.‖ When I turned and looked toward her she was pale and teetering. I rushed over, but before I could reach her, she swayed to the left and toppled over. She tried to grab a side table on the way down, but it didn‘t help. She crashed to the floor, knocking a huge vase over in the process. ―Oh my gosh‖ I cried, hurtling toward her through the crowd. ―Julie‖ The alcohol was one thing, but I couldn‘t understand why blood was gushing from her neck, running down onto her shirt. Chapter 4 I ran over to my friend looking down at her wounds, I assumed the shattered vase shards must have cut her during the fall. I hoped she wouldn‘t need stitches, because she was bleeding pretty profusely. Someone handed me a kitchen towel. I quickly applied pressure to the wound. As the blood began to soak through the towel, I realized she needed medical attention. ―She needs a hospital or a doctor or maybe some stitches and—‖ ―No‖ said a woman, who was suddenly standing over me, looking down at Julie. ―It‘s a shallow cut, nothing a bandage and some peroxide can‘t fix.‖ ―Are you sure?‖ I asked, unconvinced and adding, ―I mean, she‘s bleeding really bad, and—‖ ―Positive,‖ she said sharply, cutting me off. ―I‘m a medic. Let me go get my medical kit from the car.‖ I squeezed Julie‘s hand. ―Are you okay?‖ Her eyes fluttered open. ―I-I think so.‖ ―Just lie still and hold on,‖ I said trying to comfort her. ―There‘s a medic here, and she‘s going to help.‖ ―A medic?‖ Julie asked. ―Wow. Lucky for me. I drank way too much, huh?‖ ―Yeah, that‘s putting it lightly,‖ I said. ―Do you remember me cutting you off?‖ ―Yeah,‖ she answered, offering me a weak half smile, ―but I still snuck drinks behind your back.‖ Knowing it was important to keep Julie awake, I kept her engaged her in conversation until the woman came back. ―Can you give me a hand?‖ the woman asked Jesse. ―Sure,‖ he replied. She then went to work, first cleansing the wound, then covering it with a sterile white bandage. Once Julie was all fixed up, Jesse and I helped her back to her feet. ―See?‖ she slurred. ―Good as new.‖ ―It‘d be best if she gets some rest now,‖ said the medic. ―But I-I can‘t drive,‖ Julie stuttered. ―I‘m toasted…and now wounded from a pissed-off vase.‖ Jesse pulled me to the side. ―Can you get her home?‖ he asked in a whisper. 26 ―This is so embarrassing,‖ I said, ―but her car‘s a stick shift, and I‘ve got no idea how to drive one. I probably can‘t drive any safer than she can right now.‖ ―Lucky for you, I can,‖ he said. ―But then how will you get back?‖ I asked. ―I can walk.‖ ―No, it‘s way too far, Jesse.‖ ―I‘ll be fine.‖ He bit his lip looking down at Julie as if he was worried. ―It‘s best we sneak out of here.‖ I furrowed a brow asking, ―Sneak out? Why?‖ ―Did you see that guy she was dancing with?‖ replied Jesse. ―Yeah, I think she might have told me his name, but I forgot.‖ ―It‘s Jonathon,‖ he answered, adding, ―and he‘s an absolute psycho. I‘m afraid he might follow her home if he sees her leaving.‖ ―Are you sure?‖ I asked, shaking my head in disbelief. ―That‘s insane‖ ―I heard him claim her, and I heard some of the other guys claiming you,‖ he answered. ―They may look like average, drunken frat boys, but they‘re beyond dangerous. Trust me Taylor, the nice guys are outnumbered here. I‘ve got a couple of buddies here, but we‘re no match against all the others. They‘ll jump us, and I‘m not sure we can protect you both.‖ ―Wait…claiming people? Just what kind of party did she bring me to?‖ I muttered to myself. ―A dangerous one,‖ he retorted, obviously overhearing my comment. ―My buddies will distract them while I sneak you two out the back door.‖ ―Great idea,‖ I said. ―Maybe they won‘t see us leave.‖ ―That‘s the plan,‖ he said, still looking concerned. Jesse wrapped his arm around Julie and helped her walk out the back door of the cabin. Gripping my purse tightly, I followed. Once outside I felt a cool breeze blow through my hair, and shuddered wishing I‘d worn a coat. I couldn‘t believe the extreme temperature change. Earlier that day, I‘d been sunning on the beach, and now Mother Nature had invited Jack Frost over for a nightcap. ―How much did you have to drink?‖ Jesse asked Julie. ―She‘s had way too much,‖ I answered for her. ―I bet she‘ll puke all over the truck.‖ ―Hey‖ Julie said. ―I can answer for myself.‖ Her gaze turned to Jesse. ―Mr. Gorgeous, Handsome Prince, I had lots of beers, a Long Island iced tea, more beers, and some shots,‖ she answered. ―Oh, and there was this one bubbly purple thing, the color of that dinosaur on the kids‘ show and—‖ ―Do you remember where the keys to your truck are?‖ he asked, cutting her off before the confession could continue. ―Hmm. Maybe you‘ll have to frisk me, Officer McHottie,‖ she said in a flirty tone. I rolled my eyes, mouthed an apology to Jesse, then reached into her pocket and grabbed them. ―They‘re right here.‖ ―Hey‖ she said. ―I didn‘t want you to frisk me‖ ―This isn‘t the time for games Julie,‖ I snapped. ―We have to get out of here and back home.‖ ―I‘m freezing‖ she retorted. ―Who turned on the air?‖ I spotted a light blue sweater on the seat her truck, I reached in and grabbed it. ―Wear this,‖ I said handing it to her. She put it on and smiled. ―Mmm…so warm. Gosh, I‘m so drunk. Thank you though.‖ 27 Jesse helped my intoxicated new best friend into her pickup. She sat between us and laid her head on his shoulder. He glanced at me questioningly, but all I could do was shrug and apologize again, on behalf of my drunken friend. ―I guess she had a little too much to drink,‖ I whispered. ―A little?‖ He laughed. Julie tapped him. ―Are you Prince Charming?‖ she asked. ―What?‖ he replied, turning the key in the ignition, ―because I helped bandage you up?‖ ―Are you the hot guy from the woods?‖ Julie asked, ignoring his question. ―The hero who saved Little Red Riding Taylor from the big, bad mountain lion?‖ ―Julie‖ I exclaimed, a crimson blush flooding my cheeks. Before Jesse could answer, she continued, ―You have black hair and eyes like that crayon. Taylor told me all about you.‖ My cheeks grew even hotter with embarrassment. I suddenly wished with all my heart that my life had a rewind button. ―And Taylor was right,‖ she continued, unabashed. ―Your eyes are gorgeous, like the sky.‖ I cleared my throat and glanced at him awkwardly. ―You do have pretty eyes,‖ I admitted, with a sheepish grin. ―And so do you,‖ he responded, grinning back at me. I couldn‘t stop smiling from his compliment as we sped along the road, until all of the sudden something jerked us forward. ―What the heck?‖ Julie asked stunned. ―Feels like we blew a tire,‖ I answered, as we came to a jerky stop. ―That sucks,‖ Julie slurred. ―I don‘t have a spare.‖ ―We can just walk,‖ I said. ―I don‘t think we‘re that far away from your house.‖ ―Absolutely not‖ Jesse said firmly, shaking his head. ―I‘ll call somebody.‖ He flipped his phone open, dialed, and was almost immediately talking to one of his friends. ―Julie, how are you feeling?‖ I asked. ―Are you doing okay?‖ ―I‘m fine. I forgot to tell you I drank a Long Island iced tea,‖ she said. ―Do you know how much liquor they put in those things?‖ ―Yeah, you told me already. How‘s your neck?‖ ―Fine, but that stupid vase nailed me real good. Wanna know the worst part though?‖ ―What?‖ I asked. ―I didn‘t even get the blonde's phone number,‖ she said with a sigh. ―He was so hot.‖ ―Trust me,‖ Jesse cut in, ―you don‘t want that guy‘s number.‖ ―Yes I do,‖ she answered. ―He‘s way too dangerous,‖ he warned. ―A bad boy, huh?‖ asked Julie. ―I like that.‖ ―Not a bad boy. He‘s a bad man—a real bad man—and like many of the guys back there, he‘s nothing but trouble,‖ he answered firmly. ―You two had no business being at that party, out in the middle of the woods, with a bunch of older strangers.‖ ―Yeah? Well, I guess we were lucky you were looking out for us,‖ answered Julie. Jesse smiled. ―So what can we do about the tire?‖ she asked. ―My friend‘s coming,‖ he answered. ―I‘ll wait outside for him. You two stay put.‖ ―Why not stay in here with us?‖ I asked. ―Because I have to make sure the big, bad wolf doesn‘t come and eat you.‖ 28

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