One well-worn sweater, two sizes too big, with holes in the cuffs for thumbs. Two fluffy socks softer than butter to encase the feet. A stack of books that were put on the to-be-read pile a decade back. And, last but not least, a cabin so deep in the woods a witch might knock on the door to borrow a cup of sugar.
That was all I needed to enjoy the perfect autumn vacation.
The sweater was easy, knit from a creamy wool so beloved and worn it kept slipping down my shoulders. I picked up a pair of those boot-socks for serious hikers while at a gas station and couldn’t understand how I lived without them. Stylish? No. But dear God, I hadn’t had such warm toes since burying them in the sand back in June.
Shifting on the sofa, the leather creaking as it molded to my body, I thumbed through my book. A receipt fell out onto my chest. It was leftover from feeding my coffee habit. No cute cafés existed in the woods, but…
I sat up high enough to bring the latte overladen in cinnamon and nutmeg to my lips. The fall spice blend gurgled down my throat and curled up in my belly, chasing away any lingering summer blues. All I needed was a fire to rub my hands over to complete the transformation. Maybe if I took a walk through the golden trees to find some fallen branches?
Mmm, after this coffee. I took another sip, trying to make it last as long as possible. As if I feared some cruel person would seep out of the log walls to drag me back to civilization the moment I finished.
Yanking on the book’s crushed spine, I hefted it to my face, but my eyes drowned in a sea of letters. A buzzing wandered through the back of my brain, ordering me to check my email to see how things were at work. No! I came here for a reason. I deserved this.
Shaking away the lingering doubts, I cuddled deeper into the couch. A deer-skin colored afghan lay curled around my legs, as much to help keep me warm as to swaddle me in an autumn cocoon. One I didn’t wish to break out of until… Well, I had a whole week here.
There were some perks to working in the ad-placing business. Having a good relationship with lodge owners who could fit a person in at the last second being one of the better ones I’ve used. Okay. Focus on the book.
Folding the entire back half around to force myself to read, I leaned closer… A roar burst through the air. Launching up, I stared out the picture window and across the quaint porch to try to find whatever jet engine just crashed through the woods.
The entire world was painted in hues of reds, oranges, and browns from the ground up to nearly the pristine blue sky. Crunchy leaves lay across the small, animal-worn paths twisted between gigantic oaks. Those trees blazed in their colors, the golden sun burning through the waning leaves.
I spotted a dark form darting through the trees. It leaped like a ballerina, bounding fast around the maze of the forest. Careful to take it slow, I stepped closer to watch the shadows melt from its tawny hide. The deer, with its hooked antlers knocking into twigs, paused right at the edge of the drive up. Its white tail twitched, the ears shifting back and forth while a big brown eye stared me down.
It knew I was in here and it wasn’t afraid.
Reaching forward, I placed my hand out to try and tell the deer I meant no harm. The other dug behind for my phone. I promised myself I wouldn’t even turn it on this trip, but a couple of photos hardly counted. Twisting its head to the side, the deer posed to display its svelte body. Sunlight glinted through the bramble of antlers, turning the simple animal into an element of the forest.
I raised my phone, about to press the button, when another blast of that ear-splitting sound ripped through the forest. The deer spun on its hooves and became nothing more than a streak back into the woods. Which was all I managed to take a picture of. Great.
Shutting my phone off for good, I sneered. Whoever was making that racket better have a damn good reason. I paid for a week of rest and relaxation and I deserved it.
It wasn’t until I stood on the porch, the screen door swinging back into place, that it struck me I might happen upon a woodland serial killer. No doubt he was dicing up his victims in the sanctuary of his shack deep in the heart of the forest until some nosy glorified secretary walked in on him. Even as my brain played out the worst and goriest possibility I tracked the blaring sound down a mulched path.
Sliding down a low hill, my hands pawing at the trees as if they were a railing, I narrowed in on the sound and source. A body was hunched over a fallen log, the back to me while the scent of sawdust and gasoline hung in the air. Judging by the wide shoulders, narrow waist, and tight ass I was right in guessing it’d be a man, but I hadn’t counted on him falling out ofan LL Bean catalog.
An olive green flannel hugged the biceps sawing away at the tree while denim clung to the backside taut and firm to aid in his work. Perhaps he had shoes on, perhaps he was barefoot. I couldn’t say as my eyes refused to slip any lower.
Silence erupted through the forest, my ears ringing in shock as the stranger shut off his chainsaw. After placing the tool on the ground, he turned and I leaped up in surprise. Dusky blond hair swept back across his long forehead, while smoldering brown eyes, a strong nose with a soft tip, and sculpted supple lips struck me at once.
How in the hell was there a gorgeous male model wandering around in the woods just outside my cabin? And he didn’t even have a hint of sweat beading up on his brow. He couldn’t be human. His eyebrows, which were thin without a misplaced hair in sight, raised.
Oh shit, he wanted me to talk first.
“What are you doing?” I asked while jutting out my hip.
The man stared at the cut up pieces of the log, then his chainsaw. “Baking an apple pie,” he deadpanned.
“That so?” I stepped closer, nudging one of the sawed branches with my foot. “I think you left it in too long.”
He snickered at me and bent down to pick up massive logs, which he didn’t even bat an eye at. Damn! His muscles had to be working hard to carry that much wood. Shame about the flannel in the way.
“I didn’t know anyone would be around,” he said, once again forcing me to stop leering at him.
“I just got in. Renting the cabin up there for a nice, soothing vacation. Or was until someone started a chainsaw in the middle of the woods.”
After dropping his first load into a Jeep up the path, he wiped his hands off and focused on me. “What’s your name?”
“Jenny. What’s yours?”
My answer, or perhaps question seemed to surprise him. Rubbing under his sharp chin, he said, “Scott Langston.”
“And you’re the…groundskeeper around here?”
Those dangerous lips smirked. “Something like that.” Without another word, he returned to hoisting up the potential firewood. Birdsong and the leaves rustling through the trees were the only sounds to accompany the awkward work. My back itched at the confounding silence, causing me to turn to my cabin.
Shock of shocks, a hot man didn’t want anything to do with me. Not that I wanted anything to do with him either. This was supposed to be a week just for me. No work, no relationships, no…men.
Shaking my head I started to return to my abandoned book when I paused. “Are you going to be making those loud noises all day?” I asked, wondering if I’d packed any earplugs.
Scott paused in his work, his wide eyes narrowing in thought. “Would you rather a fire tear through this forest? Because if I don’t remove this deadwood that is likely to happen.”
“Hey.” I held my hands up, remembering that there was a strange man with access to a chainsaw and no one else around. “I’m all for stopping forest fires, Smokey’s honor. I was just wondering if you’d be around should I decide to take a walk.”
A smile graced his lips. “Very likely, though…I believe I’ve finished my work here.”
“Oh.” Why did I suddenly care? I’d been planning on heading back to the empty couch already. Damn it. No boys! That was the rule.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Miss Jenny…”
“Miss Jenny? I sound like a schoolmarm.”
He snickered at that. “What brings you all the way out here? Most have left for the season.”
That was a loaded question I did not have the heart to get into with a stranger. Near-stranger. At least I’d know the name of the man who would chainsaw my body into tiny pieces.
“Well, it’s…” I said waving my arms around as a distraction. “I love trees. Autumn. The leaves all crisp and crunchy…not that I eat them. Why did that sound like I eat them? I mean, you know, fall is the best season.”
A brightness illuminated his face, Scott nodding as if I spoke some deep aphorism instead of babbling. “Indeed it is.” He glanced to his Jeep before spinning back to stare at me. “I was planning on heading out to the apple orchard, any chance you’d like to tag along?”
“An orchard…?” While the idea of picking fresh apples straight off the tree and gorging myself sounded like heaven, my stomach flipped at how I’d have to sit oh so close to him. Ignoring the still on the table potential of him being a chainsaw murderer, a man that hot had to have a hundred girlfriends all of who could double as actress-models. Meanwhile, I was dressed like a woman who stumbled out of a Starbucks at six in the morning wearing whatever she grabbed from her closet in the dark.
Scott leaned closer, revealing flecks of green buried in his brown eyes. “I believe you’d quite enjoy it,” he whispered as if we weren’t the only two people in the whole forest.
God, I wanted to say yes. But if I opened my mouth, incoherent nonsense would tumble out, mostly of the ‘You’re so pretty’ variety. How was he even hotter up close? That wasn’t fair and had to break all the rules of the universe. Somehow, my head managed to bob, conveying a ‘Yes, I’ll follow you anywhere, even to your murder shack.’
He read it as such at least, smiling and offering me his hand. Before I took his fingers, I glanced back at the cabin, growing aware that I left my bag and phone there. A tiny voice in the deep recesses of my brain ordered me to go and get them until I turned to find Scott’s sparkling eyes glued to my glutes.
You’re wearing tissue-thin leggings for pants, my mind helpfully reminded me. And he’s enjoying it, my libido purred.
Realizing I caught him staring, Scott glanced up at me and a slow smile wound across his lips. Before my brain or body could foster up an excuse, he guided me to his Jeep. All manner of tool clanked in the wheel well of the passenger side, which my feet shuffled around.
As Scott slipped into the driver’s seat, he reached a hand over my headrest and glanced behind us. A flicker of his fingers darted through my hair, no doubt completely accidental. But the brush against my chestnut locks sent a spark racing through my body.
“So, apples?” I asked, flexing my thighs together.
“And,” he said, popping the clutch, “perhaps more.”