“What d’you say, Ellie? I know it’s a long way from home and there’s not a whole lot around here, but I haven’t seen you in years.”
“I don’t know, Uncle Billy. I’m not sure.”
“You used to love it up here when you were a kid. Running in the forest gathering acorns and twigs, making shelters, do you remember? I know it was a long time ago and you’re not a child anymore but we’re family. Ellie... you there?”
“Yeah I’m here.”
“Look Ellie, there’s no pressure. You’re just so isolated there with your mum gone and Rob in Australia. If you don’t like it, I’ll pay for you to go home.”
That was a week ago.
Now I’m standing outside the train station after a five-hour journey waiting for a friend of my uncle's to come and pick me up. It was meant to be Billy collecting me, but he’d text me telling me he had had car trouble or a flat or something like that. I don’t know who to expect since Billy hadn’t bothered to give me a name so every person who glances at me, I wonder if they’re the person I’m waiting for. The unseasonably cold October wind is making my hair whip around my face, forcing me to draw my jacket further around me and pull up the hood. I shift from foot to foot, turning my phone over and over in my hands.
A large hand grips my shoulder from behind; making me jump, sending my phone tumbling from my hands onto the ground. I spin around the wind blowing my hood from my head and my hair starts to tornado again. The stranger’s hand holds out my phone.
“Thank you” I tuck strands of hair behind my ears, attempting to tame it before taking the phone. I realise I’m at eye level with the person’s chest, he towers above my five foot seven inches. Craning up to look at him, a pair of ice-blue eyes pierce me, studying my face. He must be at least a foot taller than me.
“Are you Ellie?” His plump lips that form my name are encapsulated by a sand-coloured beard which matches his hair that is half tied up the rest falling around his shoulders, waving slightly in the breeze.
I nod, “How did you know?”
“You’re the only one waiting around,” he offers. “I’m Sam. Come on I’m parked around the corner.”
Sam prises the suitcase from my hand which I had been unconsciously gripping onto, our fingers brushing for the briefest of moments. My skin tingles from the touch, and Sam’s body stiffens like he’s been stung. His face grows dark and his eyes examine me, focusing hard, like I’m a puzzle. I gaze back, his reaction to our connection confusing me. Before I can think of anything to say, he turns on his heels and begins to stride away, his long legs propelling him so quickly I almost have to run to keep him up with him.
When I reach his midnight blue pick-up truck, Sam is already putting my bag in the boot. He nods his head towards the passenger door. I open it sliding into the cabin, shoving the black, leather backpack into the foot-well as he climbs in beside me. The warmth of the cabin envelops me, offering a welcome contrast from the bitterness outside.
Sam plunges the key into the ignition, the engine roaring to life and we begin to drive out of the town into the countryside. I survey the scenery going passed the window, barren trees, and ploughed fields - a watercolour in various shades of brown. It’s beautiful in its own way and as much as I try to focus on it, I can’t help but be drawn to Sam. I want to look at him, I want to make out every feature and detail.
His jaw is strong and angular, I can see that even through his beard. He has a thick, muscular neck with a large vein snaking down partially covered by a tattoo peeking out from the collar of the black t-shirt that’s clinging to his well-defined torso. He’s breath-taking, God-like in his physique.
“Are you alright there?” Sam says, catching me staring at him. Shit.
“Yeah, why?” I reply, trying to sound nonchalant, knowing I desperately failed.
“You were staring.” An eyebrow raises creasing his forehead slightly.
“I was looking out the window,” I lie.
“Oh, you’ve got x-ray vision?” his voice dripping with sarcasm and a light smirk dances on his lips.
“Don’t flatter yourself. There’s much more attractive things to look at out there.” I wave my hand towards the horizon.
“So, you think I’m attractive?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did. You said there were much more attractive things to look at implying that I must be somewhat attractive.”
Scoffing, I roll my eyes. “Like I said I was looking at the scenery.”
Sam lets out a chuckle, nodding his head. “If you say so, sweetheart.”
Wow, he’s full of himself. I open my backpack and pull out my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, finding the page I was on and begin to read.
“What are you reading?” he peers over.
“Keep your eyes on the road.” I say, irked.
Sam grabs the novel out of my hand, placing his thumb in the page I was on then closing pages around it to see the cover whilst holding the steering wheel with other hand.
“You’re going to kill us!” I yell, attempting to the snatch the book from him but he moves it away from my fingers.
“No, I won’t,” he laughs. “I’ve been driving on these roads since you were a kid.”
“Give it back!” I whine.
Sam smiles and hands me the book. “Any good?”
“It’s my favourite book.” I run my fingers along the cracked and broken spine of the novel. The cover is tatty and worn, parts of the picture has flaked away, and the pages are water damaged from dropping it in the bath one too many times.
“Looks like you need a new copy,” he observes.
“No, I like this one.” My grandfather had bought me it for my ninth birthday. Yes, this copy had seen better days, but it has sentimental value that no new copy would hold.
We were twisting and turning down small country lanes now. It’s after four p.m. and the sky’s growing dark, drops of rain starting to land on the windscreen. Sam sighs deeply, turning the headlights and wipers.
“Hopefully, we’ll get back before it’s starts to throw it down.” He says
“How much further is it?”
“Not far. You see down there?” He points to small settlement of buildings enshrouded by trees that have just come into view as we round the top of the hill we’d been climbing. “That’s it.”
“It looks so small,” I groan.
“Well compared to what you’re probably used to it is, but it has everything you need,” he sounds a little insulted at my comment of his home.
Feeling a little embarrassed, I try to sound less coarse “Have you always lived there?”
“Pretty much, I have to go out of town every now and then for work but I’m always happy to come home,” his voice soft and contemplative.
“What do you do?”
“I work for the forestry department, I’m a forest ranger.”
“Oh...when you said you go out of town for work, I was thinking investment banker or something like that.”
“Do I really strike you as a corporate guy?” he teases, sarcastically.
“No, I guess not. What kind of things takes you away from the forest?”
“What do you do at these conferences?” A smile forming on my face, imaging forest rangers doing trust falls to team bond.
“Nothing that would interest you. We’ll be there in five minutes.” he says bluntly, shifting uncomfortably in his seat and turning on the radio, twisting the volume control up.
Okay, I mouth. I open the pages of my tattered book again and read, struggling to concentrate. I think about Sam’s reaction to me questioning him about his work, I didn’t think I’d said anything to insult him, but I know I can come off brusque at times. He’s no angel himself. Arrogant, self-assured, proud, and attractive. Very attractive. Not the best qualities to combine in a man, I note to myself silently. Not that you’re looking for anything, the voice in my head chastises me. I ignore her, sighing and placing my book on the dashboard, I want to look at Sam again more than anything or at least have him talk to me but the music is too loud and he’s concentrating awfully hard on the road in front of us as we enter the town, driving past houses and shops until finally we come to stop.