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Sometimes getting lucky had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with the right footwear and a willingness to get sweaty. Today, Molly Dekker was more than willing to get sweaty—and she had the right footwear.
She tossed her hiking boots into the extended cab of her pickup and shouted across the lawn. “Josh! Get your tush in gear! We’re going to be late!”
Her ten-year-old son was a flash of movement as he sprinted out the front door and jumped off the porch. It was only three feet high, a distance he could easily land, but he chose to hit the ground in a roll and jump to his feet without pausing. She laid her arm across the truck’s open window and tried not to let her eyes do the same roll his body had just done. “Just watching you makes me tired.”
“I gotta know how to roll when the bull bucks me off. Otherwise I could break my neck.”
“I know, and that’s why I won’t let you near a bull till you’re at least fifty-seven. You still got plenty of years to practice before you ever get near an arena, cowpoke.”
He skidded to a halt in front of her. “Fifty-seven! I might as well be dead by then.”
“You won’t be dead. You’ll be happily married with two sweet babies and a safe job in an office. Ooh! I know! You could be an accountant,” she teased.
“I don’t know what that is, Mom, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be one.”
“You don’t think so? It’s someone who does math all day.”
He gagged, jabbing his finger toward the back of his throat before miming throttling himself. Then, just in case she hadn’t gotten the picture, he collapsed onto the driveway and his limbs twitched in a macabre death dance. Her face contorted as she watched his grotesque display. She knew he did it for a reaction, but she couldn’t help giving it to him. When his twitches died down to tiny flinches, she tapped his leg with her toe. “The scouts’ll leave without you if we don’t get going.”
He shot back to his feet, and a strange vision flitted through her mind—Josh, tall and muscular, rolling in the dirt of some arena as a crowd screamed and a bloodthirsty bull pawed the ground behind him. She shivered and it disappeared. Sometimes she wondered whether he’d gotten a single one of her genes, but then she looked at him and saw her father’s shaggy brown hair and never-met-a-person-I-didn’t-like smile and realized he was a Dekker through and through.
Except for all the frenetic energy. That belonged to her ex, Greg.
He tried to skip past her, but her arm shot out and wrapped around his chest, dragging him close for a big, smothering hug.
“Mom! Gross!” he cried as he pretended not to cuddle closer.
Both arms around him, his back to her front, she held him tight and rocked back and forth. “You know you’ll always be my little boy, right?”
“Nope. One day I’ll be a grown man with a job as a count-it and then I’ll quit because I’ll be fifty-seven and you promised I could join the rodeo circuit then.”
“What about your two sweet kids?” she asked, pretending concern. “My grandbabies will miss their daddy if he’s traveling all the time.”
This she knew from experience—her own growing up and as a single mom raising her son a thousand miles from his dad.
“They won’t be sweet. They’ll be wild, and I’ll let them. They won’t have to go to school, and they can travel with me. I’ll need someone to muck out the stalls.”
She laughed and pressed a quick kiss against his soft cheek. “Go shut the front door and get in the truck.”
He swiped at the mama-cooties on his cheek and dashed off, leaping onto the porch instead of taking the three stairs and—
—slamming the door shut.
“—ly.” She sighed. She probably should’ve given up asking this kid to be gentle about anything by now, but something still drove her to do it. Some sort of perverse desire for a moment’s peace and stillness. She never got it at work—being the ringleader in a circus of kindergartners meant she left work every day smelling like Play-Doh and hearing the echo of laughing, crying, and whining for hours until she thought her head would burst open like a jack-in-the-box.
But tonight Josh was going camping on Copper Mountain with his scout troop, one last gasp of summer before school started on Tuesday. And that meant it was Mama time.
Not that she’d call it that when she got to Gabriel’s cabin. Hi, want some Mama time? Mama wants some time with you! Talk about a turnoff.
At least, she hoped he didn’t have any mama fetishes.
As Josh hoisted himself into the truck, slammed the passenger door and started chattering about spending the night in a tent, she turned the key in the ignition and let her mind find peace and stillness in her fantasies about the way things would go down—ahem—tonight.
Gabriel had grown up on her street and been best friends with her brother, Scott. He was five years older than her, so they hadn’t overlapped in school, but he’d probably spent more time at her house than his own. And who could blame him? His family could’ve had their own reality TV show, while hers had been as boring as the Cleavers.
She’d worshiped Gabriel throughout her childhood, but he’d barely noticed her. He and Scott had spent almost every second together. They’d graduated together, enlisted in the Air Force together, and joined the elite force of combat search-and-rescue specialists together.
They’d even been together when Scott died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. The only time they hadn’t been together was at Scott’s funeral, since Gabriel had also been wounded and was being treated in Germany.
She had no idea when he’d come back home. He hadn’t visited her or made his presence known. People had simply started sharing snippets of gossip whenever they saw her, as if she had the same claim on him her brother had. Did you hear Gabriel’s back? He’s moved up to his grandpa’s cabin on Copper Mountain, just outside the National Forest land. I don’t even think that place has electricity!
All summer she’d debated hiking out to his cabin to see how he was doing. He had to be grieving Scott’s loss as much as she was, and she wanted to see how he was recovering from his own injuries, whatever they were. According to Carol Bingley, Marietta’s most accomplished gossip, he walked a little stiffly but otherwise seemed fine. And if he needed prescriptions, he wasn’t getting them filled at Carol’s pharmacy, or the whole town would’ve known.
But something had held her back, a gut feeling he would’ve spotted her motives from a mile off. Pity for all he had to be suffering. Desperation to see his gorgeous face, hear his deep voice, smell his scent.
Gabriel wouldn’t welcome either her pity or her desperation, so she’d talked herself out of the trek time and again.
Molly hadn’t caught a glimpse of him until last week at the grocery store. She’d only gone in for milk, so she hadn’t picked up a basket. But then she’d remembered she was out of Josh’s favorite cereal. And she didn’t have enough sugar for her coffee in the morning, which meant she was liable to kill someone by lunchtime. Oh, and eggs—she needed eggs. As she’d grabbed everything, she’d experienced an irritating twitch in her lower belly that signaled the start of God’s monthly revenge on her distant ancestor for eating that dang apple. Unsure whether she had any tampons at home, she’d grabbed a small box and got in line at the checkout, realizing with a start that Gabriel stood right in front of her.
He hadn’t noticed her, a blessing for which she was grateful since she was wearing a T-shirt decorated with her former students’ handprints, and the tampon box was balanced precariously in her overloaded arms. He just stood there, looking fit, healthy, tall, and beautiful. But then the woman in front of him had frantically searched through her purse to find her wallet and pulled it out with such triumph that Gabriel had taken a hasty step back and bumped into her. She’d been so captivated by the broad sweep of his shoulders that her groceries had gone flying before she’d realized he’d moved.
The eggs had taken a suicide plunge onto his boots. The milk carton had exploded at her feet, soaking into the hem of her long skirt and creeping upwards. The sugar bag had hit the edge of the counter and torn before tumbling over and dumping granules into the milk and eggs. And the tampons had fallen onto his bag of carrots on the conveyor belt.
Her cheeks had burst into flames. She’d always wanted to be the kind of woman who could toss around tampons or condoms without giving a fig—a woman like her friend Lily, who came off as overflowing with confidence until you got to know her. But she wasn’t. Never had been. Bodies were private and bodily functions even more so. So she’d stood there frozen, wishing she could sink into the batter at her feet and die a thousand gloopy deaths.
But he simply gave her a sympathetic twist of his lips before picking up one of those plastic divider thingies, laying it down behind his groceries, and plunking her tampons on her section of the belt without a word. Like a true gentleman. A worldly gentleman who knew women got periods but wasn’t fazed by it—unlike that nimrod Scooter Gibbons behind her, who’d said loudly, “Someone get paper towels—oh, wait. Molly has her super-absorbency tampons for extra-heavy flow here. They should soak all that up.”
Gabriel’s clear green eyes had glared at Scooter, and he gave her another of his lip twitches that clearly said Ignore that idiot. You’re beautiful and sexy, and I’m not thinking of your flow at all.
Or something along those lines. Anyway, they’d shared a moment. They totally had. As a member of staff mopped up and handed them a roll of paper towels to wipe off their shoes, they’d connected in a zap of heat that should’ve turned the batter into a fully cooked cake.
Except it would’ve needed flour.
Either way, he’d finally noticed her.
“Mom, are you even listening to me?”
“What?” She shook her head clear of Gabriel’s eyes and remembered where she was and who she was with. “Uh, yeah. Of course, sweetheart. I was just thinking about what you were saying about… Colton Thorpe being pretty darn good.”
“Right. But not the best. I’m going to be the best.”
Phew. Pretty easy guess, since the local-boy-turned-rodeo-champion was Josh’s hero. But still. She shouldn’t fade out on him like that. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t polite, even if it was sometimes necessary to preserve her sanity. She focused on her boy for the rest of the drive to his scout leader’s house, making sure to give him every bit of her attention.
Sadly, she couldn’t shake her body clear of her residual longing. It pulsed through her with every heartbeat. If just the thought of Gabriel did that to her, what would the reality of him be like?
Ten minutes later, she kissed Josh goodbye and gave him a final warning to mind the grown-ups before she jumped back into her truck for some camping of her own. She’d told everyone she was going to take advantage of a rare opportunity for solitude. She’d packed a sleeping bag and the two-person tent she and Josh usually shared, but hopefully she wouldn’t need either of them.
She parked in a small lot at the trailhead that led through the woods toward Gabriel’s cabin. From what she heard around town, he lived about two miles hard trekking off the path, so she grabbed her hiking boots from behind her seat and put them on. She slid on her big backpack, which was crammed full of her camping gear, and locked her truck. Then she headed out into the wilderness to get herself some of that lucky everyone was always talking about.
End of Excerpt